Today, I wish to discuss the concept of sangha. Buddhism has developed its own path in many cultures. Theravada monks do not “work” for a living, but in Chan Buddhism, the idea of not working is a non-Chinese concept. Working in a garden, for example, is sacrosanct in Chan Buddhism and a possible entry place into nirvana. The sanghas, or community of followers, expressed themselves somewhat differently according to historical period and cultural context.
Today, the sangha is widespread. I mean, widespread!
I belong to the sangha of widespread cultural traditions. Though I have taken refuge in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage of Karma Kagyu, I also have never limited myself only to a lineage concept. This idea, unfortunately, is considered a liberal concept in some Buddhist communities. Lineage matters more in Eastern religious traditions. Trace your roots directly to the Buddha himself to speak your authority. Do otherwise and prepare to meet your doom as a heretic and outcast. However, one hundred years later, your lineage may be legitimate again because it withstood the test of time.
In the United States, this idea of sangha is extremely conservative compared to the Protestant roots of many ancestors, even though most of my Buddhist American friends are far liberal than I am!
Growing up in a protestant culture, I must ask myself, “How do I relate to the concept of sangha?” Is it merely the lineage in which I take refuge?
If I wanted to practice Zen, for example, I could practice freely with other Zen Buddhists, but to be “sacred,” I would need to take refuge into the lineage of Zen Buddhism. How many different Buddhisms are there? How many times would I need to take refuge to practice legitimately with them in order to receive teachings? Would Jesus today need to be baptized 20,ooo times for every sect calling itself Christianity?
According to Wikipedia, which actually has a decent discussion of Buddhist schools, we can list a few to show how many refuges I would have to take if I wanted to practice with all Buddhist traditions:
Theravada: Sangharaj Nikaya (Bangladesh), Shwegyin Nikaya (Burma), Siam Nikaya (Sri Lanka), Tapovana (Sri Lanka), Thammayut Nikaya (Thai Forest Tradtion).
Notice within the Theravada traditions how the sangha, which becomes the term lineage, breaks according to geographical regions. At times, interpretations change the lineage, too. Lineage concept begins to displace the sangha concept.
Mahayana: Chan (Chinese), Zen (Japanese), Pure Land (Asian), Tiantai (Lotus Sutra School), Nichiren, and Vajrayana. There are more, of course, especially when it comes to the lay communities beginning to control their own traditions, such as the Rissho Kosei-kai movement. We have a Rissho Kosei-kai Dharma Center in Oklahoma City, actually. No monastics exist in this tradition, as far as I know. (Not that monasticism is a bad thing!)
So, beyond cultural traditions and geographical regions, the Mahayana tradition begins to focus on specific philosophical schools as well as particular sutras. Rissho Kosei-kai, for example, focuses specifically on the Three-Fold Lotus Sutra. Some schools might reference this Sutra as fiction; I view it as allegory leading one to Buddhahood!
Whether or not it is true, I have seen the number of sects in Christianity at 36,000. The number of Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism stands around 330 million. The sects within Buddhism are perhaps just as diverse as Christianity and Hinduism. Yet, the question remains. What is the sangha when the lineage attempts to establish itself as the sangha? Is the lineage the sangha?
My opinion is simplistic.
1. All Buddhists in the world are part of the universal sangha.
2. I do not believe that any lineage has the ability to trace itself perfectly to the historical buddha, nor does it need to in order to lead one to Buddhahood.
That’s it! The Buddha did not teach lineage or school. These ideas developed later in culture. The Vajryayana schools argue that primordial Buddhas, such as Vajradhara, or a Mahasidda from India, such as Guru Rinpoche, who lived from the time of the Buddha until 1500 years later, spread the dharma to Tibet. The lineages in Tibet began with Guru Rinpoche or through Vajradhara, even though the Bon Tradition from Tibet is in the process of releasing texts pre-dating both these bodhisattvas. I cannot wait to evaluate these details!
The point is I have joined a lineage within Vajrayana Buddhism called the Karma Kagyu tradition. However, I take refuge in the universal sangha of all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhists. We are all brothers, sisters, aunts, or uncles in the universal sangha. We have major differences between the two major sects: Theravada and Mahayana. However, we seek nirvana or enlightenment: freedom from samsara. (Vajrayana is sometimes called the third vehicle. Scholars still agree and disagree.)
It is fairly simple, but I see so much rage and war on the Internet between lineages. I have read histories of Tibetan Buddhist lineages warring against each other for petty reasons, in my opinion. My own lineage, the Karma Kagyu, have split over the complications of deciding who is the reincarnation of the 17th Karmapa. Two sides concluded different nominees. If you have followed my blog, you know my view, but I completely believe that following the other Karmapa can lead one to Buddhahood!
I say a prayer each night: “Today my life is fruitful. I have obtained a precious human existence and am born into the family of Buddha; now I am a child of Buddha. From now on, I will only do activities appropriate to the lineage, so that no stain will come to this pure, faultless noble family.” My own lineage has filled itself with stains before I even knew the history of my lineage. We are children, unfortunately, raging against our childish nature to seek our higher nature. We will get there one day!
I love this prayer. I wish I could keep the prayer! I am not yet a Buddha or bodhisattva and, therefore, stains continue to flow to the lineage. My goal, however, is to try and emulate buddhas and bodhisattvas before me who have accomplished goals I have yet to attain. In this respect, the sangha is the family or lineage of people who have attained enlightenment. They may be special compared to the universal sangha of followers of the buddha, who, like me, still have stains to clean.
To conclude, my guru, the 17th Karmapa, always speaks about reducing the struggle between various dharma schools within Tibetan Buddhism. Though I disagree with Chogyam Trungpa’s ethics, I do agree with his respect for other Buddhist traditions, including Zen. Also, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche asked his students in South America to read the Daoist religious text, Dao De Jing (or Tao). I understand the complication of “mixing” religious traditions, but as far as I am concerned, all religious traditions have already been mixed over long time periods. Was the Buddha even wanting to begin a religion or just differentiate his ideas from the Vedic traditions from his cultural heritage? King Asoka, who conquered India in the 260s BCE, converted to Buddhism and spread its dharma and monasteries across the culture. Like Asoka, would Christianity exist without Constantine’s acceptance of the faith?
For Buddhism to continue particularly in the United States, the historical lineages from other countries will still remain, but the universal sangha, the community of Buddhist followers, will continue to open the door to Buddhism to all Americans. I once complained that Buddhism in the U.S. (at least in Oklahoma City) looked something like a Unitarian Church. Now, I don’t complain that Buddhism in Oklahoma City looks like a Unitarian Church. That’s positive potential of various cultures and traditions merging to meet the needs of a multicultural community that, yes, exists even in Oklahoma.
I don’t have the same views, I assume, that perhaps my lineage holds dear. Purity is not necessarily an American trait; we are the melting pot, democratic, evolving process of multiple peoples and faiths still spreading across the land. New “lineages” of Christianity like Mormonism and Jehovah Witness are two positive attributes to the Christian society. And, over time, even American Buddhisms will spread here, too. For now, the lineages must consistently re-evaluate its messages to American audiences and move beyond preserving and promoting its own cultural values. Once the cultural values of all traditions are preserved for at least what is viewed as a stable time period (nothing is stable in Buddhism), then the U.S. citizens will begins to form new lineages and universal sanghas. However, pride will always keep a tight knot around preservation instead of evolution and non-attachment!
Noah Levine, keep working! Thich Naht Hanh, keep at it! Tara Mandala, keep practicing! Finally, fellow Karma Kagyus in the United States, keep advancing in spiritual leadership. Maybe one day we can open a Karma Kagyu Hospital!