Buddhist groups – avoiding the pitfalls

Posted by on Jul 5, 2012 in Buddhism, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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From the Kalama Sutta:

“Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”

I’ve been to quite a few Buddhist temples, centres and groups in my time. I found it useful, particularly in the early days.

I’m not currently involved with any particular group or school of Buddhism. I’m a Westerner living in the west. That means I have a particular cultural background, and I live in a particular set of conditions.

I’ve not really found a group that caters for me yet. I guess western Buddhism is still at an early stage in its evolution.

When you first get interested in Buddhism, attending some kind of group is an obvious step. When I started, the internet didn’t exist, You could read books on Buddhism, but if you wanted to interact with real-life Buddhists, you had to show up somewhere.

The groups and organisations I’ve been to generally fall into two categories:

  1. Groups that are generally made up of white, middle class westerners that may or may not be affiliated to a particular school of Buddhism.
  2. Groups that are ethnically Buddhist, and mostly made up of members of one particular immigrant community

I find the first group a bit annoying and the second group friendly but inaccessible at a deep enough level for me to really feel connected.

Perhaps I’m too picky. Perhaps I haven’t found the right group yet.

I should disclose I tend not to involve myself in groups in general (no doubt due to being a shy kid), and have an in-built distrust of organised religion. But, honestly, I gave it my best shot, and I do still drop into places when I’m in town.

If pushed, I’d say I prefer the second group, as they are more confident in their identities and aren’t trying to prove how ‘spiritual’ they are all the time. But I haven’t found them a great way to learn about Buddhism.

An example

The last place I went to was a Thai temple. I would walk in and the Thai monk would say “Half hour, one hour?”

I’d say “One hour”.

Then we’d sit and meditate for an hour, he’d try to talk a little about being a good person, though his English was not great, then I’d throw a bit of money in the pot and go home. I quite enjoyed it.

Of the first group, my favourite group by far was an affiliate of the Dharma Punx called DIY Dharma in Vancouver. I liked the attempt at non-hierarchy, and all the tattoos and piercings. But a hierarchy always exists, and is not always a bad thing.

If you’re thinking of attending a Buddhist group

If you’re thinking of attending a Buddhist group, I’d say go for it! It’s a great way to meet others with a similar interest – I’ve made some very good friends and met some good teachers that way.

The fine print

1. Don’t get sucked into guru worship

There is an inherent power dynamic you need to watch out for. Spiritual groups aren’t like other groups in that they are often led by a key senior person (guru, roshi, senior monk or nun, or whatever). The entire group will often project onto that person and assume them to be exceptional and almost beyond human. Trust me, they aren’t. It’s a mature guru indeed that can navigate through that kind of adoration and projection (the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Ajahn Sumedho seem to manage it OK though). Most of them start believing the hype, and most major Buddhist groups in the West (and I’m sure in the East too) have had a scandal or two as a result. That’s not to say you can’t learn good stuff there, just don’t get swept up by it. (And be particularly aware of groups that pretend to be beyond all that).

2. Don’t stand for bullying

Don’t be surprised if bullying, coercion and manipulation rear their ugly heads in your ‘spiritual’ group – often in the guise of trying to help you become more spiritual. All groups are made up of humans, after all. And humans can be bitches. The ones who are regarded as the most spiritual are often the worst. Trying to achieve ‘spiritual development’ is a dangerous path. An added weirdness with spiritual groups is that you are all experimenting with new ways to be and live. You are questioning your past conditioning and the values of your society. This is great and valuable work, but it makes it possible to go off the rails. So, again, don’t get swept up by it – and if you think something’s wrong, it probably is. Even if everyone in the group denies it.

3. Don’t detach from your current friends and family

Often people see the glimmer of truth in a group and dive in. Group activities and friendships keep you busy, and after a few years you realise you don’t see your old friends any more and have turned into a complete weirdo, with a language and set of references that only make sense within the context of the spiritual group. Then if you find you actually want to leave that group, you have nowhere to go. You aren’t leaving a group, but a whole life and even a whole identity. This can be tough, and most people won’t understand what you’re going through. (If you’re going through this, there are some therapists who have skills in helping you through the transition).

4. Don’t confuse the group with true sangha

In the end, it’s your journey. ‘Sangha’ (the spiritual community) is one of the three jewels at the heart of Buddhism. Some groups use that as a way to encourage deeper and deeper involvement (not necessarily because they’re creepy – just because they believe in what they’re doing). Don’t mistake your group for true sangha. And don’t think you can’t make progress on your own. The entire universe and all that’s in it is your true sangha. You are deeply inter-connected with its majesty and wisdom. You are home already.

Have you had experiences – positive or negative – in a spiritual group? Leave a comment and let others know.

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