Buddha’s Afterbirth: Organizational Buddhism

A question raised on a previous post as well as on Twitter (constantly) and will be featured in this Spring’s BuddhaDharma is “What is up with unaffiliated Buddhists?”.  I commented on this over at Shambhala Sunspace as well as posted my comment here.

It has, of course, started some conversation.  Some of which I feel it neccessary to address.  First some preliminary reading…


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? – simple. not one of the jewels defines practice as a whole.  Plus does a  “sangha” constitute a lineage holder or informal group of practitioners? Where do you draw the line at calling someone a “poor” Buddhist? Or not a Buddhist at all?

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? Any large Organization Buddhist group that I have sat with eventually put restrictions on practice.  Some more so than others but there was always a “right” and “wrong” way.

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. – Not from my experience.  If I walked into a “proper” zendo and asked to practice in a way that was different from but not distracting to the group, I would be told “no”.  Why? Because it is not the way “they” do it.

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. – Great story!  I respect both those teachers.  Good practitioners/teachers accept other teachings and methods.  I can not think of two teachers that were as influencial as Looi and Trungpa to where I am now.

Zen Buddhist monasteries in the US invite Tibetan, Vippassana and Theravadan guest teachers lead retreats. Insight Meditation centers have many traditions teach. – Blah, Blah and Blah.  I live in South Dakota.  So it is a moot point. Those same monasteries put their own dogmatic spin on the Dharma and expect the attendees to follow it.  Not my point anyway.  Shall I travel to San Fran or Upstate NY to be a “real” Buddhist?  Not an option. 

So if participation in a Sangha isn’t going to prevent you from participating in or learning other practices, what is going on? – As explained below.  If you consider my family, small community of misfits and online “fair-weather” friends as a Sangha then I am fine.  If you don’t, then I think your definition of Sangha stifles exploration and inventiveness.  Although, I like how you can gleam from my blog my personal experiences from Organizational Buddhism and prove your point.  Impressive.

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. – “You think?”  Good job.  I think everyone falls into that trap at some point in their practice.  And the person or group that is “pinning me down”?  What of them? No ego there, I am sure.

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. – Yes, meditation is difficult.  Agreed.

The Sangha is like this. If we don’t commit, our experience of it stays contingent upon our ever-changing dissatisfaction.  – Commit to what again? Coming in every Sunday or Tuesday? My commitment to sitting daily in my home is just pissing in the wind, I suppose….

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. – Never read Joko. But as stated my sangha is alive and well. 

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. – I have both.  Sometimes I sit and sometimes I don’t.  I accept failure and try to learn from it.  As per showing up – see below. But I am still confused at your insistance that a sangha has to be some place you go to.

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. – I found mine already.  See below.


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.

My first post should have replaced the term “sangha” with “Organizational Buddhism”.  However, too many consider those two terms synonymous.  I am unaffiliated to any school,organization or teacher but I do have a support network.  Is that a sangha or is a sangha designated by lineage and an “accredited” teacher?

When I see the term “unaffiliated” I am not sure what that means.  Unaffiliated to what?  To an organization? or perhaps a school? Does my little homespun sitting group of misfit toys constitute a sangha?  If so what does that mean?

Is “showing up” the cornerstone of a person’s Buddhist practice?  My practice is not defined by a place that I pop into once or twice a week.  Nor is it defined by the people there.  My practice is defined by the only one doing the practicing.  Namely me.  It is defined by where I am at that moment.  Home, work, in the car, alone or with others.

Too often organizational Buddhism creates far more focus on the finger than the moon.  This is not to say that organized Buddhism is bad but from my experience I felt more limited in that environment.  For me it was a poor “sangha” indeed.  People rather throw quotes around that they heard from their teacher than to think and analyze the Dharma for themselves.

The simple fact is that when I tried to explore Buddhist practice beyond Zen in those places, it was largely ignored or belittled.  I realized quickly that small and grass-roots is a better approach to practice and the Dharma. 

Rather than some fat American stuffing himself at a buffet, I am a farmer tending to my garden with the tools that serve me well.  In the end we all need to do that if we are to realize Buddha-Nature.  Sometimes that extends one’s practice outside of the set prescriptions of Buddhist practice.and into other areas.

The fact that my commitment is questioned because I am unaligned with a specific school is the most insulting part of this comment.  For the definition of commitment to be of someone else’s choosing and not my own is counter-productive.

“Can I join your Sangha?”

Friend, if you are reading this then you already have.



We are all hermits practicing on a mountain.  Thoughts?

Some other opinions on this topic:


18 thoughts on “Buddha’s Afterbirth: Organizational Buddhism

  1. I’m gonna dig into your post on D.Harvests. I promise not to be to hard on ya (hardy, har, har, har 🙂


    • Nathan. My brother in the Dharma. I would expect nothing less.

      On a different but somewhat related topic. Another contributer over at the Elephant Journal is a long-time yoga practitioner and has some great questions about Buddhism but tends to fall into the “Buddhism is so pessimistic” camp.

      I may toss him your way since you practice both yoga and Buddhism.



  2. Hey,

    The back-and-forth makes this into an argument that wasn’t my intention, but hey it’s your blog.

    I frankly think “unaffiliated” is a pretty stupid term.

    Your group of “misfits” sound like a Sangha to me. Practice is about showing up for our lives in every moment and then offering the benefits to others. For me, showing up is about literally showing up to practice zazen, but it is also being present for others in their practice. Sounds like you. But I never said you had to go anywhere special to do that. All I said is that’s what I do.

    My point about Daido and Trungpa was that for one to assume that committing to a certain lineage means that you can’t mix or match is a false choice. That goes for both the “unaffiliated” (hating that term more and more) who assume they will get hemmed in. And the “affiliated” who ignored and belittled you. It sounds like you didn’t listen to them and good on ya for that.

    As the unfortunately appointed stand-in for Organizational Buddhism, I’ll say that we do what we can to benefit as many people as possible. We can’t move our zendo to you, but there are hundreds of Organizational Buddhism’s talks that can be downloaded for free from anywhere (even S. Dakota!) and the people who pay dues to Organizational Buddhism and practice in a less outwardly eclectic way makes that possible.

    Thank you for your practice.

    • Bah! I’m in a mood today! 😀

      Thanks for the comments. I agree that it isn’t about where or even how you practice as long as you strive for (as you put it well) “to benefit as many people as possible”.

      I have been a podcast fan for the past 2 years and list several that are consistently updated in my “Resources” page. The “paying dues” are a touchy part for me but that is another story altogether. When “commitment” equals “give money” I tend to walk away.

      Either way, we are all brothers in the Dharma, whether we are in a fancy zendo or in my living room.



  3. I’m in favor of having different schools with their different practices. I practiced Zen (Kwan Um) for five years, all the while I was practicing Vippassana. No one new it. The only problem I had was starting kong-an (koan) practice. That’s why I stopped really.

    It’s all preference. If you don’t prefer any of it and just want to practice your own way, I don’t care. It doesn’t help Buddhism thrive though.

    Now I wish there to be a more robust Theravadan Sangha where I live. I hope maybe, someday, I can help make one. I really want there to be some kind of structure for Americans and westerners to be able to become monks or nuns.

    The point is, organization equals the continuation of the Dharma. With healthy centers and organizations, there are happier people striving towards enlightenment. There are places to go to ask questions. The introduction of Dharma into my life has changed me so profoundly that I want to help it survive. I want other people to have a chance to find peace.

    • Now I am not stating that there shoudln’t be Dharma centers nor would I advise against someone attending one. When I get a chance to attend any Dharma center I do.

      What I do have issue with is defining an “authentic” Buddhist by what Organization he/she is or is not affiliated with.

      I agree that Centers do help keep the Dharma alive. The way that I view a Dharma Center is that it is only an aspect of my practice. One that is not active right now b/c there are none in my area. There are two (used to be three) sitting groups that I try to interact and work with. I don’t know if that is affiliation or not. I am not Soto Zen nor am I Tibetan.

      I feel with you on the koans though. I am not a fan of koan meditation.

      Good luck with your practice. I hope that my rants were a benifit and not a detraction.



  4. No authentic, I agree. It’s been too long and too much history in the way to sort out who is the first one or oldest. Stupid really, the idea.

    Any dialog like this helps my practice.
    Thank you

  5. Hey John,

    New post is up. And sure, if the yoga/buddhist guy wants to hang out on my blog, he surely might find something of interest.


  6. faboo post as usual. it was on this issue that i connected to you in the first place. i won’t reiterate that here, but as your sangha mate i have to say GO GET SOME SLEEP! If you get too cranky we’ll start making you hang out with the squirrels 🙂

    now go ni ni, Boo


  7. Doesn’t “the sangha” also include all the bodhisattvas above a certain level, and those who are already buddhas (“the Buddha” in whom we take refuge being the Buddha of our era)? Tara, Avalokiteshvara, Jizo, Medicine Buddha are all part of the sangha for every practitioner.

    I live in an East Coast city with a fair spread of Buddhist centers and traditions. I may not show up for practice every week, but I have connections to a particular Tibetan Buddhist group, lineage, and center (a center with resident lamas, about a 45-minute drive from me). I myself don’t drive, so my choice of where to practice was greatly influenced by public transportation; it happened that the most accessible group was also a good match for me. But I understand limited access.

    I am happy to be part of your sangha.

  8. Jack, I appreciate your spacious view of this matter, especially as I spent nearly two decades in the world of organized Zen (as one of the organizers-in-chief!) and have now spent about three years (by choice) in the world of disorganized Zen.

    In my experience, both have their place in modern-day America – just as they did in Tang Dynasty China.

    One of the pitfalls of disorganized Zen, however, is that it may never produce a relationship with a genuine teacher. I’m not aware of anything in sangha (however defined) that duplicates the experience of a face-to-face encounter with a teacher who has attained their mind.

    This encounter has traditionally been at the heart of Zen training (that’s why it appears in roughly 90% of all koan stories) and continues today to encourage, challenge, threaten, confuse, stimulate and baffle all who experience it.

    While I don’t think that frequent contact with a teacher is essential, I encourage all of us to encounter a teacher at least once every year or two. In traditional Chinese and Korean training, a student might encounter a teacher only once or twice in his/her training (I don’t know how it was in Japan). For a dedicated student, that might be enough – first time to get a question, second time to present his/her attainment.

    Our mind-habits are subtle, elusive and persistent. Very few of us have the ability to penetrate them by ourselves. A good teacher can aspects of ourselves that we might otherwise never see. It’s unpleasant and uncomfortable – but that’s the work of Zen.

    Thanks for your fine blog and best wishes for the season,

    • Thanks for your comment, Barry. I agree that a teacher is important (but not central) to Buddhist practice. Many people constantly talk about being in steady contact with a teacher (face to face) and attending retreats b/c that is the way it is supposed to be.

      From my experience (and I think yours too, maybe) that relationship is historically limited to monks or at least lay-ordained practitioners. From the koans stories it is usually monks that are the central figures and not lay-deuches (sp?) like myself.

      In fact, some of what I read were correspondances (letters) b/t lay-persons and teachers and I wonder if modern technology couldn’t replace me travelling to Denver or further (at least 12 hours round trip) with Skype interviews or at least emails. I even made this suggestion with our small sangha since we usually get Roshi Wick from Great Mnt. Zen Center to come out here but it is difficult for him to come out sometimes and impossible for me to make the trip to Denver/Boulder.

      So, I suppose the best that I can say is that we need to seek out the teaching available to us. If I was in an area “with a teacher who has attained their mind” then I would be sure to at least introduce myself. To flat out disregard teaching that may benefit is folly, as is blindly following some one because they wear a bigger hat (or in this case bigger robe).

      Either way, I think that an experience with a teacher (or at least someone slightly further on the path) is a positive thing. But what about when that teacher only seems to be further on the path. That relationship can lead to abuse. We both are aware, I think, of those incidents.

      Take home message ~ Search diligently but carefully and don’t get swept away by another person’s shakti.



      Oh! Thanks for commenting and thanks for your fantastic blogs. Always and inspiration to my practice!

  9. This may be a rambling post- I’m a little tired right now.

    If the first was always the best, then we’d be driving Model T’s. It would be lovely to have the Buddha’s genuine words recorded in surround sound, but it ain’t gonna happen so I fail to see the point in the debate about who’s got the biggest Dhamma.

    Once you try to define the parameters you step away from truth. I view sangha the same as I view family: whomever you consider a part of your sangha, is. My main sangha has as many people online as in real life, and members of many traditions. I am unaffiliated because I refuse to be bound by another person’s estimation and definition of my practice. If I were into that, I never would have left the faith of my upbringing.

    It may sound like I won’t take teaching, but the opposite is true- I’d take teaching from anyone that presents themselves in a genuine, unaffected way. Teachers come in all shapes and sizes and traditions. You may have a teacher and not even know it. As for qualifications, it is for the student to decide whether they are sufficient, because it depends entirely on whether their developmental needs are being met.

    How many times have you heard a teacher say, “Nothing is true, including this statement”? It’s possible that Americans have latched onto an element of Buddhism that has been largely downplayed over time in other cultures- its adaptability. Sangha and practice are a personal thing, and trying to set limits on it is offensive as far as I’m concerned. I guess it works for some, but not me.

    An ‘authentic’ Buddhist is one who genuinely practices, and only that person knows whether it is genuine (if they’re lucky). Anyone who says otherwise is involved in an ego-construct that they wish to defend. You can’t put emptiness into an occupied place.

    _/l\_ Good night everyone!

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