Commentary by Sebo Ebbens
Sangha as herd
Some discussions within the sangha have produced in me a number of feelings about our sangha, which I would like to share with you. I have tried to express these feelings in this article. As a basis for my reasoning, I will start by discussing the difference between a mob, a herd and a community. I have taken this from a book by Korteweg and Voigt (Helen of delen [Healing or sharing], 1990, chapter 2). Their thoughts have helped me to gain a better understanding of and a firmer grasp on the functioning of learning communities, and of spiritual communities in particular. The theme of learning communities has intrigued me for a long time. To come straight to the point, I think our sangha is usually more of a herd than a spiritual community. I’ll explain further.
Mob, herd, and community
The three-fold division made by Korteweg and Voigt describes a developmental process. They say that a mob is focused on idols, as at a football match or a pop concert. The individual is taken over by the mob and becomes part of it; and worships the idol – the football player or the pop star – as one entity. Individuals have no personal responsibility. It is not an expression of one’s own personality.
If the mob becomes a smaller collective group with a more personal character, we call it a herd. A herd focuses on common ideals or common values. Examples are a church, or an organization like Greenpeace or the WWF. You become a member because you share the same values.
If the connection is stronger, the herd then has a large degree of community spirit: you share the same goals. At the same time, however, free thinking or feeling does not exist: viewpoints must express the values of the herd. There can be no criticism of its aims or methods: ‘that simply isn’t done’ or ‘you just don’t say that’ are often heard. Sects are a degenerated example of this.
This is why some people sometimes don’t feel at home in a herd. These people feel the need to control their own lives, the need for authenticity. They no longer want to be guided by the common social values of the herd, but to follow their own values and learn about them. This choice means that you go through life alone, because you can only follow your own conscience. In addition, you seek connections with people with whom you can travel the same road. This means you usually have to go through a period of loneliness or being alone in order to make those connections. When you have found that group, you enter a community (I call it a community; Voigt and Korteweg call this a circle). A characteristic of a community is that it usually is temporary and that it stimulates you to make your own personal journey. In a talk about this with Dale Asrael (one of our Acharyas) she said that the community might also stimulate you to leave the community if necessary, because you would be better off following another path. The community doesn’t push. The principal characteristic of the community is that it helps you to realize your human potential and to express yourself in the real world, whether within or without the community.
I would like to illustrate my viewpoint that our sangha is more of a herd than a spiritual community on the basis of two examples. One example comes from the Shambhala Mountain Centre (SMC, also a part of our sangha) where I have the pleasure of staying for four weeks every summer, as a teacher at Naropa University. The other example comes from our own sangha in the Netherlands.
The first example: the Sakyong was about to arrive at SMC after an extended period of absence. It was suggested that we all go to the shrine tent to welcome him there. Suddenly someone shouted that we should go and stand by the road and everyone should take a little flag to wave on his arrival. The flags were next to the tent entrance. Everyone ran to the road with their little flag. After a while a car with blacked-out windows drove by. Everyone waved. My first thought was that there might not even have been anybody in the car. You couldn’t see anything. I felt embarrassed, and like part of a herd, nearly part of a mob. There was something extraordinarily stupid about standing there waving a flag with everybody else without seeing the Sakyong.
The second example: over the last few years I have attended a number of courses. At two of these courses I felt that the manner of teaching was inadequate; in the others it was perfectly satisfactory. On one occasion I reported this to the board as well as to the teacher concerned (who ultimately reacted well). But the initial response made me feel that criticism should not be expressed. Or that it should be expressed differently, in another tone of voice or with another sentence construction. It was clear that we don’t know how to react to a message such at that: you shouldn’t say anything about the quality of the teaching. The inadequacy of the second teacher was discussed extensively by the group that participated in the course. But the teacher knows nothing of it, as far as I know. For that matter, that is also not done. Here, too, there is evidence of a herd: the teacher always deserves to be praised. And of course that’s true. But even teachers deserve their own individual paths. Another herd characteristic is to toast the teacher and to sing his or her praises. And to praise each other. Always. That’s how it ought to be.
Sangha as spiritual community
I could also give other examples. Consider the way we follow Eva Wong, who was asked to rearrange the building of Shambhala Amsterdam. She proposed to change the beams in the shrine room: a very expensive operation. There was not a real discussion about this proposal and it happened as proposed. I personally think that beams in the meditation room are acceptable. Or how we propagate the idea of enlightened society even if we don’t demonstrate it. But to me the examples are not the point.
To me what’s important is that I want the sangha to be a spiritual community where we support each other in following our own path, in our practice as well as in our daily lives, while maintaining respect for each other’s personal paths. Our path is a difficult one. It is a solitary path. But if we are members of the sangha, this is the path we have chosen. In that sense the sangha is a spiritual community and not just a social club. The sangha does not function as a spiritual community if we can no longer say what we think because that isn’t done. Or where we can hide behind what is done or not done or behind what someone else says. We develop for ourselves what is done and what is not, within our own tradition. That makes us a living spiritual sangha.
Things are never as bad as they seem. Of course there are moments in our sangha when I feel that we do manifest as a spiritual community. Of course our sangha is also made up of some outstanding people. In addition, there are many satisfying weekends and good courses organized by all those members. But in one way or another, herd thinking quickly creeps in. If we were asked, everyone in our sangha would have a different view of what is and isn’t acceptable in the sangha.
And this article… is this acceptable?
Sebo Ebbens is a long time member of Shambhala in Amsterdam. By profession he is a teacher trainer. He also taught at Naropa University in Boulder for several years in the Department of Contemplative Education. His web site is Center for Contemplative Practices .
Herd photo is from Zimtours.com