Just lately I realized that I’ve lost my way in my meditation practice. I still get to my cushion most days, but the joy that was once my regular companion is often missing. And I think I finally know why.
Since starting my practice 23 years ago it has felt as if my seat, my individual cushion was supported by the three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Together they formed a tripod – the most stable of structures – that got stronger with each sit and sustained me through the ups and downs of my life.
Buddha is Buddha himself, and the Buddha within me, inspiring and encouraging me. Dharma is the teachings, the wisdom and the truth of the universe that informs and guides my practice. And the Sangha is the community of practitioners, my fellow meditators, my teachers, my students, and all the people that populate my spiritual world.
Over a year ago, one leg of this tripod, the Sangha, suffered a serious blow and nearly sent me flying off my cushion altogether. My teacher was once again caught being sexually inappropriate with a student (after a 15 year lull when most of us thought his transgressions were finished) and then lying about it.
The revelation wasn’t a surprise but it was a shock, and felt like a betrayal. (I will write more about all of this at another time.) The discovery that he had been sexually acting out for those 15 years, when I for one had thought he’d been “good” or maybe just too old to do too much damage, was angering and dispiriting.
But I felt ready to leave this teacher. And so I did.
I did not need him anymore, as my practice had evolved enough so that I no longer wanted to be associated with such behavior – human though it might be. I knew he had crossed a line and I could no longer respect him. I tried not to judge, just to separate from him.
The Sangha was split asunder as a result of the scandal. The city Zendo that I went to once or twice every week and once a month for a whole weekend sesshin, and the monastery upstate that I regularly retreated to for sesshins and brought my own students to for weekend workshops, were no longer available to me. I found myself spiritually homeless.
Over the course of this past year or so without my regular doses of Sangha, I’ve experienced a deep loneliness that feels similar to the grief I’ve experienced after the death of a loved one. Indeed, it is a death of sorts. The individuals that made up the Sangha may all still be alive, but the Sangha, the life that we created as a group, is dead. And that is very sad.
I have other Sanghas for sure – just as I have more loved ones after I lose one – but the grief and mourning continue.
And just as I learned to live without the physical presence of loved ones who have died – my father (whose death 26 years ago sent me to the cushion); my first favorite Zen monk, Donge (whose death 20 years ago gave me the courage to make a deeper commitment to practice); and my mother-in-law (whose death last year inspired M and me to get married after we asked ourselves “what are we waiting for?”) – I am learning to live without the physical presence of my Sangha that I loved so much. I think that its loss, while sad, has also delivered me a gift. It’s too early to say exactly what that is yet, but I see aspects of it every day. No doubt I’ll share it here when it becomes clear.
In the meantime, I will continue to occupy my seat: my meditation cushion for starters, and then all the other seats I occupy in my life: my seat as wife, as friend, as teacher, as sister, as neighbor and as involved citizen.
I borrowed the title of this blog from the OccupyWallStreet group, or shall we say, Sangha. And though I am not an active daily member of that Sangha, I support what they are doing. Just as my Sangha stood up to our “too big to fail” Zen “Master,” they/we are standing up to the “too big to fail” corporate giants. So whether we are occupying Wall Street or any other town plaza in the world during this protest, there is a seat that we must occupy that holds our integrity, our truth and our life’s purpose.
And no matter what the weather is – internally or externally – if we commit to occupying this seat, no one can own us or push us around unless we agree to it. As Buddha said to his students just before he died: “Be a lamp unto yourself.” And find a Sangha if you don’t already have one and let it support you in the cause of personal and societal liberation.
So, stand firm, open your heart, meet violence with non-violence and we will all win. After all, we are all part of the Sangha called humanity.