We SIMians could render the traditional three jewels of Buddhism as the potential for awakening; the dharmic wisdom, compassion and practice that helps us realise this potential; and the practice community (sangha) that supports and guides us as we work towards awakening. For the last 2500 years dharma-wallahs have the seen this trinity as an essential, integral package. But – cards on the table! – how many of us honestly subscribe to this view today? How many of us treat sangha as an optional extra, its benefits more conveniently delivered by the podcast, the online chat room, or the ‘virtual sangha’?
My own acquaintance with the four SIM metropolitan sanghas suggests that quite a few people make this assumption, and act it out in sporadic and dwindling attendance. And I wonder how well these individuals’ dharma practice is actually developing.
Non-virtual attendance on practice nights dwindles while each sangha’s email distribution list grows ever longer. Even when we don’t come, we like to ‘stay in touch’, apparently. But that’s no substitute for meeting with supportive friends and sharing vital experiences and insights on a regular basis. For those who do come, the habitual absence of established spiritual friends can make a practice evening quite a dispiriting affair.
Of course we have a long list of reasons for absence at our fingertips, starting with the traffic, the parking, the demands of work life, the kids, the ever-intensifying time-poverty of city-dwellers, and so on. A moment’s reflection, though, may scupper these reasons. Previous generations managed to get to their civic, religious, adult-ed and other after-hours meetings in large numbers – but still worked, shouldered domestic responsibilities, and often had to get around without cars and developed public transport, to say nothing of magic carpets.
Among its other benefits, the dharma blesses us with a sceptical – and often critical – eye on unhelpful truisms and trends in our culture. Perhaps this culture-critical eye needs to focus on the patchy attendance that seems to have become the besetting sin of our metropolitan sanghas. For me the story starts with an insight from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his book, A secular age. He discerns a gradual cultural shift, beginning in the 1960s, from ‘the age of mobilisation’ to ‘the age of authenticity’.
In the former, people rose from the couch to support with hand and brain communal activities that they saw as significant to them. They did so out of a sense of solidarity and without being too fussed about this or that group’s not offering an exact fit with their own outlook. In contrast, ‘the age of authenticity’ has intensified individualism (shading into narcissism) that renders just about all communal commitments ‘inauthentic’, and undermines all forms of solidarity. In the grip of this ‘narcissism of small differences’ (as Freud called it), we concoct private spiritualities and religions just for Me, ones which exempt us from ever leaving the couch (except when we need to reconnect the laptop to its charger).
To make matters worse, neoliberal pop-economics masquerading as Common Sense has hijacked our culture. If your time isn’t over-committed then you’re a loser. And if we’re to make the effort to leave the laptop, the couch and the house tonight to go to sangha, what marginal advantage will it offer over updating our Facebook status report and then watching the latest episode of this month’s must-view on Netflix? (Yes, of course today’s ‘connectivity’ is implicated, but how often do we take account of the egregious disconnects it implies for our embodied lives and spiritual development?)
Finally, we need to resist the delusion of consumer-think. A sangha doesn’t exist separate from the people who actively participate in it – it’s not like the local bus service which remains there for us whether we choose to use it or not. If a sufficient number of us fall for the delusion, our sanghas will die. Because our sanghas are us.