Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Online Versus Live Sangha?

Yesterday was the weekly Monday night sitting and Dharma talk at IMC. It had been a long time since I attended. And I was struck by the importance of sitting and talking with spiritual friends, in a physical sense. Sensing the proximity, hearing the sounds of togetherness, and the footsteps of Gil walking to his seat after we were all settled in. Later, listening to his talk about Buddha meeting Buddha, and then the ensuing questions, and reactions from the community, my community. Seeing the faces, many of them familiar. Engaging in conversations afterwards, about past and future retreats, and progress and challenges along our respective paths. A whole experience I had been missing . . . 

I thought I was happy with just doing daily sittings at home, and engaging in online conversations with my spiritual friends here, and on Twitter and Facebook.  I thought I was getting my feel of live sangha with the two work communities I am a part of. Communities where we do a short sit before we set out for the day, and we strive to do good. I thought I was set . . . Sitting the other night amongst the IMC sangha, made me realize there is no substitute for an open Dharma practice community such as IMC, whose sole purpose is to cultivate spiritual friendships amongst fellow travelers. 
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was living among the Sakyans. Now there is a Sakyan town named Sakkara. There Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, "This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie."[1]
"Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.
"And how does a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path? There is the case where a monk develops right view dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops right resolve ... right speech ... right action ... right livelihood ... right effort ... right mindfulness ... right concentration dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develops & pursues the noble eightfold path.
"And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life."
~ Upaddha Sutta; SN 45.2 ~ 
Because the body and our relationship to it play such an essential role in our unfolding along the path, it only makes sense to also pay attention to the embodied aspect of our spiritual friendships. If the Buddha was to live in our times, I am pretty sure he would be on Facebook, and Twitter, and blogs, AND I have also no doubt that he would insist on maintaining a live practice community. 

What is your experience of online versus live sangha? I would love to hear.


  1. It seems to me that having dharma friends to practice with together is vital. It may not need be a full community, but doing it alone all the time is really challenging. A small number of people around the world do it just fine, and prefer to be alone, but the vast majority of us aren't that way. I'm blessed to have a good sized sangha, and a small sitting group to attend regularly. Others amongst the online Buddhist world aren't so fortunate. But even if they can find one or two friends to sit with, study with, chant with, be with sometimes, it often deepens everyone's experience and understanding.

  2. "If the Buddha was to live in our times, I am pretty sure he would be on Facebook, and Twitter, and blogs, AND I have also no doubt that he would insist on maintaining a live practice community."

    LOL !!!!

    Reminded me of the Christian saying, "What would Jesus do?" But now we have "What would Buddha do?"

    On a serious note, however. Sitting with others adds another flavor to the sitting space: More distractions to consider, more self-images, more judgments, more material to gently set aside. But we get to do it with the support and friendship of others.

  3. Physical connection of sangha is so important... when I first started to come to IMC, it was a 2 hr. 45 min. drive - one way... but worth it all to sit with Gil and sangha.

    This talk by Daniel Bowling speaks about physical relationship in the world:

    There is nothing quite like sitting together... not just virtually, but physically together. It is said that geese fly together in formation and that the lead goose makes the flying easier for the others, and each goose in front of the other also helps the geese behind - and they all take turns. I think sangha is a lot like that - when we sit together, our presence together creates a slipstream for others - to support their practice and our practice together. It is mutually beneficial - and a field seems to be created - sometimes people have called it a Buddha field or a metta field, but it's palpable. Imagine aligning all of our energetic focus - that has to do something to the energy within a room or building or neighborhood...

    Just some thoughts to share...

  4. A physical sangha is great, for those who have such a luxury. I say luxury because there are thousands upon thousands who don't.

  5. I believe both are important. We can learn and share a lot through the technology of the internet, yet we also need the community close to us in a physical sense.

  6. I lean towards the Physical sangha, for the sole purpose of dealing with other "buddhists" in real life situations. People get hurt, some friends die, and some can be just rude on occasion. This gives us a real "clinical setting" with which to practice with peers nearby to coach you when you might have trouble. You can then talk, and more senior members will guide you in the right direction, if you so desire. And in the presence of spiritual friends help to also reinforce your good habits.
    Online is important, but the whole picture is missing when you don't meet face to face. We all know people who shower you with praise, and then email a friend to complain.

  7. As posted elsewhere: "Yes, sangha is absolutely essential to the practice. By surrounding myself with other practitioners, I am able to speak about Dhamma all the time, which is of course totally supportive. Not only do I have a teacher and community I've been sitting with regularly here for 5 years, but I have the very unique international sangha in Burma where we are able to practice talking meditation and really forge meaningful Dhamma friendships while we are in the retreat center, which then carry on from afar. The virtual sangha is no substitute, but it's pretty good in the interim!" Meanwhile, the important point about relationship in general, serving as fodder for practice is so key. Where's the rub? Most often in relation to other people...And to the point of the actual energy generated by practicing in community, that can't be stressed enough. @dharmadancer, love the geese analogy. ~Katherine

  8. Thank you so much for contributing so many beautiful images (Lori - your geese simile) and profound comments. I guess we are all in agreement here on the importance of having a physical sangha, in addition to a virtual one. Kyle, I realize also that many people are not so fortunate to have a meditation center close to them. I also would like to highlight Nathan's suggestion of creating one's own sangha. Gathering spiritual friends that live in relative proximity, and starting a weekly Dharma group. This is the primary reason why I started an online community for the IMC sangha, to give people in far away places to find each other and start their own communities.

  9. I agree with Kyle - not everyone has the opportunity to sit with a sangha, yet alone with the likes of Gil Fronsdal. Is a physical sangha important? Probably. But for countless thousands of us, we continue on our path, ever searching.

  10. Kyle and Bonsai Doug, for those of you who are searching or don't have a sangha where you live, all it takes is one or two other people to agree to meet together, be it for tea or coffee to share your practice or to sit together quietly. It doesn't take much - someone's living room or a quiet room or even outside in the park. If you don't have a teacher like Gil nearby, you can still meet and listen to Gil on an iPod or CD. I did that when I was living in a rural mountain community far from IMC - it was great to meet in my living room and sit and listen to a talk by Gil.

    So, it can happen as easily as inviting someone who shares an interest in the Dharma to talk... I hope you will plant the seed for it to happen in your own areas where you live.

  11. Absolutely, Lori! Thank you for planting the seed, yourself!