“The Buddha’s medicine is made of only two ingredients: Sangha and time.” When I first read those words I knew them to be true. This sentence, on page 159 of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Opening the Heart of the Cosmos, tells the story of my life.
For many years I meditated by myself, but the benefits didn’t manifest much beyond my meditation bench. I still felt isolated, anxious, alienated from my family and society. It wasn’t until I discovered Sangha that Thay’s teachings started to take hold. With my new friends in Peaceful Heart Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado, I began to put the teachings into practice—to live them. Over the months and years since then I have gradually become happier, healthier, more peaceful, more joyful. I attribute these benefits far more to Sangha than to my own diligence.
As my Sangha friends accepted me in their midst and I felt safe enough to reveal more and more of my true self, I learned to accept those qualities I had previously despised or feared in myself. Hearing my friends’ stories opened my heart and helped me appreciate our differences as well as our similarities. The more I’ve given to Sangha, the more I’ve discovered my own gifts. Even the conflicts have been precious — you can’t have community without conflict — because they have deepened my relationships and forced me to develop skillful means.
In The Lonely American, psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz write that “our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection.” Studies show that people have fewer close friends than in previous decades and more individuals live alone than ever before. At the same time, medical research shows that “[s]ocially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems, and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses. Health and happiness, the two things we all say matter most, are certifiably linked to social connectedness” (excerpted in Utne Reader, March-April 2009). These trends are not limited to the United States; along with the technology that makes “virtual” connections possible, we are exporting this social malaise all around the world.
Whether this disconnectedness is symptom or cause of the grave sickness in our modern society, I don’t know. But I have no doubt what the cure is: community. A community based on mutual respect and personal responsibility, grounded in mindfulness and insight, bathed in love and compassion—in other words, Sangha.
The matter is urgent. “Whether or not the twenty-first century becomes a century of spirituality depends on our capacity of building community,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism. “Without a community, we will become victims of despair. We need each other. We need to congregate, to bring together our wisdom, our insight, and our compassion. The Earth is our true home, a home for all of us. We invite everyone to look deeply into our collective situation. We invite everyone to speak out to spread the message. If we fail in this task of Sangha building, then the suffering of the twenty-first century will be indescribable.”
And how can we transform our situation? Sister Annabel, in her article “The Collective Bodhisattva,” gives us the answer: “We are living at an exciting time when our world can either make a turn for the better or continue down the hill for the worse. Let us stand at the junction and direct the traffic by our compassion and inclusiveness and especially by our right thinking.... The only way we can proceed is as a collective — a Sangha body.”
The work is up to each one of us. The benefits, without limit.