Sangha and Spiritual Friendship

avatarFeatured Columnist – Meditations
Martin LeFevre

As Buddhism has proliferated in America and the West, the notion of sangha has gone along with it. In this town of about 100,000 in northern California, there are seven sanghas I know of, most of them located at a commonly leased house just outside the city, which is used for the meditation meetings of each group.

Though I’m not a Buddhist, the idea of friends supporting each other in the individual’s spiritual journey of awakening and illumination is compelling to me. But as far as I can see the traditions, and frankly the superficiality associated with the various ‘sangha’ gatherings I’ve attended, raise more questions than provide guidance and support.

When one of the Buddha’s disciples, Ananda, said to him, “This is half of the holy life, Lord — admirable friendship,” the Buddha replied, “Don’t say that, admirable friendship is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, he can be expected to develop and pursue the Noble Eightfold Path.”  What did he mean by that?

Without a much deeper immersion in Buddhist teachings (which, like Christianity, come in many colors and shades), does a sangha have any real benefit for the individual members? Can an ancient spiritual tradition of immense depth and subtlety be transplanted to such an empty land as America, where the roots are so shallow and the soil so eroded, without losing meaning and value?

More to the point, can spiritual friendship develop and flourish in a marketplace culture where the vast majority of people have compartmentalized ‘friends’ of mutual use for different purposes? And finally, given how much of a husk all traditions have become in this time of unprecedented global upheaval, does a spiritual community need to be rooted in tradition at all?

The word sangha is now used in three different ways–original, traditional, and colloquial. The original meaning that Siddhartha, the “Supreme Buddha,” seems to have intended is a group of spiritual friends possessing a high degree of realization.

Some people may be “monks who are arahants, whose mental effluents are ended, who have reached fulfillment…and totally destroyed the fetter of becoming.” In the hierarchy of Buddhist realization, that is the highest level. Below them are the monks living their last reincarnated life, “never again to return,” and headed for the “Pure Abodes;” then come monks who are to reincarnate only once more; and finally monks who are “stream-winners” (that is, “headed for awakening”).

The fact that they’re all monks (Siddhartha at first refused to allow women as nuns into the sangha, but in one of the few instances where he changed his mind, was persuaded by female relatives to do so) doesn’t bode well for the Western transplantation of Buddhism. And when one considers that sangha in the West has come to mean any regular gathering of Buddhist practitioners (the colloquial definition), the deeper meanings and value of sangha are strangely and sadly absent.

Like the line between the virtual world and the ‘real world,’ the line between monks/nuns and the rest of us has been obliterated by globalization and the rapidity of outward change.

Likewise, many people don’t have friends in the sense that the word used to imply. Most people have Facebook and texting ‘friends,’ acquaintances as ephemeral as a chat room, but with the stings of scorpions. And though it should go without saying, zombies (the legions of inwardly dead), despite their proliferation and perverse veneration of late, cannot be friends to anyone.

In such cultural conditions, all genuine friendship is spiritual friendship, because only the living can support the living, and only the very strongest can inwardly survive and grow alone.

Truth be told, stripped of the accretions of interpretation and tradition, what the Buddha taught is universal and timeless. The philosophy and quasi-religion of Buddhism may have been somewhat successfully transplanted to different soils, but each new expression of what has been called the ‘perennial teachings’ arises anew in a given land.

Could insight grow in such a denuded soil as this? Perhaps insight always bursts forth in such soil, where the old culture is so undeniably dead, providing the humus for the new.

The creation of a new culture in the midst of a dead one always falls to the living and awakening few. How? Insight is the only way; it arises with questioning and negation, not knowledge, tradition, and accretion.

Ultimately, a sangha is a supportive community for individual liberation and illumination. It can also be a crucible for the revolution in consciousness that humanity so urgently requires.

Martin LeFevre

[email protected]