Usually the Pali term, Sangha, refers to the community of Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people. But many Buddhist teachers, including Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki, encourage us to take a broader view of the Sangha, to include not just the community of fellow Buddhists, or fellow students of a particular teacher, but also all those individuals we meet who show kindness, insight, wisdom, compassion and equanimity (of whatever religious persuasion or none) – from whom we learn and whose company we enjoy.
People come to Buddhism for many different reasons including those who come for solace, companionship and the support of a group of like-minded individuals, and the structured practice offered by a group that meets regularly and shares a particular Dharma tradition or teacher. Such a local group provides refuge and an existing structure within which participants can shelter. Sometimes this can lead to over-dependence, and a valuing of social and cultural kinship over Buddhist enquiry into the conditions of existence and a coming-to-terms-with such conditions – developing understanding, compassion and peace of mind. Over-dependence, in this context, means: being over-reliant on the values and beliefs of the group, rather than testing these against one’s own experience; and, adhering to the forms, ideas, and routines of a particular teacher, without question or reflection. Over-attachment to the group, teacher or tradition, tends to inhibit learning, growth and realisation.
On the other hand, those who practice more independently, who are not necessarily part of a formal group, run the risk of wandering off course, developing incorrect understanding and becoming too attached to their “own” opinions – self-deception and hubris are tendencies that have to be looked out for and guarded against. Glorying in one’s own knowledge or virtue is just another form of attachment and self-deception, a hindrance to learning, growth and realisation.
Whichever course we take, if meaningful learning, growth and realisation are to occur, we need to maintain a balance between community and individual, group ethos and personal belief, dependence and independence. This is the way to real independence, compassionate wisdom and peace of mind. The Buddha insisted that we have to test his teachings against the reality of our own experience and leave the teachings behind – letting go of the raft when we have crossed the river, not putting it on our backs and carrying it with us. It is important we don’t become attached to the rafts of the Sangha, or of the ego-self.