The Pali word sangha translates roughly as "association or assembly, company or community with a common goal, vision or purpose." That is a tidy definition and sounds as if it might mean a relatively small group of people—maybe on special occasions, a group photo might contain most members of this assembly. It might be reasonable to construct a database of this community, to then send email blasts to this the group, or an online journal for, by, and about this group. Maybe the group could fit in someone's apartment, a loft, a former firehouse, a fairground. "Common goal, vision, or purpose" connotes a kind of uniform deportment one might expect from any member of this cohort, such as might lead one to say such things as, "Yes, and I wouldn't have expected that insensitive behavior from a sangha member."
I propose a slightly messier definition: everyone, living and dead, is sangha.
This has been my working definition, an orientation that proved most enlivening and helpful in six years of living in New York and that continues to serve every situation: to view everyone, whether I meet that person directly or through reading or hearsay, whether I come upon that person when I am awake or dreaming, or for that matter, never encounter them at all, as sangha. This definition is the logical analogue if one is to take up the invitation offered in this passage from The Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti (tr. Robert Thurman):
"Thereupon the Buddha touched the ground of this billion-world-galactic universe with his big toe, and suddenly it was transformed into a huge mass of precious jewels, a magnificent array of many hundreds of thousands of clusters of precious gems, until it resembled the universe of the Tathagata. Everyone in the entire assembly was filled with wonder, each perceiving himself seated on a throne of jeweled lotuses. Then, the Buddha said, do you see this splendor of the virtues of the Buddha-field? ... This Buddha-field is always thus pure, but the Tathagata makes it appear to be spoiled by many faults, in order to bring about the maturity of inferior living beings." (p. 19)
In the opening paragraph of Inner Revolution Robert Thurman says in relation to this gesture of pointing to the earth, "If we understood the true nature of reality, we would see the planet we live on as the perfect theater for positive evolution that it truly is."
This echoes strongly the passage in Keats' letters in which he envisions the world as the "vale of soulmaking":
Call the world if you please "The vale of Soul-making." Then you will find out the use of the world. (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it.) I say 'Soul-making'—Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence—there may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception—they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God—how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence? How, but by a medium of a world like this?Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, April 21, 1819.
When I first found this passage—in the usual way of such discoveries—opening to it exactly when I needed it, almost a decade ago—it articulated for me an understanding that was then emerging through experience. It joined a cluster of poems and writings coming into my hand at that time, including Rilke, Mark Doty, Agnes Martin, Stanley Kunitz, Seung Sahn. All saying the same thing: Don't turn away from anything. Or, as Rilke wrote, "Learn to love the questions themselves." The sense of kinship these reading clusters provide, the encouragement across a difficult threshold is another, very strong form of sangha.
Lest the concept of sangha become so all-inclusive as to lose some of its specific usefulness and precise opportunity, it might be helpful to think in terms of "immediate Sangha" as based in the people we "practice" with, with "practice" referring to formal practice in the zendo, or in activities and communication circulating around a formalized practice center.
In thinking about immediate sangha, metaphors of cultivation arise; as in the garden, where the "nursery bed" provides shelter and gentler conditions to offer new plants and seedlings a chance to acclimate and get strong, a nurturing context coaxing a person along into himself or herself.
On a larger scale, a stellar nursery, is defined as "a nebula, a massive cosmic dust cloud in which microscopic particles may slowly aggregate due to gravitational attraction and eventually give rise to proto-stars and subsequently planetary systems."
Also at work is some element of play, a mode of interaction in which participants have latitude to err and be bounced up against instructively, a lively exchange in which limits and possibilities can be explored.
Sangha offers conditions under which each person can learn in some maximal way; it is a conservatory for paying attention, which of course often includes not just those situations that feel immediately supportive but also those that seem tailor-made to trigger our various discomforts and bring them before us for consideration.
Someone came up to me a full year after a Rohatsu Sesshin and, with the magnitude that might attend a long-time debt unaddressed, he apologized for getting up from Zazen after I had sat down next to him. I of course did not remember this, or probably didn't even register it at the time, but for a year, he worried that I had taken it personally. Something so weirdly efficient about these encounters—these little moments are a fast-track to noticing what feels unsettled in oneself. Coming into the zendo this morning I wondered, why does it irk me when it seems that the forward trajectory of that person's bow is complete and then she adds a little bounce? Something conciliatory in it charges this person's bow while another person's passes unnoticed, so it becomes a chance to pay attention to where I am mitigating my own gestures.
Learning from others about what you're working on yourself can feel intensified, seeing patterns played out. Hearing "Way-seeking mind" talks, I learned a principle that the very things people were working on most delicately, acutely were what somehow seemed most developed and effortless in their bearing. So that someone I thought of as especially resilient and adventuresome spoke of how she felt very shy and tentative in her encounters with other residents and how for her the most basic interaction took enormous effort.
Accordingly, I noticed that people attributed to me the very qualities I was working on as well. So where I was directing my efforts reflected an ease, even though from my perspective it was a site of a kind of excruciated attention. It came as a relief that something was registering from this work. I saw this in teachers who shared their process too, that the very qualities I most strongly associated with them were what they had struggled the most with. This is helpful in itself and useful to keep in mind in "new" struggles, not to squander them.
The classic metaphor of sangha is of potatoes rubbing up against each other to become clean or stones in a tumbler polishing each other. My friend Shogen commented once at Tassajara that the way agave leaves create impressions on the other leaves in their closeness also feels like sangha to him. So often, an experience feels infused with a specific person's presence in my life, for example, when I unfold my oriyoki napkin I often think of Jiryu who gave me exquisitely precise (and yet unfussy) instruction in these matters. It's a fleeting thing, but when the napkin folds in thirds, Jiryu is somehow there. This is also true of poems, in the way they become part of one's consciousness, so often, I can feel a poem's influence at the most subtle level of my gestures, as if it has become part of my musculature, and what most poems at that level are encouraging is some form of "whatever you're hesitating at the threshold of, try it."
has its own wrapping / is its own wrapping
between the wrapping and itself, nothing but itself
groove the blades make \ embossing self with self
—from "Read 'the World'"
The first time I came to the Village Zendo, on a warm, clear November night (in 2003), JoAn was giving meditation instruction and I felt immediately drawn to his graceful bearing, his humor, and incisive energy. I appreciated how he communicated reverence without pretense. Enkyo Roshi gave a dharma talk on the koan, Body exposed in the Golden Wind. She spoke directly to what was going on in my life, working with Stanley Kunitz, who had just come through a serious health crisis, and I sensed in her a way to meet these circumstances with curiosity and openness, not shrinking from the forces of the physical world but being out in the midst of them. Also, the way she was able to hold aloft delicate nuances of language, emotion, and perception in her discussion of the koan was thrilling.
After the talk I stood by the huge windows feeling the pull of the full moon over Crosby street and then joined a few people who remained in debating about some finer points of design for the VZ baseball caps: contrasting text or the same color? shallow or deep brims? Something about the attention given to these matters—death, baseball caps—felt very inviting. From the time I walked in, I felt I was entering a discussion I had already been part of for a long time.
In his poem, "The Layers," Stanley Kunitz refers to a "tribe" based on "true affections," and I feel that sense of affinity in three (immediate) sanghas: the Village Zendo, the San Francisco Zen Center, and the Outer Cape Sangha. Also, within, "the poetry world." Often, not surprisingly, these groups overlap in explicit ways. Podcasts make it easy to share Village Zendo dharma talks with friends here. I love the feeling of overlap, as when my friend Ren told me how perfect if was to be able to listen to Enkyo Roshi's Genjokoan talks while stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge. Or as when one morning in service here at City Center, when my 45° gaze fell upon toes that looked familiar and and I was delighted to look up and see that indeed these were Anraku's toes.
One of the dearest sensations of Sangha happens whenever I see Koshin and Chodo, and as they so often do, they howl my dharma name, Koun. Sometimes at the Grail, in the house on a Saturday, doing laundry, I'd be coming up from the basement, and I could hear from the top of the stairs, the faintest sounds of just the vowels, then it would get louder, as Koshin came down. At Storm King last summer, when I was walking along the serpentine wall, coming out of the woods I heard those sounds and then saw Koshin and Chodo further down the walk. Maybe Sangha is hearing your name howled from far away, and as you get closer, the howling breaks down into laughter, and then you're just walking with your friends trying to find the picnic grounds.
Another aspect of Sangha can be seen in how people are drawn together by the energy of a teacher, as well as what that teacher draws out of those people. I sense in our own Village Zendo Sangha, a certain curiosity, a combination of verve and tenderness, playfulness and reverence, a freshness and spontaneity within an abiding sense of vow that Enkyo Roshi radiates and thereby attracts.
That Sangha Feeling
Sangha is impossible to trace, but one can point to specific incidents that speak of its power, as in knowing a planet is there by the gravitational wobble it creates. In this way, sangha isn't so much a thing as a sensation, an aggregation of moments of realizing you are not alone, a lightening, a sensation of reach and transfer. Sometimes, especially in times of heightened transition, I feel uncannily layered connections stack up. The effect can feel like magic, or grace, like something unfolding with ease because the effort is shared; when your individual effort flags, there's a larger body that you're part of. As my friend Brian, an entomologist specializing in ants says, "you share your soma." I see this when someone moves in or out of the building here at City Center, and for fifteen minutes, a cluster of people carries the boxes up or down. Done.
Sangha as Grace
Sangha is like a handoff, a relay race:
In watching these ants make themselves a bridge, I think of many experiences where I've felt myself carried along like that. Language itself exists in that way, a bridge we make together.
On what turned out to be the day before Stanley Kunitz died, I left his apartment, exhausted, and stopped by the zendo, knowing that at five on a Sunday, there might not be anyone there, Seizan was still in the kitchen cleaning up from a workshop, and upon seeing me, bundled me off to a very sweet little tea shop in the east village. We sat out front and though this was not a usual place for her to be, Seicho happened to walk by and she joined us. What I remember is rain sheeting from the awning, though it would not surprise me if anyone there that day were to say to me now, no it was a sunny spring day.
After we sat there a while, we walked back and I went to the B train, not quite ready to be alone, but also needing to go home, and there on that long platform was Joshua Moses. I felt myself being passed from hand to hand. Yes, I could have made it home okay, but to stand on the train next to him at that moment was such a relief. I rode to his stop with him and got off the train with him there walked the rest of the way home.
In addition to this experience standing out in my mind as an example of the gift of Sangha, this story provides a good occasion to include this picture Jiryu took last summer, which I love: Who are these characters?
Another experience of this "bridge" sensation occurred when I first left Provincetown in 2007 to go to Tassajara for the summer, uncertain of what I'd be doing next in the transition after working for Stanley Kunitz for six years. I met my new roommate, Ashley, (who, the following summer, came to a Village Zendo Sesshin) and we went to investigate the celebrated bathhouse and within a few minutes of coming out of the swirling 109º water, as I sat there on the edge of the plunge, drying off in the sun, a woman looked over at me, and asked, Are you Genine? It startled me for someone to address me in this ostensibly unfamiliar place, where, with the exception of a few staff members, I'd communicated with no one yet.
I happened to have arrived during the week when Naomi Shihab Nye was teaching a poetry workshop and the woman in the plunge told me she had read The Wild Braid and had taken a workshop with Stanley and someone had mentioned to her that I would be coming. It felt like such a kindness to arrive while this poetry class was going on, a way of indicating that this sense of "home" has such an extensive reach. And I felt an immediate kinship and warmth with Naomi, a tumble of conversation. Her presence helped me "arrive" and trust where I was.
The next day, I had my first day of work in the garden, and the first job Lauren the head of the garden crew gave me was to cut the lavender, which also was the first job Stanley had given me in his garden, so it felt like a subtle indicator that I was in the right place, amidst the sense of displacement. So often sangha provides that indication, sometimes just in a gesture—someone winks at you from across a solemn service, or holds a bow for a second longer, and suddenly everything feels okay.
I was riding my bike up the Page Street hill in front of City Center, a hill which on the SF Bike Coalition map is marked with a peach stripe, meaning it is a 10-18% grade. It's not that steep by SF standards, but it's still always a bit daunting as a way to start out, and my friend Richard was walking down the hill and came over and pushed me along, "like in the Tour de France," he said and suddenly pedaling up the hill felt almost effortless. So sangha makes an ordinary bike ride more like the Tour de France. Also useful in that exchange was Richard's response when I said, Hey, I don't have to pedal at all! to which he, naturally, objected strenuously. So it's not just that something gets done to you or for you, it involves the multiplied energy of shared effort.
Maybe sangha is like a séance, where we all sit around a table and call forth familiar ghosts, or maybe it takes the various forms we explored in those proto-sanghas otherwise known as slumber parties, the hairbrushing or back-tickling circles, or that moment when we discover that together we can lift a table with our fingertips.
A few weeks ago, I returned to Tassajara for a few days, thanks to a kind gesture from Paul Haller, who asked me if I'd like to provide some assistance with the poetry class he and Naomi Shihab Nye were teaching for the third summer. On the second day, Naomi appeared with a mystery. She had left her hairbrush in her bathroom and when she returned to her room, the brush was on the bed and around each bristle was a tuft of white fluff. We staged experiments to try to divine the source of this strange development. Naomi borrowed my brush and ran it through her white towel to see if that might have somehow been the cause, that maybe she wrapped the brush in her towel on the way back from the bathhouse. But no, not a thread came off.
Part of the conundrum was how quickly it happened. Was it the cat who matter-of-factly entered her room the night before? Was that a white cat? But even so, who brushed it? Was the kapok filling in a zafu somehow implicated? Again, nothing approached plausibility.
Naomi finally posited that it was the work of her father, who had died about a year earlier, and who in life was known for doing such things as planting fig trees in other people's yards. She reasoned that the complete absence of any other explanation was his way of making sure she didn't miss his greeting.
"Angel hair," as my friend Bernd said.
For days, I kept thinking of Naomi's hairbrush. It kept collecting theories, asserting quietly its investigation of unknowing. Maybe your hairbrush is a star nursery, I suggested to her. It became a sign of the space, the vents between worlds. Did dimensions meet at those bristles? Was it the firestruck Tassajara landscape restating itself?
After returning from the workshop, I listened to a talk by Enkyo Roshi, "Intimacy with all Things," and she was exploring the word for intimacy in Japanese "I love the word in Japanese, mitsu, which refers to the closeness of cotton batting in a futon, the threads of cotton all together, that's mitsu, to be that close, to be familiar, deeply familiar." I of course thought of Naomi's hairbrush.
One morning recently, after breakfast, I came upon a scene founded in this kind of ease and close familiarity. Mike Sullivan, a Zen Center resident who has retired his professional haircutting shears for a while but still sometimes kindly offers his services (a pint of Three Twins ice cream seems to be a favored honorarium) was out in the courtyard with Shogen and Sebastian, Shogen's 2 1/2-year-old son. It was clear immediately that this was not the usual first haircut, with its iconic images in which the child is shown screaming, swallowed up in a cape, furious at the affront of a stranger he can only see in reflection running shears through his hair.
Here, far from recoiling, Sebastian stretched out in his footed pajamas on a long boulder slab, drinking juice through a straw as Mike sat behind him straddling the stone bench, working swiftly and gently, in that narrow window available in cutting a child's hair, cutting the fine strands, letting them fly around the courtyard where they gathered at the edges of the plants. There was such kindness in every gesture of his skill. When Sebastian's patience with the process flagged, he seemed encouraged knowing birds might like to find some of his hair and use it to make nests and he sat still a few minutes longer. And later, he gathered some up and offered it to the compost.
This whole scene arose so organically after breakfast; in just a few minutes, everything was in place. Just before the haircut was done, Sebastian sprang up and charged around the fountain six or seven times, laughing and shrieking and calling to Shogen to chase him. Then he sat back down with Mike and let him finish trimming around his eyes and ears.
In the service of trying to explore Sangha, I find myself eager to relate incident after incident where these connections unspool in ways that feel miraculous. I can never do justice to it all here. All one can really do is appreciate the agency such support offers, and act from there. The temptation is to try to diagram it, but the lines extend and blur.
If I did attempt such a drawing, it would probably look like Naomi's hairbrush: