Monday, March 24, 2014

Sangha is a Verb: Cultivating Relational Practices to Foster Inclusiveness

Sebene Selassie

Recently, there has been interest and discussion—and some controversy—in US convert sanghas about diversity in our communities. Many of these sanghas are largely white and middle- to upper-middle class and acknowledge an aspiration to be more diverse, but how to actualize this in towns and cities where racial, economic, and cultural segregation prevails is a challenge. The hope for our communities to reflect the richness of our country and our world is part of a noble attempt to fully embody loving-kindness. And as the dharma develops within our multicultural society, we have the opportunity—even the obligation—to understand and transform the separations that persist across these relative identities.

To live an awakened life in a community would mean to meet others without clinging to our conditioned way of being with or knowing others. Yet, what I have witnessed in my own journey is that as practitioners we may awaken to the fact that many of our perceptions and volitions are unwholesome, conditioned, subtle, and profound, but often we can be almost entirely unawake to the separateness and delusion we hold in regard to those we unconsciously experience as “other.”(1)

Basically, we do not recognize our own biases and prejudices. In addition, our sincere desire to embody our inherent and absolute connection to others can often backfire and create more separation because we are not willing to acknowledge and explore these biases and prejudices or sometimes even acknowledge or discuss difference. We may believe in sangha as the answer, yet our dharma centers often are not “equipped” to bring us together because they may encourage and reward separation. Our aspiration for diversity and inclusive communities requires relational practices that we may not yet have.

Whereas, in Asia and many Asian Buddhist sanghas in the West, these teachings are firmly embedded into a sense of community and connection, in carrying the dharma over (probably because of our cultural overlay of individualism), there was much more emphasis put on awakening through the Buddha and the dharma.(2) In my experience, we actively practice Buddha and dharma as refuges, making them integral parts of our life through investigative study and practice, but sangha as a refuge is not well integrated.(3) Yes, it is often referenced as the third jewel. And, yes, it does exist in space and time as a functional process to keep our communities running—like many community dharma centers, New York Insight Meditation Center (my home sangha and where I work full-time), is an active center with many offerings and we rely on a multitude of wonderful sangha members/volunteers to exist. But mostly, we do not actively/formally practice sangha as relating. There is a strong emphasis on personal awakening through individual study and practice (even if that is often done in large rooms with other practitioners), but there is a lack of emphasis on and even an avoidance of relating to others, especially about differences and especially when those differences challenge our ideas of what practice looks like. I believe if we aspire to cultivate welcoming and inclusive sanghas, we must introduce practices and processes to engage and explore our differences and similarities.

At New York Insight, we have been exploring this challenge as primarily one of cultivating relational practices, which can be quite difficult in a community where individual/solitary practice and silence are integral and privileged. The question that has arisen for me: “Can we recognize both the need to develop sangha as a practice and that we may not yet have the forms or tools to do that?” We often talk about the sangha as an object rather than a practice; I propose that we change the grammar—sangha is a verb.

This past fall, we offered a course at NYI called Cultivating a Beloved Community. We subtitled this course “Building Authentic Sangha” which would maybe imply that there is inauthentic sangha; that was not our intention. What we were trying to highlight is the way in which within the convert/Western sanghas we have inherited, sangha is often underdeveloped. “Beloved community” was a phrase and idea often used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who went as far as to say that the ultimate aim of the work of the civil rights movement was to foster and create the beloved community in America. He said: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives,” and he believed relationship as central to creating beloved community. In the context of the civil rights movement, which focused on needed legal changes, Dr. King called it change beyond legislation. At NYI, where personal meditation practice is inherent to our development, I would call it change beyond meditation.

A refuge is really anything that gives us a sense of belonging because the roots of the word refuge are in the word to flee (as in fugitive). So although we say we are taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, we can actually think of it as both—that we take refuge in and we take refuge from. And I think many of us are taking refuge from the sense of isolation and disconnection we feel in our larger society—the suffering that comes from the inherent disease in a consumer culture that bombards us with messages of separation.

I came to Buddhist practice intentionally or maybe just instinctively looking for the qualitative change in my soul that involved dissolving barriers that build separation. I sought refuge in the three jewels—for safety, love, truth, and freedom. But sometimes, practicing in my sangha can lead me to do this very powerful, heart opening, transformative work of truth and liberation (Buddha and dharma) largely in isolation from others (sangha). We may be in the same room, but the focus on meditation, silence, and study leaves me disconnected. While I may cultivate the inner metta or loving-kindness practice for other people, I spend less time exploring relatedness and relationships as practice. Then when I am in the midst of contact and in consult and (especially) in confrontation, Ido not always have the skills to practice communication—to practice sangha. The challenge for me is how to balance deep personal/solitary practice with relational practices within a diverse community when we do not spend a lot of time on developing sangha as a lived process.

We live in a society that constructs and perpetuates systems to cut us off from people who look different, have varying resources, or have different language and cultural expressions from us. Then, in Buddhist practice, there can be a de-emphasis of those differences in noble aspiration to lessen the identification with the self. Also, within the various traditions of Buddhism, we often have homogenous representations of practitioners and practice—Thai art depicts practitioners as Thai, Zen as Japanese, American Buddhists (until recently) depicted as white and middle/upper-middle class, and so on.

In each tradition and in different communities, the language used (also metaphorically and in regards to style and references) is often unintelligible to outsiders. In a sense, this is natural; I am originally from Ethiopia, and icons and church paintings in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (especially those predating extensive contact with Europeans) depict Jesus and his followers as Ethiopian and the language used is ancient and archaic. But I was interested to hear a talk by Ayya Tathaaloka(4) where she explored how early Buddhist suttas and art, in fact, reflected a diverse sangha and references to the skin color and ethnicities of the Buddha’s followers highlighted this diversity. She speculates that this may have been an intentional means to disrupt the hierarchy and caste system of the time. As well, in the Vinaya, the Buddha instructs the two monks Yamelu and Tekula that the dharma should be offered in local dialects and not only in the classical language because the dharma is a living reality that should remain vital and accessible. We can witness that even from the start, our “differences” were acknowledged, mentioned, and highlighted and that various expressions of the dharma were encouraged so that all are welcomed into it.

Participants in the Beloved Community course represented a wide range in regards to age, class, race, gender, culture, sexual orientation, and other identities. From the beginning, we did not shy away from these differences, but explored and celebrated them within the context of the dharma. Pedagogically, we began to make room for this by loosening the lecture format and making room for popular education methods and techniques. But we did so within the context of dharma teachings particularly the satipatthanas, Four Noble Truths, and the continual emphasis on letting go of clinging to self. We did not assume that we are practicing a “pure dharma” passed down from the time of the Buddha and, in fact asked people to name and explore what they perceived to be dominant cultures at New York Insight.

Recognizing that for many of us, some of our greatest suffering comes from the harm and inequities in society, we explored our stories, inviting people to name the identities or parts of themselves that may not fit within dominant cultures of our center and that they normally leave out of the space. And people did explore that we often feel the need to behave in prescribed ways in our dharma centers: that we alter the ways we speak and express ourselves, that we do not discuss racism or sexism or other realities of our lives, that we do not want to appear angry or upset or distraught, that we leave our sexuality outside.

The peace and silence that we appreciate about our practice spaces can also repress or mask strong emotions and distress. To that end, we began in the early sessions by investigating John Welwood’s concept of spiritual bypass, the tendency to use spiritual practices as a way to avoid dealing with unprocessed pain, and how we also use this bypass within dharma communities to (literally) silence the pain of others. By sharing our stories (students and facilitators), we also began to name the forces of oppressions in our lives including those that manifest as microaggressions within our sangha.

We spent a full day in storytelling—a process also used in activist communities where it is acknowledged as public narrative.(5) We safely but honestly explored stereotypes we may hold about various groups and each other and talked about how these may perpetuate oppressive forces within the community. We began to identify and build wise action and wise speech for an authentic and engaged inclusive sangha. And we attempted to balance all of this within the truth of the dharma which points to the impermanence and insubstantiality of it all.

Thich Nhat Hanh has been quoted as saying that “the next buddha is sangha.” That quote has intrigued me since I heard it a few years ago. There is a part of me that wishes deeply for it to be true and to become manifest. Another part of me recognizes the real challenge (in my life) that realizing this vision implies. Like all of practice, sangha as a practice has its challenges. Sangha as practice has its equivalent of itchiness, aching body parts, restless mind, sleepiness, fear, anger, sadness, illusion of separation, doubt—lots of doubt—maybe even dark night of the soul. It also has love, joy, wisdom, and freedom.

Relationship as practice requires the same qualities of openness, curiosity, kindness, compassion and allowing as all of practice. And most of all, it requires actually relating. Relating to anyone else will highlight differences as well as similarities, however, for those who swim more easily through the dominant culture (in regards to both their own ease with language, culture, and expression as well as to how they are received), relating to those who are markedly different will require leaving comfort zones. It could get messy. If we aspire to a diversity of people and cultures within our communities, we will necessarily encounter a diversity of representations, opinions, references, tastes, communication styles, and ways of being. How do we stay with all of that and not use “skillful” as a code word for “not messy.”

An eight-week course is a very small step and it also arose in the context of years of cultivation. At New York Insight we are particularly committed to undoing racism and have worked together to create many opportunities including a long-running and popular sitting group and programs for people of color, sitting groups and events for people of color and allies, programs on white privilege, work with our sister organization the Insight Meditation Society to provide undoing racism training to staff and leadership as well as long-term practice opportunities for people of color, and convening a diverse and committed group at New York Insight (called the Sangha Builders) to design the Beloved Community course.

We continue to identify ways (small and large—mostly small) to incorporate relational practice: every sit/program now begins with “an invitation to connect” (the opportunity—and choice—to meet people sitting near and around you); we offer programs such as Nonviolent Communication and Insight Dialogue; we recently started a sitting group for those who have taken the Beloved Community course; we continue to explore the balance of personal practice and relational practice. We practice Buddha, dharma, and sangha.

(1) I am speaking only from my own experiences and opinions and what I have witnessed over the years. I am not speaking about or for all traditions, all communities, or even the experiences and opinions of others within my own communities.
(2) There is a whole conversation to be had about sangha as an expression of the feminine and the subsequent suppression of the feminine through the exclusion of sangha … for another time.
(3) This is most relevant to non-residential or community dharma centers, not residential communities where sangha is likely experienced very differently.
(4) "Race, Color and Ethnicity in the Early Buddhist Discourses": http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/468/talk/21102/
(5) Much of convert/Western dharma has incorporated the lessons and tools of Western psychology; I believe we have much to learn and incorporate from other disciplines and areas including popular education and activism.

Sebene Selassie: Executive Director 

Sebene Selassie is the executive director of New York Insight Meditation Center (NYI) and has both studied the Dharma and worked in the not-for-profit sector for over twenty years. She has a BA in Comparative Religious Studies from McGill University and an MA in Media Studies from the New School. She is a graduate of Spirit Rock's Community Dharma Leaders Program and leads the Generation Meditation (Young Adults) Sangha at NYI. Sebene is honored to serve on the Board at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

Photos courtesy of Sebene Selassie

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