By Addison Shierry
In Buddhism, the Sangha, or community, is one of the three precious jewels, and its role in the life of a practitioner is invaluable. The Sangha acts as family, close friend, support system, teacher and student – positions vital to a practitioner’s development and progression on the path.
However, the age in which we live does not always afford us the opportunity to spend as much time with our Buddhist brothers and sisters as we might like – an issue facing many members of our community on a very regular basis. For many months now, I have found myself in this exact situation as I juggle multiple jobs while pursuing a Master’s degree and attempting to fulfill the many commitments made to my partner, friends and family.
Fortunately, I have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a fellow member of my Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist family who has developed a system to overcome the dilemma of finding Sangha in a busy modern life.
In 1995, Tom Studer was attending college in Columbus, Ohio, and enrolled in a general philosophy course. It was in this course that Tom was first introduced to Tibetan Buddhism through the practice of the recitation of the bodhisattva Chenrezik’s mantra—Om Mani Peme Hung. This experience led Tom to seek out books on Buddhism to further his knowledge of the dharma.
In 1998, Tom moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where he had the opportunity to attend a dharma talk given at a local library by Lama Kathy Wesley, a Western teacher of the Karma Kagyu lineage. Three years later, Tom took refuge with Lama Kathy, and has since practiced dharma, attended retreats and made frequent visits to the Karma Thegsum Chöling Tibetan Buddhist Center in Columbus.
Tom found himself struggling to make the three-hour commute from Cincinnati to Columbus because of many of the issues that most of us face with our work life, familial obligations and other scheduling conflicts. Tom attempted to solve this problem by establishing a Buddhist study group in the greater Cincinnati area.
Things got off to a good start with the study group, but over time, Tom said, scheduling consistent meeting times that fit everyone’s schedules became exceedingly difficult. In search for an answer, Tom approached a dear friend, Carol Winkelmann, whom he knew had spent some time practicing meditation with another group in the same area.
“Carol had a friend who lived far enough away that in-person meetings were not possible and so the two coordinated meditation with each other through text messages,” Tom said. Immediately, Tom recognized the potential for this type of “Virtual Sangha” to succeed among the members of his own study group, and to solve the perpetual problems of coordinating schedules, increasing gas prices and familial obligations.
Tom’s question had always been “how to develop a consistent group practice without easy access to a KTC center?” But he soon discovered that through text messaging with the members of his dharma study group at specific times of day, he could coordinate a “virtual meditation session” between group members and friends from Cincinnati to Dayton, and as far away as Singapore.
Here’s how the Virtual Sangha works: Every morning, at an agreed-upon time, Tom sends out a group text message to his dharma friends, announcing the start of their morning practice session. Then, in their homes – wherever they are – his dharma friends hear the “ding” of his text message and start doing whatever practice they are committed to doing each day.
Some are doing shamatha, or quiet sitting meditation; others are doing their Mahamudra preliminaries, called Ngondro; still others are practicing visualization and mantra meditation (also called “deity” meditation).
About 45 to 60 minutes later, Tom sends out another text message to end the meditation session. His Virtual Sangha session – involving anywhere from one to six people around the world – is completed
As I spoke with Tom about this amazing development in his meditation community I wondered if he had any trouble maintaining the integrity of the practice since there were, in several cases, many miles separating the group members. Tom answered to the contrary, saying, “if the motivation and intention are the same, technology very much supports the act of visualization, which is integral to practices such as Ngöndro.”
For example, the simple “ding” of a text message sent to a group who are expecting it at a specific time of day for the sake of practice allows an accessibility to the idea, and even the feeling, of others practicing with you – a feeling that may not be so readily available to dharma students who struggle with such a practice.
Also, Tom says, “because of the agreement on a practice time among the members of the virtual Sangha, one can feel motivation and encouragement whether or not all members are practicing. The sound and reception of the message provides a sense of connection between those who are not physically near one another.”
As Tom described the chiming sound of the message, it was apparent that this notification, on whatever device a member of the virtual Sangha is using, serves as a cue, much like a singing bowl during a formal group meditation in a physical center.
While Tom admits that there are similar challenges to coordinating a virtual Sangha as there are to coordinating members of a traditional Sangha, he expresses the great benefit and inspiration the virtual Sangha has had on his keeping a daily practice. While he always wished he could be closer to a KTC center, the virtual Sangha has allowed Tom to establish connections with other people of the Buddhist community that he may not have had the opportunity of meeting in a center.
Tom said other meditators have expressed an interest in his virtual Sangha – even meditators who do not necessarily consider themselves to be Buddhist. “Because we focus more on meditation than book study, the virtual Sangha is open to everyone,” Tom said. “Each person of the Sangha practices from his or her own home, which allows for each practitioner to have an open meditation that focuses on his or her preferred practice, from shamatha meditation to deity meditation to Ngöndro, and so on. This open practice also allows a special connection to occur between those members who practice on different levels and in different styles.”
My conversation with Tom was enlightening as to the possibilities that technology can afford those who would benefit from the spiritual support of Sangha, but whose lives can be too hectic at times to be as involved in a traditional Sangha.
It seemed from our talk that a virtual Sangha can be as beneficial on as many levels as a traditional Sangha can be for practitioners in a Buddhist community. Currently, Tom’s virtual Sangha has steady participation from about six members, though as with a traditional Sangha, this number fluctuates.
Tom’s virtual Sangha is always open to new members. If you are interested in joining his group, send an email to email@example.com with your phone number and he will add you to the list of members that receive meditation notifications.
Now, years into practicing with a virtual Sangha, Tom wishes he would have known how simple it was going to be. “I wake up in the morning when my alarm goes off, I don’t have to get ready and drive for miles to practice with my Sangha, but only set up my altar, send a message that says ‘I’m here,’ and start my practice.”
How to Form Your Own Virtual Sangha
- Establish a leader and a fallback leader—Tom is the leader of his virtual sangha, and his fallback leader is his friend Carol. The role of the leader is to send the text messages that begin and end the meditation session. The fallback leader will assume these duties in the event that the leader is unavailable during the set meditation time.
- Communicate—spread the word about your virtual sangha among members of your traditional sangha with the instruction to send word to those members who exist on the fringe of the community for whatever reason (distance, time conflicts, familial obligations, work, etc.).
- Don’t be discouraged—keep going. The virtual sangha is extremely beneficial in keeping a steady practice—it is always easier if you know that someone is doing it with you, only in his or her space and you in yours.