Guidelines for Building a Buddhist Community

Sangha in the West

In the West, the word “sangha” is used for members of a Dharma center or group of centers, almost like an equivalent for the members of a church, the “congregation” as it is called in English. This is not at all a traditional usage of the word “sangha” – the monastic community – but it has become a convention in the West. We need to be quite clear on what it does refer to and what it doesn’t refer to. It does not refer to the Sangha Gem, the community of highly realized beings, the “aryas” – those with non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths and emptiness (voidness).

But regardless of what we call our Buddhist community – a “sangha” or otherwise – there are many guidelines in the monastic rules of discipline, the monk’s vows, that might also serve as guidelines for how to build such a community. In general, it is very important for the members of a Buddhist group to:

  • Work together harmoniously
  • Have as its main activity to be learning, practicing and meditating together
  • Support each other in that activity
  • Work to benefit others
  • Do all of this, as much as possible, free of a samsaric motivation.

In this way, we can exert an enlightening influence on each other, and also exert a positive influence on the community around us. So long as we stay intent on a positive goal, the literal meaning of the Tibetan word for “sangha,” and that goal is liberation and enlightenment.

Let us look at some of the guidelines from the monastic, bodhisattva and tantric vows that can help us within this context.

Guidance from the Monastic Vows

Even if our Buddhist community is made up completely of laymen and laywomen, and there are no monks and nuns, the monastic vows are quite relevant since Buddha designed them for building a harmonious spiritual community.

Not to Lie to Each Other about Our Practice or Attainments

We are dealing with each other in terms of Dharma, of practice, and so we need to be quite honest about it, not pretend to have great attainments, or pretend we are doing intense or advanced practice when we are not; don’t pretend to be a great yogi when you are not. Also not to hide our faults; when we are in the Dharma center, we may pretend to be very disciplined or ethical, but once outside we get drunk and do drugs, and then we pretend that that is not the case. Be honest with each other, do not lie. Be straightforward particularly about practice, because something that we can share with each other is our experience, what we are learning, things that we have done. Some people might feel that it is rather awkward to talk about meditative experiences, but I think it is important to share our experience in trying to apply Dharma to daily life. If we have been very lazy and have not done anything, let’s not lie about it.

That brings up a whole topic that can be very helpful to discuss with our Dharma friends, which is, what do you do when you don’t feel like practicing? We all have had periods like that, so how do you deal with it?

Not to Speak Harshly to Each Other

The next point is not to speak abusively to each other, call each other bad names, or yell at each other, but to speak politely to each other. To be polite does not mean that we have to be formal in terms of our language, but just generally be polite. I am referring to your manners, your way of relating, the whole atmosphere. You don’t say things like, “Hey you, move that over there!” Use “please” and “thank you”. “Please, could you be more quiet?” rather than “shut up!” We are in a place where we are trying to develop respect, so it is also important to show respect to each other, and not speak roughly or abusively.

Not to Slander Each Other

Don’t say false things about each other, making up stories and these sorts of things. That is not helpful at all. Don’t make false accusations at each other. “You didn’t come because you were lazy.” You don't really know why a person didn't show up to help out on a project or attend a meeting; maybe they were sick. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Not to Strike Each Other

Don’t hit or raise your hand against another member. That probably will not happen too frequently, but it is in there in the vows. I was just thinking, among the monks’ and nuns’ vows, is the vow not to tickle, but I didn’t include that in the lesson. It is not nice if you go up and tickle somebody sitting in meditation. You are not supposed to splash water either.

Not to Deliberately Cause Anxiety or Worry in Each Other

For example, somebody laid down a Dharma scripture and you say, “Be careful or you will go to hell.” Or it could be something like, “Oh, you are not going to this retreat, that’s very bad” to make them feel guilty. “You didn’t come to class on Monday! What kind of monk are you?” We try not to deliberately make others worried or anxious.

Not to Criticize Later Decisions That Are Made as a Group

If you give your consent for the performance of a formal act by the community in accordance with the Dharma, then don’t turn against this later on, criticizing and disapproving what was done. For example, the community, the Dharma center, comes together and decides as a whole to get a new center, or to invite a certain teacher, or to get a statue or something for the center, and you agree to it. Don’t later say, “Oh, that was wrong,” disapprove and criticize. This is part of how to live in harmony. The monastic institutions do things by consent, a consensus that people agree to. It is a fairly democratic type of institution. In line with that, when you give your approval, then go along with what is done. You should not cause problems and waves later on. When we agree as a Dharma center to do something, of course it is not going to go exactly as we planned as a group, and it certainly is not going to go exactly as planned in our own minds. However, if you agreed on a certain policy, or on a certain project, then you are actually engaged in doing it. You should not cause problems. But, as both Shantideva and Atisha have advised, consider very well whether or not you can actually finish a project before you decide to undertake it.

Not to Disparage Others When They Do Things Differently from the Way We Do

Suppose that somebody has been appointed by the group to do something for the center, and this person is doing it properly in accordance with the Dharma. Do not disparage them if they happen to be doing it in a different way than we would do it. You may not say, “You are doing it terribly, you are no good” to them, but you might yell at them, because in your own mind you would do it slightly differently. You need to avoid even such thoughts.

Of course, everybody is going to do things differently. This happens all the time in a Dharma center. One person is chosen to do something and all agree, and then you give this person a hard time though they are doing it right. If they are not doing it right, of course you need to correct them. But even in correcting someone or giving advice, let us say if they are a little bit lost in how to do it, one tries to do it politely, not speaking abusively as we heard before. “You are stupid, you are incompetent, you are no good.”

Not to Avoid Participating in Making a Group Decision

When a decision has to be taken about some issue, the monastic community gets together to decide. Likewise, Dharma center members need to get together from time to time to decide certain policies, or things that we want to do with the center, and you should not leave before the issue is decided or without making your vote known before you leave. It is one of the monks’ vows and that is important in coming together to decide something, so you give your vote. You must give your opinion even if you have to leave early.

This raises quite an interesting issue: how democratic do we want the Dharma centers to be? Do we have some sort of board of directors and how do they function? Are they members of the Dharma center or are they just people who come casually? In a monastery there are members and people who just visit. Likewise, in a Dharma center there will need to be actual committed members of the community, but also there will be people who just casually drop in. I think also that it is important in a Dharma center to have actual members. How do you define a member, in terms of money that they pay, or in what terms do you want to define it? That is something for the community to decide. Obviously, there needs to be people who actually are the administrators, as you have in a monastery.

In terms of actually doing the physical work at a monastery, like the one I am most familiar with, Ganden Monastery, the monks take turns to clean the temple, take care of the altar, and things like that, because that can be a full time job. So everybody would take a turn, like say, for one month. They might not be able to really focus on their studies and so on because they are taking care of the cleaning, but people take turns and it is not as though somebody is the permanent slave. In this way, everybody has equal time for study and practice and everybody shares in the actual physical work.

As members of a center, it is important to follow this monastic model, by which the members decide what the policies are, what they want to do. For example, in some centers I know, the so-called committee decides that the Dharma center is going to have an intensive study-program of this or that major text, whereas the actual members are not interested, and the committee members don’t even go to the classes, so they don’t know what the people really want. They do that and nobody comes, or only one or two people come. So if you are going to decide what activities the Dharma center is going to do, then it is important that the members participate in that decision, otherwise people will not come. What do you want to do? Do you want to do pujas, do you want to study, or do you want to do silent meditation? What, specifically, do you want to do? So the regular members actually vote and decide. Of course, it is always going to be difficult to get a consensus where absolutely everybody agrees, but once the decision has been made, then go along with it. That is what we talked about earlier, you don’t complain and make a lot of trouble over it. If you don’t like that type of policy, don’t come, don’t participate. But if you are going to come and the people have agreed on the program that they want to do, then go along with it.

One of the features of Sangha in the Zen tradition is that everybody works harmoniously together. So do not run it like a dictatorship. When a center is part of a larger organization of many centers; then many problems may come up. I have seen this all over the world. There is a central board for this empire of centers and they dictate a policy, and in one particular place or another belonging to this organization, people are not interested in that type of program. So they break away and there is a lot of trouble, with mutual accusations, “You stole my Dharma center,” and all this sort of stuff. This is very sad. I think even within these large organizations, the individual centers need a considerable degree of autonomy. If you look at the Tibetan example, you should not think that every monastery within a tradition is like a Xerox copy of each other. They are not. The various monasteries will emphasize one thing or another. It might be primarily a study monastery or it might be primarily a ritual monastery. That is allowed within the larger umbrella of Kagyu or Sakya or Nyingma or Gelug. They come from the same lineage and honor the same lineage teachers, so in that sense they hold together, but within that, one allows for variety just as Buddha did.

Buddha taught many different ways to different people. It is sad when the Dharma center is run by a committee that has little contact with the day-to-day activities, and with the ordinary members. I think this monastic model of a more democratic approach is very important. Whether or not this is actually followed by the modern monasteries, the original model was certainly like this. Great lamas, who are the spiritual heads of Dharma centers and Dharma organizations, of course may make recommendations and suggestions, the senior students may also make suggestions, but it is quite important to take those as suggestions or recommendations, and not as orders from the general in an army. You can discuss them, you decide together: “Is this really what we want to do?” If it is something that the people don’t really want to do; then you go very politely to the teacher, or to the senior members, and say: “People really are not very enthusiastic about this. Could you please explain a little more clearly why you think that it would be helpful for us to do this?” If you really cannot do it, you say, “I am sorry, we cannot do that.” “We don’t have enough money to build a new center,” for example. “We don’t have enough financial support.” Be honest with the teacher. Again, once we have decided as a community that we are going to do something, then do it, don’t cause problems. When we put somebody in charge of doing it, again, try to be helpful to them, don’t criticize and give them a hard time, because obviously they are not going to do it exactly the way that we wanted it.

Not to Correct a Member’s Unethical Behavior

This is quite important in the monastic communities, the members need to follow the teachings, especially the ethical guidelines, in their behavior. It is the group’s responsibility to tell somebody who is not observing them that they need to do so. It is not just scolding them, but also, obviously, we can help them; the point is not to just make them feel guilty. It is one of the secondary bodhisattva vows not to do anything that would cause people to think badly of the Dharma. We are Buddhists, we are members of a Buddhist center, it is important that individual members don’t give a bad name to the center or to Buddhism by acting improperly. So if somebody is doing that, then it is our responsibility to tell them to stop and try to correct them.

For instance, some men can use sexual innuendos in their speech and if they go to a Dharma center they speak to women in an abusive way. I have heard this also in the center. If this person makes a woman feel uncomfortable, you want the Dharma center to correct or to help him overcome that behavior. Otherwise, the woman will never come again to the Dharma center.

This is a good example because that kind of behavior gives a bad name to the Dharma center. If women are troubled by some men trying to flirt with them, seduce them or whatever, the center gets a bad reputation and people don’t come. So if somebody is acting like that you have to correct them.

Another example is coming drunk and causing disturbance in the center or even outside. If people know that a member of the center gets drunk and gets in fights, the center and Buddhism get a bad name. When people act like that, it is the responsibility of the group to try to help them, correct them and point out their misbehavior to them. So if there are people like that and they are questioned about this unseemly behavior, this negative and poor behavior, they have to be honest and not remain silent or be evasive. In other words, if we are confronted because we have been acting improperly, we have to admit it.

Something I have seen happen in Dharma centers, especially if the teacher is a monk, or even if he is not a monk, where women students come in the summer wearing very short little dresses, they sit right in front of the teacher and the teacher can see right up their dress. I have been a translator with an ordained Rinpoche where that happened. That is terrible. So you correct this person saying, “If you are coming to teachings you need to dress a little more properly, show some respect.” But sometimes, the person gives you a hard time, “What do you mean, I can dress any way that I want to!”

The point of the behavior is, if we are talking about a monk, to show respect for the vows of celibacy. I am talking about an extreme example, a woman sitting wearing a tiny little skirt; you could see right up her skirt. She was not even wearing underwear. You don’t expose yourself like that to some high monk Rinpoche or to any monk, not to anybody. It is just not polite. In a sauna – yes, but in a Dharma center during a Dharma teaching – no. It does not mean you have to come completely covered with cloth or a veil, we are talking about not going to extremes.

It is just a matter of showing respect. There are the various rules about not teaching to somebody wearing a hat or wearing shoes, these sorts of things. The point of all of these is showing respect for what we are doing in a Buddhist community.

Not to Criticize a Buddhist Community for Expelling Us If We Are Disruptive

If we have to be kicked out of the Dharma center because of improper behavior, we do not criticize or speak badly of the center. Let us say that somebody comes to the Dharma center completely drunk and sits at the teachings making loud remarks and acting drunk, then it may be necessary to ask that person to leave. Even if we are that person who has to be asked to leave, it is proper to be asked to leave, because we are disturbing everybody and giving a bad name to the center. So even if we are that person who has to leave, we should not criticize and say bad things about the center afterwards. Maybe we are a regular member and maybe we just happened to come drunk one day for whatever reason, and we are told to leave. You don’t criticize the center for doing that. It was proper that we were asked to leave. Maybe when we were drunk we didn’t understand, but afterwards we would. It happens that people come drunk to teachings. Somebody drunk and making all sorts of horrible comments in the back is not very nice for the teacher and certainly not very nice for the people who are there. Everybody feels bad. Again, from the monastic vows, what is important is the emphasis on ethical discipline. We don’t want to do anything that will harm the discipline of the group or our own discipline.

Guidance from the Bodhisattva Vows

Several of the bodhisattva vows are also relevant to the conduct within a Dharma center. What do the bodhisattva vows suggest to us?

Not to Hold Grudges

If a member of the center has acted improperly and then apologizes, accept the apology and forgive them.

Not to Take Offerings Made to the Triple Gem

Obviously, if money is given in the donation box for some Dharma activity, you don’t just put it in your pocket. If money is donated for publishing Dharma books, buying statues, or whatever; we use if for these purposes.

Not to Be Miserly with Sharing the Teachings

If somebody wants to borrow and use our Dharma notes, or our ritual implements, or whatever, it’s important to share them and not just keep them for ourselves. As a community, we are trying to help each other toward liberation and enlightenment, so whatever we have that can be of help to others and the community, we share. In our modern age it is very easy, because we can make photocopies, use the internet and these sorts of things, so it is easier than giving your only copy of something. But even if that were the case, it is better to share.

Not to Shy Away from Helping Those in Need

The vow refers to eight types of person needing help.

  1. Those who need help in making a decision about something positive, for example at a meeting. If a Dharma center holds a meeting to decide some course of action that the center is going to take, you need to attend this meeting. You transgress this vow when you don’t go to help because of being angry or lazy or indifferent, or out of spite, “I don’t like you so I am not going to come.” If you don’t go because you have another appointment, you are busy or you are sick, that is something else. But not to go because you don’t feel like it or you don’t care is inappropriate. One needs to go, to participate.
  2. Those who need help in traveling. Older people who have difficulty coming to the center may need a ride. If you have a car, pick them up and then drive them back home. Help them come up the stairs, this type of thing.
  3. Those who need help in learning a foreign language that we know. Let us say there are people coming to our center who don’t know German or their German is poor. You can help them by translating for them. Sometimes there are people at the center that have come to a talk, but didn’t quite understand what was going on because of language problems, you can help by explaining what was said.
  4. Those who need help in carrying out some task that has no moral fault. We don’t help people who are going out and hunting or fishing, but if people in the center are cleaning up, come and help. It is a neutral thing.
  5. Those who need help in keeping watch over a house, a temple or their possessions, or watch and take care of the center. If we belong to a Dharma center, then it is our collective responsibility to take care of it, not just leave it to some servant. In South America, very frequently a wealthy person donates a Dharma center, either part of their house or a building belonging to them. Then people see it as that person’s Dharma center and nobody helps to take care of it because they see it as the donor’s personal property. Then people don’t really feel as though they are members of the Dharma center. However, if everybody is working together to take care of the center, then that helps creating a community feeling. It is much healthier.
  6. Those who need help to stop a fight or an argument. If there is some dispute or disagreement in the Dharma center, we help to settle that. This happens sometimes, either between different groups within the center or between individual persons.
  7. Those who are celebrating an occasion, like pujas on special days. I think it is totally appropriate that at Dharma centers we celebrate certain great occasions, such as Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, as it is done in any religion. So when we celebrate something, when we have some sort of puja, ritual or things like that; it is important to participate, not just: “Well, I am only there to meditate, I don’t want to come to these other things.” It is important to participate in these types of celebrations as a community. There are certain Dharma centers where it is part of their schedule every week to have a certain puja, or ritual. It is not necessary for absolutely everybody to attend, but I think that it is quite nice if there are special ones held for the whole community on special Dharma days. Then people can celebrate together, not only doing something as a ritual, but have some food. It is part of the whole custom, you have tsog, you have all these offerings and you share the offerings at the end, you eat something together, it is like a celebration.
  8. Those who need help in doing charity work. If the Dharma center has some sort of charity program, like helping prisoners, helping in hospitals, and so on, it is very good if as many people as possible can participate at least to some extent in these activities. You don’t have to do everything, but do something.

A further point about celebrating together: I think it is also very important to include families in this, especially children. It is very funny. If you look at the people who go to a Dharma center, most of them are single, most don’t have children. It is almost like a monastic community, isn’t it? It is very interesting. Very few are actually family people; this I think is not so healthy. Especially when Dharma centers, residential ones and so on, have a great deal of prejudice against children. “We don’t want to have children here, they make noise. They disturb our meditation.” That is an unhealthy attitude. It turns many people away. Some Dharma centers have classes for children, this is excellent. Children love to help in pujas, they can be the ones that pass out the tsog, or help with the water bowls, or things like that. If they are old enough, they can participate. In this way, our Dharma center activities are not something that alienates us from our family, but we have certain activities, functions, where we include them.

It is quite interesting if we look at it. Buddhism is also a religion. Many people who come to Dharma centers are a little uncomfortable with that idea. However, if we look at it as a religion, then it is something that has to take care of the whole family. So I think this is something that one needs to consider: Can our Dharma center act as a focus of our religious life, also extend to our families? If so, how? Not necessarily by converting them to Buddhism.

If we look at future development, there are Buddhist couples who get married, have children and want to raise their children as Buddhists, and then they are going to become old. That is also something to think about, taking care of older Buddhists, taking care of children, how can we provide for them as a center?

Not to Care for the Sick or Elderly

If somebody who regularly comes to the center stops coming, especially if it is someone living alone, call and find out if they are sick, if they need any help. If they are sick, help taking care of them. There are many people in our modern societies who live alone and don’t have anybody to turn to for help if they need it, if they are sick, especially, when they are old. I think an important function of the Dharma group is to be the people that you can rely on, toward whom you can feel, “I can always rely on my Dharma friends to take care of me.” It is a wonderful thing to be able to care for each other, not only when we are old, young people may also need help if they get sick. If you don’t have somebody that you can count on to come over and help you, then people in your Dharma center will. As members of the Dharma center, it is up to us to keep a check on the people in the center, because sometimes people are too shy to ask for help.

Not to Alleviate the Mental Grief of Others

alleviating the mental grief of others. If somebody has suffered the death of a loved one, or is very depressed, try to comfort them, try to help them. For instance, if somebody is in hospital with depression – that happens with a lot of people – try to visit, try to help.

Guidance from the Tantra Vows

Not to Get Angry with Each Other

Not getting angry with others in our Dharma community is quite difficult, and we really need to try keeping it in mind, to try working harmoniously. If we have differences; work them out, don’t just get angry.

Creating a Feeling of Community

Sitting in a Circle at Teachings

Something that I always find useful at teachings or meetings for creating a group feeling is to sit in a circle if the room is big enough. Obviously if it is very full, we cannot do that, but sitting in a circle allows us to actually see each other, rather than looking at everybody’s back, or not seeing anybody except those in front of us. If we are sitting in front, we don’t see anybody behind us. That is a very small physical thing, but seeing each other actually helps one to feel part of a group.

Practicing Love and Compassion Meditation Focused on Each Other

Something that I try doing in my sensitivity training is, when we meditate on topics such as love and compassion, not to do this simply sitting there and visualizing all sentient beings, but actually as we sit in a circle, to practice it toward each other. Look at the people: “May you be happy, may you be free from suffering, may you be free.” These are real people and we are applying this wish to each other. I find this is very helpful in our meditation. If we think of suffering, we think about how each person in the group suffers sickness, old age, death, all the same, and we see it in terms of concrete, actual people. That makes it more real. This helps not only in our development, but also helps us to develop empathy, compassion for each other. That builds the group more.

Discussing Our Experience in Trying to Apply the Teachings in Daily Life

I also find it helpful to have regular discussion sessions in which we discuss our own experience in trying to put the Dharma teachings into practice in our daily lives over the past week, fortnight, or month, depending on how often you meet. “I have been trying to practice the teachings on patience at work, but it has been very difficult with this or that situation, the office and so on.” We discuss it and then we can give each other advice or share experience. “We try this and we try that.” This helps to deepen our understanding of the Dharma, and also brings us together as a community that is intent on the goal: liberation and enlightenment. Here we must remember one of the monk’s vows, to be honest. Don’t be pretentious: “Oh, I never get angry!” We must speak from our hearts, our own experience. This is really very helpful and inspiring. In this way we support each other as a group; it is a group effort.

We are all trying to make progress. Some of us are new people; some of us are more experienced. Very much like in a family, there are young people and there are older people, so we can help each other. Young and old don’t have to depend on actual physical age; it is more in terms of experience. Again, all these vows come together, we do it in such a way that we don’t make anybody in the group feel guilty or stupid.

Relaxing Together as a Group

It is important to relax together as a group sometimes. It is very nice sometimes to have picnics or potluck dinners, or something like that, although not as the main activity of the group. Some of the groups here in Berlin do that. They have some sort of a potluck thing at New Year’s Eve for example. Many people don’t want to go to clubs or to loud parties, but they don’t want to sit alone by themselves either. In those occasions, it is very nice to get together at the Dharma center. It is the custom for people to bring some food, do a puja, do some socializing. I think it is very helpful to arrange something like this from time to time during the year. It is necessary not just to get together for serious things, but also laugh together.


These are some of the basic things that I have seen in going through the vows, which I think can be helpful in a Buddhist group or a Dharma center. Although it is not an orthodox usage of the word “sangha” for the people at a Dharma center; nevertheless the role of the community in the Dharma center is very important. We are not just practicing by ourselves, we have friends who help us and we can help each other along the path. I’m certain that we can inspire each other, act as a positive influence on each other and share together.