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Dharma Talks : The Kwan Um School of Zen and Providence Zen Center

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Sangha As direction, Sangha as path  

The Buddha taught about the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. But in one of his teachings he said that of these three Sangha is the most important. They all seem important and completely interconnected: When we look deeply into one of these we find the others. Why would he teach that Sangha is most important?

To me Sangha is twofold. First, it is our direction. The first great vow is "Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.'' That is our Mahayana heritage -- not just enlightenment for me, but for all beings. We set that course and drop any idea of it as we simply practice moment to moment, just living this life fully and completely. Here is where the second part of Sangha comes in. Sanglia is also our path. We live in this world with one another. We all have families and co-workers and communities. We also have the communities of other animals and of plants, minerals, objects, the sun, rain, etc. Some of this is very easy for us to live in harmony with, and some of it not so easy. Seeing a color and just letting it be that color is not so hard. The geese honking loudly as they circle in and then finally splashdown making multiple circles of waves in a pond -- this we usually appreciate for itself. But when some person comes circling in loudly toward us we may find our defenses or irritation rising. The color blue may be no problem, but having a child appear at the breakfast table with blue hair may raise other feelings.

One of my favorite Sangha stories is a Chassidic one of a Christian monastery that had fallen on hard times in the nineteenth century. It had declined to the point that there were only five monks living there -- all in their seventies. They all worried about their order dying because they were the last of it. The Abbot of the monastery decided to go and ask a nearby Rabbi's advice. The Rabbi commiserated, saying that the same was happening with his people and that he had no advice to give. They wept and they read the Torah together. As the Abbot was leaving he once again asked for advice. The Rabbi said he had none -- only he added, "The Messiah is one of you." The Abbot returned to the monastery where he told of the visit. "He had no advice, just some strange words -- that one of us is the Messiah." They all went back to work, disappointed. But as the days and weeks and months passed, these words grew in their consciousness. Each reviewed the other monks: "Oh, it couldn't be him," because we all know so well the weaknesses of those we live with. "But what if it is?" for we also know one another's strengths.

And then, "Oh, it couldn't be me." We all know our own weaknesses so well. "But what if it is?" Slowly these monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect. They even began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. The townspeople who would occasionally come to picnic on the grounds began to notice the sense of this community. Slowly more and more people wanted to be a part of this. In this way the monastery attracted young men as new monks, and it came back to life.

Why would five old Christian monks respond to some teaching that smacked of Judaism, instead of tossing it out as heretical? And how could five men in their seventies actually change their behavior? We use different language -- we speak of all beings as having Buddha nature -- but these five men had practiced sincerely for perhaps forty or fifty years. Their willingness to open to something different, to wonder about it, to stay with that wondering, and to return to it is essentially what we, too, do when we practice. We practice meeting each moment fresh without a filter of preconceptions; we practice Don't Know; and we keep returning to that no matter what. This gives ourselves and others and this whole world the gift of respect, kindness and a compassion that can actually function in a clear way.

So Sangha as direction and Sangha as the path are very important. May we all continue to practice the Buddhadharma together and for all beings.


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