Practicing Without a Sangha

Try meditating with this going on.

I got an email and it went something like this:

“I spent the last little while practicing with a sangha at a fairly large Zen temple, but recently I’ve had to move several hours away to help run my family’s farm in a rural area. What is your advice about practicing with minimal support or potentially planting a sangha where one doesn’t already exist.” 

Practicing with minimal support? I’ve done plenty of that. I’ve even practiced while living with someone who was openly antagonistic to Zen. Basically, you just keep on keeping’ on, as the hippies used to say.

Here’s my story, if you want to know. 

When I first started doing zazen, I was living in Kent, Ohio with a born-again Christian. Don’t ask. It’s embarrassing.

Anyway, she did not like the fact that I was involved in such devilish voodoo as Buddhism. And she especially did not like that I practiced it each and every morning and night. 

She rarely went as far as interrupting my zazen. But I had to make my zazen fit into her schedule. Which mostly meant doing it when she wasn’t around or when she was asleep. Or else she’d “accidentally” make noise or otherwise bother my practice.

How did I keep going? Y’know… it’s hard to say. I had a strong feeling that this practice was something I needed in my life. The conviction was so powerful it sometimes makes me wonder if there really is such a thing as reincarnation. Cuz it was almost as if I’d done zazen in a past life and I knew I needed to do it in this one too.

Not that I necessarily believe that explanation. But there wasn’t anything in my background prior to discovering zazen that would have made me particularly predisposed to getting into it that deeply.

Then, after dealing with that for a while, I moved to Chicago. While I was in Chicago, I was terribly shy. I found it really, really hard to make friends. I did find a couple of Zen places in town. But when I went to them, the shyness and social anxiety flared up big time. I didn’t talk to anyone and I put out a spiky sort of vibe that was effective in keeping other people from talking to me. 

The result was that I didn’t go to those sanghas very often. Not enough to feel like I was part of them in any way. Which meant most of my zazen practice was done at home alone.

And remember, kids, there was no such thing as the Internet in those days. I couldn’t just read a Buddhist blog or watch YouTube videos of Zen teachers and feel some support that way. I don’t even think there were even any Buddhist magazines then. If there were, I didn’t know about them. Your average newsstand in the 80’s was not likely to carry Buddhist magazines next to its copies of Playboy and Sports Illustrated.

After Chicago, I moved into the infamous Clubhouse in Akron, Ohio. That was a punk rock house where a bunch of people in bands who didn’t have much money to spend pooled their cash to share a broken down house that no respectable person would want to live in. 

Those guys weren’t antagonistic to my practice. But try sitting zazen with a band rehearsing in the basement, all their amps turned up to eleven. Or with parties going on. Or with the daily temptation to just hang out and get high with everybody and watch Green Acres and Hogan’s Heroes reruns. It takes a certain amount of discipline. But if I can do it, anyone can.

My correspondent also asked about “planting a sangha.” 

There’s no harm is just saying something like, “I sit zazen in my garage every Monday at 7:30pm (or whenever) and you’re welcome to join me.” You could put out some fliers  — or even make a Facebook page since it’s 2019 now. You’d probably find some people interested in joining you.

If you’re not claiming to be a Fully Awakened Master™ or a lineage holder or anything like that, I can’t see why anyone would object or why anyone might feel somehow cheated (by thinking of you as an authorized teacher and then finding out you weren’t, for example).

The only thing I’d advise in that area is to watch out for signs that you’re starting to enjoy any sort of feelings of power or special prestige that might accompany being the leader of the group. Of course, someone has to be the leader, the organizer, the one who gets it all together so others can practice. There’s no problem in being the group leader, just by itself.

But people tend to project a hell of a lot of stuff on anyone they perceive as a spiritual authority figure. It is really hard to deal with that sort of thing sometimes. 

In a way maybe I’m lucky. Because my personality is such that that sort of worshipful stuff feels slimy and dirty to me. Even when I’m supposed to take on a leadership role and I’m authorized and trained to do it, I still avoid it. 

Some people find they get off on that stuff, though. For one thing, you suddenly become very attractive — even if nobody ever found you the least bit attractive before. It’s weird. But it’s definitely a thing. Being attractive feels nice and there are obvious potential benefits that you might find yourself wanting to take advantage of. My advice there is: Don’t!

Genuine solid relationships have developed under those kinds of circumstances, so my saying “don’t” is a piece of advice, rather than a strict rule. If “don’t” is your rule of thumb, you’re less likely to get into something abusive or weird. And just FYI, the abusiveness and weirdness can go either direction. So it’s as much about protecting yourself as it is about not abusing others. Both are important.

If you handle it carefully, though, you could set up a sitting group that’s valuable to everyone involved in it.

Best of luck in your efforts!


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