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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > The Meaning of “Sangha” and Advice for Dharma Centers

The Meaning of “Sangha” and Advice for Dharma Centers

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, April 2003

Today I have been asked to speak about the Sangha. This is a very important topic in terms of our safe direction, our refuge, and also in terms of all the other aspects of our practice. I would like to address the topic in terms of three aspects:

  • the Sangha Jewel
  • the Three Jewels of Refuge
  • the monastic Sangha, the monastic community.

Lastly, I would like to speak about the Western usage of the word “Sangha.” Although this is not a traditional usage, it has become our convention in the West to use the word “Sangha” to refer to the community of people who go to our Dharma center or who study under the same teacher.

Defining the Sangha and the Sangha Gem

The word “Sangha” is a Sanskrit word that means, literally, a community that joins and lives together. In this sense, I sometimes use the term “network” for it, because all these various people or things that are joined together interact and form a whole. On one level, it can refer to a group of people that live, function and work together as a community. On another level, it can refer to a community of purifications and realizations on a mental continuum that also exist together, interacting and working together. More precisely, on this second level, sangha refers to the true stoppings (true cessations) of true sufferings and their true causes, plus the true pathway minds (true paths) that led to the attainment of those true stoppings on the mental continuum of an arya. That arya can be either us or someone else. These true stoppings and true pathway minds also constitute a Sangha, a community living together, in other words, existing and functioning together.

Instead of translating the term “sangha,” the Chinese transliterated it using the word “seng-jia” (僧伽), or simply “seng” (僧), which sounds like Sangha. That is the classical term that they use for a member of the monastic community: a monk, a person of the Sangha; it can also mean a Sangha in a higher sense. We also use the word “Sangha” rather than translating it.

The Tibetans did not just take the word “Sangha” as we do or the Chinese did. They translated it with the word “gendun” (dge-‘dun), which means “those people or things that are intent on a constructive goal.” Gen is “constructive” and dun is “intent on”. That constructive goal is either liberation or enlightenment. So we can have a community of people that are aiming for, or intent on, reaching liberation or enlightenment, or we can also have purifications and realizations on a mental continuum and they are, in a sense, intent on or aimed at achieving a goal – also liberation or enlightenment.

I always think that it is helpful to look at the words first to get some feeling of what they mean. When we look, for instance, at the word that is usually translated as “refuge,” the Sanskrit word is sharanam,whichmeans protection. The expression “to go for refuge,” then, means to go for protection. This implies that it is an active process, we are actually doing something, it is not just to sit there and receive protection. That is why I call it “going in a safe direction”: it is to put a safe direction in our life, going toward that in our life, and doing so in order to gain protection from suffering. We can also receive protection from others in the sense that they can offer us a model on how to protect ourselves. A Buddha is a model: we want to become like that, and if we reach that goal, then we are really going to be protected from fear and suffering. In other words, if we actually put the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, into practice as the way to become a Buddha ourselves, we will protect ourselves from suffering.

What is the role of the Sangha in this? It is usually said that the Sangha helps us to go in that direction. We have to examine that to see what it actually means. It could mean many things.

When we take refuge, it is not in the sangha in general; it is in the Sangha Gem. The Sangha and the Sangha Gem are different. To go in that safe direction of the Sangha Gem, we obviously have to know what it is. That is the danger of calling a community of people in the Dharma center “sangha,” because if we don’t know clearly what the Sangha Gem is, we might think it refers to the people in our Dharma center. Then, if that community disappoints us, or acts improperly, we might lose our refuge thinking, “This is not at all something trustworthy.”

The same can happen if we think that the Sangha Gem refers just to monks and nuns, because there can be monks and nuns who are quite disturbed emotionally and we might think, “How can I take refuge in them?” So that is not what the Sangha Gem refers to either. That is why, in order to really take safe direction, it is very important to identify correctly what we actually mean by the “Sangha Gem.”

There are people in the West who think, “If the Sangha Gem is just referring to the monastics, we can do away with that. We don’t need monks and nuns. We can have a modern Buddhism without them.” However, monastics are not what the Sangha Gem is referring to at all. People may think that the monastic tradition is something ancient or medieval, and that it is unnecessary in our modern society. “We don’t need the refuge in the Sangha.” This is a big mistake, because in this context, the Sangha Gem is not identified correctly.

What is the Sangha Gem? Let us look at what (1) the Theravada tradition, (2) the Mahayana tradition that the Tibetans follow, and (3) the Zen tradition say about it. This will help us get a broader perspective. I think that it is also very helpful for opening our minds, and not being just narrowly encased within our own tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, to look at other perspectives within Buddhism. In this way, we can also see what is shared in common by all Buddhist traditions.

Sangha in the Different Buddhist Traditions

Sangha in Theravada

In Theravada, the Sangha Gem is specified from the perspective of the teachings. Thus, it refers to anyone who has achieved any of the four stages of spiritual attainment starting with the arya level. An “arya” is somebody who has had nonconceptual cognition of the four noble truths. In Theravada, the four stages that start with that cognition are called: “stream-enterer,” “once-returner,” “non-returner” and “arhat.” When we hear those terms in Theravada, we should not think, “Oh, stream-enterer, that is just a beginner. Anybody can reach that.” This is actually an arya level. From the Theravada point of view, the Sangha Gem refers to the Arya Sangha. They are called a “Gem” from the point of view of their attainment, the realization and nonconceptual cognition of the four noble truths and, in particular, of no such thing as an impossible type of self (anatta). That person can be either a monastic or a lay person.

You can also speak of Sangha as specified in the Vinaya, the rules of discipline. From that perspective, it refers to a community of fully ordained monks or nuns and, more specifically, to a group of four or more fully ordained monks or nuns that are required to be present at certain rituals where a quorum of monastic members is needed to hold the rituals. For instance, in full monk ordination you need a certain number of fully ordained monks present and for full nun ordination you need either all fully ordained nuns or both fully ordained monks and nuns. These fully ordained monks and nuns who are specified according to their vows are Sangha, but they are not necessarily the Sangha Gem. They are what are called the “conventional Sangha,” not the Sangha Gem. Obviously, some monastics, could also be aryas, and then they would be both conventional Sangha and Sangha Gem.

[See: A Summary Report of the 2007 International Congress on the Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages.]

The assertion of there being a distinction between the Sangha and the Sangha Gem, found here in Theravada, is asserted in common in all other forms of Buddhism as well. The technical terms that are used may vary, but there is a general differentiation that is always there.

Sangha in Mahayana

What does the Indian Mahayana tradition that the Tibetans follow say about this? What was the traditional view in India that the Tibetans first encountered?

In Indian Mahayana Buddhism, one of the great masters, or sources we should say, of the teachings is Maitreya. Maitreya is the next universal Buddha who will come after Shakyamuni. A great Indian master called Asanga had various visions of Maitreya and he wrote down the teachings received from Maitreya in what are called the “Five Texts of Maitreya.” These “Five Texts of Maitreya” are studied very centrally, not only in Indian Buddhism, but also by the Tibetans. When we look at the definitions of the Three Gems, we refer to these texts of Maitreya. In three of these texts, the Three Gems are defined slightly differently, although they are not really contradictory. The Tibetans, who are very good at putting together things that on the surface look contradictory, actually follow all of them. These texts define two positions: two of them take one position and one takes the other.

We find one position in a text called in Sanskrit Abhisamayalamkara, in Tibetan mNgon-rtogs rgyan. It means “Filigree” or “Ornament of Realizations.” This is the major treatise that all Tibetans study for five years as part of the training to become a kenpo or a geshe. This is a very complicated text which is, basically, the key for understanding all the Prajnaparamita Sutras, as it organizes this huge Prajnaparamita literature into understandable categories and topics. The Prajnaparamita Sutras are enormous, there are many versions of them; one is a hundred thousand verses and so on. It is not easy to really study them and get the meaning clearly, so this text helps us to do that.

According to the Abhisamayalamkara, each of the Three Gems has two levels: the apparent or conventional level and the deepest or ultimate level. The apparent or conventional level conceals the deepest one.

There is another text by Maitreya called Uttaratantra, in Tibetan rGyud bla-ma, which means “Furthest Everlasting Continuum.” This text is about Buddha-nature, and it is also completely central to Buddhist studies by the Tibetans. The Uttaratantra gives the full definitions of the Three Gems. The only point in which it disagrees with the Abhisamayalamkara is that the definitions it gives for the Dharma Gem refer only to the deepest level Dharma Gem and not to the Dharma Gem’s apparent level. Other than that difference, the two texts assert the same position. The first text gives the two levels of the Three Gems; the second text defines the Dharma Germ in terms of only one of those levels, the deepest one. Here, however, our topic is the Sangha Gem, in which case the definitions given in the Uttaratantra apply to both the conventional and deepest Sangha Gem. Let’s look at the explanation of all three Gems.

The Buddha Gem, in its apparent level, is the Form Bodies of a Buddha, Rupakaya (a Corpus of Forms). It is what you see. There are two types of Form Bodies: Sambhogakaya (Bodies or a Corpus of Full Use) and Nirmanakaya (Emanation Bodies or a Corpus of Emanations), which are the subtle and gross forms in which a Buddha appears. The deepest level that this corpus of enlightening forms conceals is a Buddha’s Dharmakaya, a Body or Corpus Encompassing Everything. A Dharmakaya has two aspects. One is called a Jnana-Dharmkaya, sometimes called “Wisdom Dharmakaya” or “Deep Awareness Dharmakaya,” a Corpus of Deep Awareness Encompassing Everything. That refers to the true pathway minds (true paths) on the mental continuum of a Buddha, the Fourth Noble Truth. The other aspect of a Dharmakaya is called a Svabhavakaya, a “Nature Body” or Corpus of Essential Nature, and that refers to the true stoppings or true cessations on a Buddha’s mental continuum, so it is the Third Noble Truth. Therefore, Dharmakaya refers to the Third and Fourth Noble Truths on the mental continuum of a Buddha. That is the deepest Buddha Gem.

What is the Dharma Gem? The apparent level of the Dharma Gem is the twelve categories of teachings given by Buddha’s enlightening speech. That is, the actual words that Buddha taught. This is what we hear or see written. The deepest Dharma Gem is what is underlying that: the realizations of what Buddha taught. This refers again to the Third and Fourth Noble Truths: true stoppings (true cessations) and true pathway minds. True stoppings are the total eradication of the first two Noble Truths from a mental continuum: true suffering and its true causes. The true pathway minds are either the deep awareness that eliminates the first two Noble Truths, or on the mental continuum of a Buddha, the resultant deep awareness, which is free of these two. The Fourth Noble Truth on the mental continuum of a Buddha doesn’t have to work to eradicate the first Two Noble Truths because it is already free of them. In short, when we talk about the deepest Dharma Gem, we are talking about the Third and Fourth Noble Truths that are on the mental continuum of anyone from an arya up to a Buddha. When we talk about the true pathway minds on the mental continuum of an arya, it refers to the deep awareness that is going to eradicate the first Two Noble Truths. When we speak about the true pathway minds on the mental continuum of a Buddha, it is the deep awareness that is free of those.

The apparent Sangha Gem is the individual person of any arya, whether lay or monastic. Therefore, it is not the group or community of these arya individuals taken as a whole, but each member of the community. That is what we see. What lies underneath that? The deepest Sangha Gem, which is again the Third and Fourth Noble Truths on the mental continuum of an arya. Note that Buddhas are included here as the highest level of an arya.

From the point of view of this tradition of Maitreya, the deepest level Three Gems are basically the same: the Third and Fourth Noble Truths.

  • The deepest level of a Buddha Gem is the Third and the Fourth Noble Truths of a Buddha.
  • The deepest level of a Dharma Gem is the Third and Fourth Noble Truths from an arya up to a Buddha.
  • The deepest Sangha Gem is again the Third and Fourth Noble Truths from an arya up to a Buddha.

So at which level of the Third and Fourth Noble Truths do we find in all three Gems? Only the level of a Buddha. It is on that level that we have the Three Jewels converging in one person, namely a Buddha. The Tibetans apply this point when they talk about the Three Jewels as all being present in one person, namely the Guru as a Buddha. This is the basis for that assertion. So this is where the Tibetans get this from, and it is especially prominent in tantra.

The other tradition of Maitreya derives from another of his texts called the Mahayanasutralamkara, “A Filigree of Mahayana Sutras” or “Ornament of Mahayana Sutras.” This tradition speaks about the Sangha Gem only in terms of the individual person of an arya. It does not speak about the Third and Fourth Noble Truths. When the Tibetans speak in terms of sutra, they follow this second tradition. There, Buddha Aryas are not included as the Sangha Gem, only aryas of lesser attainment than that of Buddhas. The tantra point of view, in which gurus are considered embodiments of the Three Gems, is in accord with the first tradition of Maitreya in which Buddha Aryas are included as the Sangha Gem.

Each of the Three Gems has a representation, which is called a “nominal Gem,” but they are not actual providers of safe direction. In other words: for most of us the actual Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are not something that we can meet, but we can meet what represents them. The nominal Buddha Gem would be representations of Buddhas, like paintings and statues. When we offer prostrations to a statue or a painting, this is not the actual Buddha Gem; it just represents it. We are offering prostration to what the painting or statue represents. We do not take refuge in a statue; we are not idol worshippers in Buddhism.

Similarly, the nominal Dharma Gem would be the printed Dharma texts representing both the words of the Buddha and the realizations of them. In the same way, we don’t take refuge in books, do we? Similarly, what represents the Sangha Gem is a group of either four fully ordained monks or fully ordained nuns. We don’t actually take refuge in the monastic community, which is just the nominal Sangha Gem, what the Theravada call the “conventional Sangha.”

Participant: Is the presence of a Sangha Gem sufficient for perpetuating the Sangha?

Alex: No, not by this definition. The number of fully ordained monks needed to give full monk ordination differs in various traditions, but even fully ordained monks are not sufficient. To give ordination, they need to have been monks for ten years, but again there are variant traditions concerning how many years they need to have been ordained. For giving full nuns ordination there are several traditions regarding how many fully ordained monks or both fully ordained monks and nuns are required, and the number of years that they need to have held their full ordination vows.

Sangha in the Tibetan Tradition

This is what we find in the Indian Mahayana tradition, so it is interesting to look at what we have in the Tibetan tradition. In “Jewel Ornament of Liberation,” Gampopa speaks about common and special objects of refuge. The common ones are those that are common to both Hinayana and Mahayana. The special ones are exclusive to Mahayana.

With respect to the common Sangha Gem, Gampopa says that there are two: ordinary beings and aryas.

  • The Sangha that is ordinary beings refers to a group of four or more fully ordained monks or nuns who have not yet attained the stage of an arya. Gampopa only mentions fully ordained monks, since the full nun’s ordination lineage did not get transmitted to Tibet. However, the term “fully ordained monk” (dge-slong, Skt. bhikshu) can also be used as a general term that covers both monks and nuns.
  • The Arya Sangha refers to any of the eight individuals from four pairs. This is the same as what Theravada asserts as the Sangha Gem. The four pairs, or the four groups, are stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and arhat. Each of them is divided into two: the “enterer”, that is the one who is starting to get the realization of that level, and the “resultant”, the one who has attained that level. Gampopa does not state whether or not these aryas need to have full monk or nun ordination.

The special Sangha Gem, asserted exclusively by Mahayana and not shared in common with the Hinayana schools, also has two aspects, differentiated in terms of how it is specified.

  • When specified in terms of objects that are before us, the special Sangha Gem refers to the bodhisattva sangha. This presumably includes fully ordained bodhisattva monks and nuns that are both aryas and not yet aryas.
  • When specified in terms of their realizations, the special Sangha Gem refers to arya bodhisattvas – those with any of the ten bodhisattva levels of mind (sa-bcu).

What does Nyingma say? In a text by the great early Nyingma master Longchenpa, called “Kindly Bent to Ease Us”, the Sangha Gem is the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, again in the four stages of stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arhat, and the arya bodhisattvas. But here they add those known as “Mantra Holders” and “Holders of Pure Awareness” (rig-‘dzin in Tibetan). These are basically aryas who have followed the dzogchen path of tantra. Nyingma adds a tantra aspect to the specification of Sangha.

What about Sakya? Their basic text is called “A Filigree for Beautifying the Three Appearances,” by Ngorchen Konchog-lhundrub. These are the basic lam-rim graded paths of the four traditions. There he says that the Sangha Gem is the arya community, without going into all the different divisions as Nyingma or Kagyu do. Interestingly, when he talks about the ordinary-being Sangha, which is the nominal Sangha Gem, he says, “Those who have entered the Dharma before oneself.” This refers to monks who have received ordination before us. In other words, not the junior monks. In the monastic community you sit according to when you received ordination, therefore it would be everybody sitting in front of you in the assembly, but not those who are sitting behind you. I find it quite interesting that in Sakya it is defined in that way.

In the Gelug tradition, what does Tsongkhapa say in the Lam-rim chen-mo, “The Graded Stages of the Path”? Tsongkhapa does not identify the Three Gems precisely the way that we have been doing. He discusses the difference in terms of their activity, qualities and so on, but it is very clear from his presentation that he is taking it in exactly the same way as Gampopa. He says that the Arya Sangha is the main Sangha, the Sangha Jewel. Pabongka says the same in his “Liberation in The Palm of Your Hand”, but he says specifically that the monastic Sangha is merely the nominal Gem, not the actual Gem.

It is interesting here that the general consensus is that the Arya Sangha is the actual Sangha Gem, which agrees with the Theravada. However, whereas Theravada only talks about the Hinayana aryas, the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, in the Mahayana that the Tibetans follow, we add the bodhisattva aryas, and in the Nyingma tradition they make the special mention of the arya tantric practitioners. Remember that arya includes a Buddha; arya is anyone with nonconceptual cognition of voidness, and a Buddha has that too. Then, the conventional Sangha, or the nominal Sangha Gem, which is not what we actually take refuge in, is the monastic community. That is specified slightly differently, but it is basically the same.

In the Tantric Tradition the Guru Incorporates the Three Gems

In order to look at the Tibetan tantric tradition with regard to the guru incorporating the Three Gems, we can refer to the first tradition of Maitreya, particularly the rGyud bla-ma, “The Furthest Continuum.” Gampopa talks about this at length in “Jewel Ornament,” where he says that there is a difference between an ultimate and a provisional provider of safe direction.

From the point of view of the true paths and true stoppings, before you achieve Buddhahood, where do you start achieving them? Only when you become an arya. Imagine, for instance, that you have one of those old- fashioned radios or televisions with little tubes inside stuck on a board. You want to convert that into a computer’s motherboard. Here you have wrong understanding represented by the old tubes. What you want to do is take them out and put in new chips: These new tubes are the nonconceptual cognition of voidness. When you take out one, that is its true stopping; it is an absence of that tube, it is voidness. That is a true stopping, the Third Noble Truth. Then you put in a new tube, and that is the Fourth Noble Truth. That new tube is what takes out the old one, and what replaces it. That new tube, on the one hand, is the thing that removes the old tube, so it is like the path that functions to get rid of the old one, and, on the other hand, it is also the result, the Fourth Noble Truth. It is both the path and the result.

You start doing this when you are an arya, which is when you get rid of some tubes and replace them with new ones. So you have some absence of old tubes and some presence of new tubes; some Third Noble Truths and some Fourth Noble Truths. This means that those aryas who are not Buddhas are only provisional providers of safe direction; they do not have the complete set of Third and Fourth Noble Truths. A Buddha has total absence of all the old tubes and presence of all the new tubes. Therefore, only Buddha is the ultimate provider of safe direction, because only a Buddha has a full set of Third and Fourth Noble Truths. When we talk about the Sangha Gem, we need to focus on the ultimate Sangha Gem. The ultimate Sangha Gem is only the Buddhas. The Arya Sangha before Buddhahood are just provisional providers, they can only help us up to their stage, but not beyond.

That leads into the perception of the guru being all three as a Buddha. In Tibetan Buddhism we always take refuge in the guru. Why the guru? Because the guru incorporates all Three Jewels, including the Sangha. How does it include the Sangha? Because a Buddha, as an Arya Sangha, is a Sangha member. Buddha is all three from the point of view of the Third and Fourth Noble Truths in the mind-stream of a Buddha, so all is incorporated into one. That is why we have the guru, and refuge in the guru.

It is interesting that in Theravada they don’t speak of the Fourth Jewel, or take refuge in the guru. They speak about taking refuge in your own karma, because to build up positive karma is what is going to bring you protection from true suffering and its causes. This again confirms that refuge is an active process.

Causal and Resultant Providers of Safe Direction

Another point of difference from Theravada concerns refuge or safe direction from the perspective of its causal and resultant providers. When we take causal safe direction, we are taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as external beings, because they provide a direction that acts as a cause for our own attainment of the Three Gems. We are going to become the Three Gems. How do you become the Three Gems in terms of becoming a Buddha? A Buddha incorporates the Three Gems. It is “cause” we take in terms of external Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That is called “the mere taking of safe direction.” The special taking of safe direction is “the resultant taking of safe direction.” This refers to the Triple Gem that we will achieve in the future based on our Buddha-natures. That is providing a direction for us; the future Three Gems that we will become is the object that provides us the safe direction. So when we make prostrations, for example, we are making prostration in terms of taking refuge, safe direction. We are showing respect, not only to the causal Three Gems, the external ones, but also to our own future attainment, our own becoming the Three Gems.

We can think: “What does the Arya Sangha, the Sangha Gem, mean in terms of what I am going to achieve?” It could mean the arya state that I am going to achieve, which would be provisional, or it could refer to the ultimate level, the Buddhahood that I am going to attain. When we have bodhichitta, this is a mind aimed at, or focused on, our own future enlightenment. It is not enlightenment in general, it is not Buddha’s enlightenment, it is our own enlightenment that is going to exist somewhere in the future of our mental continuum. It has not yet happened. This is the ultimate provider of safe direction that we aim to achieve. This all ties together very well.

Translator It is clear that the Buddha incorporates all the Three Jewels, but why the guru?

Alex: The guru represents the Buddha. This is getting into the topic of seeing the guru as the Buddha. This is a huge topic and we would need a whole weekend to discuss it, so we are not going to talk about that. Basically, when one sees the guru as a Buddha, one is seeing the Buddha-nature in the guru in terms of its full realization. Just as when we take resultant safe direction in ourselves, we are aiming at our own future achievement of the Three Gems. To be able to see that in ourselves, we need to see that in the guru. Seeing it in the guru helps us to see it in ourselves. When we see it in ourselves, it doesn’t mean that we are literally enlightened. The same applies to seeing the guru as a Buddha, it doesn’t mean that the guru is omniscient and knows, for example, the telephone number of everybody in the universe, does it? It does not mean that.

What is the Difference between the Three Gems?

Each of the Three Gems refers to the ultimate source of refuge, the Third and Fourth Noble Truths on the mind-stream of a Buddha. What is the difference between these three?

Earlier we talked about the deepest aspect of the ultimate source or ultimate provider of safe direction, in other words, the deepest aspect of the Buddha Gem – either the Buddhas out there or the one that we ourselves are going to achieve. Then we saw that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha Gem, in terms of that source of safe direction, all refer to the Third and Fourth Noble Truths on a person’s mental continuum. What is the difference between these three? It is looking at these true stoppings and true realizations from three different points of view.

From the point of view of the Buddha Gem, they are sources of inspiration, what is usually translated as “blessings.” We receive inspiration from these true stoppings and true paths. The Buddha Gem inspires us to become like that, whether it is seen in a Buddha out there, or in our own future attainment of it.

From the point of view of Dharma, they are the sources of actual attainments, “siddhi” in Sanskrit. If we can achieve these true stoppings and true paths, then that is the source of our attainment of enlightenment.

From the point of view of Sangha, they bring about enlightening influence, sometimes called Buddha-conduct. In terms of Buddhas out there, the true stoppings and the true paths on a Buddha’s mental continuum enables that Buddha to exert an enlightening influence on everybody. When we ourselves attain that stage, then the true stoppings and true paths on our own mental continuum will be the source for influencing others in a positive way.

How do we relate to this with respect to Sangha? When we focus on Sangha, we are focusing mainly on is its influence, its activity, what it does. When we look at talk about a monastic community or a community at a Dharma center, it is helpful to consider this main aspect: How does it function? What does it do? How does it influence us? How does it influence others? That is the main point that we can learn from this presentation. There is a lot more that can be said in terms of the tantra presentation, but we don’t have time.

Sangha in the Zen Tradition

Before we go on to our discussion of the monastic community and the Dharma centers, let us look at what the Zen tradition says.

Dogen, the Japanese founder of the Soto Zen tradition, wrote about the Three Jewels very clearly. According to Dogen, the Sangha Gem has two levels. One is the level of what he calls the “Celestial Buddhas,” which refers to the great bodhisattvas like Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Kshitigarbha. We have this in the Tibetan tradition as well where, in the refuge tree fashioned in a tantra sense, you have Manjushri and all of the other great bodhisattvas around the central figure of Buddha representing the Sangha. This is also in the Zen tradition.

The other aspect of a Sangha Gem is the four stages of aryas. Here it refers to the shravaka aryas, pratyekabuddhas aryas, bodhisattva aryas and Buddha aryas, which is consistent with everything that we discussed before.

Dogen speaks about three aspects of the Three Gems: the “Single-Bodied Three Gems,” the “Manifested Three Gems” and the “Maintained Three Gems.” The “Single-Bodied Sangha Gem” is the peace and harmony of all the factors of enlightenment. At a more abstract level, it can be the peaceful interconnectedness and harmony of everything. We can see from this the idea of a community and network in which everything works in harmony. I think it is very important in a community of monastics or a Dharma center for everybody to work together interconnected harmoniously, without leaving anybody out.

The “Manifested Sangha Gem” is the learning and practice through which one achieves the level of arya. This is similar to what we discussed earlier about the enlightening influence, the function, the activity of the Sangha Gem. What is the main function of the Sangha within our Dharma center? It is to be able to study, practice, meditate together to reach the goal of attaining true stoppings and true paths.

The “Maintained Sangha Gem” refers to the ways the Sangha endures: how does it maintain itself, how does it continue, and how does it abide by relieving all suffering and by being free of samsara. What does that mean, what is the community doing? Obviously, we are practicing and meditating together in order to reach arya-level and above Third and Fourth Noble Truths. How do we maintain the community so that it persists forever? We maintain the community by trying to help not only ourselves but also others, by relieving suffering and by becoming free of samsara, which means doing that in a non-samsaric way. In other words, we are not helping ourselves and others to make money or to become famous or to compete with other Dharma centers. We are not doing that for samsaric reasons; we are doing all that with an enlightening and pure motivation. If you have that, the center will endure. If you are helping others and yourselves just for worldly concerns, to compete or to become famous, things are not going to last. Other people are going to destroy or try to destroy you. This is really important because most Dharma centers encounter financial problems and those who run them are always worried about paying the bills or attracting more students, and it becomes a business. Then, of course, you have to compete with other businesses. That is always going to lead to more and more worries and problems. It takes your attention away from actual Dharma practice, from studying, practicing and meditating together, which is the main function of the sangha. It is true that if you want to maintain the center you have to think about economic factors. But the main thing is not only to meditate, study and practice together, but also to try to help others with a pure, non-samsaric motivation. You teach others in order to help them, not just to attract a big audience and make money.

This Soto Zen presentation is very relevant to how to maintain a Dharma center so that everybody works harmoniously in an interconnected way. By doing this we move toward the goal of achieving the Sangha Gem, of becoming aryas. Although we take the monastic community as a model, it does not mean that we all have to become monks and nuns, but that we take the ideal of a monastic community the way that Buddha envisioned it. Obviously, many monastic communities can be quite samsaric in their orientation, but we don’t take those as our examples. We take a more pure example as a model, as an ideal, because our ultimate source of direction are the Buddhas. Anyone before a Buddha still has limitations; before arhatship they are going to have samsaric shortcomings. One has to keep in mind that they are only provisional sources of safe direction, and that it is the Buddha whom we take as our ultimate source of direction. This is very important because it is easy to get discouraged when we see faults in monastics, or even in highly realized beings. Unless they are a Buddha, they are not the ultimate source of direction, the ultimate source of refuge. They still have limitations, so what do you expect?

Don’t take all that we discussed earlier as just scholarly information and facts. The point is to apply it, to see what does it tell us in terms of how to live according to the Dharma. These are important points.

Are there any questions about what we have discussed so far?

Participant: What are the clues if the Dharma centers are running in a samsaric way?

Alex: Some clues of falling prey to this mistaken approach is if the main activity and focus of the Dharma center becomes raising money and running campaigns to get more students. Or if you buy a big place and then spend all your time working to maintain it, and have little or no time for practicing, meditating and studying together. Your main focus becomes worldly things. Then I think that there is some danger there. I have seen that in Dharma centers that I have visited around the world. All that the members are there for is building and working: working in the store, in the restaurant, building or repairing the house. Then the Dharma focus is lost, it just remains theoretical, “Oh yes, we are doing this to benefit all sentient beings.” I am talking about the main focus, obviously you need volunteers, and you have to do this or that, pay the rent and so on, but don’t lose the main focus. The main focus is practicing and studying together, and trying to benefit others. When the new Dharma center or the new big statue is more important than actually getting together to practice, then you are in trouble. Of course, if you need a larger place, then it is natural and necessary to raise money, to work on restoration, etc., but don’t lose the focus. There are many examples of Dharma centers that have lost that focus and then the people don’t interact harmoniously at all, and instead of being a source of joy and peace, a Dharma center becomes a source of anxiety, tension and fights. Then you have lost the way.

Participant: If a Dharma center is not a source of quiet but a source of disharmony; not a source of harmony but people gather more for socializing than for Dharma, and the leaders have not only accepted but inspired this, is this also something wrong, or can it be justified in some situations?

Alex: I think it is important for a group to be able to share many things together, including more relaxed time with each other. Things like going for picnics, having meals together, etc., are very helpful for creating some sort of community feeling. But, again; what is your focus? Is your focus mostly on that, or is it on studying, practicing, meditating together and helping others? I think a little socializing is helpful, as long as it is not the main focus. Is it a social club or a place for practice and learning and meditating? I think that it is a big mistake to have a Dharma center where everybody is dead serious and nobody talks to each other; you just come in and sit to meditate staring at the wall, and then everybody leaves without talking to each other. That is not ideal either.

Participant: What if this is the only place you know? What should you do when you have been going to places like this for a long time and you don’t know of any other places, or when people don’t tell you that there are other places?

Alex: Search on the internet. It is an active process; don’t just wait for things to come to you.

Participant: Sometimes these groups are very closed and you cannot even read their websites.

A: Go elsewhere. Look. When it is not available where you are and if it is very important to you, go somewhere else. It doesn’t help to complain. If what is available near you is not satisfactory, either you try to create something which is satisfactory, or you go somewhere else where it is better, if this is very important for you in your life. If it is only a hobby, it is something else.

The Monastic Sangha

After Buddha gave his first discourse, a group of celibate monks began to follow him wherever he taught. At the beginning, they automatically became monks under those very special circumstances, and followed Buddha. About twenty years after his enlightenment, Buddha started the first rainy season retreat. That was the start of the establishment of monasteries. Before that, they simply wandered around. Shortly before Buddha passed away, he started the tradition of nuns. The various monastic vows developed over time. It was not that Buddha just sat down and said, “These are the rules.” As the community had more and more experience, when trouble arose, like problems when begging for food, and so on, then Buddha would say, “Ah, there is the necessity for a vow to avoid this trouble,” and he sent out these various rules of discipline so that things in the community would work harmoniously. This is how the vows evolved. Buddha said that the existence of the monastic sangha was the key to insure that his teachings would endure. This is very important! Buddha himself said that it is essential that there be a monastic tradition. Monks and nuns devote themselves fully to uphold the complete teachings of Buddha.

The Buddha’s teachings fit into three baskets, known as the “Tripitaka.” The first basket, the sutras, deals with how to develop various concentrations, including advanced concentrations. These are called “the training in higher concentration.” The second basket, the Abhidharma, or “the topics of knowledge,” deals with the training in the higher wisdom of discriminating awareness. As lay people, we might be able to uphold these two, but not the third basket: the Vinaya, the “rules of monastic discipline.” Monks and nuns uphold those precepts in addition to the first two. Although we as lay people don’t keep all the disciplines, we can help to sustain them by supporting the monks and nuns.

Why does one become a monk or a nun? It is not just the wish to uphold all of Buddha’s teachings, which is very nice. The primary reason to take ordination is to develop ethical discipline, self-discipline. To be able to develop discipline we need the vows, and the community support. It is very difficult to develop that discipline by ourselves if we have a family, a job, and so on. That is why one becomes ordained: to develop ethical discipline with the support from the vows and the support from the lay community. That ethical discipline becomes the basis for developing higher concentration and higher wisdom. In addition, becoming a monastic and renouncing lay life helps us to develop complete renunciation.

When you renounce lay life, you renounce having a family and other mundane things. That is the first step in developing full renunciation of all of samsara in order to gain liberation. You renounce your appearance, how you have your hair, how you dress: you are always going to dress the same, you are always going to have a shaved head. You renounce trying to attract a partner, and so on. This is a good basis for developing the full renunciation necessary for obtaining liberation.

I am not saying that having a family and working are bad, they are neutral, neither good or bad. The point is that they tend to create a situation in which we have more worries, more desire, and more anger. That is what we are renouncing. Becoming a monastic is actually a step toward placing our full focus on learning and meditating, practicing to reach liberation and enlightenment. Although we could do that as a lay person without a family, it would be quite difficult to support ourselves. We may still have to work even if we don’t have a family; and that takes one’s time away from study and practice. By joining a monastery, we get support from the lay community.

One of the main responsibilities of the Buddhist lay community has been to support and feed the monastic community. The monastic community is worthy of respect and support. They are not lazy people who just want a free meal and not to have to work. In one of the earliest Mahayana sutras, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, there is a discussion about lay bodhisattvas and whether it is possible to be a bodhisattva and attain enlightenment as a lay person. Vimalakirti is the name of a householder bodhisattva. A great deal of this sutra makes fun of the monastic arhats. I think this sutra points out that problems can arise if a monastic becomes arrogant and too removed from helping people.

The monastic life is always taken as the ideal. In the beginning of the fourteenth century, a Thai king by the name of Luthai joined the monastic order for three months and then he left. He started the Thai custom of men having the option of becoming monks for a short period of time, rather than ordaining for their entire lifetime as it was before. In the nineteenth century the Burmese adopted this custom as well. Consequently, in these countries all the men – because the nun tradition is broken in these countries as it is in Tibet – will ordain as teenagers for a certain period, which is usually about three months. If you think about it, this is a much nicer alternative than having to join the army for a period of time. This also helped to bring the villages and the communities together because every mother would feed the monks when they go around, since her sons would also be monks at some time. So this reinforces the custom that the monastic community is fed and supported by the whole village. All the men will have some experience of monastic life, so they become very sympathetic, and can then understand that it is not something that is so distant. Of course, many remain monks for their entire life, not just three months.

In the Thai and Burmese villages, the monks also run schools for the local children. This was in the old days, I don’t know about the present when there are government schools, but traditionally that was what they did. The monks did not only meditate and study, but were also involved in some sort of social service. Again, not everybody, it depended on what you wanted to do. In the Chinese monastic communities as well, monks and nuns engage in social welfare activities. Now in Thailand, for instance, the monasteries and the monks are the main ones to take care of people dying from AIDS when nobody else wants to take care of them; there is a huge AIDS problem in Thailand. The Tibetans have been rather lax in this social service aspect, this is something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama acknowledges and thinks needs to be corrected. I think that in Tibet much of that can be explained in terms of the geographic situation. The monasteries were very isolated, and you could not leave your monastery and walk down to the town or village to collect food in your begging bowls. So the lay people would come up to the monasteries and give offerings. I think this is why there is more distance.

I think it is very important to have the opportunity of a monastic alternative, instead of going to the army or doing regular social work. If there are opportunities for people to be monks or nuns, to devote their entire life to Dharma practice, helping others if you want, and they are supported by the Buddhist community at large, then the teachings endure. This is what Buddha said. Of course this relies on ethical discipline, practice and meditation in the group, not just doing social welfare and then going to parties and getting government money for that. It is, therefore, very important that in the West we try to support the monks and nuns. In reality, to be a monk or a nun requires a monastery; it is always a community thing. It was never intended for people to ordain and live by themselves, wearing lay clothes and going out to work during the day; that is not the ideal for a monk or a nun. Unfortunately, many people have had to do that in the West, but we must understand that it is difficult for them, and not criticize them because they lack the right circumstances to be a monk or a nun properly. There are many lay people and many Dharma centers that look down on monks and nuns and treat them almost like servants who are expected to run the Dharma center, make the tea and do these sorts of things. That is completely backwards. The lay people ought to do that, not the monks and nuns.

For the monks and nuns to be objects of respect, they need to keep the vows, to be proper monks or nuns. The texts say that even a patch of cloth from a monk’s or nun’s robe is worthy of respect. This means that even if they are not really living up to the vows properly, one still respects the robes. One respects the fact that they are trying to work on themselves by taking the step of ordaining. You come across some monks and nuns who are not trying to develop themselves. Some, for example, were dumped into a monastery as children because their parents could not feed them. Even then, we have to differentiate the monastic institution as such, as represented by the robes, from the person. I think that as Buddhists it is very important to reflect about our personal attitude toward monks and nuns and the whole monastic institution. Is it something that we consider quite trivial and unimportant, and never even think about it? Or is it something that is really a proper object for respect? After all, even if they are not the actual Sangha Gem, they represent the Sangha Gem for us. They represent their heading toward the arya state, toward true stoppings and true paths, which is the actual Sangha Gem.

Participant: There are some organizations that help monks who are working and doing something else around the world.

Alex: There are many programs that support monasteries for the Tibetans in India and Nepal, but not so much for Westerners. This is the problem. People tend to be much more sympathetic to ethnic monks and nuns, and not so much to Western ones. The Western ones are actually the ones who really need the help. However, that gets into a whole, big discussion about the way to run a Western monastery.

Participant: At this moment, the main focus for us who lead worldly lives is building better Dharma centers. What can we do to help the monks and nuns?

Alex: What is the traditional way to help? The traditional way is to feed them and give them a place to stay so that they don’t have to earn money to pay rent and buy food. Help them with health insurance, for instance. A Dharma center could certainly arrange group health insurance for monks and nuns, for example, this would be very helpful.

Sangha in the West

In the West, the word “Sangha” is used as an equivalent for the members of a church, the “congregation” as it is called in English. As I mentioned, this is not at all a traditional usage of the word, but it has become a convention in the West, and we are stuck with it. We need to be quite clear on what it does refer to and what it doesn’t refer to. It does not refer to the Sangha Gem.

One of the things that I was asked to speak about was whether there are any guidelines in the monastic rules of discipline, the monk’s vows, that might also serve as guidelines for how to work better together in a Dharma center. We have already seen from the Zen presentation of Sangha that it is very important for members of the Sangha:

  • to work together harmoniously;
  • for the main activity to be learning, practicing and meditating together;
  • to support each other in that activity;
  • to work to benefit others
  • to do all of this, as much as possible, free of a samsaric motivation.

In this way, we can exert an enlightening influence on each other, and also exert a positive influence on the community around us. So long as we stay intent on a positive goal, the Tibetan word for Sangha, and that goal is liberation and enlightenment.

Let us look at some of the guidelines from the monastic, bodhisattva and tantric vows that can help us within this context.

Guidance on Sangha

Guidance from the Monastic Vows

One point within the monastic vows is not to lie to each other, especially about our spiritual practice and attainments. We are dealing with each other in terms of Dharma, of practice, and we need to be quite honest about it, not pretend to have great attainments, or pretend we are doing intense or advanced practice when we are not; don’t pretend to be a great yogi when you are not. Also not to hide our faults; when we are in the Dharma center, we may pretend to be very disciplined or ethical, but once outside we get drunk and do drugs, and then we pretend that that is not the case. Be honest with each other, do not lie. Be straightforward particularly about practice, because something that we can share with each other is our experience, what we are learning, things that we have done. Some people might feel that it is rather awkward to talk about meditative experiences, but I think it is important to share our experience in trying to apply Dharma to daily life. If we have been very lazy and have not done anything, let’s not lie about it.

That brings up a whole topic that can be very helpful to discuss with our Dharma friends, which is, what do you do when you don’t feel like practicing? How do you deal with that? Because we all have had periods like that.

The next point is not to speak abusively to each other, call each other bad names, or yell at each other, but to speak politely to each other. To be polite does not mean that we have to be formal, but just generally be polite.

Participant: What about people who don’t know how to speak politely?

Alex: I am not saying formal in terms of the language, I am referring to your manners, your way, the whole atmosphere. You don’t say things like, “Hey you, move that over there!” Use “please” and “thank you”. “Please, could you be more quiet?” rather than “shut up!” We are in a place where we are trying to develop respect, so it is also important to show respect to each other, and not speak roughly or abusively.

The next one is not to slander each other. Do not say false things about each other, making up stories and these sorts of things. That is not helpful at all.

Do not make false accusations at each other. “You didn’t come because you were lazy.” You don't really know why a person didn't show up to help out on a project or attend a meeting; maybe they were sick. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Do not hit or raise your hand against another member. That probably will not happen too frequently, but it is in there in the vows. I was just thinking, among the monks’ and nuns’ vows, is the vow not to tickle, but I didn’t include that in the lesson. It is not nice if you go up and tickle somebody sitting in meditation. You are not supposed to splash water either.

All of these are monks’ vows and they are the nuns’ vows as well. Actually, it is very interesting to study the vows.

The next one is not to deliberately arouse anxiety or worry in another member. Can you think of an example?

Translator: For example, somebody laid down a Dharma scripture and you say, “Be careful or you will go to hell.”

Alex: Exactly, this type of thing. Or it could be something like, “Oh, you are not going to this retreat, that’s very bad” to make them feel guilty. “You didn’t come to class on Monday! What kind of monk are you?” We try not to deliberately make others worried or anxious.

Next one: if you give your consent for the performance of a formal act by the community in accordance with the Dharma, then do not turn against this later on, criticizing and disapproving what was done. For example, the community, the Dharma center, comes together and decides as a whole to get a new center, or to invite a certain teacher, or to get a statue or something for the center, and you agree to it. Do not later say, “Oh, that was wrong,” disapprove and criticize. This is part of how to live in harmony. The monastic institutions do things by consent, a consensus that people agree to. It is a fairly democratic type of institution. In line with that, when you give your approval, then go along with what is done. You should not cause problems and waves later on. When we agree as a Dharma center to do something, of course it is not going to go exactly as we planned as a group, and it certainly is not going to go exactly as planned in our own minds. However, if you agreed on a certain policy, or on a certain project, then you are actually engaged in doing it. You should not cause problems. But, as both Shantideva and Atisha have advised, consider very well whether or not you can actually finish a project before you decide to undertake it.

The next one: suppose that somebody has been appointed by the group to do something for the center, and this person is doing it properly in accordance with the Dharma. Do not disparage them if they happen to be doing it in a different way than we would do it. You may not say, “You are doing it terribly, you are no good” to them, but you might yell at them, because in your own mind you would do it slightly differently. Of course, everybody is going to do things differently. This happens all the time in a Dharma center. One person is chosen to do something and all agree, and then you give this person a hard time though they are doing it right. If they are not doing it right, of course you need to correct them. But even in correcting someone or giving advice, let us say if they are a little bit lost in how to do it, one tries to do it politely, not speaking abusively as we heard before. “You are stupid, you are incompetent, you are no good.”

The next one: when a decision has to be taken about some issue, the monastic community gets together to decide. Likewise Dharma center members need to get together from time to time to decide certain policies, or things that we want to do with the center, and you should not leave before the issue is decided or without making your vote known before you leave. It is one of the monks’ vows and that is important in coming together to decide something, so you give your vote. You must give your opinion even if you have to leave early.

This raises quite an interesting issue: how democratic do we want the Dharma centers to be? Do we have some sort of board of directors and how do they function? Are they members of the Dharma center or are they just people who come casually? In a monastery there are members and people who just visit. Likewise, in a Dharma center there will need to be actual committed members of the community, but also there will be people who just casually drop in. I think also that it is important in a Dharma center to have actual members. How do you define a member, in terms of money that they pay, or in what terms do you want to define it? That is something for the community to decide. Obviously, there needs to be people who actually are the administrators, as you have in a monastery.

In terms of actually doing the physical work at a monastery, like the one I am most familiar with, Ganden Monastery, the monks take turns to clean the temple, take care of the altar, and things like that, because that can be a full time job. So everybody would take a turn, like say, for one month. They might not be able to really focus on their studies and so on because they are taking care of the cleaning, but people take turns and it is not as though somebody is the permanent slave. In this way, everybody has equal time for study and practice and everybody shares in the actual physical work.

As members of a center, it is important to follow this monastic model, by which the members decide what the policies are, what they want to do. For example, in some centers I know, the so-called committee decides that the Dharma center is going to have an intensive study-program of this or that major text, whereas the actual members are not interested, and the committee members don’t even go to the classes, so they don’t know what the people really want. They do that and nobody comes, or only one or two people come. So if you are going to decide what activities the Dharma center is going to do, then it is important that the members participate in that decision, otherwise people will not come. What do you want to do? Do you want to do pujas, do you want to study, or do you want to do silent meditation? What, specifically, do you want to do? So the regular members actually vote and decide. Of course, it is always going to be difficult to get a consensus where absolutely everybody agrees, but once the decision has been made, then go along with it. That is what we talked about earlier, you don’t complain and make a lot of trouble over it. If you don’t like that type of policy, don’t come, don’t particpate. But if you are going to come and the people have agreed on the program that they want to do, then go along with it.

Remember, we saw earlier that one of the features of Sangha in the Zen tradition is that everybody works harmoniously together. So do not run it like a dictatorship. When a center is part of a larger organization of many centers; then many problems may come up. I have seen this all over the world. There is a central board for this empire of centers and they dictate a policy, and in one particular place or another belonging to this organization, people are not interested in that type of program. So they break away and there is a lot of trouble, with mutual accusations, “You stole my Dharma center,” and all this sort of stuff. This is very sad. I think even within these large organizations, the individual centers need a considerable degree of autonomy. If you look at the Tibetan example, you should not think that every monastery within a tradition is like a Xerox copy of each other. They are not. The various monasteries will emphasize one thing or another. It might be primarily a study monastery or it might be primarily a ritual monastery. That is allowed within the larger umbrella of Kagyu or Sakya or Nyingma or Gelug. They come from the same lineage and honor the same lineage teachers, so in that sense they hold together, but within that, one allows for variety just as Buddha did.

Buddha taught many different ways to different people. It is sad when the Dharma center is run by a committee that has little contact with the day-to-day activities, and with the ordinary members. I think this monastic model of a more democratic approach is very important. Whether or not this is actually followed by the modern monasteries, the original model was certainly like this. Great lamas, who are the spiritual heads of Dharma centers and Dharma organizations, of course may make recommendations and suggestions, the senior students may also make suggestions, but it is quite important to take those as suggestions or recommendations, and not as orders from the general in an army. You can discuss them, you decide together: “Is this really what we want to do?” If it is something that the people don’t really want to do; then you go very politely to the teacher, or to the senior members, and say: “People really are not very enthusiastic about this. Could you please explain a little more clearly why you think that it would be helpful for us to do this?” If you really cannot do it, you say, “I am sorry, we cannot do that.” “We don’t have enough money to build a new center,” for example. “We don’t have enough financial support.” Be honest with the teacher. Again, once we have decided as a community that we are going to do something, then do it, don’t cause problems. When we put somebody in charge of doing it, again, try to be helpful to them, don’t criticize and give them a hard time, because obviously they are not going to do it exactly the way that we wanted it.

The next point is, and this is quite important in the monastic communities, the members need to follow the teachings, especially the ethical guidelines, in their behavior. It is the group’s responsibility to tell somebody who is not observing them that they need to do so. It is not just scolding them, but also, obviously, we can help them; the point is not to just make them feel guilty. It is one of the secondary bodhisattva vows not to do anything that would cause people to think badly of the Dharma. We are Buddhists, we are members of a Buddhist center, it is important that individual members don’t give a bad name to the center or to Buddhism by acting improperly. So if somebody is doing that, then it is our responsibility to tell them to stop and try to correct them. Can you think of an example?

Translator: For instance, some men can use sexual innuendos in their speech and if they go to a Dharma center they speak to women in an abusive way. I have heard this also in the center. If this person makes a woman feel uncomfortable, you want the Dharma center to correct or to help him overcome that behavior. Otherwise, the woman will never come again to the Dharma center.

Alex: Exactly, this is a very good example. It gives a bad name to the Dharma center. If women are troubled by some men trying to flirt with them, seduce them or whatever, the center gets a bad reputation and people don’t come. So if somebody is acting like that you have to correct them.

Another example is coming drunk and causing disturbance in the center or even outside. If people know that a member of the center gets drunk and gets in fights, the center and Buddhism get a bad name. When people act like that, it is the responsibility of the group to try to help them, correct them and point out their misbehavior to them. So if there are people like that and they are questioned about this unseemly behavior, this negative and poor behavior, they have to be honest and not remain silent or be evasive. In other words, if we are confronted because we have been acting improperly, we have to admit it.

Something I have seen happen in Dharma centers, especially if the teacher is a monk, or even if he is not a monk, where women students come in the summer wearing very short little dresses, they sit right in front of the teacher and the teacher can see right up their dress. I have been a translator with an ordained Rinpoche where that happened. That is terrible. So you correct this person saying, “If you are coming to teachings you need to dress a little more properly, show some respect.” But sometimes, the person gives you a hard time, “What do you mean, I can dress any way that I want to!”

Participant: I understand this in general, but perhaps not clearly enough. At a Christian church, for instance, you have to cover the head or wear special clothes, and, on the other hand, it seems that they are also very conservative in their faith, but what is the real point of that behavior?

Alex: The point of the behavior is, if we are talking about a monk, to show respect for the vows of celibacy. I am talking about an extreme example, a woman sitting wearing a tiny little skirt; you could see right up her skirt. She was not even wearing underwear. You don’t expose yourself like that to some high monk Rinpoche or to any monk, not to anybody. It is just not polite. In a sauna – yes, but in a Dharma center during a Dharma teaching – no. It does not mean you have to come completely covered with cloth or a veil, we are talking about not going to extremes.

Participant: There are monks who have lost their celibacy because of these women, there is so much temptation and the monk cannot really control himself, and then loses his vows…. I have seen it happen that the monk has indulged and stayed with a woman, and afterwards the fault is with the monk, although maybe the monk had nothing to do with it but he was influenced by the woman. It can become very difficult.

Alex: It is just a matter of showing respect. There are the various rules about not teaching to somebody wearing a hat or wearing shoes, these sorts of things.

Participant: There are also cases where the woman even knocks at the monk’s door, goes to his room and things like this. This may be old-fashioned thinking, but it should be corrected because it is not good.

Alex: This is what we are saying, that if you do that, it is up to the community to correct you, and if you are corrected, do not be evasive but accept the correction.

Participant: Also a woman can fall in love with a monk in such a way! A friend of mine fell for a monk so badly that she had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental health institution because she didn’t know how to seduce him, how to get him. It happened.

The next point: something that follows from this is that, even if we have to be kicked out of the Dharma center because of improper behavior, we do not criticize or speak badly of the center. Let us say that somebody comes to the Dharma center completely drunk and sits at the teachings making loud remarks and acting drunk, then it may be necessary to ask that person to leave. Even if we are that person who has to be asked to leave, it is proper to be asked to leave, because we are disturbing everybody and giving a bad name to the center. So even if we are that person who has to leave, we should not criticize and say bad things about the center afterwards. Maybe we are a regular member and maybe we just happened to come drunk one day for whatever reason, and we are told to leave. You don’t criticize the center for doing that. It was proper that we were asked to leave. Maybe when we were drunk we didn’t understand, but afterwards we would. It happens that people come drunk to teachings. Somebody drunk and making all sorts of horrible comments in the back is not very nice for the teacher and certainly not very nice for the people who are there. Everybody feels bad. Again, from the monastic vows, what is important is the emphasis on ethical discipline. We don’t want to do anything that will harm the discipline of the group or our own discipline.

Participant: How should we lay people conduct ourselves with monks and nuns?

Alex: Show them respect. Help them. If they need support, help to support them. As I said, don’t view them as your servants, show them respect. In a sense, we are to serve them.

Participant: So we should not touch their hand when saying “hello”?

Alex: In that type of thing, the amount of physical contact that we would have really depends on the individual. Of course, monks and nuns are not supposed to have physical contact with somebody of the opposite sex. Some people follow that very strictly, and in addition, not having any intimate type of contact with somebody of the same sex either. Certainly, monks and nuns are affectionate with each other; among Asians this is absolutely normal. So, when we Westerners approach a monk or a nun, it depends on the individual. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with shaking hands. I think that is inappropriate for a woman to embrace a monk and give him a kiss. The same goes for a man, it is not appropriate to embrace a nun and kiss her hello.

Participant: Coming from South America, where we used to embrace everybody, once I felt so happy to see this monk, Lama Kunga, that I embraced him and he was uncomfortable. I didn’t intend to do anything inappropriate.

Alex: That was inappropriate.

Participant: I didn’t know how to act naturally. Now I have learnt!

Alex: You make prostration. You express you emotions by making prostrations. But, as I say, it depends on the individual. Some teachers, like Lama Yeshe, used to be very friendly and warm. Other teachers never touch anybody, and nobody ever touches them; there is absolutely zero physical contact. It depends on their personality. My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, nobody ever touched him. The only time that I ever touched him was to help him get up; aside from that, never. He was one of the teachers of the Dalai Lama, one of the most highly respected monks. Nobody gave him a hug.

Participant: I have seen people with Lama Zopa Rinpoche even cover their mouths with part of the dress. Should we do like this, the same?

Alex: When you serve a high Rinpoche; for instance when people serve a cup of tea or food to His Holiness, they cover their mouth with their robe so they don’t pollute the tea. Sometimes they cover the nose as well, or tie a khatag around the mouth like a gauze mask. That is definitely done. Not when you speak to them, but when you are handling their food or drink. You don’t sneeze into it or cough into it. The same thing happens with the cooks for His Holiness. One of my monk friends cooked for His Holiness once when He visited his monastery. As the cook, you wear the khatag over you face the whole time you are preparing food, to avoid polluting it. But that is done for His Holiness the Dalai Lama; you would not do this with most people. You really want to show respect, but I think that most of the younger lamas that come to our centers would feel rather embarrassed if any Westerner acted like that toward them. But certainly, if His Holiness Karmapa were ever to come to the West and you were preparing his food or tea or serving him, it would certainly be proper to cover your mouth. Now, he may say, “That is not necessary.” Then you don’t do it. But you would definitely do that as the first gesture.

Guidance from the Bodhisattva Vows

I think that several of the bodhisattva vows are also relevant to the conduct within a Dharma center. What do the bodhisattva vows suggest to us?

The first one is accepting apologies and not holding grudges. If a member of the center has acted improperly and then apologizes, accept the apology and forgive them.

The next thing is not to take offerings made to the Triple Gem. Obviously, if money is given in the donation box for some Dharma activity, you don’t just put it in your pocket. If money is donated for publishing Dharma books, buying statues, or whatever; we use if for these purposes.

The next one I think is very important: not being miserly with sharing the teachings or material things. If somebody wants to borrow and use our Dharma notes, or our ritual implements, or whatever, it’s important to share them and not just keep them for ourselves. As a community, we are trying to help each other toward liberation and enlightenment, so whatever we have that can be of help to others and the community, we share. In our modern age it is very easy, because we can make photocopies, use the internet and these sorts of things, so it is easier than giving your only copy of something. But even if that were the case, it is better to share.

The next point is helping each other when we are in need of help. The vows refer to eight types of person needing help.

First are those who need help in making a decision about something positive, for example at a meeting. If a Dharma center holds a meeting to decide some course of action that the center is going to take, you need to attend this meeting. You transgress this vow when you don’t go to help because of being angry or lazy or indifferent, or out of spite, “I don’t like you so I am not going to come.” If you don’t go because you have another appointment, you are busy or you are sick, that is something else. But not to go because you don’t feel like it or you don’t care is inappropriate. One needs to go, to participate.

Next type is those who need help in traveling. Older people who have difficulty coming to the center may need a ride. If you have a car, pick them up and then drive them back home. Help them come up the stairs, this type of thing.

Next type is somebody who needs help in learning a foreign language that we know. Let us say there are people coming to our center who don’t know German or their German is poor. You can help them by translating for them. Sometimes there are people at the center that have come to a talk, but didn’t quite understand what was going on because of language problems, you can help by explaining what was said.

The next one is help carrying out some task that has no moral fault. We don’t help people who are going out and hunting or fishing, but if people in the center are cleaning up, come and help. It is a neutral thing.

The next one is those who need help in keeping watch over a house, a temple or their possessions, or watch and take care of the center. If we belong to a Dharma center, then it is our collective responsibility to take care of it, not just leave it to some servant. In South America, very frequently a wealthy person donates a Dharma center, either part of their house or a building belonging to them. Then people see it as that person’s Dharma center and nobody helps to take care of it because they see it as the donor’s personal property. Then people don’t really feel as though they are members of the Dharma center. However, if everybody is working together to take care of the center, then that helps creating a community feeling. It is much healthier.

Next one is people who need help to stop a fight or an argument. If there is some dispute or disagreement in the Dharma center, we help to settle that. This happens sometimes, either between different groups within the center or between individual persons.

The next is helping each other in celebrating an occasion, like pujas on special days. I think it is totally appropriate that at Dharma centers we celebrate certain great occasions, such as Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, as it is done in any religion. So when we celebrate something, when we have some sort of puja, ritual or things like that; it is important to participate, not just: “Well, I am only there to meditate, I don’t want to come to these other things.” It is important to participate in these types of celebrations as a community. There are certain Dharma centers where it is part of their schedule every week to have a certain puja, or ritual. It is not necessary for absolutely everybody to attend, but I think that it is quite nice if there are special ones held for the whole community on special Dharma days. Then people can celebrate together, not only doing something as a ritual, but have some food. It is part of the whole custom, you have tsog, you have all these offerings and you share the offerings at the end, you eat something together, it is like a celebration.

I think it is also very important to include families in this, especially children. It is very funny. If you look at the people who go to a Dharma center, most of them are single, most don’t have children. It is almost like a monastic community, isn’t it? It is very interesting. Very few are actually family people; this I think is not so healthy. Especially when Dharma centers, residential ones and so on, have a great deal of prejudice against children. “We don’t want to have children here, they make noise. They disturb our meditation.” That is an unhealthy attitude. It turns many people away. Some Dharma centers have classes for children, this is excellent. Children love to help in pujas, they can be the ones that pass out the tsog, or help with the water bowls, or things like that. If they are old enough, they can participate. In this way, our Dharma center activities are not something that alienates us from our family, but we have certain activities, functions, where we include them.

It is quite interesting if we look at it. Buddhism is also a religion. Many people who come to Dharma centers are a little uncomfortable with that idea. However, if we look at it as a religion, then it is something that has to take care of the whole family. So I think this is something that one needs to consider: Can our Dharma center act as a focus of our religious life, also extend to our families? If so, how? Not necessarily by converting them to Buddhism.

If we look at future development, there are Buddhist couples who get married, have children and want to raise their children as Buddhists, and then they are going to become old. That is also something to think about, taking care of older Buddhists, taking care of children, how can we provide for them as a center?

The last type is people needing help in doing charity work. If the Dharma center has some sort of charity program, like helping prisoners, helping in hospitals, and so on, it is very good if as many people as possible can participate at least to some extent in these activities. You don’t have to do everything, but do something.

The next point from the bodhisattva vows is taking care of those who are sick or old. If somebody who regularly comes to the center stops coming, especially if it is someone living alone, call and find out if they are sick, if they need any help. If they are sick, help taking care of them. There are many people in our modern societies who live alone and don’t have anybody to turn to for help if they need it, if they are sick, especially, when they are old. I think an important function of the Dharma group is to be the people that you can rely on, toward whom you can feel, “I can always rely on my Dharma friends to take care of me.” It is a wonderful thing to be able to care for each other, not only when we are old, young people may also need help if they get sick. If you don’t have somebody that you can count on to come over and help you, then people in your Dharma center will. As members of the Dharma center, it is up to us to keep a check on the people in the center, because sometimes people are too shy to ask for help.

The last bodhisattva vow that seems relevant is alleviating the mental grief of others. If somebody has suffered the death of a loved one, or is very depressed, try to comfort them, try to help them. For instance, if somebody is in hospital with depression – that happens with a lot of people – try to visit, try to help.

Guidance from the Tantra Vows

From the perspective of the tantra vows, the one that seems most relevant is not getting angry at each other. That of course is quite difficult, and we really need to try keeping it in mind, to try working harmoniously. If we have differences; work them out, don’t just get angry.

How to Create a Dharma Community

You asked for some suggestions on how we can form a closer group so that we feel that we are part of a community.

For instance, something that I always find useful at teachings or meetings is to sit in a circle if the room is big enough. Obviously if it is very full, we cannot do that, but sitting in a circle allows us to actually see each other, rather than looking at everybody’s back, or not seeing anybody except those in front of us. If we are sitting in front, we don’t see anybody behind us. That is a very small physical thing, but seeing each other actually helps one to feel part of a group.

Something that I try doing in my sensitivity training is, when we meditate on topics such as love and compassion, not to do this simply sitting there and visualizing all sentient beings, but actually as we sit in a circle, to practice it toward each other. Look at the people: “May you be happy, may you be free from suffering, may you be free.” These are real people and we are applying this wish to each other. I find this is very helpful in our meditation. If we think of suffering, we think about how each person in the group suffers sickness, old age, death, all the same, and we see it in terms of concrete, actual people. That makes it more real. This helps not only in our development, but also helps us to develop empathy, compassion for each other. That builds the group more.

I also find it helpful to have regular discussion sessions in which we discuss our own experience in trying to put the Dharma teachings into practice in our daily lives over the past week, fortnight, or month, depending on how often you meet. “I have been trying to practice the teachings on patience at work, but it has been very difficult with this or that situation, the office and so on.” We discuss it and then we can give each other advice or share experience. “We try this and we try that.” This helps to deepen our understanding of the Dharma, and also brings us together as a community that is intent on the goal: liberation and enlightenment. Here we must remember one of the monk’s vows, to be honest. Don’t be pretentious: “Oh, I never get angry!” We must speak from our hearts, our own experience. This is really very helpful and inspiring. In this way we support each other as a group; it is a group effort.

We are all trying to make progress. Some of us are new people; some of us are more experienced. Very much like in a family, there are young people and there are older people, so we can help each other. Young and old don’t have to depend on actual physical age; it is more in terms of experience. Again, all these vows come together, we do it in such a way that we don’t make anybody in the group feel guilty or stupid.

The last point is that I think it is important to relax together as a group sometimes. It is very nice sometimes to have picnics or potluck dinners, or something like that, although not as the main activity of the group. Some of the groups here in Berlin do that. They have some sort of a potluck thing at New Year’s Eve for example. Many people don’t want to go to clubs or to loud parties, but they don’t want to sit alone by themselves either. In those occasions, it is very nice to get together at the Dharma center. It is the custom for people to bring some food, do a puja, do some socializing. I think it is very helpful to arrange something like this from time to time during the year. It is necessary not just to get together for serious things, but also laugh together.

Participant: Birthday for the members?

Alex: Birthday for the members can get to be too much. I know that it is the custom here in Germany to celebrate the birthdays of adults much more than I have seen in any other country. Where I come from in the United States, you only celebrate children’s birthdays with a party every year. Although you have that custom here, it is risky to start doing it for everybody in the center. The biggest danger is that you may forget somebody’s birthday and then they feel, “Oh, they have celebrated everybody’s birthday but not mine.” And if you have many people, you have a birthday every week, this is too much. So here I think that the Tibetan custom is much better. In Tibet, people don’t have individual birthdays. Everybody has the same birthday: at New Year you are a year older and that’s it. So you can arbitrarily designate one day as everybody’s birthday.

Participant: How can we detect when a person has a mental problem, so we can intervene before they wreck the center or the group. How can you tell if the person has a mental health problem, or is acting up? How do you know if the person is a mentally unstable?

Alex: I don’t really think that it is the task of people at a Dharma center to evaluate whether somebody is mentally ill. That is something for a professional. What is relevant in the center is whether their behavior is disturbing the group. However, we need to be a little bit tolerant. We find this at Tibetan teachings where, for example, children might be crying or things like that, and everybody understands. People don’t have a big problem with that. If they are really naughty, you might want to take them away, but in general people are a little more easygoing.

Another example: some people sometimes start to shake in meditation. This comes back to the vow of not causing anxiety or worry to others; so if this person explains, “Well, I do that, it is something with my nervous system and it is nothing to worry about. So don’t worry, don’t get upset, I am perfectly OK,” people don’t worry and then you are relaxed about them. If this person is shaking like that, then you have to be tolerant of it. This is what I mean. One needs to be tolerant, as long as people don’t get worried, then it is not so disturbing.

These are some of the basic things that I have seen in going through the vows, which I think can be helpful in a group or a Dharma center. Although it is not an orthodox usage of the word “sangha” for the people at a Dharma center, nevertheless the role of the community in the Dharma center is very important. We are not just practicing by ourselves, we have friends who help us and we can help each other along the path. I’m certain that we can inspire each other, act as a positive influence on each other and share together.

Let us end with a dedication: whatever understanding we might have gained, may that go deeper and deeper, and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment, with inspiration from the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, for the benefit of all.