Finding Home in an Online Sangha
By Donna Thomas
It’s Monday evening (or Wednesday afternoon or Sunday evening), and I smile in anticipation of joining with my Sangha online. We will meditate together in silence, read from Thay’s writings, and share the Dharma—listening deeply to our fellow Sangha members. The World Interbeing Sangha, one of the earliest in the Plum Village tradition to practice online, has this format for its three weekly sessions.
We are truly a global Sangha, with people joining from several countries around the globe. World Interbeing Sangha uses Google Hangouts as video technology. Viewing each other while we gather online enhances the connection we feel as a community. Today, our Sangha has five weekly meetings: three in the format mentioned above, a Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings study group, and a Dharma discussion group. People join whichever session(s) works for their schedule and time zone.
I discovered Thay’s teachings in 2000 and had attended many retreats at Deer Park Monastery; however, back home in my rural community I was rather adrift. I had tried to build and maintain a Sangha in my home, but this didn’t work out in a rural area that required driving a distance over rutted dirt roads.
Fortunately, a mentor told me about Plumline.org, where I found many Plum Village Sanghas meeting together online. Order of Interbeing member Elaine Sparrow set up Plumline as an online presence and structure in 2006; Plumline can encourage those of us who wish to create and nourish a long distance Sangha. Today, under the direction of Ali Razzaghipour, Plumline has grown tremendously and now has online Sanghas available in several languages, with more on the way. Plumline Sanghas are available in many different time zones.
I chose the World Interbeing Sangha because of its format, and its meeting time fits my schedule. Now I feel at home when I join our Sangha meetings. I care deeply about the individuals who attend and know my community is always there for me. Together, we express what’s in our hearts and minds.
Where would I be without the heartfelt exchange with fellow Sangha members? Listening to others, I discover new ways of looking and thinking that keep me from getting stuck in my usual thoughts. This helps me “cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views” from the Second Mindfulness Training.
Initially, retreats, Thay’s books, and Dharma videos helped my practice as well as sitting meditation. Having a Sangha adds a whole new dimension. The interaction with others opens me up, allows me to see myself in others, and see others in me. Our Dharma sharing in Sangha gives me a quiet space to carefully hear others and listen deeply without judgment or reaction. This is a skill I now use in my everyday interactions with others. I also have a safe place to practice using loving speech, another skill I take into my daily life.
Here are some of the many reasons people join online Sanghas:
- No local Sangha is available in a person’s area, and they are unable to start one.
- Physical conditions keep practitioners homebound.
- School, work, and travel schedules conflict with the meeting times of a local Sangha.
- Childcare responsibilities keep parents at home. For instance, working mothers with children are well represented in one long-established group, the Pacific Online Sangha.
We humans increasingly find our social connections online, so why not through an online Sangha? In today’s divisive world, an online Sangha can help us strengthen our sense of interbeing; we can listen to and understand fellow practitioners from many cultures and differing viewpoints. Our aspiration is to alleviate suffering and develop our compassion.
Some online Sanghas mirror the format of local Sanghas, such as meditation, reading and speaking the Dharma, and deep listening. Some meet exclusively to meditate together. Some recite the Five or Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings regularly. Special interest groups, such as the Earth Holders Sangha, meet which helps us grow our love for Mother Earth. Many use texts and/or audio/video Dharma talks. They may use Zoom or similar technology.
The possibilities for online Sanghas appear unlimited, depending only on people’s aspirations and creativity. Michael Donenfeld of Plumline says, “We are weaving together our network far and wide, like Indra’s net, leaving no one beyond the availability of joining a practice community.”
Why an Online Sangha?
“The World Interbeing Sangha has given me a 'new' family to sit, breathe, learn, and share with. I used to go to an in-person local Sangha regularly, but for some time now my local Sangha hours don't align well with my work. So it meant a great deal to me to find the online Sangha. It has revived and inspired my mindfulness practice and given me a connection to, and mutual support with, practitioners across the world. It has helped me to keep studying Thay's teachings, and reflecting on and practicing them in my life.
It also reduces my carbon footprint because I don't have to drive anywhere, and it saves time. When I’ve felt a little sick or tired, I can still attend the online Sangha. That might not have happened if I had to drive, or if I was worried about spreading germs.
The online Sangha has given me a home again, one more place to find to myself, in community. It nurtures and gives me peace, compassion, strength, and courage for going back into the world and supporting others. I am very grateful for this resource.”—Beth
“The Baby's Breath Sangha in my first language brings new experience to my practice. Now I can focus more on my thoughts and feelings, without language difficulties. This gives me a chance to look into them more deeply. Reading and listening in my first language helps in the same way. I am grateful to have this Mandarin-speaking online Sangha.”—Noc
“The Gratitude Family Sangha started at the 2017 International Business Retreat at Plum Village. The participants were organized into families. Our family members came together in a very special way. When the retreat was over we parted as family members; we will always be there for each other even though we’re scattered around the world.
The month following the retreat, we met online for our first Sangha meeting. We’ve met monthly ever since. Some of us have Sanghas located nearby. Nevertheless, we continue to meet online because of our special bond and desire to carry on a drop of the Plum Village atmosphere into our daily lives.”—Mike
“I’m a mum with two young children, so I haven’t been able to join a Sangha in the physical sense. However, I was fortunate to join the online Heart Sangha about a year ago and was accepted with such a warm welcome. It means so much for me to take some time away from the busyness of everyday life where I can meet with friends to share the Dharma, listen to Dharma talks and songs, and study the sutras. Not only do I take refuge in the Sangha each Thursday night, but their wisdom continues to guide me throughout the week. I am very grateful for the conditions that led me to my Sangha.”—Rebecca
Donna Thomas, Considerate Friend of the Heart, lives in the California desert. There she finds peace in interbeing with the unique desert flora and fauna that surround her. She brings her love of nature to her many environmental activities.