Choosing a sangha and tradition

Robert McLune, modified 7 Years ago at 4/21/15 12:41 AM
Created 7 Years ago at 4/21/15 12:40 AM

Choosing a sangha and tradition

Posts: 255 Join Date: 9/8/12 Recent Posts
I have been manfully banging my head of the meditation wall for a few years now. I think my next move has to be to identify a local sangha that works for me. My hope is that such a place would give me general encouragment to keep at it, and maybe specific help and advice. I'd appreciate any comments on my thought process so far:

I've whittled down my options to three, based on three factors of interest to me:
  • Do they have a strong local presence -- i.e. do they meet regularly, are they known to be open to newbies, etc
  • Do they come from a tradition that I trust and find "fits" my approach
  • Are there any additional positive or negative factors I find relevant
So I have a shortlist of three. Here they are, with a view on each of the above factors:
  • Tibetan, of the Shambhala -- i.e. Chogyam Trungpa-based --subtype
    • Local presence: GOOD. They have a local office, with lots of activity, social grouping and so on
    • Underlying tradition: MODERATE: If it was straight Tibetan, e.g. Gelugpa, I'd mark this very good. But I mark it only moderate because I don't know how far Shambhala is from the various major Tibetan school/sects. Trungpa was highly unorthodox, but I can't tell if that's good or bad. However, that leads to the next criterion:
    • Other points: VERY BAD. The widely reported activities of Chogyam Trungpa, including alcohol abuse,and the activities of his HIV posirive successor, Ösel Tendzin, leave me wanting to give those guys a very wide berth.
  • Theravadan, specifically Burmese;
    • Local presence MODERATE: There is a Burmese temple in my city, with several resident monks. But they have an offputting neutral response to newbies. Apparently you can do stuff (like give them food while crawling across the floor on your tummy), and they will then deign to teach you. But even that's very unclear.
    • Underlying tradition: VERY GOOD. They seem to be Mahasi-style trained, and are fully aware of the debates over samatha and vipassana. 
    • Other points: NEUTRAL. The only problem is their lack of support or newbies. But that may simpy be because they themselves are new
  • Soto Zen, one of San Francisco Zen Center's outreaches
    • Local presence EXCELLENT: They sit zazen twice a day, have regular dharma talks, and a host of other community stuff
    • Underlying tradition ?????: See below. This is a major issue for this radition
    • Other points: NEUTRAL. On the one hand, the sangha seems strong and cohesive. On the other hadn ... well look at the line of "?????" above. What exactly *is* Zen. Is it even Buddhism?
Summing up, my ideal would probably be to have a traditional Tibetan group.  But I don't have that.
Next would be a newbie-friendly Therevadan group. But I don't have that either.

But that leaves Zen. Locally, it's a flourishing sangha which is a key requirement. But here's the problem. If I stand back from all three types and consider the extent to which each looks like Buddhism, I'd have to say that Zen looks like it's onw invention. Consider:
  • No notion of samaha vs vipassana
  • No details maps such as MCTB provides for vipassana
  • In general, a needlessly crypic view of things, with teachers reveling in their paradoxes
  • From a distance, and in the eyes of a newb like me, it's not hard to suspect that Zen hs little if anything to do with the kind of Buddhism Dan Ingram describes in MCTB
Any comment/advice? Especially, can anyone disavow me of my suspicions that Zen isn't Buddhism? If I could convince myself that it has as much of a useful theoretical background as Mahasi-style Theravaden practice, I'd find it a lot easy to make some kind of commitmment, but as it stands I'm not there yet.
thanx.
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CJMacie, modified 7 Years ago at 4/21/15 8:53 AM
Created 7 Years ago at 4/21/15 8:43 AM

RE: Choosing a sangha and tradition

Posts: 856 Join Date: 8/17/14 Recent Posts
Hi Robert,

I might suggest adding the consideration of looking for an individual teacher whose presence, teaching impresses, inspires. This factor seems prominent when one reads various self-histories of notable pracitioners / teachers. Involves hanging-out listening to talks, maybe requesting an interview to see what response is like to your concerns and manner.

"…Theravadan, specifically Burmese … There is a Burmese temple in my city…"

Just curious: Which city / temple do you mean? I know a monastery in San Jose where the sangha / monks are Burmese-Mahasi, but the congregation ("devotees") are Vietnamese. I think there are also other Burmese groups in the Bay Area, and have seen on the internet that there's a retreat center off in the woods somewhere in Northern Calif, but I think that may be affliated with the PaAuk branch of Burmese Theravada – at least that the (current) Sayadaw goes there when he's in the area.

My experience (at the San Jose Tathagata Meditation Center) is that the retreat protocol is stricly Mahasi noting-noting-noting vipassana, by the book, but a couple of times (during / after weekend retreats) I've had brief informal interviews with the current abbot and found him very friendly and responsive to discussing more general questions -- about samatha and points that came up in his dharma-talks which I recognized from my readings in Abhidhamma and had questions about. That is to say, the instructions in the retreat handbook are very (Mahasi) strict about what to report in a retreat interview during the long retreats (7-30+ days), but interviews outside of that context apparently can be free-form, more informal.

"…my suspicions that Zen isn't Buddhism? If I could convince myself that it has as much of a useful theoretical background as Mahasi-style Theravaden practice…"

My (not that informed) impression is that deep-down, Zen has all the good stuff in there, so to speak, but on the surface is heavily culture-bound by a Japanese way of doing things. Mixing in the fact that Zen center leaders now are mostly Americans (second generation after the Japanese founders), which probably adds a further layer of cultural interpretation.

Again, being by no means an expert on things Zen, I'd still suspect (agree with you) that it's quite different than the Theradan theoretical framework (Pali Canon), which, btw, I think is fairly uniform across the Burmese, Thai, SriLankan etc. versions, despite the superficial differences between these, as in, for instance, the Burmese Mahasi style (trains 1st in vipassana) vs the Burmese PaAuk style (trains 1st in samatha).

Good luck on your quest.
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Richard Zen, modified 7 Years ago at 4/22/15 8:32 AM
Created 7 Years ago at 4/22/15 8:32 AM

RE: Choosing a sangha and tradition

Posts: 1656 Join Date: 5/18/10 Recent Posts
Maybe you are aware of this but many posters on here keep wanting to return to this site because of the politics in any real group environment. Secondly a sangha may emphasize certain practices over others and an environment like this allows anything that works from any tradition. If you have a motivation problem maybe a local sangha can increase that but maybe the opposite. Just something to keep in mind.
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Dream Walker, modified 7 Years ago at 4/22/15 10:33 AM
Created 7 Years ago at 4/22/15 10:33 AM

RE: Choosing a sangha and tradition

Posts: 1454 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
Robert McLune:
I think my next move has to be to identify a local sangha that works for me. My hope is that such a place would give me general encouragment to keep at it, and maybe specific help and advice. I'd appreciate any comments on my thought process so far:

Any comment/advice?
In very specific terms can you list exactly what you wish to get from a local sanga? Kinda vague so far. -
  • works for me
  • general encouragment
  • specific help and advice
~D
Jigme Sengye, modified 7 Years ago at 4/22/15 11:52 AM
Created 7 Years ago at 4/22/15 11:52 AM

RE: Choosing a sangha and tradition

Posts: 188 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Robert, a decent Soto Zen center will teach you excellent concentration skills through breath meditation. Once you develop decent and consistent daily practice habits, if you find that the technique isn't leading you in the direction you want, switching to Mahasi-style vipassana wouldn't be hard at all. If you're interested, I'd be happy to teach you the way of doing Mahasi-style vipassana that was taught to me by Kenneth Folk, free of charge. It's an open-ended offer, so if you try Zen for a few years and don't get what you want out of it, look me up and we can go over the way I do vipassana over skype.

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