I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
— The Three Jewels
The Three Jewels are common to all forms of Buddhism. The Buddha refers not only to Shakyamuni Buddha, but to all beings who have become enlightened. The Dharma is the Buddha’s teachings, handed down through countless generations in order to help followers awaken. And Sangha refers to “…the community of those who enjoy the jewels of refuge, who learn that teaching, seek that understanding, and work to embody that Dharma. They are consciously evolving toward being buddhas, sharing their understanding and bliss with others, as teachers of freedom to other beings, helping them discover these jewels.” Thurman, Robert. The Jewel Tree of Tibet. Free Press, 2005.
I got my first taste of Sangha at a Zen temple in Chelsea. A group of newbies sat on cushions surrounding the Abbess as she taught us the basics of meditation. The Abbess had a shaved head and wore layers of shapeless saffron robes, but I thought that she was beautiful. She radiated calmness and serenity, as I thought a good Abbess should, but her quiet humor was a pleasant surprise. It made her seem real, approachable. And it made her instruction less lofty and more accessible.
Over the years, I went to a number of Buddhist temples and meditation centers, eventually settling on a mindfulness meditation center in the Flatiron District, which quickly became my spiritual home. I had read countless volumes on Buddhism, but they didn’t begin to make sense on a practical level until I committed to this Sangha. I attended one series of classes after another on everything from meditation to the Four Noble Truths. I went to countless “sits” and special events featuring speakers who were rock stars in the Buddhist world. And I supported the Sangha through my attendance, my annual membership and through dana, donations given from the heart.
Ironically, I became less active at the meditation center when I lost my job in April of 2016. I should have had all the time in the world to attend sits and events. But I decided to write a book, and my days quickly fell into a rhythm of writing, building a social media empire to promote my book and going to the gym.
Visiting the meditation center became the farthest thing from my mind.
It wasn’t as if I had abandoned my meditation practice. Quite the opposite. I still sat daily at home. And most days my meditations were guided, courtesy of a few apps on my phone.
Meditation. Yes, there’s an app for that.
My favorite was Calm. It’s an easy-to-use, subscription-based application that features soundscapes like the beach or rain on leaves; a variety of sessions that are meant to be done on sequential days, such as “21 Days of Calm”; and, my favorite, “Today’s Daily Calm,” a 10 -to 12-minute guided mindfulness meditation that closes with a brief Dharma talk.
A month ago, a dear friend gave me a Muse meditation headband for my birthday. Muse is designed to teach people mindfulness meditation. You place the headband across your forehead, put on a pair of earphones and turn on the app. The headband senses your brain activity and provides feedback. If you’re calm, focusing on your breath, you’re rewarded by the sound of birds chirping and singing. If your mind begins to drift away from your breath, a storm will arise, only to disperse when your mind returns to what I call “the zone.”
Since I received my Muse, I have worn it during all of my seated meditation sessions. It is undoubtedly teaching my mind to recognize when I am in the zone. I am experiencing longer periods of being “calm,” when little birds are chirping and the rain is but a light patter on virtual leaves. I am sleeping better, which is one of the benefits promoted by the makers of Muse. Another touted benefit is migraine relief. I haven’t yet experienced this, but I remain hopeful.
In addition to my meditation apps and gadgets, I have a virtual Sangha of like-minded seekers who I met online. I consider some of the people who have interacted with this blog to be members of this “e-Sangha.” Others include online friends I have known for years who share their experience with Buddhism and other spiritual practices and support me on my quest.
While I believe that this virtual Sangha is every bit as “real” as the meditation center that I used to frequent, I don’t believe that it fills the same void. The Dharma can be taught online through blog posts, articles, classes and podcasts. But there is a huge difference between receiving the Dharma face to face from a teacher in real time and reading or listening to it online. There is something to be said for being able to ask questions and for hearing other people’s questions. There’s something to be said for building a relationship with a teacher and with other students, other members of the Sangha.
And while meditating at home alone is my norm even when I am an active member of a meditation center, there is something incredibly powerful — almost magical — about meditating in a group…in a Sangha. The sense of calmness is deep and profound. It infuses each meditator. It permeates the room.
I love Calm and Muse and plan to continue to use them in my daily meditation sessions. I believe that they, especially Muse, are useful tools that should be made available to all meditators, after they receive meditation instruction from a live teacher. But it’s clear to me that I need to become active in a real world Sangha again. I can’t afford to carelessly cast one of the three jewels aside.
Are you a member of a Sangha or other religious/spiritual organization? Do you practice alone as well? Has technology changed your relationship to your religious/spiritual organization? If so, how and was it for the better?