By Vari McLuskie
‘“First we see the mountain, then we don’t see it, then we see it again.” –Zen saying
First We See Sangha Building …
“I am Maria, a single mother, and I’m at this retreat with my teenage daughter. I have read two of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books and I want to know more. This is the first time I have been on anything like this. … I have terminal cancer and have a few months left to live.”
The group becomes still. It is the first Dharma sharing of our retreat. We are at Nottingham University in England, and more than one thousand people are attending. I’m facilitating a group, and we are introducing ourselves. When the bell sounds after Maria has finished speaking, there is a lot of solidity and presence.
“I’m Ben. I’m like Maria; I’ve read a book by Thay and it touched me deeply, so I want to know more. I’m very happy that my wife and two young children are here with me. … I have an advanced cancer and don’t know how much longer I might live.”
The group becomes even stiller and our breathing deepens as we listen to another sound of the bell beckoning us home to the wonders of the present moment and our life in the here and now. I feel any anxiety I had about facilitating the group vanish as my heart opens to the tenderness of the moment and the joy that we have a beautiful path to share and enjoy together.
Over the following days our Dharma sharing group exchanged uplifting stories and shared difficulties, fears, and tender and joyful moments. Many of us bonded deeply in the silence between the words and in wholeheartedly listening to each other and the bell. I experienced deep gratitude for our time together—pain and joy, compost and roses. We parted with mindful hugs, knowing we
supported each other on the beautiful path of understanding and love. Making the teachings available and supporting each other on the path of practice is to me what a Sangha does. Sangha building means offering ways to support each other and making mindfulness available to others.
When most of us think of Sangha building, we might think of setting up and facilitating a group or running Days of Mindfulness. Sangha building can also be making the practice available to others—offering the practice in prisons, schools, family, offices, and communities. But these are not the only ways to build Sangha. We are also Sangha building if we maintain a Sangha website, if
we play any role in organising a retreat, if we deal with the logistics of a local or regional Sangha. We each have different skills, abilities, and energy levels to offer to Sangha building, and no contribution is too small.
Sangha building can be a rich and rewarding experience. When we see people like Maria and Ben arrive anxiously at a retreat and leave with smiles and peace in their hearts, we know that the Sangha offers a precious experience no money can buy. Sangha building is not like conventional work. I appreciate those
who made the practice available to me over many years—the familiar faces as well as lesser-known helpers. The practice has brought so much joy and benefit to me that I am motivated to offer to others what skills and time I have, continuing the cycle of generosity.
In my own practice, I find that every effort I put into Sangha building, in whatever way, is rewarding. When I prepare a talk or a Day of Mindfulness, I connect with my intention to offer my deepest practice so that this might relieve the suffering of others. In this way I am motivated to practise as fully as I can to offer a solid presence.
Within my family, I know we have all the conditions of happiness. Yet I find it easy to find fault or feel hurt, frustrated, and misunderstood, put upon in many ways. When I am able to look at myself with the eyes of compassion, I can look at my whole family with these eyes, and the niggles and negativity melt away. For example, when my son does not plan ahead and asks me for help at the last minute, meaning I have to drop everything, I feel irritated and angry. I know then I have a choice: I can look after my feelings within myself and see what I can do with ease, or I can commence a lecture fuelled with frustration. From experience, I know how much better it is when I choose the former.
This does not mean that I let my son off the hook. I do explain to him about the situation and how I’d appreciate more consideration. And for a time, my words may have some effect. But it is a constant and often challenging practice to embrace my strong habit energies and transform them quickly. When I do, I
am connected to my intention to build Sangha wherever I am. I find my mindfulness shines brighter and my energy is stronger.
So many people in our society do not need material things but struggle with the pressure and expectations of twenty-first-century living. Depression, anger, and anxiety continue to grow quickly. Those of us lucky enough to have a practice know that the path of understanding, love, and mindfulness can help transform these tendencies in ourselves and others. Sangha building is “True Happiness” in action, the Second of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. It is an expression of generosity in thinking, speaking, and acting. It is an opportunity to share our time, energy, and material resources to make the practice available where it will be of benefit.
Then We Don’t See Sangha Building …
As we develop our practice, our mindfulness becomes concentrated, and we are able to see into the true nature of our existence. Sangha and Sangha building are made of non-Sangha elements. We see Sangha building in all elements of our life. The pine tree on the path to our Sangha meeting is a Sangha member, bringing us back to the present moment, building our mindfulness so we can offer it to our Sangha. The story of the frustration on the train last week, and how we held it mindfully, can inspire our Sangha on how to practise in similar situations. Spending time with a distressed friend, listening and offering a calm presence
and wise words, is part of Sangha building. Recognising the small flower in the cracked pavement and the swallows dancing in the air is Sangha building.
We understand too that all things change. Our Sangha may start small and grow larger and then might shrink again. Our tea grows cold; our bodies grow more mature; the compost becomes flowers and fruit. We see that if we have difficulties with the Sangha, we will have opportunities to heal them.
Then We See Sangha Building Again …
Some of us have expectations of how things will be when we are involved in Sangha building. We may expect everything to be naturally harmonious and happy and then feel unhappy when it doesn’t happen like this. Sometimes we have a small, cosy, local Sangha where we know everyone, and we feel very at home. Then there is a large retreat, and suddenly all these new people come
along. We have to hire a hall, and we don’t meet in each other’s homes anymore.
We perceive the Sangha as less welcoming, less friendly. We may find it difficult to relate to some of the newcomers; we may close down a bit and become less open. We feel Sangha building is not comfortable. This is an opportunity for us to mindfully embrace our difficult feelings and to look at ourselves with the
eyes of compassion. We may find by practising mindfully, we can transform our feelings. We may also find that sharing our difficulties with a spiritual friend helps us to shift and heal our feelings and enables us to find ways to engage positively with our evolving local Sangha.
“An ant on the move does more than the dozing ox.”
— Lao Tzu
Vari McLuskie, True Action of Loving Kindness, met Thay on retreat
in 1990 and realised that this was the path for her. After receiving
the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in 1995, Vari received a lamp
transmission from Thay in 2012. Vari lives near Birmingham,
England, with her husband and has two children.