The Buddha’s first discourse after his enlightenment, the Dhammacakka Sutta, always touches my heart. On that day, the sangha, the Buddha’s community of disciples, began. In the deer park in Benares, a half dozen wandering monks sat gathered together to hear the Buddha’s first teaching. One of the monks, Kondañña, understood; he saw the Truth, the Path. That moment was the first transmission of the Buddha’s insight to other people, and Kondañña’s response was immediate: “I would like to become your disciple.” The community that then formed around the Buddha has since transformed the lives of millions of people.
But why is practicing together as a community such a big deal? A group of people who live a simple life together, who observe kindness and restraint—how come this is such a blessing? Why is it so important for the transformation of the world? For myself, if I hadn’t had like-minded companions to help me in the spiritual life, it would have been impossible to develop the spiritual qualities and gain the understanding or peace of mind that I now have.
Growing up I was always very interested in mystical things. When my university degree was finished I took the opportunity to leave England and head off to the East on a spiritual quest. Up until that point I had always felt that making my own piecemeal spiritual path was quite sufficient; I wasn’t consciously looking for any kind of institution or group to belong to. In fact I had quite strong antiestablishment feelings and thought that being a free spirit was the ideal: “When love beckons to you, follow him . . . when he speaks to you, believe in him,” as Kahlil Gibran put it.
Well, “love” led me to some disastrous places on my travels—like blithely chatting up some eager-eyed young woman while her enraged and armed boyfriend was being held down by three of his friends in the next room, or drinking myself legless four or five nights a week in order to free that habitually constrained spirit. Even though I was making an effort to live a free and spiritual existence—trying to develop kindness, harmlessness, friendliness and generosity—this didn’t seem to help me transform the confusion that was in my mind; I always felt caught up in a net of insecurity, trying both to be at peace with everything and to fulfill all my desires simultaneously.
Spending time with my young, middle-class, educated, thrill-seeking crowd, whose values were very worldly and based on distraction, was having a very negative effect. The worst was that I was virtually an alcoholic by the time I hit twenty. Furthermore, I could see that a number of my friends were sliding rapidly into other destructive addictions and didn’t seem to be even slightly bothered by that. “Totally wasted” was a common, approving description of one’s state—the irony of the phrase not becoming visible until somewhat later. I knew in my heart that what I needed more than anything else was an environment in which to develop the potential within myself. I could see that a lot of the good qualities within me—and other people—were being wasted and that this was a tragedy.
Since childhood I had aspired to being a source of concord between people, and I’d always felt very hurt by those who aroused conflict. So when I came into contact with the monastic sangha in Thailand, I was immediately struck by the sense of harmony and friendship at the very basis of that community. The word sangha means “those who are together.” Its essence is the joining together of separate individuals “as friendly and undisputing as milk with water, looking upon each other with kindly eyes.” My initial attraction toward the sangha was the realization that here was a group of people putting into action the spirit of what I respected and found most important and precious in life. Here were people learning to live harmoniously with each other. Most of the other people who joined the monastic sangha were interested in meditation, had wanted to find a teacher, or had studied Buddhism and wanted to try to experience life as a monastic. For me all of that stuff came later—the spirit of community was what I was really longing for.
The beauty of the sangha is being around like-minded people who can support us in our spiritual life and encourage us with their presence. As I settled into life at Wat Pah Nanachat, the international forest monastery in Thailand, my mind was incessantly filled with unspeakable thoughts—steamy passions and worries. I would think, If the others knew what was going on in my mind, they would be horrorstruck. But the monks explained that a monastery is not for “saints,” it’s for “sinners.” If we were all already pure, enlightened beings, there wouldn’t be any need for such place. A monastery is a place where we learn to see and transform all the habits of our mind. Where do these habits come from? Which habits are good, and how do we develop them? Which habits are unproductive, and how do we allow them to cease?
When we live in a community, the people who support us don’t expect us to be without faults or problems. Others support us not for the things that pass through our minds but for our aspirations to develop and cherish the good. The sangha is a gathering together of people who encourage each other to find the strength and fortitude to keep going, to fulfill our resolution to transform ourselves. If I hadn’t had this support, I would have slung in the towel long ago. I would have hit the bottle, or ended up in some dope den in Bombay, or crawled away into a little corner to forget my troubles: I can’t stand it anymore, I give up. So many times that feeling has come up. But since I am part of a collection of people, my sense of honor and affiliation with fellow seekers has stopped me: Well, if I give up, then I’m robbing other people of the encouragement to keep going. My resolution contributes to their resolution.
Being part of the group and expressing devotion towards the communal aspiration is what provides its members with the curb that says, “No, don’t give up when the practice becomes difficult.” To give up one’s aspiration in surrender to a passing feeling—of disappointment, desire, frustration, hopelessness or just boredom—would be tragic. Pausing to take into account the community’s values, we realize that any thought, any feeling, is not as absolute as it pretends to be. The quality of sangha empowers a sense of honor in our heart which says, “You can let go of this, you don’t have to believe this, you don’t have to follow this.”
Of course, there are also times when one may really not like being a member of a community: If only all these other people weren’t in my way, if only I didn’t have to attend another meeting, if only I didn’t have to keep all these rules, then I could really focus on my practice. It is hard to sustain respect for the institution and to endure the frustrations it can stir up.
But, in fact, the sangha is something to respect as an institution and as an entity in itself and to treasure deeply. Without the sangha and its communal aspiration, so many of us would just sink, pulled down by our desires, worries, fears and distractions. Those qualities that are pure and noble within us would be lost or not given the opportunity to express themselves. Having the support of the sangha is like floating on a sea that buoys us up when our resolve weakens. If we were all enlightened beings, we wouldn’t need this support. But because there is work to be done, we need friends to help keep us afloat.