Awaken with Them? Really?

Zen priest Catherine Toldi examines the painful conflicts that can arise in sanghas and offers practical advice on how to deal with them.

By Catherine Toldi

Sangha—community—is one of the three jewels of Buddhist practice. But real-life sangha dynamics can bring us to our knees! People make mistakes, push each other’s buttons, get stuck in painful conflicts. As Buddhism takes root in America, many of us find ourselves wondering, How do we do this? How do we embody the teachings and forms of this great tradition in a way that helps with the inevitable interpersonal difficulties of our actual lives?

This question has simmered through my multi-decade practice at a small community-based Zen center. I’ve come to appreciate sangha as a transformational cauldron; it is the relational realm that challenges us to walk our talk.

It’s one thing to vow to awaken together with all beings. But how do we treat those real-life pesky beings we have to work with every day? I can get excited studying dharma—learning to liberate my mind to be more present with the world. But how does this apply when I’m mad at the retreat leader because her new ideas are wreaking havoc with the way I’ve always managed the zendo?

I may have some idea that I’m generous or wise. But that doesn’t guarantee I’ll respond with generosity or wisdom when I feel provoked. We may feel proud of how our board has hammered out functional bylaws and procedures over the years, but that doesn’t save us from getting tripped up by our karmic tangles and falling facedown in the mud.

Of course, it’s not just Buddhists who fall into the gap between intention and action. In thirty years working as a professional facilitator, I’ve experienced secular groups—task forces, boards, management teams—struggling with their versions of this dilemma as well. Even people who share the same noble mission can become paralyzed over their differences, or revert to shaming and blaming others despite their professed inclusive values.

So when we don’t live up to our expectations—or, more commonly, when they don’t live up to ours—is that a sign of failure? Uh-oh. Something’s wrong. This shouldn’t be happening. It must be somebody’s fault. These people are such a mess!

While sometimes we do need to leave the sangha, or at least take a break, I also believe that we need to explore more deeply the mind-set that helps us be able to not give up on each other.

At any point in time, I could take a snapshot of groups I’ve observed over the decades and judge them a success or failure. Within the time frame of the snapshot, that assessment would be true. But if I expand the time frame out to, say, thirty years, the periods of success or failure aren’t absolute; they are simply the various episodes of a longer story. Rather than being a reason to quit, difficulties can be seen as growing pains or as motivators to keep pushing for change.

So a response we could have when confronting yet another sangha storm is:

Nothing’s wrong.

It’s nobody’s fault.

It’s just human emotion.

In fact, our Zen ancestor Eihei Dogen points out that this place of difficulty can be the very place to bring forth our deepest intention. In Guidelines for Studying the Way, he writes: “Arousing practice in the midst of delusion, you attain realization before you recognize it.”

One way to understand delusion is that we think the stories we tell ourselves are true. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s how we humans make sense of the world. The trouble comes when we let our stories substitute for having real relationships with those with whom we’re trying to practice.

It’s so easy to fall into nursing our internal commentary—speculating on peoples’ motivations, replaying their offending words, conjuring up ways to cut them down to size. Our stories take on a life of their own, spinning away from the real person over there and how they may or may not actually think, feel, or intend.

Let’s say I feel mad at the lack of communication by the president of our sangha board and silently grumble as I drive home after the meeting: He’s holding back because he’s power-hungry, and I threaten his power. I might take any number of actions based on my presumption. Well, then, I won’t tell him what I’m really thinking because I know he’ll just use it against me. The more I ruminate, the more I’m missing out on the chance to be with what’s real, to attain realization. I don’t know what’s real for you if I’m only having a relationship with the “you” inside my head.

What if instead of ruminating and presuming, I actually engage in conversation with the president with the purpose of gaining insight into what’s going on with him? I may learn he’s struggling with how to deal with his position in the hierarchy, which gives him access to information that could feel threatening to others in the room. I may realize it’s not that he’s trying to hang on to power, but rather he’s unsure about the best timing and venue to share what he knows. It may be that he wants to be forthcoming but doesn’t want to create a sense of unnecessary alarm.

Or perhaps after sitting on my meditation cushion fuming for a whole day about that darn retreat leader, I finally express my frustration in person, and we end up having a fruitful discussion about the pros and cons of formal and informal practice.

But generally, we don’t ask. We presume. And what can really start the karmic wheel spinning out of control in sangha is when we tell our story to others as if it were the truth. Then they, in turn, base their actions on our story rather than on their own direct experience.

This is how we damage the fabric of our relationships with one another—how we disparage the sangha treasure.

Yet Dogen tells us that at any moment, we have the opportunity to arouse practice. Arousing practice may be defined as “doing your best to enact your vow.” If our vow is to awaken with all beings, then arousing practice means seeing people less as problematic others than as fellow travelers who are also struggling with their own weaknesses and insecurities. It means activating the willingness to grow and learn together, right in the middle of the mess.

Does it mean avoiding conflict or feigning agreement with those with whom we struggle? No. In the relative realm of functional relations, we may need to assert a boundary, offer critical feedback, or make a firm request. But we can take our action while holding compassion for the complexity and difficulty of our shared human condition.

Dogen continues: “At this time, you first know that the raft of discourse is like yesterday’s dream, and you finally cut off your old understanding bound up in the vines and serpents of words.

I take these as very specific instructions.

The first step in arousing practice is releasing the grip of my story about who I think you are— yesterday’s dream—and taking the risk to meet the actual you. In yesterday’s dream, the vines of my words weave a familiar story, an identity. This raft of discourse gives me something to hold on to as I float along in the vast ocean of unpredictable human emotion.

Why would I want to release my grip on that which seems to be offering me such protection? I don’t think it’s so much that I want to, but that I come to a place where I’m willing to at least try to be what Buddhist teacher Gaylon Ferguson calls “agents in our own making, in the emancipation of our minds and hearts.”

Or, as Zen ancestor Jianzhi Sengcan writes in his poem “Faith in Mind,” Bring gabbing and speculation to a stop, and the whole world can open up to you.

We can pause, take a breath, and allow the grasping mind to relax, even if just for a moment. And in this moment, something can happen that is sourced by direct perception rather than by preconception. This is where we can actually meet one another and together discover a more intentional path.

Buddhist teachings tend to focus on individual practice. However, I’ve found that the act of stepping back and releasing the grip of the grasping mind is equally liberating for groups seeking to arouse practice in the midst of delusion.

In one instance, I was working with a nonprofit board of intelligent visionary thinkers who were at a longstanding impasse. Even though they wanted to strategize about their future, they could not get past arguing from their entrenched positions.

After facilitating their discussion for a time, I said, “I’ve noticed you have a pattern: when you start talking about certain issues, you get stuck in a back-and-forth dynamic that doesn’t go anywhere.” Many heads nodded. Some in the group looked hopeful. Others seemed less sure.

“If it’s okay with you,” I continued, “when I notice this escalation, I’ll point it out to you, and we can step back from the discussion for a few minutes to reconnect with your overall goal.”

After reminding themselves that this was precisely why they’d invited my assistance, they agreed. I suggested that any one of them could also call for such a step back.

As we progressed through the rest of the day, sparks still flew as differences of opinion were expressed. But the step-back agreement allowed the participants to disengage momentarily from their stuck patterns. They realized they could express their differences without having to prove who was wrong and who was right. This liberated their minds, allowing access into broader intellectual territory.

A Zen center board of directors used a different technique to step back. They crafted a set of working agreements—essentially, an articulation of how they wish to practice together as they negotiate the difficult work of sangha governance. Later, they decided to bring a bell to their meetings and put it in the center of the room. They made an agreement that at any time, anyone could ring the bell, signaling a time to pause and perhaps reflect on how to strengthen a particular working agreement.

It’s important to note here that arousing practice doesn’t mean you’ve solved your problems once and for all. It means that you commit to doing your best to enact your vow. You understand that working through tough issues involves making mistakes over and over again.

Dogen emphasizes the necessity of this work: “This is not made to happen by Buddha, but is accomplished by your all-encompassing effort.”

You set your intention and take action. It doesn’t go so well. So you share your thoughts and feelings, reflect on potential improvements, and recommit. You reset your intention and start again.

Groups can carve out time to engage in this kind of active learning cycle. We can all take steps to articulate and arouse our practice. One group I worked with wanted to improve their ability to disagree with one another without being aggressive or defensive. They aspired to be more courageous about saying what was not being said. So we devised a practice. Every twenty minutes, a timer would go off and I would ask, “Is there anyone with a different point of view? Is there something that’s not being said?” This explicit invitation emboldened the participants to speak with more honesty. Having the invitation extended by a neutral guide with whom they didn’t have a triggering behavior pattern reduced the need to raise the aggressive sword or defensive shield.

Dogen offers further encouragement: “Moreover, what practice calls forth is enlightenment; your treasure house does not come from outside.”

It sure can feel like those pesky others are “outside” and if they’d just go away, our suffering would be relieved. Maybe. Or maybe bumping into others is what brings our awareness to the less conscious parts of our being. Perhaps we come to realize how we co-created the mess, and that it’s our very intimacy—however pain-ful—that will open us to the path of liberation.

So how do we do this? We stay connected as we walk through these dharma gates, letting our vow be a lodestar. We try not to give up on one another, no matter how hard it gets. We take a break if we must. Return if we can.

In my most desperate moments, what’s ultimately brought me back is the recognition that I’m practicing for the next generation. This priceless gift of the buddhadharma comes to us through the efforts of those who have gone before, from all the times when our ancestors, new and old, let themselves be polished against each other—in work, in struggle, in laughter, in tears.

So the job now is to sustain just this, in all its messy splendor, for the new practitioners coming to peek at the treasure and for the maturing ones stepping up to assume responsibility, because they, too, realize that this is the most important work of our lives.

Catherine Toldi

Catherine Toldi is a Zen priest in the lineage of Suzuki roshi and a longtime member of the Santa Cruz Zen Center. For the past thirty years she has worked as a professional facilitator and trainer, helping groups work collaboratively. She is a coauthor of Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Jossey-Bass).