What’s your experience as an unaffiliated Buddhist?

Syncline in Navajo Sandstone visible from the Syncline Campsite on the northwest side of Upheaval Dome

My comment from the Shambhala SunSpace post: Going It Alone: What’s your experience as an unaffiliated Buddhist? This article is a prime example of a “corporate” blog doing it well.  The post is engaging, encourages communication and responces are well-meaning.

The question posed is…

What’s your experience of being an unaffiliated practitioner? Are you content with going it alone, or is it a struggle? What have you found helpful in your practice and study? Are you unaffiliated by choice or by circumstance (i.e. no Buddhist center in your town, etc)? Add a comment to share your thoughts on this and keep an eye out for the Spring Buddhadharma, which will offer practical advice for anyone who is traveling the path without a teacher or sangha.


The Sangha operates as an extreme, rigid form of practice. Some prefer it as the center of their practice and some don’t. It should, however, never be the definition of practice. While serving an important pupose in the rooting of Buddhism more firmly across ethnic and racial borders in the West it is limited (usually) to the coasts and urban areas. The rural Buddhist is largely left out in the cold and out of the loop.

Even for many in urban areas or with a rich Buddhist community from which to tap, restrictions and responsibilities of household life are a barrier. These restrictions and responsibilities become exactly the things we spend most of the day doing so we incorporate our practice. Our life and work is our Sangha, our parents and friends our teachers, our online community becomes our iSangha. Our restrictions and responsibilities no longer hamper us but provide a new venue for understanding the Dharma.

Sanghas also occasionally monopolize the Dharma. They are taught in a tradition and attempt to provide instruction but tend to at the expense of other teachings. By being teacher-less, I am able to grab from a much larger pool.
I live in the Great Plains. In my town we are lucky enough to have two very small Buddhists groups. For a Midwestern town this is practically a smorgasbord. We are a loose group of learning, struggling and eager Buddhists. Guidance is accepted as it is available. I prefer this situation to that of a large Zendo or temple. It affords me the freedom to practice from each of the vehicles as I see fit and study Buddhism without the constraints of a hierarchy or institutional dogma (notice I do not state religious dogma).

While sometimes I do wish to be involved with a larger group or a more experienced teacher, I do enjoy the realization that my teachers have been eclectic and diverse even when they don’t wear saffron or black. I read the Buddhist scriptures and struggle over the meanings; I sit and struggle over the pain and the concentration, I drink with other lay-practitioners that struggle over the same things. I think my sangha is just fine the way it is. and when all else fails, I check my iSangha…;p

I practice in my house, on my deck. I pull from what I can. Be it Zen or Tibetan; esoteric or practical. My practice evolve and changes as I change and evolve. I like it that way. Oddly enough, I still look at those beautiful temples and large sanghas with some amount of longing but I tend to prefer where I am now. A small, eager and struggling home-practitioner, a house-holder. Where others a digging a large and deep well of Dharma, I am digging a wide and shallow trench. Who is to say that my wide practice is better or worse than the deep practice of those affiliated with a sangha?

Either way, I flit from one Buddhist element to another. Chanting, zazen, chanting, visualization, whatever. I try them out for a year or so before I determine where they sit in my practice. When I feel the need for more guidance, I can check any number of reputiable teachers that podcast their dharma talks or find translations on line…if anything I am in Buddhist purgatory without a sangha. It isn’t the best of situations but it isn’t the worse and most importantly it is based upon my own striving and ability.

summary: Unaffilliated Buddhism is like camping in the wild (like really roughing it). You learn what works because you have to and because there is no other teacher than yourself. However, any aid you may receive from people (parent, teacher, friend, another lone Buddhist, online) becomes your sangha. Others may be staying at the Holiday Inn but you are in a lean-to made of sticks next to a river hoping that you aren’t going to be ravanged by a bear. You jump at sounds but become much more intuned with YOUR practice rather than someone else’s.

Holy Crap!  I talk far too much.  Read the 57+ comments on this post.  It gives a nice cross-section of the readership of Shambhala Sun (at least the ones that communicate online).




8 thoughts on “What’s your experience as an unaffiliated Buddhist?

  1. John,

    I had to laugh when I saw your post continued twice. I’m still working through the other comments, but it’s very interesting to see all the different reasons out there for not being in a community.


    • I know! It was cracking me up that I had so much to say but I couldn’t get it into one panel…but when you have got loads to say and a chance to say it.

      I thought they were going to block me!



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  3. First I apologize for my inability to comment in rich language as the comment preceded by mine, for I’m in my formative years of tapping the burgher king whooper than devouring the whole thing with monstrosity. I made my way through to here by following a link on a tweet, which raised the question….

    “What is your experience as a “middle of no-where” Buddhist? Would a temple next door make a difference? A hindrance? ”

    The answer is the latter in my situation. Living in a nation that has more temples than any other, so says “order of sangha” which exceeds more than 100,000 ordained currently, but I am busy researching hardcore punk music than claims made by a long gone order (that was replicated with an enormous deal of imperfection) that has done nothing else than arousing fascism in the guise of nationalism and blessing a regime turning into a “power tyrannical” which oppresses it’s very own people in order to play “savoir faire” to save their very own necks, for the last 50 years or so. And to allow deposition of layers of fatty acids in their sanctimonious rumps.

    Simply speaking my mind out it’s pathetic and sickening and nauseous like non-existent fetid cisterns of Japanese toilets. They are not doing their job right and covered with silk curtains in luxurious monasteries air conditioned to enjoy similar conditions as Saint Nick in n. pole does, they pretend. And so are the laymen who donate generously to coffers of the “order” in order to hear their names spoken out loud from a sound system superior to any used by Metallica or the maiden. It’s not much different from what Paris Hilton does to be honest. The sangha is as much as pure as the greedy donor who craves respect for his generosity, corrupt to the bone, just like the system they praise and nihilistic to an end in lowest pits of samsara, to the rules they pretend to follow.

    We are taught while in bloom in accordance to our local curriculum which teaches Buddhism as a “religion”,

    “As the lay people who’re rendered with imperfections to follow the “order” and correct our flaws from their exemplification shall be the way to find peace in domestic life and reaching the ultimate goal of burning up the wheel of continuity of suffering… bleh.”

    It’s obvious that this is not possible. So for me the only way is to tread my own path. Enriching oneself with damma which’s over-stretched and divided and always questioning it’s authenticity with experimentation in the process of following it, keeping all options open and looking deep and pass the divisions that’s plagued Buddhist philosophy for most of its existence. That’s all my neurotic self has the energy for. May you all taste and find peace in outer and innermost dimensions in their utmost depths, the reduction of vicious circle of samsara to non- existence. Peace!! (the phrase used by girlfriends of jocks who always bully me, at least their definition of the term fits with that of premier bush..lol..jk)

  4. Hi John,
    I found your blog while searching for any info on unaffiliated Zen practitioners which led me to the Shambala Sun page. I left a two part comment there that I hope you might read it and my sangha’s blog the Dojin Roku (brand new) http://dojinroku.blogspot.com/

    I Hope we can get to know each other through the web,

    Deepest regards,

  5. How do you square your opinion that “the Sangha should never the the definition of practice” with the Buddha’s teaching of the Sangha as one of the Three Jewels?

    I’m not sure why you would come out of the gate calling Sangha a “rigid” and “extreme” practice. What is your experience of this?

    This notion that if you commit to one school of Buddhism it means that the Sangha would somehow block your experience of other schools is just silly. There are crossovers and inter-school teaching and blending all the time.

    Daido Roshi (RIP) met his Zen teacher Maezumi Roshi at the Tibetan Buddhist Naropa University where he’d been invited by Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa was so enthralled with the eating meditation of oriyoki that he incorporated it into Shambhala practice and it is still taught.

    Zen Buddhist monasteries in the US invite Tibetan, Vippassana and Theravadan guest teachers lead retreats. Insight Meditation centers have many traditions teach.

    So if participation in a Sangha isn’t going to prevent you from participating in or learning other practices, what is going on?

    I think that many unaffiliated Buddhists let their ego do the walking and talking. “Oh, I think this about that.” “I don’t want to be hemmed in or pinned down” isn’t more than the small self running the show.

    We sit down on the cushion and follow the breath for 20 minutes. After 5 minutes the mind may say, “my mind isn’t quiet yet. Maybe I will start mindfulness of the body” and then a while later, “this isn’t working, maybe I will count my breaths” and so on. When we do this, we let the small mind dictate the terms and our practice can wind up scattered and shallow.

    The Sangha is like this. If we don’t commit, our experience of it stays contingent upon our ever-changing dissatisfaction.

    We Americans want the big buffet style pick-and-choose what we want on our terms. This is why Joko Beck said that in America we have Two Jewels and a rock.

    We’d rather have 300 electronic friends than commit to show up. Because that’s what Sangha is – showing up. I commit to show up every week and support your practice by being there with my butt on the cushion even when I don’t feel like it.

    The Buddha called “spiritual friends”, the Sangha, the “whole Path.” Some unaffiliated Buddhists are still looking for their teacher or a community that speaks to their heart. Others are not more than fair-weather friends.

    • It sounds very nice. You are very lucky to be close to so many supportive Sanghas. I practice with a small group out in the midwest. No problems here. We are Christian, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist (Theravadan, Zen and Tibetan), Yogi and newcomer. But they don’t define my practice. Were I to move out of area, I would till practice and be a Buddhist.

      Joko Beck sounds like she had a similar situation. How very lucky for her. So being Buddhist is defined in part by being around other Buddhists?

      “We’d rather have 300 electronic friends than commit to show up. Because that’s what Sangha is – showing up. I commit to show up every week and support your practice by being there with my butt on the cushion even when I don’t feel like it.”

      That also sounds nice. Support. Can you bring that group out to the rural areas? Thanks. That would be great. Many don’t have that option. My practice isn’t as simple as you described it. I don’t flit from method to method randomly like a bee from flower to flower (or a crow from carcass to carcass) but I do try to keep my practice fresh and fluid. Some prefer static, I suppose. The choose is open to all of us.

      My Sangha is made up partly by my “online” friends (those fair-weather ones you described). They support and question my practice. We communicate daily concerning the difficulties inherit in our practice. We don’t always agree but we spend plenty of time working though the tough parts.

      My sitting group also helps but to define Buddhist practice by commitment to a group is limiting. If a sangha is simply showing up then I “show up” every morning and occasionally in the evenings. My meditation bell is the sound of my daughter waking up. My sangha is my family and friends and my temple is my house and work. I try to never leave my Sangha and exist with it from day to day. For better or for worse.

      I am still “unaffiliated”. I have no interest in a teacher nor spending money on dues for a “real” sangha. My small informal group (online and “real) is as wonderful as my family.

      It seems that your definition of Sangha is stifling.

      Cheers and much support in your practice!


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