Wednesday, 12 September 2007

A 21st Century Sangha

Half a decade ago, as an undergraduate studying Philosophy at The University of Montana and a newly enthralled Buddhist practitioner, I started the "UM Campus Sangha." It quickly grew to two people, sometimes three, but then petered out. I was a bit of a geek, with little personal charisma and even less in organizing skills, but I tried it again the following year, and the year after.

Nothing really stuck. Then last year, returning to UM as a graduate student in Philosophy and given the chance of a lifetime to teach a 150+ student Intro to Buddhism course, I gave the sangha another try. This time I had the help of some highly motivated students (my students!?) and the sangha was reborn.

Over the year we did a variety of meditations, concentrating on the two I knew best from the FWBO, the Mindfulness of Breathing and Development of Loving-kindness (Metta Bhavana). For over a month we closely studied and discussed the metta sutta. We even capped off last spring with a short retreat outside of town.

But now I have left UM for studies in London and need advice: what should the sangha do now? What ideas or projects could help maintain this now entirely student-led group? What is the key, if there is one, to a successful young sangha in the 21st century?

I will say that they are off to a great start, contacting area sanghas:
Osel Shen Pen Ling, Ewam, Open Way, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, and Vipassana MT to bring in experienced meditators each month as well as to take 'field trips.' They also have done their bit for outreach, holding a booth at the back-to-school "welcome feast" on the first Friday of classes.

But what now? Looking forward to your comments and advice.


  1. Congratulations on the success of this project Justin. It sounds to me as if they are taking the right sort of approach - forging links with local Buddhist groups, monasteries etc sounds like a good idea to give them strong links to experienced practicioners and opportunities for retreats, visiting teachers etc.

    Hope it continues to go well.


  2. In case you were wondering, I'm playing with my blogger name - partly because I'm not the only Justin. Subject to further tweaking.

  3. So far it sounds like they are off to a great start Justin. Students come and go, so the key is to encourage at least a few students from different years to take leadership and constantly help bring others along. I've seen groups crumble because they did not plan for passing on the torch.


  4. Hey guys - thanks for the encouragement. I think the question of what 21st century 'sanghas' look like will be an interesting one over the coming years. It is really tough for people who want to get groups going but don't have a clue about what makes them work, especially in isolated areas where there aren't many roll models to go check out.

    Student groups, campus and/or high school also pose their own sets of challenges, especially with turnover as you point out, Nacho. (oh, and I love the new picture of you with the bald-headed guy)

    Anyhow - I'll probably give an update every few months as I keep in touch with them from abroad.

  5. Great efforts to get sangha happening on campus. I facilitate on my campus and usually have 2-3 people. I am also invited to classes to talk about meditation from time to time. Since we meet every day for 20-minutes, it is somewhat a different animal.

    You may wish to inquire about what Michael Nagler does at University of California, Berkeley. I seem to recall that students in his "regular" class on Gandhi can also take a "lab" once a week on meditation. It meets on alternating days from the lecture class.