The Meaning of Sangha
The word sangha means to 'bring together' into a group and is the general word for 'community' in both Pali and Sanskrit. It can also refer to a flock of crows or a herd of deer, but in Buddhist literature it is primarily used to mean the human community of practitioners who follow the Buddha's teachings. Originally the sangha were the nuns and monks who renounced worldly goods and 'went forth' into the homeless life. In the modern west where lay Buddhism is now common, ordination and renunciation are no longer necessary to the idea of sangha. The word is widely used for any Buddhist meditation community following a particular tradition or body of teachings. But stretching the word to its widest extent, it encompasses not only practitioners, crows, and deer, but all sentient beings as members of a single sangha. This beautiful vision of an 'entangled' and dependently arising world inspires a sense of mutual inter-species relationship and participation. This brings with it a responsibility to respect and actively care for all living beings. This feels a particularly important image of sangha for us to hold in these times of climate disruption and species loss, and in light of Rob's commitment to ethical engagement here both personally and as a teacher.
The sangha around Rob Burbea's work is widening in concentric circles, like the ripples from a stone thrown into a lake. Some of us knew Rob personally during his time at Gaia House, sat his retreats, or worked one-to-one with him. Others found their way to Rob's work through his talks on Dharma Seed or reading Seeing That Frees while he was alive, but never met him in person. Some came to Rob's work after he was diagnosed with cancer, or found Rob around the time of his dying or shortly after his death, and some are only finding him now and continuing to find him as time passes.
Especially towards the end of his life, Rob taught from a profound 'love of the remote'. He was teaching not only for those practitioners in the room with him or those he already knew, but also for those who would come in the future, the ones who he would never meet. Even if you didn't know Rob, he had you in mind. And so all of us are welcome, and necessary. This range of relationship to Rob feels somehow enriching and strengthening for us as sangha, and the 'distance' from him in space or time does not determine the degree of love or the depth of practice we can each attain.
Many Sanghas, Global Sanghas
'The sangha' is one whole, but it contains many sanghas. People are practising across the range of Rob's teachings - so within the wider sangha there is an emptiness sangha, a jhāna sangha, a Soulmaking sangha. These are fluid groups and many people are engaged in more than one arena of the teachings, but each sangha has its own style, 'flavour' and ways of gathering.
There are also many different communities and individuals around the world engaging with Rob's work, coming from different practice traditions and bringing differing Dharma perspectives, interests and inclinations. This international reach too makes for richness and one kind of diversity in the sangha.
The role that individual practice plays in any sangha is vital to its maturity in relationship and capacity for love. Solitary practice both on and off the cushion is the backbone of all spiritual traditions, and without it there would be no sangha in the deepest sense of that word. Practising alone is where the art of practice is learned, where insight deepens, where one's relationship to oneself and to one's practice is felt most intimately. It brings stability and an independence which allows us to enter into relationship with others from our own ground. Any full, authentic life of practice will need at least some periods of time spent alone, and we have the beautiful tradition of 'retreat' to facilitate and support this. HAF acknowledges and respects those in the sangha who may feel called, or need, only to pursue individual practice, and don't engage with the wider sangha as a part of their spiritual life. Your presence is an important and beautiful part of the landscape, and of all that is most profoundly intimated when we say the word 'sangha'.