Sangha Building: our noblest career

A letter sent to the Editors of the Plum Village website, and Thay’s response

Dear Respected Editors,

I am a monastic Dharma Teacher currently teaching at a Buddhist Institute in Vietnam. I just finished reading the article, Wake up! Wake up, young monks and nuns! and found myself deeply moved. The article speaks so frankly about the situation young monks and nuns in Buddhist Institutes today find themselves in. It is true that the courses at Buddhist Institutes are primarily about accumulating intellectual knowledge to pass on to future generations, and are disconnected from the realities of the daily life of a young monastic. Buddhist Institutes are not communities of practice. The classes don’t have the atmosphere of brotherhood and sisterhood, there are no mindfulness practices and no-one to lead them, and there is no opportunity to discuss our shared dreams for the future. The teachers and students are required solely to teach and to study. There’s no real relationship between the Dharma Teachers and their monastic students, and they don’t share the same aspiration. That’s why so many of the young monastics in Vietnam today are vulnerable to being corrupted. Many seek material and emotional comforts, and few are interested in or eager to think about their original aspiration for becoming a monastic in the first place.

In the article, Wake up! Wake up, young monks and nuns! Thầy wrote about ways of practice that can build Sangha, create a community of brotherhood and sisterhood, and cultivate joy while living together. Do these practices really work? Are there people teaching them? The practice of generating joy, happiness and peace in daily monastic; the practice of calming our mind and handling painful feelings; the practice of using loving speech and deep listening to re-establish communication and reconcile with one another. Are there people who actually do these practices?

Which sutras do these practices come from? Where can we learn about them, if we truly want to return to our ideal of building a Sangha and a firm foundation for the realisation of our monastic ideal?

Please, dear Editors, offer us some advice.

Response from the Editors of Langmai.org

Venerable Bhikshu,

The Editors are very happy to have received your letter, as it gives us an opportunity to share many things that may help young monks and nuns today.

Sangha Building

The practice in question is the practice of Sangha Building – the work and career of the Buddha. Right after the Buddha attained Enlightenment he knew very clearly that if he did not build a Sangha, he would not be able to realize the work of a Buddha. That is why he put so much energy and time into building his Sangha. Within the first year following his Enlightenment, the Buddha built a Sangha of 1,250 monastics residing in a forest of palm trees located on the outskirts of the city of Rajagraha.

When the Buddha was 80 years old, King Prasanajit praised the Buddha for his work of building the Sangha. He said, “World Honored One, each time I see your Sangha, I have even greater faith in the Buddha.”

If we do not have a Sangha, or if our Sangha has neither brotherhood and sisterhood, nor a common aspiration, then we will not be able to remain a monastic our whole life. That is why building our Sangha and cultivating brotherhood and sisterhood is the most fundamental, core practice. Becoming a distinguished scholar, well-learned in the sutras is not a core practice.

In order to cultivate and strengthen our Sangha, we first need to cultivate and strengthen our own practice. Once we know how to generate joy and happiness; once we know how to handle our suffering; and once we know how to listen deeply and speak lovingly in order to re-establish communication with our brothers and sisters, then we will have great success in Sangha-building.

A wonderful example of this is Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam, where over 400 monastics, many of whom were still very young, studied and practiced together. No-one can call them scholars, nor say that their practice of sitting meditation and walking meditation was deep. Nor can we say that their Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight were solid.

But we can say that they had brotherhood and sisterhood. That is why they could live with each other, communicate with one another, and have enough strength and faith to face difficulties hand in hand. Despite enduring such oppression and mistreatment in attempts to force them to disband and disrobe, they sustained their monastic aspiration at Bat Nha. Even though the oppression continued for more than a year and a half, they maintained the spirit of compassion and non-violence, and the hope of continuing to practice together.

So many young people came to Bat Nha from all over Vietnam, not because they loved Dharma talks or were passionate about the ways of practice, but because, for the first time in their lives, they discovered brotherhood and sisterhood there, and were determined to stay. Before coming, they had never experienced that kind of brotherhood and sisterhood.

They discovered that brotherhood and sisterhood is authentic living, is nothing other than life itself. That is why the work of building brotherhood and sisterhood is the most important task of a monastic.

If we have brotherhood and sisterhood, we will be able to remain a monastic our whole life. Without it, we will become bored and will seek refuge in material and emotional comforts, and we will lose the beautiful ideal that we had in the beginning.

Although Plum Village has not yet published a book with the title “Sangha Building”, over the past 40 years we have learned a great deal and collected a lot of experience about Sangha-building. Each one of us needs to learn and study the art of Sangha-building, just as we need to study the Sutras, the Vinaya, and how to organize the practice and studies for our monastic community and lay practitioners. Please see the book Joyfully Together – The Art of Building a Harmonious Community, for more information on how to develop concrete methods for living together in joy and harmony.

In the Plum Village International Practice Centers worldwide, we cultivate the art of Sangha-building and teach it to others, both monastic and lay. Our centers include Plum Village in France, The European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Germany, International Thai Plum Village in Thailand, The Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism (AIAB) in Hong Kong, and our US centers (Deer Park Monastery, Blue Cliff Monastery and Magnolia Grove Monastery), as well as other practice centers led by our lay practitioners who are members of the Order of Interbeing and Dharma Teachers.

Breathing, Generating Joy and Happiness

In the art of Sangha Building, first of all we need to know how to generate joy and happiness in our daily life, how to calm our pain and suffering, and how to re-establish communication with our brothers and sisters. In the time of the Buddha these practices were described in the original sutras, which the monks and nuns memorized by heart. Sutras such as The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta), The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Ānāpānasati Sutta), The Sutra on the Five Ways of Putting An End to Anger (Āghāta Vinaya Sutta), The Sutra on Measuring and Reflecting (Anumāna Sutta) etc.

In The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, there are exercises that help us to bring our mind back to our body, to calm our body and to relax our whole body. Every single person who lives in Plum Village or comes to visit, including lay practitioners, learns the basic practices of bringing our mind back to our body; recognizing the presence of stress, tension and pain in our body; and using our breathing to calm the stress, tension and pain in our body. We learn how to be aware of our body, and to relax our body, while practicing walking meditation, sitting meditation, standing meditation and working meditation. These are the third and fourth exercises in The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.

It is by bringing our mind back to our body that we can recognize and get in touch with all the miracles of life and conditions of happiness that we have right now, enabling us to generate joy and happiness at any moment. These are the fifth and the sixth exercises in The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. This is the Art of Dwelling in the Present Moment, not searching for happiness in the future but finding happiness right here in the present moment. The teaching of Dwelling in the Present Moment is a very basic teaching of the Buddha, and yet many Buddhists know little about it. They only know how about seeking a distant happiness in the future, in a Heaven or Pure Land, while in this very moment Mother Earth is truly the most beautiful place in the cosmos!

With every step, every breath, every smile, and every action we can generate joy and happiness for ourselves and for others. This is the art of mindfulness.

Mindfulness helps us recognize how fortunate we are to have so many conditions of happiness. When we see our good fortune, then joy and happiness are arise naturally. We need to nourish ourselves with joy and happiness if we want to be able to realise our aspiration. When we know how to nourish ourselves, we’ll be able to help our brothers and sisters nourish themselves, too.

The seventh and eighth breathing exercises help us recognize unpleasant and painful feelings and emotions that are present in us. If we know how to breathe, we will be able to generate the energy of mindfulness and recognize, embrace and calm our painful feelings within a few minutes. These are essential basic practices recorded in Buddhist sutras. If we only study the sutras in theory, we’ll never be able to master the practice.

When we are at ease, and when we know how to handle our suffering, and how to generate joy and happiness in our daily life, then it will be very easy for us to help our brothers and sisters to do the same. We can use the practice of deep, compassionate listening to help the others share about their pain and suffering. One hour of this kind of listening can already help the other person suffer much less.

Loving Speech and Compassionate Listening

When we know how to use loving speech, we can help the other person open their heart and see that we did not have the intention of making them suffer. If in the past the other person hurt us, it is because they could not see our pain and our suffering.

We need to know how to use loving speech. For example, we can say:

For some time now, I know that you have had many difficulties and suffered and I have not been able to help you. My way of reacting has created even more suffering for you and that is my fault. I have not been able to see your suffering and pain, your difficulties, and your despair – because I only could only see my own pain and suffering. That is why I continued to criticize and blame you and we could no longer communicate. Now I can see more clearly. I see your difficulties, suffering and despair. Please help me. Please tell me more about your suffering and pain, so I can understand and not react as I have previously and not make you suffer like I have done in the past. If you do not help me, then who will? Please give me a chance to be your true brother, your true sister.”

When we are able to speak in this way, then the other person will open their heart and will share with us about their difficulties and suffering. It could be that while speaking, they may use words of criticism and blame and it may be that they have many wrong perceptions about us. But the practice of deep compassionate listening requires that we do not interrupt the other person, even if what they are saying is not in accord with the truth. If we interrupt, we will turn the session of deep listening into a debate and all will be lost. We have to follow our breathing while listening and remind ourselves that we are practising deep listening for one purpose only: to help the other person open their heart, and share their pain and suffering so they can suffer less. If there have been some misunderstandings between us then, a few days later, when we can find the right moment, we provide them with more information so they can correct their perceptions.

Re-establishing communication and reconciling with our brothers and sisters is a very important practice. If we cannot do that, then how can we possibly build Sangha?

A number of wonderful Sangha building practices have been taken from the Vinaya. For example, the practice of preventing an attachment, or recognizing and handling an attachment, taking care of our anger, Beginning Anew, Shining Light and “Laying Straw on the Mud” to resolve a dispute.

Handling an Attachment

We must practice loving equally when living together in the Sangha. The quality of equanimity is one of the Four Immeasurable Minds. Equanimity means we do not discriminate. Our love should embrace everyone, without excluding anyone. Loving only one person is against the principle of equanimity. It is human nature to love only those who are pleasant and kind. However, in Buddhism the practice is to love everyone equally, without discrimination. Each one of us, whether we are the Abbot or Abbess, or the head monk or nun, or even still an aspirant, needs to learn the art of loving without discrimination.

An attachment can happen between a monk and a nun, but it can also happen between two monks or two nuns. When there is an attachment, the persons concerned normally do not want to admit that they are attached. When there are up to four bhiksus or bhiksunis who bring the matter to the Sangha, then it becomes an official matter that needs to be shared with the Sangha to be resolved. The Sangha will meet and will prescribe certain practices so that the two people can gradually live normally again. If after a period of time there is no success, then one of them will have to change practice center, but this must be done as a last resort.

Taking Care of Anger

Taking care of anger is another important practice. According to the practice of mindfulness, whenever irritation and anger arises in us, we should not do or say anything, else we will only make the situation worse. We have to return to ourselves and take care of our anger, with our practice of mindful breathing, walking and sitting meditation. Doing so enables us to generate the energy of mindfulness so we can recognize, embrace and calm our anger. Looking deeply into our anger, we will be able to see its roots in our wrong perceptions or in the other person’s unskillfulness. It is not necessarily the case that the other person intended to make us suffer.

According to this practice, we are not allowed to let our anger continue for more than twenty-four hours. We have to find a way to write to, and then when we are calm enough to speak with the other person. If needed, we can have another brother or sister sit together with us so that both sides can have the opportunity to speak and be heard.

Beginning Anew

Every week in the Sangha there is a Beginning Anew session. The Sangha gathers together and waters the flowers of one another, appreciating the fruits of the practice they have attained. We can also take this opportunity to share about what has hurt us in the past week and we can ask the other person to explain why they have spoken or acted in such a way. Our brother or sister will have an opportunity to explain. This is the practice of Beginning Anew. When the Sangha notices that there is tension and no communication between two people, then it is the Sangha’s responsibility to help them to practice until they are able to reconcile with each other.

Shining Light

Shining Light is another wonderful practice. Shining light is practiced before a candidate is able to receive ordination or the Lamp Transmission, or become a member of the residential Sangha. The person receiving Shining Light has the opportunity to listen deeply to the Sangha’s sharing about their positive and negative qualities and receives a written letter with all the suggestions the Sangha has proposed for their practice.

This is a practice filled with love, given with much effort and time. The Sangha sits together as a community of brothers or sisters and shines light for each other with a compassionate heart. Before receiving shining light, the candidates can first shine light on themselves. After hearing the shining light of the Sangha, they can stand up in order to formally express their gratitude. This is a beautiful practice and is diligently applied at all the centers of Plum Village. At the Pavarana Ceremony – the Closing Ceremony of the Winter Retreat – it is the same and on this day, everyone in the Sangha receives a shining light letter from the Sangha.

Laying Straw on the Mud

The practice of Laying Straw on the Mud is described in the Seven Ways of Putting an End to Disputes from the Bhiksu/Bhikshuni precepts. The highest Venerable in the Sangha each year has the opportunity to grant pardon to a monastic who is practicing Beginning Anew, so that he or she has the opportunity to be fully reinstated in the Sangha. According to the precepts, there are certain actions that make a monk or a nun unable to continue as a full member of the monastic Sangha. This can last for an entire year. But each year, the highest Venerable in the Sangha, on the occasion of an important festival like the Ullambana Ceremony or the Lunar New Year can grant a pardon so that person can be reinstated as a full member of the monastic Sangha.

These elements of addressing an attachment, taking care of our anger, Beginning Anew, Shining Light and Laying Straw on the Mud are practiced at every Plum Village center.

The Art of Sangha building with regard to organization of the sangha: the rôle of the abbot/abbess or head monk/nun

According to the Buddhist tradition, it is the Council of Bhiksus and Bhikshunis which is the body that has the power of decision-making, on matters related to the Sangha’s happiness and practice. The highest authority in the Sangha does not lie with the Abbot/Abbess or the Head monk/nun, but lies with the Bhiksu/Bhikshuni Council. A session of the Bhiksu/Bhikshuni Council always begins with a reading of the Contemplations Before a Meeting, which remind us that the decisions we make in the meeting are for the greater happiness of the Sangha. A decision may in some cases cause some discomfort or hurt, but that discomfort may be very necessary to allow a process of healing to happen which brings happiness to the great majority. We can not allow preferential treatment for one person – even though that person is very senior according to years of monastic ordination- if that person is creating a deadlock or impasse in the Sangha affairs.

When we have become a bhiksu or bhikshuni, our voice and opinion in the Council’s decision-making is equal to anyone’s, even if we are young in the Dharma. We have a vote and the right to contribute our opinion to the bhikshu/bhikshuni council. This is in accord with the democratic spirit of the Original Sangha of the Buddha.

Before the Bhiksu/Bhikshuni Council meets, the elder brothers or elder sisters can sit together with the novices, shiksamanas, or lay practitioners in order to listen to their aspirations, wishes and difficulties. Then when the Council meets, they can share these things with everyone present so that the decision of the council can bring happiness to the majority including the lay practitioners.

In the Sangha, there is also the Dharma Teacher Council. The Dharma Teacher Council is comprised of monastics that have received the lamp transmission, but it does not have greater power than the Bhiksu or Bhikshuni Council. The Dharma Teacher Council focuses on the matters of teaching, organizing retreats, and arranging programs of study and practice. But these proposals and programs of the Dharma Teacher Council have to be presented to the Bhiksu/Bhikshuni Council to be approved before being put into action.

The Abbot or Abbess works with the Care Taking Council (CTC) to manage and implement the decisions made by the Bhiksu/Bhikshuni Council. They do not have the right to make decisions for the Bhiksu/Bhikshuni Council, but are responsible only to implement the decisions of the Council. When decisions are not clear or when changes arise they must go back to the Bhikshu/Bhikshuni Council for clarification and further advice.

Compared to Executive Councils out in the world that wield too much power, the Abbot/Abbess as well as the CTC have the responsibility only to put executive decisions into action.

While working together to organize the studies and practice of the monastic Sangha or organizing retreats for lay practitioners, the members of the monastic Sangha are aware that this is not a “career” for which we get paid, but it is an opportunity to share our experience, work harmoniously together and build brotherhood and sisterhood. Although many monastics are talented or skilled in many fields, everyone should practice not to drown or lose themselves in the work. At all costs we should avoid being carried away by our work because this stops us from participating fully in the activities of the Sangha.

Part of monastic sangha building is to have a second body wherever we go. This is called the Second-Body Practice. Whether you are going to the Post Office, to the market to buy vegetables or to visit another monastery, you should always have another monastic (nun if you are a nun or monk if you are a monk) to go with you.

A most important part of sangha building is to flow with the sangha as one river, and not to behave as a drop of water outside of the river.

If we are a drop of water that has left the river we shall evaporate very quickly. We are not looking for a career that is separate from the career of the sangha or a future that is separate from the sangha’s future. We seek only a common career and a common future with the rest of the sangha.

As a monastic we take refuge completely in the Sangha. When we take refuge in the Sangha, the Sangha takes care of us. When we have an illness then the Sangha will take us to have a check-up or to the hospital to be treated. If our family is facing emotional, financial or material problems then the Sangha will also find a way to help so that we can maintain our peace of mind in order to practice and continue on our path of aspiration.

The Role of Lay Practitioners

The role of lay practitioners is also very important in the work of Sangha building because the suffering of the world is overwhelming. The presence of monastic practitioners alone is not enough to penetrate all the places in society that need help. The arm of the monastic sangha is not enough and has to be extended by the lay sangha which which reaches many more places in society.

In the beginning the lay practitioner receives the Five Mindfulness Trainings during a retreat. The Five Mindfulness Trainings of Plum Village are already similar to the Bodhisattva Precepts. After practicing the 5 MTs for a year or two our lay practitioners become eligible to apply to become aspirants to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Inter-being (OI). The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are the equivalent to the traditional Bodhisattva Vows that the monastics and lay practitioners can practice together. The lay members of the Order of Interbeing are expected to organize a sangha in their home town. They are able to lead ceremonies, reitations of the Mindfulness Trainings, Dharma Sharing, Walking meditation and to give Dharma Talks.

Then we have lay Dharma Teachers in the Order of Interbeing. They are like the extended arm of the Monastic Dharma Teachers. We also have groups of volunteers out in the world who organise retreats for educators, children, teens, college and university students. Then there are the long-term lay residents in the monastery who live alongside the monks and the nuns. This is an opportunity for them to live and practice deeply without the constraints and distractions they encounter out in the world. They engage in wholesome work in order to sustain the Sangha and live simply like monastics with minimal comfort. Their practice not only supports the community of lay practitioners but greatly supports our monastic Sangha as well.

Applied Buddhism, Applied Ethics

In Plum Village the practices mentioned above were previously called Applied Buddhism. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Germany offers courses on how to apply these practices in daily life such as resolving conflicts, overcoming grief, protecting the environment, and other topics relevant to the needs of our time. Plum Village International Practice Centers and Communities of Mindful Living worldwide also learn and teach these practices of Applied Buddhism. More recently, in order to help these practices disseminate more widely, we have removed the word Buddhism, and now use the term Applied Ethics so these practices can be more accessible to the world at large.

For example, the Wake Up Schools initiative currently is flourishing with joyful enthusiasm. The movement has trained many teachers in the practice of mindfulness so that they can bring it into the classrooms, helping the students to re-establish communication between parents and children, relationships between teachers, and relationships between teachers and students. These teachers are developing Sangha in order to cultivate brotherhood and sisterhood in the classroom so that they and their students can suffer less. Their practice has the capacity to help the students transform, reconcile with their parents and find a path of aspiration for their life.

Conclusion and Invitation

Currently at Plum Village, there are many monastics from different countries like China, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia who have come to learn this practice and they find it very beneficial. These monastics have experienced transformation and have the deep wish to share these practices with the temples in their countries.

Many Buddhist temples and monasteries now are concerned only with offering services, and the monastics do not have time to study, practice or build the Sangha. Despite receiving substantial donations, they still only have enough time to serve their devotees.

Venerable Bhikshu, if you would like to experience this practice, then you may like to come to any one of the Plum Village Practice Centers in the world. You may like to stay for three months in order to observe and to listen attentively so that you will see and feel that the practice of Sangha-building is the most precious Plum Village practice, even though we have our weaknesses and are not perfect.

The strength of Plum Village is not the teachings in retreats about the deep and profound sutras – like The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā); The Treatise on the Wheel of Propositions of 18 Different Schools; or Vasubandu’s Thirty Verses of Consciousness Only (vijnaptumatratasiddhi-karika) – but the practices of Applied Buddhism. Many who have a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies from prestigious universities do not know how to use their knowledge to help them handle their own pain and suffering. That is why in the Dharma Talks at Plum Village – even if it is a talk on The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way or The Book of the Shastra that Gathers in Mahayana – always includes methods of practice that are very concrete and easy to apply in daily life. The very essence of Applied Buddhism is to put the teachings into practice.

We hope that what we have just shared can help you to have a clearer idea on the practice of Sangha building.

We respectfully wish you a wonderful and beautiful opportunity in guiding the younger monastic generation to a new, more spacious and radiant horizon.

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