What makes a sangha?

Well, what is a sangha, for a start?

Sangha is a Pali/Sanskrit term which for Buddhists means “the spiritual community”, and which can be understood as something as broad as “all beings everywhere, who are striving for happiness” down to something as specific as “all beings who have reached a particular level of spiritual attainment”.

More generally, though, a Buddhist group will often use the word to mean broadly all of their own group of practitioners, “The Sangha”, and more specifically the local manifestation of that, like, say, The Potrzebie Sangha being the people who practise together in Potrzebie.

The Buddhist group I practise within does this. It has always made sense to me to think of the people who practise together locally as a sangha. But given that our particular group now has possibly even tens of thousands of people practising on all continents, I don’t think it’s appropriate to think of us collectively as “a sangha”. To me, one of the vital distinguishing features of a sangha is that people have personal contact with one another, know each other.

I think it’s safer to think of the entire group around the world as a meta-sangha, made up of a whole load of sanghas. And these sanghas, these days, are not simply the geographically close communities, but also communities connected not through locality, but through shared personal experience. So in the UK, for example, we have what I think is a thriving sangha of gay/bi women all over the country, who participate in events and retreats together, often travelling some distance to do so.

It’s all pretty fractal.

And yes, I’m leading up to something here. In ten days’ time, I’m attending a meditation day for gay/bi women, 200 miles (or 5 hours’ journey) away from where I live. This is the second one of these days I’ve attended there – the first one was almost a year ago, only a couple of months after I began really transitioning. So the first thing I did back then was contact the organisers, to ask whether as a polysexual trans woman, I’d be welcome. They told me quite simply that the events are open to anyone who identifies as a gay/bi woman. I went, and was made very welcome, in a no-fuss way, and the day was a very positive and significant experience for me. I’m really looking forward to this next one, I missed one a few months ago because my PTSD was less manageable then, and the intricacies of staying in someone else’s place after such a long journey were overwhelming – I’m more robust right now than I was then, which is good to notice.

A couple of days ago, I got a round-robin email from the nearest big sangha (a mere 80 miles/2 hours’ journey from here) telling me there will be a practice day for women there next month. I found myself strongly moved to go to it, so I emailed them to ask how they felt about me attending. They wrote back today and said they’re not ready for me yet, and want to wait until I’ve “been welcomed into the women’s wing of the order.” they were very nice about it, and acknowledged the complexity of the situation, as they see it.

So I’m sat with this interesting experience. On the one hand, the event I’m going on in ten days’ time takes some sting out of being rebuffed (for now). But it adds a different sting – that I’m welcome further afield, but not by these women more local to me; I’m welcomed by queer women, but not by Women, somehow. This is definitely Something To Work With™.

And it highlights for me this reality of meta-sangha. What’s really, actually happening – and what I expect to happen, in the real world – is that different connected groups of people have different feelings and perceptions about the same situations, and respond differently. This is why I asked them specifically, and made a point of not telling them I was going on the other event, until they’d made their decision for themselves. It was important for me to respect them as a unique node in the meta-sangha.

I do feel a little down about this; a rebuff is a rebuff, and I’d like to have attended that day, and met some of the more local women, had them meet me. But I’m also glad about how I went about this, and glad that I’m able to be patient in the face of other people’s uncertainty. I’ve got my tribe to go and be with, soon, so I’m not crying in the wilderness. And I’ve told people what I’d like, which is always worthwhile. It feels good to tell them I want this to happen, so I’m no longer merely something abstract to discuss, they have to engage with me as a person making requests.

I admit that I took a small, little, eentsy amount of pleasure out of telling them “never mind, I’ve got my party to go to over there” :). My inner teen has to be pacified somehow. I also admit to having mixed feelings about knowing for sure that the women making this decision, on behalf of the women in their sangha, are all straight. Make of this what you will – I know I am.

[That thing up there? it’s an edible fractal – a Romanesco Broccoli. Beautiful and tasty, and very weird.]


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