Sangha Building: A Letter on Our First Day of Mindfulness
From Michael Goodman, Baltimoreís Lotus Heart Sangha
Good morning, dear friends. Today is Sunday, August 8, 2004, and it is a very special day for us. It is special for we have the most beautiful weather we could ask for. Usually in August it is very hot in Baltimore, yet today we are enjoying a mild, sunny 80 degrees. It is special because we have this wonderful opportunity to spend the day in mindfulness, following our breath and cultivating true peace. It is a special day because by being here we have dedicated ourselves to helping to support children in Vietnam who might otherwise not have the luxury of a decent lunch, schooling, or basic medical care. It is also a very special day for us because this is the first day of mindfulness being offered by the Lotus Heart Sangha.
The Lotus Heart Sangha was formed out of a desire to create a place of peace and spiritual support in our community. Every community should have such a place. A place where people can go to sit, relax, and renew themselves. It should be a pure place without too many distractions, so that people have a genuine opportunity to sit and follow their breathing and move into a space of deep peace. It should also be a place where people can go to get support from their brothers and sisters for difficulties they may be having, or to share in their successes. Whatever the reason, it should be a place that has the capacity to touch the depths of oneís inner being like the peace one experiences when relaxing by a warm fireplace with loved ones on a cold, snowy winterís night.
I canít express to you how important a Sangha is. It is one of the greatest gifts the Buddha left for us. I know that if I live to be old enough I might forget the names of the Buddhas. I also might lose my ability to recall the meaning of the four noble truths. But if I have peace and love in my heart, then I know I will still be happy, and that is something a pure Sangha can do for all of us. But why?
The reason is simple. A pure Sangha works at the level of heart, and if we sincerely wish to blossom into Bodhisattvahs in this lifetime, then it is at the level of heart that we must practice and lead our daily lives. Now that is not to say that we donít need the Dharma. The body of knowledge left to us by the Buddha offers us a wellspring of wisdom that is of much importance to our spiritual growth on the path. But just as reading books on the piano wonít make one a pianist, reading countless Sutras wonít make one a Buddha either.
So if we carry within us the sincere desire to transform ourselves into Bodhisattvahs in this lifetime, then we need to make the determination to practice deeply every day. To practice with a Sangha offers us enormous benefits. But first we need to have a solid idea of what a Sangha is, what itís about, and what it means to us. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what Sangha means to me, and I invite each of you to spend time reflecting on what Sangha means to you as well. If a Sangha is only a building to us, then we donít yet understand the meaning of Sangha. And if a Sangha is a place where we go to sit on a certain day and at a certain time each week with other people, then we still donít know the meaning of Sangha. But if we open up our hearts to the possibility that a Sangha is an extension of our family, then we are beginning to understand the nature of what a Sangha is.
As I look deeply into what Sangha means to me, I have found that the idea of Sangha has been of tremendous benefit to me, not just in my spiritual practice, but in how my concept of Sangha has worked to transform my daily life as well. At first, when we begin practicing with other people, we usually find that during those periods of time when we are sitting, we are able to click into a place that is fairly peaceful and loving. But when we get up and leave the Dharma Hall, it is interesting how it doesnít take us long to slip back into our "old selves" which is full of desire, craving, attachment, greed and anger. Itís like we are turtles, not human beings, and instead of taking off our shoes when we enter the meditation hall, we take off our shells. During that period of time, we get to experience the wonderful joy and peace of being light and free. But when itís time to leave, we have to put our shells back on only to feel constricted and tight again.
The wonderful thing about our practice is that the more you practice, the more time you can spend "out of your shell." Before, you didnít even know there was an "out of your shell." Now you realize that not only are you safe out of your shell, but you are much happier as well. At that point, life begins to open up to you, and you begin to open up to life. In the end, you find you can leave behind the shell you once carried around with you because you donít need it anymore; now you are free. You have just become a Buddha.
So now I have come to realize that in my life I have many Sanghas. I have a Sangha that I sit with each week. But I also have a family Sangha at home. I have an Earth Sangha, a nation Sangha, a state sangha and a work Sangha. How beautiful! Wherever I go I am with my Sangha. So now, when I get up in the morning, I bow to my family Sangha. When I take the subway to work, instead of being with strangers on the subway, Iím relaxing with my subway Sangha. And when I arrive at work, I get to spend time with my work Sangha.
What the practice of Sangha building has done for me is to change my ideas and expectations of what I think the world is and should be into my spiritual community. Now when I see somebody on the street, I know that they are part of my Sangha, so it is easy for me to offer them a smile. When I meet with relatives that I may have thought of as difficult in the past, I understand that my Sangha brothers and sisters may be suffering and need my support. So instead of my closing down, I open up my heart to them. This practice has taught me how to be happy in myself and in the world. I have arrived, I am home. Yes, I have learned the lesson of being at home in the universe.