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Buddha, Dharma and Sangha : Which is the odd one out? – Colin Shinjo Salmon

I have heard it said that different groups and traditions emphasise different aspects of the three treasures. Some, taking a scholarly or esoteric approach, place their emphasis on the Dharma. Others, putting great weight on the importance of meditation, put Buddha to the fore. If that is so, we could also ask which of the three we emphasise in our individual practice? I don’t know what my answer would be (it probably changes from day to day), but my appreciation of one of them has changed dramatically over the years. For a long time, especially during my early phase of ‘Book Buddhism’, I thought Sangha was sort of the odd one out. It puzzled me. A collection of flawed individuals, bumping up against each other and often disagreeing about small things couldn’t really be on the same level as Buddha and Dharma, could they? If you read about the behaviour of some of Buddha’s own disciples (and many Buddhist institutions throughout history) you could be forgiven for thinking they’re not. Buddha and Dharma can both safely be placed on a pedestal with reasonable confidence that they won’t do anything embarrassing up there. They can be considered perfect in an abstract, inhuman way. The Sangha, being formed of actual people, cannot.

I had another question about the Sangha which those looking in from the outside are often troubled by. Different Sanghas have (apparently) very different takes on everyday practice, so which one was right? Was it the local Zen group, who seemed open minded and relaxed about the rules? But the history of Zen was full of unfortunate incidents that a stricter adherence to the rules might have prevented. Or was it the Theravadin group? On the plus side, they seemed to have a more peaceful past, but they adhered to a rigid lay/monastic divide that seemed to exclude many people from the core of the practice. People can get so lost in looking for the right Sangha that they never join one and never really start to practice. The perfect becomes the enemy of the good because, when it comes to Sanghas, the perfect one doesn’t exist.

Of course, the Sangha does not have to represent an imperfect group of people. The Sangha could represent all the people, creatures and even objects that I encounter in my life. In other words, it could represent everything. This can be a wonderful, expansive view if it is lived. However, as a thought or idea, it can be a cop-out; an excuse not to get involved with an actual community. Everything and nothing are two sides of the same coin.

It was only through practising with other people that I slowly grew to appreciate the role human connections had to play in my experience. Regular interviews with Roshi and the other teachers formed a significant part of this (and, once the lockdown is over, I would recommend it to anyone who has not yet tried it). This wasn’t the only important connection though. I wondered after a while why the people I first talked about Buddhism with so enthusiastically, swapping books and exchanging ideas, no longer showed any interest in either reading about it or meditating. Those people had only ever practised alone, and their interest had soon dried up. I realised, gradually, that even when I sit at home by myself, the cornerstone of my sitting practice is my weekly meeting with the Sangha.

It was, at first, a disappointing revelation. Without the Sangha, I would not be sitting. That’s the truth. What I once thought of as my own energy, motivation and discipline to practise is in fact part of the shared energy of the community. But it doesn’t end there. When it comes to the Sangha, taking and giving are hard to separate. In drawing from that well of energy, we also contribute to it. This means that just as my own practice depends upon the commitment of others, so theirs depends in part upon mine. Somehow, when we all draw from the same well, it fills up rather than emptying out. This is the real treasure of the Sangha. It is not the last of the three treasures, but the first. It is not just an organisation formed of people with an interest in Buddha and Dharma, it is in fact the source of those things. It is the way we can see a little beyond ourselves and embrace Buddha and Dharma as something made of flesh and blood. It brings the practice off the pedestal in a way that ideas, however noble, cannot.

Sangha can be challenging too. The Sangha is the least malleable of the Three Treasures. Buddha and Dharma can be interpreted to comfortably fit my own worldview and the needs of the self. Dharma, when studied in peaceful solitude, can easily become an extension of my personal politics and philosophy – a kind of validation of those things on a perceived spiritual level. The Buddha, in being everything and everywhere, can be anything and nothing too. Or the Buddha can be a perfect ideal, something so comfortably far off that it presents little difficulty in the real world. Only the Sangha cannot be moulded to fit my tastes, because the Sangha is made up of other people with tastes of their own. Other people are messy and complicated and have their own views about how things should be done. The imperfection of the Sangha is the point. Yes, it forms a protective space with a shared purpose, but it also gives us something to rub up against. We cannot bend the Sangha to fit ourselves. We must bend ourselves to fit the Sangha. The Sangha requires us to set our own ego aside, at least for a time. This is another way in which it helps us to really engage with practice; to make Zen real, to make it something we do with our body, our life and the people around us, not just our thoughts.

If I see things this way, it gives me a responsibility too. The Sangha must be maintained and supported if it is going to continue functioning for me and others in the future. There are many ways we can contribute to its energy, but perhaps the most basic is to fully show up. To actively be present and willing to share something of our own challenges and difficulties in the process. It can be a way of asking for support, but it supports others, too.

The more we draw from the well, the fuller we leave it.