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Buddhadharma : Summer 2013
SUMMER 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 61 S angha—community—is one of the three jewels of Buddhist practice. But real- life sangha dynamics can bring us to our knees! People make mistakes, push each other’s buttons, get stuck in painful conflicts. As Buddhism takes root in America, many of us find ourselves wondering, How do we do this? How do we embody the teachings and forms of this great tradition in a way that helps with the inevitable interpersonal difficulties of our actual lives? This question has simmered through my multi- decade practice at a small community-based Zen center. I’ve come to appreciate sangha as a trans- formational cauldron; it is the relational realm that challenges us to walk our talk. It’s one thing to vow to awaken together with all beings. But how do we treat those real-life pesky beings we have to work with every day? I can get excited studying dharma—learning to liberate my mind to be more present with the world. But how does this apply when I’m mad at the retreat leader because her new ideas are wreaking havoc with the way I’ve always man- aged the zendo? I may have some idea that I’m generous or wise. But that doesn’t guarantee I’ll respond with generosity or wisdom when I feel provoked. We may feel proud of how our board has hammered out functional bylaws and procedures over the years, but that doesn’t save us from getting tripped up by our karmic tangles and falling facedown in the mud. Of course, it’s not just Buddhists who fall into the gap between intention and action. In thirty years working as a professional facilitator, I’ve experienced secular groups—task forces, boards, management teams—struggling with their ver- sions of this dilemma as well. Even people who share the same noble mission can become para- lyzed over their differences, or revert to sham- ing and blaming others despite their professed inclusive values. So when we don’t live up to our expecta- tions—or, more commonly, when they don’t live up to ours—is that a sign of failure? Uh-oh. Something’s wrong. This shouldn’t be happen- ing. It must be somebody’s fault. These people are such a mess! While sometimes we do need to leave the sangha, or at least take a break, I also believe that we need to explore more deeply the mind-set that helps us be able to not give up on each other. At any point in time, I could take a snapshot of groups I’ve observed over the decades and judge them a success or failure. Within the time frame of the snapshot, that assessment would be true. But if I expand the time frame out to, say, thirty years, the periods of success or fail- ure aren’t absolute; they are simply the various episodes of a longer story. Rather than being a reason to quit, difficulties can be seen as grow- ing pains or as motivators to keep pushing for change. So a response we could have when confront- ing yet another sangha storm is: Nothing’s wrong. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just human emotion. In fact, our Zen ancestor Eihei Dogen points out that this place of difficulty can be the very place to bring forth our deepest intention. In Guidelines for Studying the Way, he writes: “Arousing practice in the midst of delusion, you attain realization before you recognize it.” One way to understand delusion is that we think the stories we tell ourselves are true. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s how we humans make sense of the world. The trouble comes when we let our stories substi- tute for having real relationships with those with whom we’re trying to practice. It’s so easy to fall into nursing our internal commentary—speculating on peoples’ motiva- tions, replaying their offending words, conjuring up ways to cut them down to size. Our stories take on a life of their own, spinning away from the real person over there and how they may or may not actually think, feel, or intend. Let’s say I feel mad at the lack of commu- nication by the president of our sangha board and silently grumble as I drive home after the meeting: He’s holding back because he’s power- hungry, and I threaten his power. I might take any number of actions based on my presump- tion. Well, then, I won’t tell him what I’m really CATHERINE TOLDI is a Zen priest in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi and a longtime member of the Santa Cruz Zen Center. For the past thirty years she has worked as a professional facilitator and trainer, helping groups work collaboratively. She is a coauthor of Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision- Making (Jossey-Bass). PORTIASHAO,SANTACRUZ