Cultivating Clean Friendship…
…in the Sangha
written by Maya Rook
edited by Ani Dawa Chotso
“The sangha is the community of people who have the perfect right to cut through your trips and feed you with their wisdom, as well as the perfect right to demonstrate their own neurosis and be seen through by you. The companionship within the sangha is a kind of clean friendship — without expectation, without demand, but at the same time, fulfilling.”
~ Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Relating with the sangha is one of the most rewarding aspects of my experience in Shambhala.
Wait… Did I actually just write that?
Growing up in the sangha, this was not always my sentiment. Often I felt that I was all in with the Buddha and the dharma, but when it came to the sangha I just didn’t want to deal — that I couldn’t be bothered with the arguments, the neurosis, or the passive-aggressiveness.
The sangha, despite its difficulties, has become increasingly central in my life. It is our core community. It is where we connect with our dharma sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, children and lovers. When we sit down to meditate, attend a celebration, or undertake a project together we are proclaiming a commitment to enlightened society. Even when relating with the sangha becomes frustrating we can be appreciative of that irritation. The sangha shows us our edges and challenges us to really manifest our practice. The teachings give us the means to rest in meditation with passion, aggression, and ignorance, but when we move off the cushion those same skills can inform and support our day-to-day interactions with other sangha members.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche refers to the sangha as a “clean friendship.” In this sense our relationships are defined by the quality of clean — clear, precise, lucid, and cutting but also light and sparkling. This quality is rooted in friendship — cutting is done with kindness, clarity isn’t cold and rigid, and being direct comes from a place of compassion rather than aggression. This type of clarity can be frightening at times as it shocks us into the present. When we become tight and act from a place of ego, the sangha holds up a mirror to us. Sometimes we don’t like what we see, but there is nowhere to hide. Our habitual tendency is often to want to run away or to blame another person, putting up a barrier between self and other. But that reflection forces us to tear the barrier down. It slices away at our ego.
Cultivating this clean friendship can be central in our approach to the sangha. But how do we actually do it when we’re in the middle of a conflict or in the painful aftermath? The answer shifts from person to person, but upon reflecting, I’ve noticed a few approaches that are consistently beneficial when dealing not only with an immediate conflict but also the repercussions.
The Warrior is Not Afraid of Space
Sitting meditation teaches us to rest in space — to stay in the gap of openness rather than rushing to fill it with distraction. But every moment contains countless opportunities to connect with that space — to provide a rift in a situation that seems uncontainable.
So when embroiled in conflict, even as it unfolds before you, attempt to access space. Pause instead of acting or reacting.
Change Your Attitude and Relax as It Is
When that gap opens, take a moment to recognize the reality of suffering and the strength of basic goodness. When you feel attacked or hurt by another person, try to take a moment before reacting to remember that they are also suffering in their own way.
From that recognition what often naturally follows is a sense of basic goodness. Beneath the anger and sadness we can touch something stronger and brilliant, something of continuity.
When conflicts are unfolding on the spot, really look at the person you’re talking to. Look in their eyes. Look in their heart. See the sun of basic goodness beneath the surface-level manifestation you are experiencing. Ultimately, by resting in this understanding the fixity of self and other begins to dissolve. It reestablishes the view so that you can move forward together.
May All Beings Be Free From Suffering
Progressing from the recognition of others’ suffering and basic goodness, the formal practice of tonglen or loving-kindness meditation can strengthen our ability to engage more compassionately with others.
By transforming another’s suffering into compassion or setting the aspiration that they be free from suffering, this practice serves as a reminder that what we’re doing isn’t really about us. It’s about what we can do for others, for all sentient beings. It protects our minds and hearts from setting-sun thoughts and instead allows us to see the bigger view and to act from a place of clarity and compassion.
Strengthening Our Sangha
When we engage with difficulties and obstacles we would rather avoid the sangha becomes fulfilling. We have company as we continue the difficult process of stripping those layers of cocoon and ego away. We have friends as we emerge into freshness and light, people to dance with and laugh with over the simple moments of existence. People to share in the experience of ordinary magic.
How we relate to the sangha lays the groundwork for how we relate to society at large. If we can’t have a difficult conversation with another sangha member how can we do it with a disgruntled boss or insensitive family member? How can we help the world when we can’t work through our community issues?
By really engaging with the sangha — by being willing to step into messy situations, we set the view for how we engage with the world. Ultimately all sentient beings are our sangha and this clean friendship can be the basis of our interactions with others. The sangha can serve as our ground—a container for that outrageous experiment in enlightened society. With the sangha we plant the seed and strengthen our commitment to cultivate its growth.
The Chogyam Trungpa quote above is excerpted from the chapter “Taking Refuge” in Heart of the Buddha, Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1991.
Maya Rook lives in Brooklyn and works at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York. She is pursuing a PhD in American Cultural History at Drew University. She also writes poetry and essays, creates visual art, and serves as the dramaturg for The Tower — a play dealing with the history and mythology of the Donner Party that ran April 12-26. www.mayarook.com