Without a Sangha, is My Practice Moot?

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Narayan Helen Liebenson, and the late Zenkei Blanche Hartman explore the meaning of sangha.

By Buddhadharma

Photo by Akash Gusain.

Question: I have just begun meditation practice, and I’m doing it on my own, since there is no local Vipassana community that I know of in my area. I am using the Internet to practice-forty-five minutes in the morning and forty-five minutes in the evening-using an audio file on the method taught by Mahasi Sayadaw.

I am facing some questions and some obstacles. First, I am a smoker. Clearly, I realize it would be beneficial to the practice to quit, but is it essential? Second, when sitting for forty-five minutes, I become very sore. Am I right to ignore this, so long as it is not unendurable? Finally, I have read that community is beneficial-if not essential-to practice. Without a sangha, is the practice moot?

Zenkei Blanche Hartman: I am very happy for you that you have been able to start such a regular and dedicated solo practice, and more than a little impressed that you can maintain a twice-daily practice schedule without the inspiration of a personal connection with a teacher or sangha. And I compliment your skill in finding an audio teaching of Mahasi Sayadaw’s method on the Internet-I gather that you must be at least one generation younger than I, if not two!

As for your questions: I myself continued to smoke for a number of years after I first began to practice, even though I knew smoking wasn’t good for me, or my kids, or anyone around me. The more I cultivated awareness of this body and mind in the present moment, the more I became aware of the contradiction between my addiction and my aspiration to practice for the benefit of all beings, relinquish self-clinging, set a good example for my kids, and take care of this body, which is the fruit of many lives. Finally, it became so glaring that I had to quit. So my response to your question is, yes, it would be beneficial for you to quit smoking, but it is not essential to practice. And furthermore, the cultivation of awareness will help you stop smoking.

As for community, what you have read is true: taking refuge in the sangha of like-minded fellow practitioners is invaluable.

As for sitting still, I recommend that you carefully adjust your posture so that you are upright (not uptight) and balanced, so that your bones are doing the work of supporting you rather than your muscles, and there is room for your diaphragm to move easily for breathing; then remain as still as you can for as long as you can. The effort is to settle into stillness, not to “hold still.” That holding can become rigid-the antithesis of meditation-and can result in soreness. If the pain goes away soon after you get up from sitting, it is all right to ignore it. But if sitting becomes so painful that you need to change your posture, do so quietly and calmly. Change enough to make a difference and settle down again to sitting as still as you can for as long as you can. Just moving a “teensy bit so no one will notice” usually results in fidgeting for the rest of the period.

Community is beneficial, as is having access to a teacher. We speak of the three jewels-Buddha, dharma, and sangha-the teacher, the teaching, and the community of practitioners. I don’t know where you live, but I recommend that you continue your practice and continue to search the Internet until you find some possible communities to visit for a retreat, where you can make a connection with a teacher and sangha. Some teachers may also be available for online or telephone interviews if you’re unable to locate someone close enough to visit. Good luck!

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche: First of all, it is very important to understand that from a Buddhist point of view, there is no one and only way or method that is right. It depends on each person. There are said to be people who can learn everything by themselves, without a teacher. They are called Pratyeka-buddha type of people-“solitary awakened ones.”

In general, I think it’s all right to learn from the Internet, especially if you can also ask questions. However, the best thing would be to attend a short course led by an authentic teacher who can help you learn how to meditate. Then you can practice regularly on your own and also read some books by genuine teachers.

Remember, learning how to meditate is not equal to doing it. Try to practice in a diligent yet very relaxed way. It is also important to be clear why you want to meditate. There are different meditations for different objectives. If your objective is to find peace, then learning how to relax is very important. Relaxing is an attitude where you allow yourself to be as you are and allow yourself to enjoy everything as it is. This is sometimes called being in the present moment. It is a clear and vibrant awareness, rather than a cozy dullness.

Regarding smoking, I recall an interesting anecdote about two young monks. One day, one of the monks was shocked to find the other monk smoking. He said to him, “How can you smoke? You are not supposed to smoke. Our teacher said we should not smoke!” The other monk replied, “But I am meditating. I asked the teacher whether one can meditate while smoking and he said yes.”

You can and should use the technique of meditation in every situation. But smoking is a harmful and strong habitual tendency, and it would be good to break that. Meditation may be able to help you break that habit. Whenever you feel a desire to smoke, let your mind relax and enjoy that very moment. You may feel that there is no need to smoke.

When you sit, your posture should be comfortable, at ease, and not too rigid, although you still follow the rules. It is good to move and change posture to make your legs comfortable. When you get used to a proper posture, you can sit for a long time without any pain. You can do some walking meditations too.

Forty-five minutes twice a day sounds very good, but don’t forget that these formal meditation sessions are about learning how to train the mind. Real practice is the whole life. Whenever you find yourself in a tense state of mind, you should remember to relax, as you do in meditation. That is what eventually transforms your way of being.

Narayan Helen Liebenson: Nowadays, being a smoker is considered a sin and personal failing; often we condemn not just smoking but smokers themselves, even though, in my opinion, the reality of smoking is no worse than some other unhealthy habits.

Like any compulsion, smoking bears investigation. Since smoking endangers your health, and the health of those around you, it would be wise action to quit. But health concerns aside, being a smoker has no bearing on liberation.

You say you are getting very sore when sitting for forty-five minutes. It’s possible that you are simply in a phase of adjustment. When you first start, it’s a bit like doing pushups. You may find that as you continue meditating, your body and mind will adjust to this new posture and your muscles will ache less. It is important to note whether the soreness continues beyond the sitting. If it doesn’t, it’s OK to continue with the sitting.

Sometimes our fear of discomfort is worse than the actual sensations of discomfort. However, if you are just gritting your teeth and trying to make it through to the end of a sitting session, you may want to inquire into your motivation. You may be pushing yourself unwisely, trying too hard to get something out of the practice. It would be wiser to practice with the intention of relaxing, accepting, and discovering how things are.

Also, if you push too hard you run the risk of quitting your practice at some point, whereas if you practice in a slow and steady way, you will be able to reap the fruit from practice your whole life. Remember, the aim of practice is to cultivate wisdom and equanimity, not endurance.

As for community, what you have read is true: taking refuge in the sangha of like-minded fellow practitioners is invaluable. It is one of the triple gems of Buddhist practice. However, we mustn’t be shortsighted in our definition of community. Just because there isn’t anyone in your particular geographical area doesn’t mean that there aren’t countless beings all over the world who are practicing at this very moment. When you sit, try to remember that although you can’t see us, many people are sitting with you.