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While the Buddha was at Jetvana, a drunk Brahman asked to become a bhikkhu. The Buddha asked Ananda to shave his head and give him the monks robes. When his intoxication had worn off, the Brahman was frightened, did not want to be a bhikkhu any longer and fled. The monks asked the Buddha: “Why did you allow this drunk Brahman to become a bhikkhu?” The Buddha replied: “For numberless eons, this Brahman did not even have the idea of becoming a monastic. Today, as a result of his drunkenness, he made a small resolution thanks to which, later, he will renounce the world (with its ignorance, attachment and aversion) and obtain the Path.” From the 13th chapter of the Mahaprajanaparamitasastra often attributed to Nagarjuna (150-250 CE), and again a thousand years later in Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

When I first started sitting at a local temple in Southern California there was a regular attendee named Richard. Richard struck me as both a troubled soul and an amazingly well read Buddhist intellectual. For several months he attended the weekly gatherings and was a regular contributor to the open discussion period. Then he stopped coming. I ran into him several weeks later and he looked terrible. Eventually I would learn that Richard had struggled with drug addiction for decades and that he regularly fell off the wagon and found himself back on the streets. So here he was, manic as all get out and telling my wife and I about how he had been kicked out of where he was living and that his old roommate had sold his collection of Buddhist books to pay rent and buy drugs. After our encounter it was almost a year before I saw him again. He showed up at the temple one evening looking very shaky. You could tell he needed some of the energy Buddhists get from exposure to the Dharma though he just sat quietly a few feet behind the rest of us.


Troubled beings are to be expected at spiritual centers and Buddhist temples are no exception. Many in the group have been or are going through “a rough spot,” divorce, illness, grieving following a death, drug and alcohol problems, the list is endless. No matter the reason, they arrive seeking solace or sanctuary or perhaps they are just looking for answers to the “everyday” matters weighing them down.

From the day we are born we begin collecting baggage. We become trapped in cycles of thinking and behavior that hold sway over our lives and, like the Brahman, we all experience times when we resolve to renounce aspects of or even all of the life we have been leading. And, as in the case of the Brahman the glimpse can prove to be overwhelming.

Unpacking a lifetime’s worth of baggage requires a commitment to be attentive to the ways we fabricate our world, suffer our fates, and deal with others. Letting go of aversions and attachments demands that we begin to examine the ways we have kept ourselves ignorant of the future we create with every action; this is a core concept of the Buddha’s teachings. To paraphrase what he once said, our good and bad deeds left done and undone become the legacy of our past and the cornerstone of our future resolution. That first glimpse of what is involved in letting go, what it will take to unpack our bags, can strengthen our resolve, cause us to hunker down, or turn tail and run. Our Brahman found his resolve while under the influence but in that one-night the Buddha saw great things to come as a result. As a group we see this ourselves many folks come for just a night or a few sessions and there are others that return week after week.

So why do I keep returning to this Dharma practice and this Sangha? Not to commune with the Buddha. The person of the Buddha has been obscured by time and buried under countless tales and myths. I return because what truly survives are the teachings he set in motion (Dharma) and the communities that keep them alive and nourished (Sangha). Those of us initially attracted to the teachings and the communities may believe that ending suffering means ending suffering or we may be attracted to the community’s collegial atmosphere and the safe space it creates. Whatever the reason we will, at some point, discover that the practice of the Dharma requires effort, and that a Sangha is something one is challenged to create, not something one chooses to join. For the Dharma is a (personal) healing path not a helping path and the Sangha can only provide support for an individual to realize his or her commitment to meditation and self-exploration.

Life damages each one of us to a greater or lesser extent. Before setting out from his home, Siddhārtha Gautama, realized that all beings are subject to pain and suffering, aging and death. And like Gautama who spent years with various teachers we all come to realize that guidance in repairing or overcoming the damage is preferable to going it alone. Some will come to Buddhism and some of those will stay. For those of us that do stay the “strength” of a Sangha lies in the inclusive space that it creates and holds open week after week for the curious, the regulars, and those just dipping their toes in the stream.

A postscript:

While the equanimous spirit of community a Sangha furnishes is the best and most immediate expression of its Dharma stewardship this does not mean that there can’t be behavioral expectations. To be effective a Sangha requires some organized structure when it gathers to meditate, and to hear and discuss the Dharma. This is particularly true of any open discussion periods. How do we allow for the growth of each individual and not have it come at the expense of the groups growth and cohesiveness? I believe that sharing from experience (both the joyful and the difficult), practicing deep listening (as opposed to reviewing our personal storylines), abstaining from cross talk and offering advice, and maintaining the confidentiality of discussion periods are the best contributions individuals can make to the group’s collective insight and understanding. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Discussing the Dharma in the ultimate dimension, we look at each other and smile. You are me, don’t you see? Speaking and listening, we are one.”