Refuge in the Sangha

“I go to the Sangha to join with friends who are taking a break from [the traumas of everyday life.]”  – Robert Thurman, Buddhist teacher and scholar

Sangha is a word in the Pali language, which describes a congregation of people who gather together for spiritual and contemplative purposes. Valley Insight Meditation Society is a Sangha. Reflecting on the value of VIMS in their lives recently, members described it as a safe place; a community; a home; the experience of rest; companionship; peace; a deepening of faith/confidence; solidarity; guidance; friendship; compassion; support; respite; caring.

Please help us to nurture this important resource. On September 27th, the morning after our full day of meditation and reflection with Ajahn Jayanto, we will once again join together as a sangha to both celebrate VIMS and to contemplate the state of the community at this moment in time. Join us to share updates from our advisory board and to discuss possible future directions for our fifteen-year-old nonprofit organization. We will meet in the library of AVA Gallery on Bank Street in Lebanon.  description of the day

“In Buddhism, the Sangha––the people with whom we follow the path––is one of the Three Jewels, the other two being the Buddha and the Dharma. The Buddha is our guide, the mapmaker. The Dharma is the map. The Sangha are our companions on this journey. Their words and actions support us as we go, protect us and prevent us from going the wrong way…We are all on the same side, the same team.” (From the Chenrezig Project, a Buddhist Service community)

Sangha as  Support
In turning to the VIMS Sangha for refuge, we are gaining support for our intentional, spiritual, and psychological transformation. All of us together are in the process of letting go of our unskillful habits, those which perpetuate suffering in our own lives and in the lives of those we share this world with; and we are continually cultivating more skillful habits, those which lead towards less suffering. William James said: “All our lives are but a mass of habits.” The habituated brain is conservative. It wants things to fit into known patterns. So change is difficult. At the same time, change is possible.

One factor which helps us to stabilize the changes we are gradually making is belief: a confidence that we can indeed change; that we can steady our minds and hearts in the direction of peace, generosity, friendliness, compassion, and joy. An invaluable support to establishing this confidence in our abilities is a community consisting of like-minded people, all of whom are also intentionally evolving towards wisdom and kindness as a way of life.

Sangha as the Practice of Empathy
We go to the Sangha for refuge from the busy self-centeredness of the world. We go to the Sangha as a natural place to give and receive empathy. There was an important letter to the editor in an issue of Inquiring Mind from Ajahn Sucitto, a senior monk in the Western order of the Thai Forest tradition of Buddhism. In it he writes about empathy, and he suggests empathy is a good translation of the Pali word anukampa, which literally means “to follow along with” or “to tremble in the presence of” or, simply, “to resonate.” He thinks of it as a “primal sympathy,” and, he says, “It appears as the sense which filled the Buddha after his awakening as he turned toward the human world…” This sense of empathy led the Buddha to teach what he had discovered (the Dhamma), and his first teaching, which was on the Four Noble Truths, gave rise to a Sangha.

The full awakening itself revealed all three jewels––an awakened being, the teachings, and a community of practitioners––woven together through compassion and wisdom. Though it is often clouded by unskillful habits of mind, anukampa, or empathy, is an innate quality, present in all of us. Ajahn Sucitto says it is “the ground from which all the Brahma-viharas of kindness, compassion, empathic joy, and equanimity arise. Which of them arises [in a given moment] depends on the nature of what the empathy is turned toward…”

In Sangha we are practicing and stabilizing empathy. In Sangha, we have a chance of being truly seen and of seeing others with the breadth and space of love and authenticity. We are joined in our journey. In going to Sangha for refuge, we enter and rest in what is known directly, beneath verbal explanation; this is the visceral, embodied experience of clear awareness and clear knowing. “This is said to be the sublime abiding; by not holding to fixed views the pure-hearted one, being freed from all sense desires, is not born again into this world.” (From the Metta Sutta)

Ajahn Sucitto continues in his letter: “It is this ground of empathy, which is present prior to the formations of self, that receives and responds. Which is why an Enlightened One can practice compassionate action without a self-basis and without accruing kammic results.”

Psychologically and spiritually, going for refuge to the Sangha is the antidote for our everyday narcissism: the self-centered world view, which is the source of our suffering. The almost constant feeling of being separate from others begins to break up, and the moments of “not self” begin to be directly experienced and known. In this way the Sangha, like the Buddha and the Dhamma, is both a refuge and a means to awakening. Hence, it is referred to as one of the Three Jewels. It is a rare and precious aspect of the path, one to be treated with great care and a deep respect.

Whoever does not hold respect
For their companions on the path
Is as far from the true dhamma
As the sky is far from the earth.
Theragatha 278

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