What Sangha Means to Me

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In the refuge declaration of Buddhism, you take refuge with what is known as the triple gem: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is Siddharta Gautama who under the Bodhi tree experienced enlightenment after years of searching with harsh austerities. His eventual success in understanding what enlightenment is from his position as a mere human man shows all beings that we all have the capacity to discover our Buddha within.

The dharma are the teachings of the Buddha, a roadmap for how to achieve this enlightened path, passed down from bodhisattva to bodhisattva and taught in what is rumoured to be over 85000 individual teachings in acknowledgement of the vast diversity of capacity we have to learn and understand.

The final gem is the sangha, which is primarily defined as those who have taken their vows to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of the truth of the teachings. But the sangha is also taken to mean your extended spiritual kinship, your spiritual community who are on the discovery of meaning with you, and can operate as your close out-brain to offer support love and guidance.

It seems logical that the Buddha should be the most authoritative source in this triumvirate of gems. But there is strong value placed on the living wisdom of the teachings, and much value given to the sangha as a real time contextual way to understand and interpolate the complexity of the teachings. It is consistent across most belief systems that the living pandits are the keepers of the wisdom.

But what does having a sangha mean for us in a modern sense, as we look for teachers and others to help us? Despite the eastern language, I suspect sangha is much like a congregation in the traditional sense, where the faith of the collective is there to support the everyday householder dilemmas that crop up in our lives and challenge our capacity to live with right mind, right speech and right body.

For me sangha is essential, and beyond just a group of like minded friends. I’m super grateful that I have a bunch of pals who are working to live yogic lives. We’ve all got to this point relatively independently, through the usual suffering of the human condition and addiction to the worldly dharma drama. But we have all arrived on the doorstep of rejecting a life of suffering for ourselves and others, much as Siddhartha Gautama did when he left his life of privilege as a King incumbent, there are the requisite years, decades and probably lifetimes of trying to put the teachings into place with our limited capacity.

Which again, is the collective power of the sangha, to take all of our individual experience and share the learnings, question the interpretation of the teaching, and ask for help when we can’t unravel our own Gordian knots. I use my sangha as a place to share and often reach out for their wisdom and guidance. Sangha, when trust exists to allow fierce compassionate truth to emerge, can be your best teachers and most resilient cheer squad.

You have to want to hear the answer before you ask the question, and be willing to deeply interrogate yourself, with vigorous rubbing of the dust on the mirror. I like to have the sangha to sit down with and chat about all things spiritual, to share books and music and meditations and experiences, and have a travel buddies for taking retreat or pilgrimage. Sometimes in meditation and in prayer with the Buddha and the dharma, it can feel dislocated and like the connection isn’t there. That is of course an artefact of mind, but nonetheless, is a space that when the constant self reliance of faith and discipline are missing, can feel alone and freefalling.

The sangha can step in here, never to fix, but to be witness to the experience, and more importantly the move beyond of lessons becoming wisdom through lived experience. Being met with compassion and understanding, and allowed to simply be, is the greatest gift the sangha can give. Sangha happily can be anywhere with our excess communication opportunities, but having some actual fleshy feels can never be replaced by a meme. I’m super grateful to all of those who have gone before me, and also those who walk alongside.

Polly McGee