This month, I would like to reflect on another benefit of following the path of Shin Buddhism, which is the benefit of being a part of a Sangha.
First of all, let me share something about the meaning of Sangha. I have learned a wonderful teaching from one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, in which he teaches that the Three Treasures — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha — cannot exist without each other. All three must be present for one of them to exist.
The Buddha needs us, the Sangha, to truly be the Buddha. If there is no one to receive and hear the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, then the Buddha is not the Buddha.
The Dharma needs the Buddha, an awakened one to expound it, and it needs a Sangha to receive and practice it. Without the Sangha, the Dharma is merely sutras or books sitting on the shelf. For the Dharma to truly be the Dharma, there must be a Sangha to receive and live the teachings.
The Sangha needs the Buddha and the Dharma to truly be a Sangha. Without the presence of the Buddha and the Dharma, we are not a Sangha. We are just a group of people, like any civic organization. Because there is the presence of the heart of the Buddha, and because we are listening to and receiving the teachings, the Dharma, only then can we call ourselves a Sangha.
To be a part of a Shin Buddhist Sangha is to be connected to all three of these treasures.
Over the years, while serving as a minister at the Orange County Buddhist Church, I have met many people who came for the first time to attend a service or class, and they shared that they had read many books on Buddhism, and even considered themselves “nightstand Buddhists” (because they have many books on Buddhism on their nightstand), but felt that there was something missing in their study and seeking of the teachings.
They said that they had never been a part of a Sangha, and now, after years of just reading about Buddhism, were looking to be a part of a Sangha. After joining, they felt such joy in being a part of a Sangha, to make new friends, to be able to share in the path with others.
That is the great benefit of being a part of a Sangha that Shin Buddhism in particular offers. I love Zen Buddhism, but I have met many who have said that in practicing Zen, they never felt like they were a part of a Sangha. They would go to the Zen Center, sit in meditation, in zazen, and then after that, leave. They never got to experience Sangha in that tradition. In Zen, you have to live at the monastery, practice Zen full-time to be able to experience Sangha in the Zen tradition.
In Shin Buddhism, Sangha is virtually everything. We listen to the Dharma together. We discuss the Dharma together. We have coffee and potlucks together. We work together at the bazaars and the fundraisers. We encourage each other, we support each other on the path. The new people learn from the wisdom and experience of the longtime members. The longtime members learn from the questions and freshness of the newcomers.
We are all on the path together, no better or no worse than one another. We come from all backgrounds, all ethnicities, all socio-economic classes, all genders, all sexual orientations, all ages. As adults, we enjoy the children’s Dharma messages. As children, we learn the depth of the Nembutsu from grandpa or grandma.
Without a Sangha, we cannot experience that. That is the great benefit of being a part of a Sangha.
In the future, we want to try and create such a Sangha, virtually, especially for those who do not live near a BCA church or temple. We hope to create that same feeling, that same atmosphere of a Sangha for those who participate virtually. But for our existing churches and temples, we will continue to provide the experience of being a part of a Sangha, sharing in our lives and the teachings, and being enriched by each other.