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01 Building Sangha
“...building our Sangha and cultivating brotherhood and sisterhood is the most fundamental, core practice. Becoming a distinguished scholar, well-learned in the sutras is not a core practice.” - Thich Nhat Hahn

  Probably most Buddhists in America, if asked to name the most fundamental core practice of Buddhism would say, “meditation.” Other options might be developing insight, compassion, wisdom.  Most would be surprised by Thich Nhat Hahn’s claim that it is building the sangha and cultivating brotherhood and sisterhood.  A running gag in Zen groups about the Three Treasures is:

   We take refuge in the Buddha - Sure!
   We take refuge in the Dharma - Of course!
   We take refuge in the Sangha... Huh?

  Robert Sharf, professor and Chair of the Berkeley Center for Buddhist Studies attributes at least some of the success of mindfulness programs or multi-day retreats to the creation of temporary intentional community for individuals, he challenges researchers to consider and study the effects of Sangha as a determining success factor, stating that human beings need to feel a sense of belonging in order to alleviate their suffering and existential anguish. Evan Thompson echoes the same sentiment when he says, “Many of the beneficial effects of meditation may come from the community support structure and the sociality of the practice...”

  In the essay from which the top quote was lifted, entitled Sangha Building: our noblest career,  Thich Nhat Hahn gives an example of Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam, with 400, many young, monastics.  He states that they were not particularly adept at scholarship, sitting or walking meditation, Mindfulness, Concentration, or Insight, yet they were able to communicate with each other well enough to withstand oppression and mistreatment aimed at disbanding them.  Despite a year and a half of such oppression they maintained a compassionate, non-violent spirit, hoping to continue to practice together. 

  He continues, “So many young people came to Bat Nha from all over Vietnam, not because they loved Dharma talks or were passionate about the ways of practice, but because, for the first time in their lives, they discovered brotherhood and sisterhood there, and were determined to stay. Before coming, they had never experienced that kind of brotherhood and sisterhood.

  “They discovered that brotherhood and sisterhood is authentic living, is nothing other than life itself. That is why the work of building brotherhood and sisterhood is the most important task of a monastic. 

  “If we have brotherhood and sisterhood, we will be able to remain a monastic our whole life. Without it, we will become bored and will seek refuge in material and emotional comforts, and we will lose the beautiful ideal that we had in the beginning.”

  If one accepts the view that modern life is characterized by alienation and impersonalization, then it is not far-fetched to think that alleviating that malady, even temporarily, could have great positive psychological benefits.  Indeed, many people have come to reside at Jikoji knowing little about Zen Buddhism, but attracted to live at the Center for its promise of the intimacy of community that is deeply missed in their lives.  Still more come for the Sunday programs, sesshins, and work days with similar hopes.

  Invariably conflicts arise - between teacher and students, residents and residents, residents and other sangha members.  It has always been and will always be.  How skillfully those conflicts are handled largely determines how fulfilling the community experience will be for members.  Healthy communities allow for disagreement and involvement in decision making and have open, understandable processes in place to encourage that involvement as well as agreed-upon methods for finding solutions to conflict.  Poorly functioning communities exclude people from the decision-making process and problem-solving discourse. Using different combinations of hidden, or complex decision-making and conflict management processes, limiting participation to a select few, silencing dissent and attempts to work out interpersonal problems, denying there existence, or, at the extreme, banishing dissenters or members labeled as troublemakers creates a dis-empowered, fearful, factionalized and alienated membership.

  When asked how Jikoji tried to resolve conflict, one of the senior teachers replied, "Jikoji has always been conflicted throughout its 40 year history.  The common resolution to interpersonal conflict is for someone to leave."

  Unfortunately, leaving (or being told to leave, as what recently happened to four residents), because there is no adequate method for working out conflict, carries with it great costs. The hopes and dreams of community as well as those of spiritual cultivation and nourishment -  the “beautiful ideal” are crushed. The betrayal of trust invested in the community and teachers often results in a long list of psychological maladies such as nightmares, depression, loss of trust and faith in the practice, mistrust of self and others, hostility, cognitive dysfunction, feeling powerless and worthless, to name a few. Given that the First Pure Precept is to do no harm, should we not be doing everything we can to avoid these outcomes of an exclusionary conflict "resolution" policy?  Is not forty years already too long of an experiment for a method that causes so much harm?

  Many members of the Jikoji sangha feel it has been too long and that we can do better.  We want to explore alternatives to getting rid of people to solve conflicts, and try to heal divisions through ethical discourse, transparent, participatory decision-making, and learning how to listen to those with whom we disagree.  That is the purpose of this forum.  It is not created for the purpose of airing grievances and pointing the finger of blame at others.  However, stories of unskillful behavior do serve a purpose when coupled with suggestions for improvement.  Also, sharing hurtful moments with others who have been similarly harmed is healing in and of itself, especially when victims have been silenced and ostracized.  Let us try to keep the naming of names to a minimum, and remember that it is not the person we are against, but the harmful behavior.  We are interested in understanding the causes and conditions of the strife at Jikoji Zen Center, not in starting another campaign of blame and shame against other sangha members.

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