This is the fourth and final posting for this article by Daniel Giloth.
To summarize my view, I think part of living Buddhist ethics is dismantling oppressive systems like ours, so that all enjoy the privileges of the time and space to pursue individual liberation. It's like the motto of the workers' Eight-Hour Movement' in the 1880's and 90's (of which Chicago was the epi-center, by the way): “Eight hours for work; eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” (my emphasis).
But despite my criticism of Buddhism's slowness to address social liberation, I believe the Sangha is invaluable, a true Jewel. When we participate in a sangha, we humble ourselves in a healthy way. A sangha is a mirror, a place where we can distinguish our wholesome and unwholesome thoughts, intentions, and actions. We sharpen our perception of brilliant and neurotic behavior in ourselves and others, but within a container that always cultivates and honors our basic goodness. We can discard the cowboy attitude of individualist success—that our society mythologizes as strength—and grow up. In this way, the Sangha is more than a club or community. It is a training ground, an incubator, for realizing the other Jewels—the Buddha and the Dharma, and for transmuting the natural energy of our minds and bodies. With the support of the Sangha, we can live our lives with more openness, clarity, and empathy, and perhaps run rather than walk down the Path. At the same time we mentally prepare and sustain ourselves to become fearless witnesses and agents of the necessary, compassionate work of social justice.
When I first came to the Zen Life and Meditation Center, I told Roshi Robert Althouse that I sucked at belonging to groups—ironic for an organizer! Even seven years after I 'took refuge' and became a Buddhist, I was a poor candidate for a sangha. Part of this is explained by the fact that I'm a natural introvert; if I don't have time each day for reading and writing—like this blogging, I can't function well. In another, cultural sense. I think my aversion to groups derives from a particular American ambivalence. As David Foster Wallace writes with regard to the rise of television, American culture traditionally valued individual self-creation while also promoting community—though this latter, partly because of TV, Wallace argues, has become less pronounced.
Even beyond these general causes, I still a very below-average belonger to groups, and I think it has something to do with the class difference I experienced going from a relatively poor black neighborhood to more affluent, most white Catholic schools every day for eleven years. I won't plunge any deeper into my past (or navel!) here, but I will mention that my aversion to groups has challenged my Buddhist practice as well.
For example, as I told Roshi, in 2007 I melted down emotionally when I participated in a week-long retreat at the Shambhala retreat center in northeastern Vermont. It wasn't the sitting; I'd done long days of meditation before. It was being in the group, which appeared (this was my reading) to be mostly white middle-class people. And, of course, they're was nothing wrong with the group; they seemed like wonderful people and of course, made up my larger Shambhala sangha. Despite their warmth, though, I found rituals, such as eating meals silently and mindfully through Japanese oryoki practice, oppressive and humiliating—social 'tests' that called up hard-wired feelings of inferiority when I made mistakes.
I don't mention this neurosis of mine to be confessionalist or to practice cyber-thereapy. My point is simple: despite being belonging-challenged, I still find a huge richness in the Sangha. Perhaps you are reading this and are interested in Buddhist practice, but are similarly disinclined to be part of a group. If so, I would encourage you to explore being part of a sangha as a practice in itself. If your experience like mine, you may discover that the Sangha pushes your buttons—buttons that need to examined and disarmed with patience, mediation, and self-compassion. You may also realize that the Sangha itself paradoxically provides the support for such spiritual courage and progress . To paraphrase many Buddhist teachers, 'the obstacle is the path.' At the Zen Life and Meditation Center, because of the warmth of the Sangha there, this obstacle has proved workable for me.
In the Latin, the word 'educate' means literally to “bring forth.” We all have basic sanity. Together, the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—educate us in the most profound sense, bringing forth our appetite for truth (Buddha), providing tools for our journey (Dharma), and encouraging our spiritual bravery (Sangha), for our benefit and the benefit of all sentient beings.