Why the Sangha Exists, and Its Limits - by Ryumyo Yamazak
Only a true Sangha, with the light of the Buddha Dharma at its core (separate from the frameworks of government, the economy, society, and so forth), can truly confront the multiple real-world issues that we face.
The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, were an unprecedented catastrophe. That and the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant did irreparable damage. Amid this overwhelming situation, as a follower of the Buddha Dharma, I could not but reflect on the problems of the Sangha and the significance of its presence.
During the disaster I was touched by the profound meaning of the words "the impermanence of a burning house." Just as in the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra, we were all engulfed in reality, and we lost sight of ourselves.
Furthermore, if a Buddhist term were used to describe the nuclear accident, the most appropriate one might be human delusion. The accident's cause seems to have been the human desire for gratification. Ideas of economic growth and development have cast a spell on us. There is a connection between the accident and our single-minded pursuit of prosperity and convenience. The accident was based on a business logic that values money over life, and profit over safety. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry; the Cabinet Office; the Nuclear Safety Commission; the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency; and the Tokyo Electric Power Company have all united in insisting that Japan's nuclear power plants are safe. But it has been revealed that they have handled the matter of safety with astonishing carelessness and engaged in shady relationships.
The Sangha Is a Community of the Self-Reliant
There are three essentials, called the Three Treasures, for those of us who live by the Buddha Dharma: the Buddha (the Awakened One), the Dharma (Truth), and the Sangha (the community of believers). The Buddha Dharma cannot be detached from any of them. It is through the reciprocal actions of all three that the world we call the Buddha Dharma is formed.
My understanding of the Three Treasures is as follows:
Buddha = the Awakened One = awakening
Dharma = Truth (the true teachings) = encountering
Sangha = circle of friends (a gathering of the self-reliant) = connecting
We take refuge in the Three Treasures. In Japanese this act of faith is generally professed in the sankiemon, or "the verses on the three refuges." I have translated the verses, from scroll 6 of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Taisho shinshu daizo-kyo [[[Taisho Tripitaka]]], vol. 9, 430c-431a), as follows:
I make the Buddha (the Awakened One) the support of my life. Together with all people, I will possess truth and continue walking the True Path.
I make the Dharma (Truth) the support of my life. Together with all people, I hear the truth and continue walking the path that overcomes suffering.
I make the Sangha (a harmonious community of good friends) the support of my life. Together with all people, I seek a world of harmonious cooperation.
As I said earlier, making the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha the basis of our lives is both the point of departure for the Buddha Dharma and its consequence. At this point I would like to think about the question at hand, the Sangha. The Sangha is not a group of clerics; it is the community of those who live in the Buddha and the Dharma. Gyoyo Kodama, a former director of the Shin Buddhist Research Institute (Shinshu Otani-ha), once described it as "a community of the self-reliant." A community of the self-reliant consists of people who follow their conscience, rely on their own judgment, and make the Dharma their light and foundation. They are their own masters in any situation.
In other words, a community of the self-reliant is made up of people who do not look to anything in the ordinary world as their authority. The Sangha is a community of this kind of independent people, and it can generally be called a religious community. I frequently meet people who say to me, "I am someone who listens only to the teachings of the Buddha, or the founder of Buddhism, and I have no need for anything else." They say the Buddha Dharma consists of the Buddha and the Dharma and that there is no need for the Sangha.
But I believe that it is through the Sangha that the Buddha Dharma achieves universality. I said earlier that "the Buddha" means "awakening," "the Dharma" means "encountering," and "the Sangha" means "connecting." To awaken to the Dharma is to encounter one's own self, and it is from there that we connect to others. This connecting is the basis of what is called the Sangha. It is in the context of being connected that people can be questioned and can grow. It is where one finds the joy of living in the universality of the Dharma, and where one can feel the solidarity of life. That is the Sangha.
The Sangha's Limits
It is well known that in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami, there was an outpouring of amazing activity by people affiliated with religious groups all across Japan. I was certainly not the only one who felt that this was once again a manifestation of the power of the Sangha.
On the other hand, there are some serious limits to the Sangha. It may well be a community of people living according to the teachings of the Buddha, but obviously there is also human stupidity and the working of greed. We see no few acts that true members of the Sangha would find unthinkable. These are striking in religious orders with particularly long traditions, many of which have become so organized and extremely bureaucratized that it would be more appropriate to call them organizations than religious communities.
I have seen some members of the Sangha descend to the level of constituents of organizations, squabbling over status and rights. Far from being parts of the Sangha, these groups do not even have either the Buddha or the Dharma in their midst. As a result, there is no natural self-purification and only a mere shell of faith.
I must say that it is not my intention to criticize the Sangha. It's just that the sangha that I am close to is going in the direction of abandoning its true nature and being buried by secularism, so I would like to point that out and include some self-criticism.
The Sangha is, after all, an extension of the work of mere mortals. Naturally, mistakes will be made. There will be wrong moves. The important thing is to recognize them. When this self-awareness fails, an organization becomes arrogant. The Chinese Buddhist scholar Shan-tao (613-81) wrote, "The scriptures and the teachings are like a mirror. Examine yourself in them repeatedly, and your mind will open up to wisdom." He says that the sutras and teachings are a mirror that unsparingly reflects the believer's self. Looking at the reflected self, can one feel shame and repent? That is where the self can be tested in its faith. Shan-tao said, "Each and every voice that chants the Buddha's name [Jpn., nembutsu] is a voice that grieves and repents our errors." When members are capable of doing this, the Sangha demonstrates self-purification and becomes something that shines. An understanding of Buddhist studies and the teachings will testify to the truth of the Sangha. We are surrounded by many sanghas. To determine whether a sangha is worthy of the name is an ultimate issue of belief that must be continually tested by its members. A sangha can be said to be a moving, changing body of faith.
Why the Sangha Exists
Finally, I would like to touch on the significance of the existence of the Sangha. The Buddha Dharma is both theory and practice. In practice, it is manifested in the acts of individuals who, by "connecting," influence one another in the practice of their faith. This can be called the "socialization" of Buddhist teachings. While the teachings are one with society, they also transcend society.
In other words, the Sangha's dignity and mission are to transcend and reform the secular world while remaining part of it. But isn't the Sangha of today no more than part of secular society? Nothing distinguishes the Sangha from any other secular community. Unless the Sangha points out the fallibility of governmental, economic, and societal structures, it remains subordinate to them.
Only a true Sangha, with the light of the Buddha Dharma at its core (separate from the frameworks of government, the economy, society, and so forth), can truly confront the multiple real-world issues that we face, such as war, discrimination, poverty, destruction of the environment, and suicide. Only this kind of Sangha can be called a true Sangha. There is no final goal along its path. Steady progress is what faith is all about. The true Sangha faces inward to achieve spiritual peace and enlightenment and outward to expose society's falsehoods and pursue social reform. That is where the dignity is. So, how is our own sangha doing?
Ryumyo Yamazaki, a professor at Musashino University in Tokyo, teaches the history of Japanese thought in the Middle Ages and Jodo Shin Buddhism. He also serves as vice director of the Peace Research Institute, which is affiliated with the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. He is head priest of the Jodo Shin Buddhist temple Hozenji in Tokyo.