Thich Nhat Hanh on... / True Sangha

To mark the “manifestation day” of Thay (11 October 1926) we share a talk from him on sangha, a community of practitioners living the teachings of the Buddha and ancestral teachers. The sangha is Thay’s deep aspiration and great legacy.    

Dear sangha,Editor’s note: In this article we distinguish between the “Sangha” of the Three Jewels (which consist of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) and “sangha” (lowercase) when it refers to a community of practitionerstoday is the 14th of October, 2010. We are in the Space Beyond Space Meditation Hall in Pak Chong, Thailand, during our Monastic Retreat.

Insight without boundaries

In Sino-Vietnamese we have the term Phương Ngoại Phương (方外方 Fāng wài fāng). “Phương” means space. A practitioner really needs space. Space is the essence of freedom and liberation. The purpose of a practitioner is to bring more space into our hearts, to truly offer space to ourselves and to those around us. We can only realize this space through practice, through insight and compassion.

Insight and compassion always go together. Anyone who has insight and compassion also has happiness and no longer suffers. Compassion and insight are not two separate entities. They have a very close relationship. Insight comes from compassion, and compassion comes from insight: without one there cannot be the other. In Buddhism, when we speak of love we always speak of the Four Immeasurable Minds (Four Brahmavihāras), namely loving kindness (maitrī), compassion (karuṇā), joy (muditā), and inclusiveness (upekṣā). These four minds are limitless. That is why they are called immeasurable, which means a mind without boundaries or borders. Love in Buddhism is the kind of love that does not have boundaries. All of the different Buddhist traditions teach the Four Immeasurable Minds and all traditions recognize that love has no limit and is boundless. If it is limited then it is not the true love of a Buddha.

This is very important because true love is made of insight. Without understanding there cannot be love, we can experience this for ourselves. If a father cannot understand the difficulties of his child then the more he loves his child, the more he makes his child suffer. The same is true between teacher and disciple. If a teacher does not understand the difficulties and suffering of their disciples, then the teacher does not yet know how to love them or help them. Therefore, a teacher’s responsibility is to understand their disciples. Only when a teacher understands deeply their disciples’ difficulties, suffering, and struggles do they truly have love, and from then on, whatever the teacher says, teaches, and does can be of help. Before that, no matter how much the teacher wishes to love their disciples, it would not be true love. The same goes for disciples towards their teachers.

Now we come to an important conclusion–if compassion is boundless then insight is also boundless. If love is boundless then understanding is also boundless. That is why we need to look again at the term sarvajñatā (一切智 yíqìe zhì). In Sanskrit, “all-knower,” “all-knowledge,” or “omniscient” (Nhất Thiết Trí) or “complete enlightenment” (Toàn Giác) saṃbodhi / vidyācaraṇasampanna). The insight that is considered “omniscience” needs to be insight without boundaries. If anyone says that they already have enough insight and there is nothing higher to attain, that is not the insight of a Buddha. As students of the Buddha, we always praise him as the one who has reached the highest, unsurpassable understanding. This is because we love and respect the Buddha. The Buddha may not necessarily agree with our praise. That being said, many will continue to praise the Buddha thus because for thousands of years they have been accustomed to thinking in that way. Praising the Buddha as the One who has attained Unsurpassed Complete Perfected Enlightenment (anuttarasamyaksaṃbodhi, 無上正等覺) means his insight has reached the highest point, which also means that it has boundaries, that it is limited. We cannot be sure that is true, because if love can be boundless, then the insight which that love is made of is also boundless. It can always be more vast. This is a koan, a topic for us to look deeply into and contemplate. If we are caught in dogma then we can never understand.

Does the Buddha still need to practice?

In the sutras it is clearly recorded that after the Buddha reached enlightenment, he continued to practice walking meditation, practice the full awareness of breathing, eat meals in silence, and participate in Dharma discussion with the monks. We ask: those who have not yet become Buddhas need to practice, but why continue to practice when one has become an awakened one? If you gave yourself time to look deeply, you would find the answer–because practicing like that is not only to become a Buddha. Only becoming a Buddha is not enough.

What purpose do these practices serve if not to become a Buddha? The answer is very clear. It is because these practices nourish us. The Buddha also has a body and a daily life, and he also has the need to be nourished and to heal through the practice.

Building sangha–the career of Buddhas

What are you going to do when you become a Buddha? You become awakened to help living beings. Becoming a Buddha is only the beginning. Every Buddha has a career to fulfill. Therefore, after realizing the Path, Shakyamuni Buddha sat at the foot of the Bodhi tree to nourish himself with the energy of awakening. Then he started to think about his career. His career was the task of building a sangha. If there was not the sangha, then one Buddha alone also could not accomplish much. Because there was a sangha, the Buddha was able to fulfill his career. The Buddha’s sangha could bring the teachings to the world. The Buddha had many things to do. It wasn’t that once he became a Buddha he was done.

Practicing with the sangha

One thing we need to clearly see is that the Buddha transmitted the teachings for us not to practice with them on our own. The sutras, sastras, and vinaya all show that the teaching of the Buddha is meant to be practiced as a community and not as an individual. When we receive the precepts, whether as a novice, bhikshu, bhikshuni, or lay practitioner, we have to recite the precepts. Not reciting the precepts is a transgression. But who do we recite the precepts with? We recite them with fellow practitioners. Novices recite the precepts with novices; bhikshus with bhikshus, and bhikshunis with bhikshunis. For the three-month Rains’ Retreat, we also have to go where we can practice together with fellow practitioners. To practice, you need a sangha. The Three Refuges form the foundation of practice life. When we say, “Sangham saranam gacchami–I take refuge in the Sangha,” it means that I vow to never leave the Sangha. If we do not take refuge in the Sangha, we are not a child of the Buddha. This is very clear.

To think that we can retreat to the mountains to practice to become a Buddha and do whatever we want, because living with humans is complicated and bothersome, is a very wrong idea. Therefore, if anyone has that idea, you should let go of it right away. To practice is to always practice with a sangha. However, if we are living with a sangha that has many weaknesses and shortcomings, one which does not operate according to our wishes, then we should know what to do in order to help improve the quality of our sangha.

When we practice alone, the energy of mindfulness and concentration we generate may still be weak. It is not yet strong enough for us to transform and bring more space to our heart. When we come to a sangha where many know how to practice and how to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration, we will see that this is a powerful source of energy. We can borrow from it to do the work of transformation that we alone cannot do.

Like a drop of water flowing towards the sea, it knows that it can hardly succeed alone. It could evaporate half-way, become a cloud, wander here and there and never reach the sea. But if that drop of water enters a river and allows the river to embrace and transform it, then for sure it will arrive at the sea. As practitioners we must allow the sangha to lead, embrace, and carry us, for us to succeed.

True sangha

The sangha is a community of people practicing together. It has the capacity to generate the energy of mindfulness (smṛti) and concentration (samādhi). When breathing or walking, we breathe and walk in such a way that we can generate more mindfulness and concentration. When we interact with a sangha, a community that is practicing like that, we will recognize this energy right away. That is a true sangha (chân tăng). If we interact with a group of people who are donning brown robes or yellow sanghati, yet we do not sense a strong energy of mindfulness and concentration, then that means they are not a true sangha yet. It could be that the group has the form of a sangha but not the essence of a sangha.

A true sangha is a community that has the practice and can generate true Dharma. When breathing and walking, they can generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration of breathing, of walking. When eating, drinking water, washing dishes, brushing teeth, they have the capacity to generate mindfulness and concentration. When we encounter a strong collective energy of mindfulness and concentration, we know it is a true sangha in which one can take refuge.

You are a fortunate person if you can meet such a sangha because such a sangha contains the right Dharma (true Dharma, chân pháp). The Dharma we speak about here is not the spoken Dharma or the Dharma recorded in writing or books. The spoken and written Dharma is also the Dharma, but it is not as precious as the living Dharma. The living Dharma is when you breathe or walk in mindfulness and concentration. You do not need to speak or write. By your breath, your steps, smiles, the way you brush your teeth or wash clothes, you can generate the living Dharma, the true, present Dharma. If the Dharma is present, then the Buddha is also present and this is called the True Buddha (chân Bụt). It is not a Buddha carved from stone, sculpted from clay, molded from copper, or painted with oil on canvas. The True Buddha is made of the energies of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Shakyamuni is called the Buddha because he has the energies of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If a monastic has those energies, they are also an awakened one. Whether that Buddha is great or small depends on the strength of these energies.

There are people who ask, “Where can we find the Buddha today?” That is very easy to answer. When you can find a sangha with the practice, with the capacity to generate mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then you have found the Dharma–and when you have found the Dharma, the Buddha is there. The Buddha is truly present in the Dharma and the Sangha.

Calligraphy: “Sangha is a beautiful community that walks together on the joyful path”

Taking refuge in the sangha to practice and help the world

This morning we chanted the sutra Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone after sitting meditation. Living alone does not mean separating from the sangha and retreating to the mountains. There are many sutras in the Majjhimanikāya (Collection of Middle Length Discourses) that speak of living alone, including The Ideal Lover of Solitude (Bhaddekarattasutta, MN131). Some have translated it as Nhất Dạ Hiền Giả Kinh (A Single Excellent Night). In the sutra it states that we should not allow the past or the future to pull us away. We should dwell and contemplate on what is happening in the present moment. It is through this contemplation that we can untangle, transform, and then make space in our heart so we can be happy.

Therefore, one who lives alone here is actually a person who knows how to live in the present moment. That person can live alone with the sangha and not lose themselves in crowds or be carried away by the majority. While practicing walking meditation, sitting meditation, or eating with a sangha of two thousand people, you are still you. You do not lose yourself and you benefit from the collective energy of the sangha. That is how wonderful taking refuge in the sangha really is!

In bygone days, the Buddha put much time and effort into building a sangha. After realizing enlightenment, the first thing he did was to find members to create a sangha. The largest group he received as monastics were the 500 disciples of Uruvelā Kāśyapa and the community of Uruvelā’s two brothers, who were originally Brahmins. Within the space of ten days the Buddha had more than one thousand disciples. Those monks did not know the practice yet. The Buddha brought them all to Elephant Head Peak (Gayasisa) and began to teach them, starting with each breath, each step, the way to hold their alms bowl, to walk, stand, lie down, and sit. After a few weeks of training, he then allowed them to return to Rājagaha for their first alms’ round.

At that time the Buddha did not yet have Śāriputra, Mahāmaudgalyāyana, or other skillful monks to assist him. He himself had to train 1,000 newly ordained bhikshus. It was no easy feat but the Buddha did it very well. In less than a year he built a sangha of 1,250 monastics. The World Honored One was an excellent sangha builder.

The sangha is a crucial element for the realization of a Buddha’s career. Even an awakened one needs a sangha, let alone we who are not yet fully Buddhas. Therefore, “I take refuge in the Sangha” is not a mere proclamation. We need to stick to the sangha, build the sangha, and not be separated from the sangha. If you do not have a sangha, then day and night you should maintain the aspiration in your heart to find ways to build a sangha. Not having a sangha means not having a place of refuge. Therefore, do not think that “Sangham saranam gacchami–I take refuge in the Sangha” is a proclamation of faith. It is no other than the career of sangha building.

When we practice listening to the bell or walking meditation, we stop speaking and stop thinking (even though thinking is not audible, it is a kind of mental chatter). We do this by placing all of our attention on our breath and the sound of the bell or on our steps. In this way we generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration. To have mindfulness and concentration is to have the protection of the Three Jewels. That is what taking refuge really is. We cannot say for sure that when we read aloud “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha” that we will receive protection from the Three Jewels.

The Three Jewels are the energies of mindfulness and concentration. Every sound of the bell, every step with such energy can heal, nourish, and liberate. If you practice it well, every sound of the bell, every step can help you to be in touch with the Pure Land, in touch with no birth and no death. It isn’t difficult! We can all do it. It is not a distant wish. We can realize this path by the way we walk and with the bell of mindfulness. Together with the sangha, we can make the Pure Land become a reality in the present with every step we take, and by placing all our heart into the sound of the mindfulness bell.

If we want to be a beloved disciple of the Buddha, then we should learn the art of sangha building. If I want to be a beloved student of the Buddha, then I also have to learn the art of sangha building. I would build a beloved sangha with many people who have the determination to practice. The result would be a great reward.

Brotherhood and sisterhood–important food of a practitioner

When I was a young monk, a newly ordained bhikshu no older than twenty something, my deepest desire was to build a “beloved sangha.” I already used the term “beloved sangha” then — a place in which brothers and sisters live together in brotherhood and sisterhood, loving each other like blood siblings, going together as a river. I never had the idea of being a leader or an abbot. There was nothing attractive about that to me.

In the years 1954 to 1955, I had the opportunity to realize that dream for the first time. At that time, my country was divided into two. The An Quang Buddhist Institute fell into crisis, the monks were confused and unstable and they did not know what future lay ahead of them. The venerable Dharma teacher committee could not console the monks or reorganize the An Quang Buddhist Institute. I was very close to the young monks and nuns and showed them the way to traverse that difficult moment. The Venerable Thich Tinh Khiet at An Quang Temple supported me with all his love and trust.

A few months ago while in Plum Village, I had a dream. It was very simple, but it made me very happy. I dreamt that I woke up in a temple or a practice center where I felt a very joyful atmosphere of practice. While still lying on the bed, I asked an attendant nearby, “What is it that is so joyful?” He answered, “Dear Thay, a number of brothers and sisters have just returned. We are cooking a pot of rice to eat together.” Still in the dream, I sat up, stepped out into the temple courtyard and did walking meditation. I looked into each orchid, the bamboo grove, every tree and blossom. My heart was filled with joy as if there was a festival happening because I felt I was living in the heart of the sangha. There was nothing to it. Just a few brothers and sisters returning to the temple. Just a pot of rice being cooked so they could eat together. Just the orchids and the bamboo in the yard. But why was I so happy? Because we still had each other, because we had brotherhood and sisterhood. A simple dream, but it made me happy for many days. It is exactly that brotherhood and sisterhood, that simple happiness which propels us to practice for our entire life. A practitioner also needs food. The key food that helps us to practice our entire life is brotherhood and sisterhood.

I want to transmit my happiness and experience to you, my students. If you want to be a happy practitioner, if you want to practice for your whole life and fulfill the career of a practitioner, then you should aspire to build a harmonious community with brotherhood and sisterhood. With such a community, not only will you be nourished, but you will also help the world more. Without his sangha, the Buddha would not have fulfilled his great career and handed it down to us. It is the same today. As descendants of the Buddha, we should make that aspiration: I vow to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, to build a sangha that has brotherhood and sisterhood, a happy sangha where I can be nourished and help the world.

This talk was translated from Vietnamese.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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