Wednesday, 25 May 2016


30.  Look up any glossary in a book on Zen Buddhism and you will read that 'sangha' is a Sanskrit word that is variously translated as 'the Buddhist priesthood' or 'the Buddhist fellowship' or even as 'the kinship of all beings'. As with other Sanskrit (or Chinese or Japanese) words in the Zen lexicon, scholars will argue back and forth about the most accurate rendering of this word 'sangha' into English. However, nowadays in the West what is referred to by the word 'sangha' is perhaps best thought of as that community of practitioners who have gathered around an authentic Zen master for guidance along the path that leads to the realization of one's True Self. Nevertheless, for the Zen practitioner what is important here is not so much the formulation of a definition as the genuine experience of entering and belonging to a sangha.
     A taste of this experience can be had by participation in an extensive period of intense Zen practice, such as can be had in a sesshin. But this is chiefly an experience of communal silence at the end of which people go their separate ways. Sesshin provides little, if any, opportunity for what might be described as sangha relations becoming complete. So it would seem that in order to get a real feel for membership of a sangha it would be necessary to spend extended periods of time at a Zen practice centre.
     For anyone wanting to discover what it is to be part of a sangha, to belong to a community of disciples gathered around an authentic master, Bodhi Zendo in India must be the ideal place to visit. There in a purpose built zendo in the mountains of Tamil Nadu one can participate in a daily programme of zazen, samu, study, communal meals, free time and opportunities for regular dokusan with the resident teacher, Zen Master AMA Samy. Times of silence alternate with times for socialising and getting to know other sangha members. Outings to nearby towns and villages on a rostered free day every week provide further opportunities for deepening friendly sangha relations. These outings also open one's eyes to the needs of people living in rural India and give some insight into the value of the zendo's outreach programmes in the local area. Chief among these is the Montessori pre-school founded by AMA Samy in the village of Perumalmalai. Here one can see how members of the sangha can take their Zen practice out into the marketplace.
     Bodhi Zeno sits at the heart of a worldwide community of Zen practitioners that is known as Bodhi Sangha. Time spent there makes one keenly aware of the international character of the sangha. The drawback, however, is that not all members of the sangha are in a position to travel to India. Even a single visit can come at considerable personal cost. By way of compensation some contact with other sangha members can be had via the internet, though not everyone is comfortable with such a disembodied way of relating.
     Sangha, as experienced at Bodhi Zendo, is not something static, is not something existing out there, either in one's own neighbourhood or spread out around the world. Rather it is a practice, a practice that calls for commitment, energy and imagination. While staying at Bodhi Zendo one is caught up in the dynamism of this practice through one's fidelity to the spirit and daily routine of the place. Away from Bodhi Zendo sangha practice is not so straight forward. However, what Zen Master AMA Samy and his disciples have achieved in India serves as a shining model of what the practice of sangha can realize. Following that model in one's own region let sangha relations become complete.    

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