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The Meaning of Sangha

by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche

(Precious Jewels)

MIRROR OF FREEDOM (series): Number 14
Chagdud Gonpa Foundation
(reprinted with permission of Chagdud Gonpa Foundation)

To liberate ourselves and others from the cycles of suffering we have to depend on someone who has already attained liberation. This is why we take the Buddha as our guide. He is like a mapmaker who has traveled to the place we want to go and has shown us how to reach our destination. The dharma, the Buddha's teachings on how to get there, is the map. Those who have maintained these teachings in an unbroken lineage, the sangha, are our companions on this journey. They support us as we go, protect us and prevent us from going the wrong way. Our friends in the sangha facilitate our connection with the dharma and our practice until we attain enlightenment.

The blessings of the Buddha arise from his attainment of the three kayas, the three aspects of enlightened mind; the blessings of the dharma arise from the power of unceasing truth; and the blessings of the sangha lie in the members' pure and single-minded intention as they walk the path together.

The Tibetan word for sangha is gedun. The first syllable refers to that which is virtuous or positive; the second means "to yearn for" or "strive after". So sangha members are lovers of virtue who undertake and uphold positive actions, who try to transform their bad habits, purify their negativity and increase their virtuous acts--mentally, verbally, and physically--in order to benefit others.

We in the sangha aren't flawless; if we were, there would be no need to follow a spiritual path. Because we all need help, we walk in the same direction. The basis for the sangha is that each of us has made the decision to follow the path of the Buddhadharma and to engage in that path one-pointedly until we reach the shared goal of enlightenment. In climbing a mountain, we might come across different paths to the top. If we start up one path and then decide it isn't so great, and start up another and again decide that a different path would be better, we won't make any progress. To reach the top we need to find the path that's best for each of us, but the important thing is that we go forward step by step and not keep changing paths.

Recognizing that samsara is as illusory as a dream, and that those who don't realize they are dreaming suffer from their belief in the solidity of their experience, we give rise to great compassion and the aspiration to help others wake up. But to do so, we have to awaken ourselves first--we have to reach the mountaintop--and so we undertake spiritual practice.

To swiftly develop the capacity to liberate others, we practice the short path of the Vajrayana. Through empowerment in the mandala of the vajra master, we are introduced to the pure nature of phenomenal appearances and assume the same commitments and goals as the vajra master. Those who have received this introduction and practice transforming ordinary confused perceptions by maintaining recognition of that pure nature are members of the Vajrayana sangha. Through such meditation, one can quickly reach the highest peak.

The Sangha as Training Ground

The sangha embodies two qualities that are truly reliable. The first, direct recognition of the absolute nature of mind, gives rise to the second, the liberation of delusion, confusion and the poisons of mind--the root causes of suffering. Those who possess these qualities, and fully understand and uphold the vow of refuge, perceive and participate in life in a way that is not at all ordinary. As true sangha members, they are dedicated to refraining from harm and to helping others in any way they can. We can depend on them as examples, as well as for leadership and guidance.

We in the sangha need to be aware that others will look to us also as helpers and models, observing how we exemplify the dharma in our lives. We should never behave in a way that would lead someone astray. We must develop faith, devotion, respect, friendship and support among ourselves in the immediate, or inner, sangha as well as all others in the larger sangha--which includes practitioners of the Buddhist tradition throughout the world, and specifically those of the four schools of Vajrayana Buddhism who have taken the vows of refuge and bodhicitta. For regardless of which Buddhist tradition we follow, we receive the blessings of the Three Jewels--the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha--through any spiritual teacher who carries purely the unbroken lineage of the Buddha's teachings, from H.H. the Dalai Lama, the manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion in human form, to many other emanations of enlightened beings.

Before he attained parinirvana, the Buddha prophesied that in degenerating times, he would manifest as spiritual friends and teachers. Even to prostrate in the direction of the buried bones of one from whom one has received four lines of dharma teaching produces immeasurable merit. On the other hand, to see or dwell on faults in sangha members is to diminish not only our refuge vow but our bodhisattva vow. To lose our pure view of the inner sangha is to breach an even deeper level of commitment--that of the Vajrayana.

What can we do to sustain a strong sangha? First, we have to understand that practicing dharma means correcting our own faults, changing our own minds. As humans, we all have flaws. Just as sisters and brothers in a large family have to learn how to deal with one another, we have to learn how to help and support one another in the sangha. If we were holding hands to help each other cross a river and one person fell in, we wouldn't leave him there; we'd lift him out and keep going.

Simply hearing the teachings of the dharma isn't enough to completely transform ourselves. The teachings have to be implemented, and we begin by increasing our compassion. If someone the sangha is rude to us, instead of responding in our habitual way, by being angry, sarcastic, hurtful or holding a grudge, we practice compassion. As dharma practitioners we bring our understanding of karma to bear on difficult situations, recognizing that someone who upsets others is creating nonvirtue. Rather than being critical, we try to help, and in this way we create virtue. And when we make mistakes, we purify the karma we've created.

There are times when we are upset or irritated. Sometimes our body is out of sorts. Sometimes our subtle energies are out of balance and our mind is agitated. Sometimes we just wake up on the wrong side of the bed. We need to recognize that this emotional turmoil is not permanent, that it will pass, like clouds in the sky--and then patiently let it go by. We shouldn't add fuel to the fire. If an irritable person says something annoying, we should remain patient and maintain respect. We shouldn't prolong or even try to correct the situation, but rather wait until the person calms down and then try to talk things over. We always need to focus on how we can help others, not on how we can benefit ourselves.

When anger arises, the best thing to do is to drop it. But if we can't, we remain patient and it will eventually dissolve. Because sangha members don't cling to anger for months or years, they don't inflict the kind of damage in relationships that resentment can cause. If we try again and again to develop love, concern and patience, slowly we will make progress in our practice. Like grains of barley in a bag whose husks fall away as the grains rub together, sangha members working together can swiftly cleanse their minds' poisons and obscurations and contribute to each other's learning and growth.

The world isn't going to change for us. From the very beginning of our journey on the dharma path, we realize that what must be changed is our own mind--that the mind is the arena for training. We recognize that nothing in samsara or nirvana is outside mind; all is rooted in it. Our interactions within the sangha serve as a mirror that reflects our mind back to us so that we can use the methods of the dharma to correct ourselves. If we find ourselves responding to irritating situations in an ordinary way, we ask, "Why do I react this way? Why do I hold onto these things?" By transforming mental poisons as they arise, we learn to deal more effectively with our immediate circumstances and live up to our spiritual goals.

At first, the sangha is like a collection of holy objects, such as statues, in a bag; they inevitably clank against one another. But if people trying to create something of benefit are at odds with one another, the negativity and disharmony undercut their spiritual aspirations. On the other hand, if they treat each other with patience, respect, love and compassion, those qualities radiate out and benefit all those around them. When they go about their activities in the world, where there is less support for spiritual practice, they will have well-established habits of patience and kindness. They won't lose them in stressful situations. In this way, the sangha provides a training ground for applying the dharma in the world at large, which is the true arena for our practice.

The Benefits of Sangha

Those who embrace the teachings of the Buddha are the children of the Buddha's speech, and those who gain recognition of mind's true nature are the children of the Buddha's mind. Once we have taken refuge, received the Buddhist teachings and embarked on the path, our situation is no longer ordinary; something has changed. An insect caught in a milk bottle, flying around and around hopelessly and helplessly, will eventually find its way out if there is a single hole in the bottle. By taking refuge, listening to teachings, and training the mind, we puncture a hole in cyclic existence. Eventually we'll escape. For Buddhist practitioners, samsara is not endless.

Taking the vow of refuge gives us entrance into the sangha, but whether we remain there depends on whether we uphold its spiritual purpose. If we take refuge but don't really embrace the ideals of the sangha, we are like someone who hides something rotten under the carpet and then sniffs everywhere else, insinuating that the odor is somebody else's problem. But it is our own hope, fear and self-importance, not anyone else's, that cause the rancid smell.

As beginning practitioners, we are like children hanging on their mother's skirt. We find tremendous support in those practitioners who recognize the nature of mind. It is the qualities of such sangha members to which we aspire and to which we hold. If we watch them, we can see how to hold our mind, how to correct our speech and how to conduct ourselves. If we see someone reciting mantra, we remind ourselves to practice in order to help all beings. if we see someone helping another person, meditating or working far beyond her limit. we emulate her. If we are always aware of our sangha companions' positive qualities and follow their example, and at the same time acknowledge our own faults and shortcomings and work to reduce them, our practice will improve.

Because spiritually we are toddlers, our practice legs are extremely wobbly. Though toddlers look at adults walking and think they can do it too, they often stumble and fall. It helps them to hold onto a hand that is more sure than their own. Often, something that a sangha friend says will keep us from faltering in our practice--going in the wrong direction or down a long detour. Just one comment can help steady us and get our motivation back on track.

By holding the mind, maintaining moral integrity and being careful, consistent and diligent, we gain the respect of other sangha members. But we must take care not to develop pride in being a part of the sangha. Instead, we should remind ourselves that we are on the path with the sangha because we aren't enlightened. We have mental poisons to purify, which requires practicing and constantly checking our actions of body, speed and mind; are we reducing nonvirtue and increasing virtue?

One of the benefits of doing practice with sangha members is the multiplication of merit produced by group effort. For example, if one person chants one hundred mantra repetitions, she or he will accumulate the merit of chanting one hundred recitations. But if ten people recite one hundred mantras together, each will accumulate the merit chanting one thousand. Furthermore, just as a joint effort is accomplished quickly and well if someone with the necessary skills is involved, or a load is carried with greater ease if one member of the group is stronger than the others, spiritual practice is enhanced by the presence of advanced practitioners. The Buddha said that one out of four members of the sangha is an incarnation of a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva's pure motivation, intention and qualities enhance the virtue created by the other practitioners. That is why, traditionally, the sangha practices together. The benefit of group sangha activity arises not only from our sitting on meditation cushions, but from everything else we do--as long as we are not self-focused, but rather cut through self-clinging by working for the benefit of others. By imbuing every action with pure motivation, we overcome self-purpose. Our commitment is to continue practicing in this way until all of samsara is empty.

All of us in the sangha have the great fortune to be under the protection of the Three Jewels. We have had Vajrayana empowerments and teachings, and practice methods that reveal the true nature of mind. We should never consider the sangha a casual group of friends, but hold each practitioner in great esteem. Every minute together is a precious opportunity and should be a great source of joy. As we practice, training and retraining body, speech and mind, we remain very close to each other, without barriers. We thus not only reap the benefits of the sangha's support but also contribute to that support. We have come together in this life and will meet again in future lifetimes. Until enlightenment, this mandala will never separate.

Having generated pure motivation and undertaken formal practice and dharma activity with the sangha, we dedicate our merit not only to fellow sangha members but to all sentient beings. First of all, we dedicate our practice as a single mandala, and our activities of body, speech and mind, to the removal of obstacles to life itself, with the aspiration that no one's life will be cut short by even a single day. For a practitioner, each day holds the potential for practice and greater attainment. In addition, we dedicate our merit with the aspiration that all beings will have the greatest health and mental well-being possible, that love and compassion will fully arise for them and that they will be able to practice the methods of the Vajrayana and achieve complete realization of the absolute truth. In this way we can serve the sangha on an inner level as well as through our pure motivation, prayers and dedication.