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Is A Sangha Necessary?

A reader writes:

Just found your website. Thank you for putting such great content available for all to see. I got into Buddhism because of a friend. She is part of the NKT and that’s all the Buddhism that I know. Due to their dispute and protests, I no longer want to be involved with the NKT. I would like to continue my studies. How do I pick a buddhist lineage to follow? How can you learn about Buddhism without a sangha?

My Response:

I discussed the debate over the NKT (Lamas, Geshes and Cults… It’s the NKT!) last year, and nothing has really changed there. The organization has some problems with its image, to say the least.

I did a brief overview of most of the major denominations back in 2008. Here are the links:

Denominations of Buddhism: Theravada & Mahayana

Denominations of Buddhism: Pure Land

Denominations of Buddhism: Vajrayana / Tantric

Denominations of Buddhism: Tibetan

Zen, Part one and Zen, Part two as well as Zen, Part three and Zen, part four

Just from the number of links above, you can probably guess where I’m coming from. If you are seriously looking for a local church/sanga, you are most likely going to find many that follow the Pure Land or Tibetan traditions; at least those are the ones I see most commonly in the Midwestern USA.

One of the three Jewels (The Buddha, The Sangha, and the Dharma) is obviously the “Sangha.” This has traditionally meant the local Buddhist community. In our Western minds, this often translates to “Church,” but this is not really correct. Any gathering, grouping, or community (in the real-world OR online) of Buddhists can be considered a Sangha.

Your best bet if you cannot find a local sangha, or don’t like the teachings of the ones that are nearby, is to go it alone. This is completely possible, since we have the greatest method of learning and teaching ever created right in front of our faces. The Internet is your friend. Watch Youtube videos. Listen to podcasts. Buy/Borrow books. Join forums. You can be as interactive or as isolated as you desire.

Back in ancient times (like pre–2000), it was necessary to have a local sangha or teacher to advance, since there was very little in the way of non-face-to-face interaction between Buddhists, and the material that was out there was poorly translated or difficult to understand. You could order books and pamphlets, but nothing like it is now. You want a live, real, face-to-face teacher? Facetime and Hangouts make that easily possible.

Can you teach yourself Buddhism? Up to a point, yes. Can you advance a long ways using just the Internet? I believe you can. Can you reach Enlightenment on Facebook? OK, that last one might be stretching it, but I believe that it’s entirely possible to do it from home.

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