I had been planning to write about “virtual sanghas” but Dogo Barry Graham beat me to the punch. Predictably, his words are much more precise than what I would have written.
So it will probably surprise no one that I think there is no such thing as a virtual sangha. A bunch of people, one of whom may be a Dharma teacher, typing on keyboards is not a sangha.
A sangha practices together. Practice means the hard, inconvenient work of getting up and getting to the sangha meeting, sitting zazen, having dokusan, doing zazenkai and sesshin, and, day-to-day and week-to-week, working with your teacher to unravel the conditioning and core beliefs that run your life. It means engaging and interacting with the sangha, doing whatever tasks you are assigned to keep things working efficiently.
I’m not suggesting that there’s no point to blogging about your practice, or that the internet isn’t the great resource it is. But it’s no sangha substitute.
One thought on “Online Non-Sanghas”
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Jack DawSeptember 21, 2009 at 8:25 PM
No, not a substitute. But out here in the rural midwest, sometimes brother, its all we got.
Wild Fox Zen does a good job of incorporating technologies to get closer to an actual sangha experience for us poor souls out here in “Gods” country.
Informal sanghas (those without a steady teacher) are also good substitutes. We have “authentic” teachers for retreats and training our lay-ordained to guide our practice. Again its close to an acutal sangha although not an exact match.
AnonymousSeptember 21, 2009 at 8:58 PM
Thanks for the kind words.
AlSeptember 22, 2009 at 6:02 PM
So a fake Zen priest comments on fake sanghas? Who to trust?
ArunSeptember 22, 2009 at 8:31 PM
@Jack Daw: Please don’t let me infringe your sense of entitlement! There are many, many benefits from online resources, including online communities. As I noted above, online Buddhist resources aren’t pointless at all. We gain much from them in ways that weren’t available to us in the past. In fact, on Thursday I’m going to a temple over in the next county for a meditation group with people who I only met through blogging. While a “virtual sangha” may indeed be a form of community, it’s just a community, not a sangha. I believe Dogo Barry Graham got at an important point (which is why I quoted him) when he wrote about the the hard, inconvenient work you deal with day-to-day and week-to-week, and also with direct engagement with teachers. Even taken to the extremes of today’s virtuality, online sanghas don’t give us what actual sanghas do. I don’t believe that makes us less “Buddhist” or serious or “authentic” (did I use that word?) practitioners if we don’t have an actual sangha though. We don’t need a sangha to meditate, study, enter jhana or even attain enlightenment. But I still stand by the notion that the internet has not given us the tools to replicate sanghas virtually, and I honestly don’t believe it ever will. Although if I’m wrong, I’ll be happily saving plenty of gas on Thursdays.
@Dogo Barry Graham: Thank you for your writing!
@Al: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not appealing to his (disputable) authority. Needless to say (because I am reiterating what I wrote above) he just wrote more precisely what I otherwise had been planning to write about. Thanks for the comment.
ArunSeptember 22, 2009 at 8:33 PM
Sigh. infringe on. It’s what I get for attempting last minute sarcasm.
Jack DawSeptember 23, 2009 at 6:22 AM
@ Arun – LOL, sarcasm can bite back sometimes. I agree that a virtual sangha is not the same as a “flesh and blood” one by any means. But it seems silly to have us rural Buddhist marginalized in such a manner…
i’m kidding about being marginalized…lest this come back to bite me in the butt.
Sometimes you flesh and bones sanghas don’t know how good you’ve got it. An accessable teacher, groups of practitioners, Dharma Talks and all the accoutrements of a good, solid practice. Meanwhile my ilk run around scavanging what we can to replicate a sangha in some form in order to expand and continue our practice. The corvids of the Buddhist community.
And that scavanging between good and bad practice, authentic vs. “pop” Buddhism, real vs “fake” teachers is hard practice. And to do it without the encouragement of a sangha is equally difficult. I would have rathered some good ‘ol hard work in a “flesh and bone” sangha anyday over the confusion of those first few years.
Can we get a specific font for sarcasm so as to not confuse it with being a dick? It may lessen confusion since I tend to go both routes..
ArunSeptember 23, 2009 at 8:48 AM
@Jack Daw: During the six years I spent in the rural midwest (no fire hydrants, no sidewalks, no street lamps, no municipal water, and farmland in all directions) I would drive hours to visit a temple where I learned meditation. Going to a retreat meant hours driving in another direction, but I was put to shame for complaining about the distance when I met a house painter who’d flown in from the coast and hitched a ride just to attend that retreat. Even today, the temple I consider myself a part of is two counties away, across a mountain range, and I only visit once every other month. Some people will have to put in more hard work than others to reach a sangha or teacher, but the hard work I’m talking about here isn’t the toil of intellectual discrimination. Some of us have jobs where we work 60+ hours a week because millions depend on what we do, and so sometimes we will have to accept that we’ve made a life choice that hinders our ability to be a regular part of a sangha. I hear your griping about your situation, but it would be a bit much of me to assume that the solutions you’ve provided are the full extent of what you actually could have done.
nondualSeptember 23, 2009 at 12:11 PM
Ooh…’Fake teachers’….better watch where we go with that one, don’t you think?
AlSeptember 23, 2009 at 1:07 PM
Watch it how? Dogo Barry Graham claims an ordination that didn’t happen. While he might do good work, his ordination claims are fraudulent. Hence being a “fake” teacher.
I probably shouldn’t have said anything but he presents himself as the head of a sangha and a Zen priest and it is worth stating.
See http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Barry_Graham_Investigation_Archive/ for details.
nondualSeptember 23, 2009 at 1:26 PM
And there it is…
Honestly, I should have been more circumspect in my reading – I thought you were making a crack about ‘fake’ virtual sanghas.
Dave FisherSeptember 23, 2009 at 8:32 PM
So here’s what I think about the internet sanghas. I’m a member of Treeleaf.org. I love it. I’m newer to the Way and it’s been an absolutely invaluable resource.
They feature Skype chats for interviews. Have a webcam Meeting Hall and Zen Hall ( for sitting together).
They offer Jukai. .And sewing my first rakusu. Never hand sewn in my life.
I’ve met some great folks.
Both teachers are easily contacted by e-mail. And as mentioned one can schedule interviews with the teachers.
It has taught me more about the Dharma and sitting “shikantaza”.
Great community. Usually not much in the way of arguing. If they start they get diffused quickly.
There are daily sit alongs, zazaenkai. Even a two day live retreat coming up early Dec.
Also, for the record, it is suggested there that if you have access toa an inperson sangha and get along with the folks there, then go there ( which does not mean you are no longer welcome at trreeleaf).
There is a bookclub. Many postings to other resources.
So far I sit much more regularly than when i was just reading 2 books on zen and looking at websites. Maybe not daily, but most of the week. and I usually sit at least twice a day.
I have been incorporating a metta verse, recently started reciting the Heart Sutra , using a meal chant expressing appreciation. And as of now starting a more intensive Jukai study before I undertake the Precepts ( so far I see no reason why not).Verse of Attonement and the Four Vows are also new to my practice.
I’ve been given a number of experiences I never would have otherwise had.
Without Treeleaf I would consider something like undertaking the Precepts as not able to be done anytime soon.
Not to mention i’d be far less disciplined in my practice.
Also, as has been stated. Many in the Sangha bond in a way more traditional Sanghas do not. We share more of our life experiences than may be common in many Sanghas. We learn to know each other as people, not just the guy/girl sitting on the Zfu next to us , once a week.
I have generally been better about curbing my anger in life. Still work to do, but amazing the tool of just letting it go I have been given there. The encoruagmenet form others to pick yourself back up when you slip on the rocks of life is often nothing short of amazing.
Unlike disputed Grand Master Super Zen Barry Graham, who really shouldn’t comment on well..anything till he gets his own issues ( pretty severe) under check, not everyone is fake on the internet. And alot of those people do indeed react in “societally” unacceptable ways in real life too.
And of course, I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the evils of people IRL. As if they are more genuine. What happens when people leave the Zendo? It’s easy to think everyone in a Sangha is sooo much more realized than someone who has taken the life path of studying online.
but are you with them when they are yelling , screaming and being materialistic?
I’ve recently read of Master Dogen teaching that one should be who they are, regardless of the social setting they are in. People BS day in and day out. Present an image, that is not them. Look down at others who are different.
We even have terms like “masks” and “roles” to describe the things we doing. Speak of different “hats” we have to wear.
Perhaps not being like others is in some ways positive. *shrug*
But in the end we’re all buddhists doing our personal best ( even if that is small and we don’t look like it).
So maybe , instead of looking down noses at each other, we can all get together ( an impossibility for the real world without serious planning and helping those less fortunate arrive as well) and sit in all our various ways and styles and schools.
Isn’t that what it’s about?
Jack DawSeptember 24, 2009 at 7:40 PM
@ Arun – You are right I am probably not doing enough. Thanks!
shusanJuly 23, 2010 at 9:17 AM
anything is helpful if its helpful.
including having some online support. But at some points, we simply need to check our understanding with elders and (bona fide) teachers. It is way too easy to delude yourself (see “Barry Graham”). No teacher worth their salt is not part of a larger lateral organization and/or in a relationship with a current, living, non-fictional teacher.
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