There are many different facets to the Three Treasures and whole books have been written on the subject; this article will just touch on one small facet of training with the Three Treasures. Lately I have been reflecting on the Sangha Treasure and especially how we come to both rely on it and how it helps us to become independent in a real way.
In the beginning, since I wanted to know how to practice, I felt like I needed to associate with the Sangha, especially my seniors, in order to learn. But as my practice developed, it became clear that there was more to learn from the Sangha refuge than what I could learn from it in the usual sense of transferring information from them to me. There was a kind of giving and receiving that I had not encountered before: it was more about receiving what I actually needed rather than what I wanted or even liked. In this respect, the Sangha is different from our usual social groups.
I remember going to my first weekend retreat and sitting down at a meal. It was explained that the meal was to be held in silence and I felt a nearly overwhelming sense of gratitude that I could spend time with people and not feel required to be social. It seemed like a great gift we were all giving one another.
In our tradition, most of the time when we get together, the first thing we do is go to the meditation hall and turn our backs to one another and face the wall; the Sangha supports us in our effort to look at ourselves and shows us that this is not a selfish endeavor. Even though this tone can seem a bit cold, there is something very supportive, in a concrete way, to sitting and practicing with others, even though most of our attention is given to looking at what our own minds are doing.
For many of us, we want something from others (even if it is to be left alone) and in terms of practice, it is useful to look at that aspect of ourselves and ask if there may be something in this way of relating to others – the interaction tinged by wanting – that might increase our suffering.
Human beings are mostly social animals and there are very few of us who can really thrive when we spend too much time alone; really, Dharma practice isn’t asking us to be alone. Instead, the practice of the Dharma is asking us to look at where we grasp after various kinds of relationships and to work on bringing a spirit of letting go to those relationships. Dharma practice is asking us to, in a sense, experiment with that question of what we actually need.
This is one way that the Sangha becomes a mirror that reflects ourselves back to ourselves and helps us to see ourselves more clearly. Perhaps unwittingly, and just by showing up and doing nothing other than participate, we are providing that service for others as well.
In the Zen world there is a great spirit of finding awakening on our own (the technical term in Japanese is jiriki, or self-power) but it is a mistake to take this too far by thinking that we do not need a teacher or the Sangha. As I mentioned, when we begin practice, of course it should be clear that we need a teacher and a Sangha. But even after training for some time, even after our teacher is dead and gone, it is still good to take refuge in the Sangha. Since the Treasure of the Sangha is a precept, it is essential, from my perspective, that I take refuge in the Sangha and I cannot foresee a time when it will not be so.
It is difficult to describe this in words that make sense, other than to say that we both depend on the Sangha and are independent of it. One of my teachers used to say that we keep the precepts because it is what Buddhas do. The Buddha himself spent his whole life with other people and lived from his alms bowl. Just that thing of not accumulating wealth and depending on the offerings of the community that he lived in, meant that he depended on the Sangha that surrounded him. There are also numerous occasions listed in the development of the monastic rules when he sought the advice of the Sangha (including the lay Sangha). Even someone as senior as the Buddha took refuge in the Sangha; he never gave up on the Sangha.
That he had complete peace of mind, arising from his practice, meant that he did not depend on anything, including the Sangha.
Because the real nature of our relationship to others has this quality of depending and non-depending both, when we are unclear about our relationship with others, we can have a sort of push-me pull-you tension that makes it difficult to see how to relate in a mature way as a whole person. In the past, it seems like a lot of people in the west came to religious or spiritual practice out of guilt or other external pressure which doesn’t seem to be very helpful. In reaction to this guilt or other forms of pressure, internal and external, and perhaps because of disappointment in the humanity of our fellow practitioners, a common reaction may be just to chuck the whole thing rather than trying to participate in the Sangha.
But by bringing these feelings and reactions to our meditation practice, within the context of a regular practice of participating with the Sangha, and not discarding the influence of others out of hand, we are given the opportunity to go more deeply into our own practice.
In general, the Buddha’s wise advice about suffering is that the precepts are areas of human life where suffering arises and, he suggests, we would do well to look into each of these areas, in detail. This means looking more deeply into the area of our life which is the Sangha refuge. It means being willing hang in there with each other and being willing to look closely at our own strong views, potential misunderstandings, fears, frustrations and disappointments and find ways to bring that spirit of letting go to bear.
There is a story of a time when Ananda went to the Buddha and asked something like “World Honored one, it seems to me that half of the successful life of practice is having good Dharma friends, is that right?” and the Buddha replied “No, Ananda that is not right, the whole of the life of practice is having good Dharma friends!” Good Dharma friends will do their best to support us in doing the practice and point us back to our own hearts and minds when that is good to do.