Sharing Silence: The Beauty, Power, and Challenges of Sangha
A sangha is primarily a place for people to be alone together.
When two egos meet, there is a lot of noise. When two hearts meet, when the Heart meets itself in its purity, there is silence and light.
In 2015, scientists observed for the first time the collision of two black holes. As the incalculable masses approached each other, they produced a massive ripple of gravitational waves that could be recorded as sound, fluctuating based on the rotation of the black holes around each other. Then, as they merged into a single object, space went quiet.
The meeting of two souls can be like this: a burst of radiance, then stillness and empty space.
Human beings are social creatures. You are part of many communities from the moment you are born. Some are based on sheer proximity or circumstance, others on shared interests, lifestyle, or beliefs. From our closest group of friends right up to the global community of humanity, these interlacing circles form the structure of our lives as individuals. They give us meaning, reference points, and direction outside of the tiny bubble of our singular personality.
Any community provides a kind of self-reflection: if we don’t know who we are from within, we can identify ourselves in relation to a group.
Yet, a sangha is fundamentally different from other communities. Sangha members come together out of love for God and a desire for spiritual growth above all else. And so, the purpose of such a gathering is not to form new structures and identities but to demolish them.
Intimacy Born from Shared Silence
The other day I went down to the beach for a sunset swim. It was a typically beautiful Mazunte evening: the blazing afternoon sun finally going soft, reflections dancing pink and gold off the waves. Going into the water, I passed a good friend from the sangha as she stood contemplating the waves. She was sitting quietly by the rocks when I came out.
My first impulse was to go over and say hello, but then I remembered that we had both gone there for silence.
So instead, I sat down in the sand some distance away from her, and, together in our solitude, we watched the light fade over the horizon.
Later we laughed together over this “introverts’ hangout,” but recognized that there was a genuine sweetness and beauty in it.
The intimacy between members of a sangha is unlike that in any other kind of relationship—bonds formed in silence, beyond words, beyond the superficial layers of the personality. The connection born through sitting retreats together is particularly strong and mysterious, as many people who do even one can confirm. By the end of the retreat, you have never spoken to each other and maybe never will. You might speak briefly after breaking the silence and then go your separate ways. But you feel deep in your heart that you have made a friend for life.
Some of my closest friends are people I met in retreat, and by the final sharing, when we finally spoke for the first time, we already felt like we had known each other for years.
Indefinable Bonds within the Sangha
In a community where everyone practices and serves together, these bonds become an ever-expanding network of love. This power runs constantly below the surface of daily life.
Your brothers and sisters in the sangha are your mirrors, your shelter, your guiding light, and sometimes your jumper cables to shock you back into motion when you’ve stalled.
These interpersonal relationships are difficult to define. In ordinary life, most connections with others fit into one category or another: friend, partner, family, co-worker, acquaintance. There might be some overlap, some ambiguity, or change over time, but it’s usually not so hard to say what someone is to you at any given point.
With fellow members of the sangha, it isn’t so simple.
You might share a sense of intimacy with friends deeper than many romantic couples do. In communities like the Hridaya centers in Mazunte and Longeval, the people you serve with daily might also be your teachers or your students. In any case, they feel like family—sometimes more like family than your blood relations.
There may even be people in the sangha you don’t connect with on a personality level and would never go out of your way to spend time with, yet you love them so fiercely that you would die for them.
Growing Roots into Each Other
Thich Nhat Hahn has written often and very beautifully about the power of sangha. He says: “When you see that frontier exists [between yourself and others], you have to dismantle it in order to be one with persons in the same sangha as you, and to get roots in everyone in the sangha, and to allow other people in the sangha to get roots in you. If you are such a person, I am sure that you will be happy, and when you are happy, you will never want to leave the sangha.”
The roots of a tree stretch down into the earth as far as its trunk stands tall. As spiritual aspirants, as human beings, we can only fly as high as we are anchored in a foundation of love, humility, and care for others.
You must grow roots in others and allow others to grow roots in you, accepting an interconnection and interdependence, letting go of the illusion of self-sufficiency. Become soft and porous at the edges; honor your tenderness and the tenderness of others.
When Thich Nhat Hahn writes that you will never want to leave the sangha, we shouldn’t take it to mean that you should always stay in the same place. Sometimes it is time to take shelter in a spiritual community, letting the light in your heart grow where it is easily nourished and protected. At other times, life may call you to plunge back into the world, spreading the love and understanding that you have gained.
But when that network of roots has grown deep, no matter where you go, the sangha will never leave you.
Challenges and Opportunities
Living and practicing in such closeness with others is not always easy. It can be extremely challenging! Yet when there is an authentic aspiration for truth, even conflicts can provide an opportunity for deepening. They are the rough sandpaper that smooths and polishes you, rubbing down your sharp edges.
Your companions can stand as mirrors for the aspects of yourself that are difficult for you to see on your own or that you would rather not see, giving you the chance to bring awareness there as well.
The fellows who cause you contractions, the ones who seem to be causing more problems or just constantly rub you the wrong way, are, in fact, your most valuable teachers. They give you the chance to learn unconditional love, which is easy to talk about but more difficult to live.
Intimacy itself is a challenge since it calls for radical vulnerability. You must offer your heart with no clauses or conditions, fully aware and prepared to meet other beings exactly as they are.
Inspiring and Being Inspired
In a sangha, you start to see that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and you can learn to appreciate everyone for exactly who they are.
As well as developing compassion and acceptance for the very human imperfections of your fellows in the sangha, every one of them can become a great teacher and inspiration.
Everyone has unique gifts to offer. Some people have fire in their practice. Some are natural Karma Yogis, always there to serve and support. Others are a fountain of compassion. Some may have incredible concentration and depth of knowledge, while others radiate a charming simplicity and openness of the heart.
No matter what you might find lacking in yourself, someone else in the sangha has that exact quality in abundance, and most likely, they feel the same about some quality in you! When you spend enough time together, you’re bound to rub off on each other.
The grace of sangha is to hear just the right words at just the right time, to be constantly awed by your friends’ depth and beauty, and to know that even when you feel at your lowest, you are never alone.
Giving Hope for a Better World
In another reflection on sangha, Thich Nhat Hahn wrote: “It is said that the next Buddha will be named ‘Maitreya,’ the Buddha of Love. I believe that Maitreya might not take the form of an individual, but as a community showing us the way of love and compassion.”
The bonds within a sangha are living proof that human society is not doomed to conflict and destruction, as much as it might seem that way in the news.
Peace is possible. Living together in harmony and mutual support is possible. More than that, it is our very birthright, an expression of our True Nature, once all the veils and conditioning drop away.
This vision can ripple out from any community guided by love and commitment to Truth—and touch the entire world.
Naveen Radha Dasi is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.