I would like to start with this line from the Shorter Sukavati Sutra on why it is a good idea to cultivate a heartfelt desire to be born in Amitabha’s pure Buddha field. This Buddha field is an auspicious place where humans and Bodhisattva intermingle. The Buddha says it is good to aspire to be born there, “ They should do this because in that Buddha-field, they will be in the company of good people such as these bodhisattvas.” To be in the company of good people, that is the benefit, the value, the reason the sutra specifically gives for going to the Pure Land. I find that rather fascinating. So what does this transcendent world, this mythic vision of the Pure Land have to do with my mundane everyday life? I am drawn to this line because it brings to mind the importance of spiritual community, of the sangha. Both the Pure Land and the sangha are places to be supported in our practices, cultivate compassion and gain wisdom and attain enlightenment. There is the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child and I like to think that it takes a sangha to help me become a Buddha.
For many of us, we come to the Buddha through solitary paths; books, magazines, maybe film and some of us may even have a “Buddhist” friend. We live in an unprecedented time, where the Buddha’s teachings are available in all kinds of media. For thousands of years only monks read the Sutras, now a precocious high school kid in Grand Rapids Michigan, on his way to a part time job washing dishes at Denny’s, can be seen reading the Flower Ornament Sutra, or any one of the Nikaya Suttas. Buddhist books sell well and my first encounter with Buddhism was Zen Mind Beginners Mind by Suzuki & How to Cook our Life by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. What was your first encounter? I wonder if it is uniquely western that the first time we set foot in a Temple or Dojo is sometimes years after our first, second or even third encounters with the Buddha. My first entry was 10 years ago and it wasn’t until another 5 years that it became a part of my practice. Many of those who come to our gatherings have never been and our meeting is their first encounter with communal practice. I hear from many of them, “it’s like coming home”. For many we start the path with the first two jewels, the Buddha and the Dharma. We sit balancing precariously on a two legged stool. I didn’t even realize that there was a third jewel!.
The importance of the sangha should not be undervalued, it is the third thing that Buddhists take refuge in. As Eshu Martin has written, “The sangha is where we cultivate relationships with other human beings, coming into genuine relationship with others who are engaged in the activity of awakening.” The sangha is also an aid, it lights a compassionate light on ourselves to help us grow, to see ourselves as we really are. It is not a place of simple harmony but also a place of transformation. Martin sensei goes on to say,
“When we engage … we find that in spite of all of our efforts, again and again we rub up against one another in a way that makes us uncomfortable, in a way that makes us angry or upset. This practice doesn’t steer away from these kinds of interactions but instead binds us together so that by rubbing up against one another we become polished, smooth.
We find that by doing this, as we go forward into the world we don’t have so many rough edges. We’ve begun to engage in the practice of instead of making more rough edges, hanging onto our sharp points, we begin to engage in the practice of manifesting harmoniously with whatever it is that we come into contact with.”
We interact with each other in the practice and by doing so we are polished, smoothed out, transformed. This is something that could not be accomplished without the sangha. The importance of the sangha is illustrated from this quote that I love from Thich Nhat Hanh regarding the sangha,
“It is said that the next Buddha will be named “Maitreya,” the Buddha of Love. I believe that Maitreya might not take the form of an individual, but as a community showing us the way of love and compassion.”
In my personal practice the Pure Land is Here and now and the Pure Land is also a transcendent Buddha-field. In both pure lands, it is the company of good people of Kalyāṇa-mittatā, spiritual friendships in the practice of awakening that I aspire. The sangha, your sangha, however it manifests, is filled with the perfume of dharma flowers given as offerings in Sukavati. May we all go in harmony as a sangha to the other side.
May it be so.