Last night, I participated in an interfaith concert event called Tangible Hope, which was put together by the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative (MIC). Every year we have an interfaith summit event, but this was the first year is was turned into a concert at the Wilma Theater.
It was a wonderfully diverse concert, starting with bagpipes and ending with a Christian rock band, with a hand bell ensemble, community choir, and local singer/songwriter sandwiched in between. Included in the mix were also a couple of speakers and two storytellers, which is where I came in.
After weeks of preparation and a workshop session with our local storytelling pro Marc Moss, who runs Tell Us Something here in Missoula, here’s what I came up with along the topic theme of Tangible Hope:
In the fall of 2002, when I was 23 years old, I started a weekly meditation group called Be Here Now, based in the Buddhist tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. And for the first 8-years, I was the sole facilitator of the group. Flash-forward to present day, we are now over 15 years old and have grown from a small meditation group into an active, vibrant, and relatively large sangha. And in Buddhism, the word sangha means: spiritual community. In our tradition, sangha is one of the most important and highly emphasized components that we are called to develop and strengthen in our daily lives. Sangha is an action verb; and it’s a quality of heartfulness that propels us in the direction of cultivating brotherhood and sisterhood. And for me, when I practice to fully embody the spirit of sangha, I’m also able to encounter it wherever I go.
As an example: I remember a time a few years ago when I was standing in a long security line at the LAX airport. I had just spent 4-weeks on a retreat at Deer Park monastery, which is based in our tradition located in southern CA, so I went from this beautiful, sequestered and quiet environment to a place that was decidedly quite different: LAX. And as I was standing in that security line a wonderful insight arose, which was that I didn’t feel as though I had left a lovely setting with my extended sangha friends and was now tossed into a hectic and unpleasant environment filled with grumpy strangers; I felt as though I had simply transitioned from one sangha to another – from my monastery sangha to my air traveling sangha. This insight allowed me to interact with the space and the people around me in a different way – a way that was more open, friendly, caring, and kind. So, when I look and operate through the lens of sangha I experience it wherever I go, all around me because I carry it with me and I actively create it.
Our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that sangha is more than a community, it’s a deep spiritual practice. So, it involves relationship building, spending time together, learning how to communicate and negotiate with various personalities and ways of doing things – it involves interacting with everyone around us in a way that promotes love and connection. And oftentimes the work of sangha building, of community and relationship building, is not easy. I’m reminded of our very first Be Here Now council meeting, which took place in November of 2010. There were 7 of us in attendance and it was the first time we were delving into the group becoming more of a collective endeavor, vs. just me holding down the fort. People shared a wealth of feedback and input mostly centered around all the changes they wanted to see have made; things we weren’t doing that we should be doing, things we were doing that we shouldn’t be doing, format adjustments, and so on. And what I recall most about this first meeting is getting home afterwards and breaking down crying. I was so overwhelmed, wondering how we would be able to incorporate everyone’s ideas and changes they wanted to see made and I was filled with worry that the simplicity and loveliness of our group was going to be lost. So, while it took some time to adjust and find our way together as a council and we had some growing pains, it was also the most beneficial thing we could’ve done to help ensure the health and vibrancy and stability of our group. So while it’s often challenging to do this work of sangha building, it’s also incredibly important that we do it.
And I’m so very grateful to be part of a tradition that ushers us in this direction and that we have the great fortune to be partners with the MIC in this regard, so that we can extend our capacity for sangha building outwards to include our interfaith sangha, which then ripples out to include our citywide Missoula sangha, our statewide Montana sangha, our nationwide American sangha, and our global worldwide sangha. Because the good news is: we’re all in this together, truly, there is no separation. And for this reality – and the opportunity that we have to be part of this interfaith collaborative – I am filled with joy and appreciation, because it’s this work that will allow us to continue beautifully into the future.