Sangha is the Practice

by Mark Shogen Bloodgood

“It is well worth investing in a Sangha. If you sow seeds in arid land, few seeds will sprout. But if you select a fertile field and invest your wonderful seeds in it, the harvest will be bountiful. Building a Sangha, supporting a Sangha, being with a Sangha, receiving the support and guidance of a Sangha is the practice. We have individual eyes and Sangha eyes. When a Sangha shines its light on our personal views, we see more clearly. In the Sangha, we won’t fall into negative habit patterns. Stick to your Sangha. Take refuge in the sangha, and you’ll have the wisdom and support you need.”

– Thich Nhat Hahn

Most of us are quite familiar with this idea of Sangha. It is one of the Three Treasures, along with The Buddha and Dharma. We vow to take refuge in them. Sangha (samgha), is a Sanskrit word commonly translated as “community” or “order.” That literally means “that which is struck together well,” suggesting something that is solid and not easily broken apart. In one sense it is the historical followers of the Buddha. In another, it can be considered as all Buddhist sanghas consisting of monks, nuns, and novices. In a wider sense the sangha also includes lay followers. Expanded even further sangha includes all sentient beings.

I have had the opportunity to bear witness to the birthing of a sangha, San Luis Obispo Zen Circle (SLOZC), and the maturing of a sangha (ZCLA). It’s been a fascinating journey.

The idea for forming a zazen group in San Luis Obispo was originally suggested by Sensei Dokai Dickenson some twenty years ago as we sat together in the Sangha House at ZCLA. She said, “Why don’t you start a sitting group?” “What? I’m too new in the practice,” I replied. (I had not received Jukai at the time) She said, “Well, sit with it…” I did. The seed was planted.

Roshi Egyoku suggested I meet with Sensei Shingetsu Guzy to discuss how her Valley Sangha was operating. I’ll never forget that meeting. Sensei was so encouraging and informative. She said I should consider it as a gift of the dharma for others.

We gathered some folks, mainly a few interested students from my yoga class and friends from the White Heron Sangha (WHS), a local non-denominational Buddhist group. We started meeting

in an optometrist’s office, sitting in the reception area. The kinhin path led down the hallway past the exam rooms and back through his eyeglass display area. When the back doors of the office were open you could hear the soothing sounds of San Luis Creek below. In those early days, it was two periods of zazen with kinhin in-be- tween followed by discus- sion or a book study.

As the years passed, our group moved to different locations. Eventually we found our way to our current Thursday evening “home” at Crow’s End. It is a secluded 6-acre property nestled in an oak canopy forest in the quiet hills of Squire Canyon. Perfect! Now we listen to crickets on warm summer evenings and croaking frogs after a rain.

Throughout these formative years I continued my own practice and studies with Roshi Egyoku spending most weekends at ZCLA. Eventually ordaining in 2012, I began adding more to our SLOZC Thursday evening program: Service, Evenings of Reflection, Practice Talks, Sutra copy- ing, Atonement Ceremonies, and Zazenkais. Then annual services: Buddha’s Birthday, the Parinirvana, Bodhi Day, and Year End ceremonies. A number of us made road trips for sesshins at ZCLA and Yokoji.

There was an interest by some members in receiving the Precepts. Classes were taught. My wife, Karla, volunteered to guide the rakusu sewing and in November of 2017 we had our first Jukai ceremony. Six members received the Precepts. That seed, planted so many years ago, blossomed. We were officially a Zen sangha!

We added an early morning zazen offering on Tues- day mornings at an Aikido dojo. Then we secured another venue for Sunday mornings at the White Heron Sangha Meditation Center.

The week following the Covid-19 stay-at-home order we had all our SLOZC programs offered on Zoom. Using Zoom we actually expanded our offerings. Later, we invited ZCLA Sangha members to join us via Zoom on Sunday mornings. Eventually, we began meeting again in person, masked, and taking proper precautions, while continuing to offer Zoom participation. In November of 2021, in this hybrid environment, we had our first Hossen as Geoff Kanjō O’Quest finished his year as Head Trainee.

I must admit that, over the years, at times I got discouraged. Our SLO Sangha is so small. We haven’t seen a lot of growth. My ego gets in the way, wishing for a larger sangha, wishing for a brick-and-mortar facility. I would get frustrated schlepping the Zendo and Buddha hall gear twice a week. I load and unload the gear at the “hermitage,” where Karla and I live. Often much of the setup at Crows End or WHS is done alone or with just one or two others.

Dogen Zenji spoke to the inner attitude we should maintain in this process: “When we make a vow to found a temple (sangha or a monastery) we should not be motivat- ed by human sentiment, but we should strengthen our as- piration for the continuous practice of Buddha Dharma.”

In Living by Vow, Roshi Shohaku Okumura wrote, “We don’t need lofty temple buildings for our practice. We don’t need a formal zazen hall. When we vow to establish a dojo, monastery, or sangha, we should not forget this. The number of buildings or people is not essential. The critical points are practice and aspiration.”

So I remember what Sensei Shingetsu told me all those years ago, that this was an offering of the dharma. Sensei Nagacitta Buckley (Uncle Nagy), one of my mentors in my prison work, always taught me to “just show up.” That’s what I do. And the tedious setting up and tearing down I now consider as part of my personal exercise program. On meeting days, I routinely get in over 10,000 steps! LOL.

Thay’s words at the beginning of this article may sound, perhaps, a little “flowery” or idealistic. From our Day of Reflection chant sheet we recite: “I take refuge in the Sangha. I vow to embody Harmony, the interdepen- dence of all creations.” In our Atonement Ceremony we recite: “Being one with the sangha…Let harmony pervade everywhere.”

So is there always harmony in the Sangha? No. And this was true even in Shakyamuni’s day. There are two famous schisms in the time of the Buddha. Devadatta, Buddha’s cousin, tried to take over the sangha proposing that the Buddha retire. He is also said to have made three abortive attempts to bring about the Buddha’s death: by hiring assassins, by rolling a rock off a mountainside at him, and by arranging for a mad elephant to be let loose in the road at the time of the collection of alms.

In the Kosambi schism, the Buddha used a mediation of sorts, known as adhikaranasamatha, “covering over with grass,” where there is agreement to leave past trans- gressions and begin anew. It didn’t work and the Buddha abandoned the insurgents.

Over the years, the precepts, our ethical guidelines, were developed. Having many monks and nuns living together in community, through trial and error, they were established. The number of precepts vary by tradition. The basic Theravada tradition has five. Mahayana monks had 250. Mahayana nuns had 348.

The human condition lives on in our modern sanghas. We have the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts as crafted by Dogen Zenji to guide our ethical behavior. Sensei Daishin Buksbazen often spoke of living in community being like a rock tumbler – sharp edges knocking together being smoothed and polished. We have Atonement ceremonies, which date back to Buddha’s time, to facilitate bringing ourselves back into alignment with the precepts. Nevertheless, we still witness intermittent scandals and conflicts. As a result, at ZCLA, under Roshi’s guidance, we have our Sangha Sutra.

In the Pali Upaddha Sutta, it says: “Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, ‘This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’ The Blessed One responded: ‘actually it’s the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.’”

I could not have done this practice on my own. I practice with the help of my teachers and my dharma brothers and sisters. It’s difficult to have the self-discipline to practice on your own. And so much easier to practice with the support of others.

I have made enduring friendships; I have learned patience along the way.

Sensei Shogen is the guiding teacher at the San Luis Obispo Zen Circle.