Five Ingredients for Building Sangha
A monthly update on the Sangha Project, from Robert Thomas
Over the past couple of years, a small team led by Do-On Robert Thomas has been working on extending the San Francisco Zen Center sangha more widely out into the world. We call this effort The Sangha Project.
While this work is still ongoing, we’ve learned a whole lot about what we need to do to extend a sense of sangha out beyond the walls of our three practice centers. We think that there’s at least five essential ingredients for our efforts to be successful: Purpose, People, Practice, Place and Path.
People naturally gravitate towards a community that represents and supports their values and beliefs. A community’s purpose can be related to our own personal story or journey, and that can be part of why we join and participate. This is especially important when it’s about something as meaningful and as personal as our own spiritual journey.
That’s why we know that the Sangha Project’s mission and purpose is key to inspiring and building a sangha. Simply put, the Sangha Project’s mission is to support a yearning to be a part of a community of practitioners—or sangha.
In this community, we want to help people feel welcomed, respected and appreciated for who they are. In order to do that we want to wisely employ the tools of digital technology to cultivate meaningful connection and intimate engagement that encourages a deep sense of spiritual friendship.
We feel that if we can do that, we can build a community of dharma friends who support each other on a shared path of everyday mindfulness, deepening self-awareness and compassionate action—all in the service of a more peaceful, healthy and sustainable world.
That’s our mission, but a mission statement can only go so far. We need people who will take action to actually build a wider sangha.
By definition, to have a sangha we need people who are taking up and engaging in practice. It’s from our own personal feeling of connection with other people that we get a sense of belonging to a sangha. The Sangha Project’s goal is to find the right mix of people who have a sincere desire to practice and to support and fulfill each other’s intention to practice—the desire to grow as a practitioner together with others. If we can do this, then we’ll be well on our way to building and growing sangha in the wider community.
One important way that we are experimenting with ways to connect with people and support them to practice together is to offer online retreats and courses. This allows us to provide practice experiences that work for people wherever they live and in ways that they can fit into their busy lives.
For example, this week SFZC offers the Manifesting the Wisdom of the Body Online Retreat, a four-week course to help people integrate Zen and yoga practice. Here are some things that students from last year’s course have said about how the course helped them:
The gentle and thoughtful approach of Samantha and Robert’s integrated teachings made this experience one that will stay with me. Samantha’s calming, easy suggestions helped me to integrate yoga into my daily sittings. Robert’s straightforward Dharma commentary helped me understand The Wisdom of the Body in a new way. It was a great course offering that made the overall experience feel intimate in a way that surprised me, an excellent use of a digital platform. —Dan, 2014 online retreat participant
The retreat helped me get over the initial challenges of meditation. I’d tried in the past to sit on a regular basis and was never able to get past two weeks. This made all the difference in me establishing a regular practice. I feel like I have a path forward now. Really, really great course and the online model worked very well for me. Thank you. — Eric, 2014 online retreat participant
To create a real sense of sangha we especially need people who have a shared experience of practice. An online retreat or course is a great way to reach people around the world and to support them to feel what it’s like to practice together with others and to be in sangha.
As we just noted, we think that to build sangha, we need to cultivate a real sense of sharing our practice together. Whether that’s meditating, studying, volunteering or getting help to bring our practice into the everyday activities of our lives, it will be critical for the Sangha Project to be able to establish a sense of shared practice among a (relatively widely dispersed) group of people.
For example, at each of the San Francisco Zen Center’s three practice centers, we have the practice of sitting together as a community nearly every morning of the week. This gives the residential practitioners a tangible opportunity to show their intention to practice and to physically support each other in their practice. After sitting, we chant and bow together in a group service. In this daily ritual we express our gratitude to those who have come before us and we vow to continue to practice for the benefit of all beings.
When you start your day like this, it is much easier to maintain a real feeling of connection with practice and with other sangha members throughout the day. Can you imagine similar “rituals” like this that would support your daily practice out in the world?
The Sangha Project team has been engaging directly with SFZC members to understand how we can support people’s practice when all of us are not living in the same place, maybe not even in the same country! Together, we’ve come up with four ways to do that: 1) with a “virtual zendo,” 2) with face-to-face conversations about practice, 3) with small practice groups and 4) with online courses and retreats.
Of course there will be a limit to what we can do virtually to support each other’s practice, mostly because people’s time and attention is so limited. But we know that getting people together—virtually or in person, regularly, even every week—will create familiarity and trust, and foster a feeling of continuity and practice. This ongoing sense of practice is what it will take to create a deepening feeling of connection and support among sangha members.
It’s hard enough to find people who are committed to the same purpose and want to practice together, but what about getting them in the same place to practice with each other? Whether it’s virtually or physically, sanghas need a space for their members to gather, interact and connect.
For example, at our three physical centers, in addition to sitting together, we also work together and eat our meals with each other. We serve three meals a day for our residential communities, and this is a great way for people to meet and get to know each other. Repeated exposure to people in these kinds of settings—in the same place—can foster connection and help relationships to develop and deepen organically.
Over time, eventually you might meet with someone or some group of people outside of meal or work times to take a walk or sit in the garden with a cup of tea and talk about life and practice. Having a common space to connect with other like-minded people is a huge benefit that supports members in a community.
That’s why the goal of the Sangha Project is to build a beautiful and easily accessible online home for dharma friends to connect, interact, practice together and support each other to meet the challenges of living and practicing in today’s world.
Most people have a full slate of commitments—jobs, families and friends—and a very limited amount of time for other stuff like Zen practice. But when we surveyed the SFZC membership about what their needs are for their practice, the number-one answer was that they wanted support to go “deeper” in their practice.
As we’ve thought about how to support people to deepen their practice, we’ve realized that the key factor to making a commitment to practice, and to maintaining a connection with sangha, is not so much the amount of time one spends, but whether the practice is helping make our lives better. The difference is when it helps us be a better mom or dad, or co-worker or friend. It’s when it helps us meet the situations of our life with more awareness or more kindness, compassion, patience, equanimity or skillfulness.
That’s why, as we continue to design the offerings to the wider sangha, we will need to invest in building practice engagement and learning opportunities that support people to deepen their practice and feel a sense of their own personal path of practice. We need to create a deepening path of practice that people can dip into and out of in ways that work for them and really support their intention to understand what practice is, as well as how it can benefit them and those around them. We’ll need to design a path of practice that supports a lifetime of deepening connection, learning and growth as a Buddhist practitioner.
Whether that’s helping people learn something new or having insights about their lives and their world, there’s a whole range of ways people can make “progress” on the path of practice. We think the most important condition to building sangha will be to foster a culture of giving, where members wholeheartedly value and encourage the practice of generosity with each other. This is practice where we create relationships with a bodhisattva’s intention to benefit others, trusting that we too will benefit in other, often unforeseen ways.
For the Sangha Project, we’re hoping to create a positive and virtuous cycle for people who want to support each other to embody, express and make accessible the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. We want to offer the next generation of practitioners and dharma teachers—regardless of where they live—a way to more easily make dharma friends, deepen their practice and do great things in the world.
Of course we need people who want to support this effort. We need people who want to “invest” their time or money, as volunteers or donors, in helping us be successful in our mission.
We hope this simple framework of Purpose, People, Practice, Place and Path can help you to understand and support what we are trying to do with the Sangha Project. If you have any thoughts or recommendations, or ways that you think you can support, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email us, at email@example.com.