Filed in Community, Zen (Chan)

The Fertile Soil of Sangha

Thich Nhat Hanh on the importance of community.

Thich Nhat Hanh

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TWO THOUSAND five hundred years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha proclaimed that the next Buddha will be named Maitreya, the “Buddha of Love.” I think Maitreya Buddha may be a community and not just an individual. A good community is needed to help us resist the unwholesome ways of our time. Mindful living protects us and helps us go in the direction of peace. With the support of friends in the practice, peace has a chance.

If you have a supportive sangha, it’s easy to nourish your bodhicitta, the seeds of enlightenment. If you don’t have anyone who understands you, who encourages you in the practice of the living dharma, your desire to practice may wither. Your sangha—family, friends, and copractitioners—is the soil, and you are the seed. No matter how vigorous the seed is, if the soil does not provide nourishment, your seed will die. A good sangha is crucial for the practice. Please find a good sangha or help create one.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are three precious jewels in Buddhism, and the most important of these is Sangha. The Sangha contains the Buddha and the Dharma. A good teacher is important, but sisters and brothers in the practice are the main ingredient for success. You cannot achieve enlightenment by locking yourself in your room. Transformation is possible only when you are in touch. When you touch the ground, you can feel the stability of the earth and feel confident. When you observe the steadiness of the sunshine, the air, and the trees, you know that you can count on the sun to rise each day and the air and the trees to be there. When you build a house, you build it on solid ground. You need to choose friends in the practice who are stable, on whom you can rely.

Taking refuge in the sangha means putting your trust in a community of solid members who practice mindfulness together. You do not have to practice intensively—just being in a sangha where people are happy, living deeply the moments of their days, is enough. Each person’s way of sitting, walking, eating, working, and smiling is a source of inspiration; and transformation takes place without effort. If someone who is troubled is placed in a good sangha, just being there is enough to bring about a transformation. I hope communities of practice in the West will organize themselves as families. In Asian sanghas, we address each other as Dharma Brother, Dharma Sister, Dharma Aunt, or Dharma Uncle, and we call our teacher Dharma Father or Dharma Mother. A practice community needs that kind of familial brotherhood to nourish practice.

If you have a sangha that is joyful, animated by the desire to practice and help, you will mature as a bodhisattva. I always tell the monks, nuns, and lay practitioners at Plum Village that if they want to succeed in the practice, they have to find ways to live in harmony with one another, even with those who are difficult. If they can’t succeed in the sangha, how can they succeed outside of it? Becoming a monk or a nun is not just between student and teacher. It involves everyone. Getting a “yes” from everyone in the sangha is a true dharma seal.

From Cultivating the Mind of Love, © 2008 by Thich Nhat Hanh. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, parallax.org.

Image: © Katie Cummings

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John Haspel's picture

In the Dhammapada the Buddha teaches the importance and purpose of the Sangha:

They go to many a refuge,
to mountains and forests,
to park and tree shrines:
people threatened with danger.
That's not the secure refuge,
not the supreme refuge,
that's not the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.

But when, having gone
to the Buddha, Dhamma,
& Sangha for refuge,
you see with right discernment
the four noble truths —
stress,
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
& the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
that's the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.

Mindfulness alone is not a Dhamma practice. Right Mindfulness is one of Eight Factors of the Eightfold Path. To be a Sangha is to be a community that supports each member of the Sangha in developing an understanding of stress (dukkha) and seeks the cessation of stress through the Eightfold Path.

A teacher is usually necessary. A teacher who is well-grounded in the Four Noble Truths and maintains the focus on the Four Noble Truths. A succession of teachers does not establish a Dhamma lineage. Lineage is established through the Dhamma and maintaining the integrity of the Dhamma.

As strong of the idea that the Dhamma should be all things to all people, the Buddha taught one thing: Understanding stress and through the Eightfold Path gaining the supreme refuge of release from all suffering and stress.

A true and effective Sangha follows the teachings of the Buddha and practices within the framework of the Eightfold Path.

John Haspel
http://crossrivermeditation.com

rskoon's picture

I belong to a wonderful sangha in Atlanta, the Red Clay Sangha. Originally we were a group of Zen Buddhists, but now we are more of a non-denominational Buddhist group. We sit together and have a dharma discussions twice a week and that is usually that is followed by a meal at the local restaurant.

We came together without a teacher or lineage and it is just fine for us. Finding a teacher is a very personal experience and we realized early on that one teacher would not suit all of us. So as a sangha, our approach is to bring in a different teachers from different schools to lead retreats. We fund raise so that we can offer the retreats at a low-cost (and still pay the rent). If you are in the Atlanta area, come check us out.

For others that are having difficulty finding a sangha, contact the local Unitarian Universalist Congregation. They often have a Buddhist sitting group, and if not, ask them if you can start one. The Unitarian congregation offers a support structure to more Buddhist practitioners than any single Buddhist group in the country! Buddhism is not foreign to them. They have many ministers who are practicing Buddhists priests as well.

sschroll's picture

Childhood causes and conditions made me a very mistrusting person. I loved the plant and animal world, shied away from people, they could not be trusted. I was blessed when I found a Sangha in Thich Nhat Hahn's tradition in 1998. We meet at peoples homes, sometimes have a potluck lunch together, organize a 6 days retreat once a year that costs $80.00 for all the meals of those days. We do the shopping and cooking. Besides that, all the rest is free. We have studied Dharma together, share facilitating and giving Dharma talks,shared our life and experiences.

My life has turned around. I'm not a lonely wolf anymore, have learned to love others and myself, to trust, to accept the ups and downs of life. I have a community, friends. We share our experiences and learn from each other.....I think I know what Thay is saying.......

He encourages Sangha above Teacher, to have your own experience as guide if teachings work or not for you, and I never heard him say enlightenment is not possible without a teacher (By the way, what is enlightenment?) I do know about the benefits of having a Sangha. Maybe I was lucky...............for sure very grateful.

wsking's picture

Dear M/r/s Schroll,
I am so glad you have a sangha where you feel comfortable. And it is a joy to hear that happiness has come to you thru Dharma.

If I can help: As for your question, "What is Enlightenment?" The best book I can recommend to you to answer your question quickly is the first book His Holiness wrote when he came out of Tibet into India: "The Opening of the Wisdom Eye". Amazon has a copy of it today for $4.00. It is not a huge book, but is short and to the point. It delineates the stages of practice leading to Enlightenment and their qualities and describes Enlightenment and its qualities as well.

As for the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh never saying: You don't need a teacher. He would never say that because he knows its not true. You do need a teacher. But you see, he is Asian, and he is a monk. That means he does not say what is obvious, lest you be insulted. And, because he is a monk, he will not say anything that would be misinterpreted as praising himself. From his point of view, words and titles are useless. Being is everything. You don't need someone to tell you the water is cold! You feel it for yourself! Actually, you don't even have to say it, or think it! It is already! Why divorce yourself from the experiential reality by words or ideas! That is the "Way" of the Zen master.

If you are going to his teaching, obviously he is your teacher and is teaching you! He doesn't need to say it!
The truth is living reality, not labels, not names and words, not titles, not ideas. They are like raspberry creepers tangled around your ankles, pricking you, tearing your skin, holding you back. Step out of them and be free.

Cut thru that stuff. See your own face, before you were born. (Before your name) Go deeper, find it.

May your practice grow and never get too comfortable. Everything changes, so stay on that edge.
Gassho!
_/|\_

V_Lhhw's picture

I find myself in circumstances much like the ones your comment describes at the start. It's good to be reminded that change is possible. Thank you.

mariahon's picture

Finding a sangha seems very hard for one who is ill and is not allowed to live in one,[ I asked around.].. I cannot travel far, and probably cannot keep a strict retreat schedule. In addition, i found one, but the incense they burned gave me asthma, and they are not going to stop[ although summers with open windows will be okay probably.] Vows to save all beings except people with asthma.... or a communicable disease. I am not very impressed with the Buddhist sanghas so far.

So, I am not sure what to do- any ideas? I do sit with one friend sometimes. and occasionally travel to a teacher. But it looks as if i have no choice for now but to do self retreats like a hermit and continue to listen to /read/ study hard , the teachings of the Thai forest monks, and try not to make a strong view about the fact that some sanghas are not really welcoming.
On the positive side, my practice does flourish all by itself, it is simply easier with others.

sschroll's picture

Do you have any Sangha near by in the tradition O Thich Nhat Hanh? In my experience, they tend to be very welcoming.....it is something that Thay encourages.

Be well.

massrunner's picture

I, too deeply respect Thich Nhat Hanh but feel like others that his type of sangha is very far from what we may have in the USA. Nearly daily, I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And yet, for over 10 years I have wistfully taken refuge in a worldwide sangha. Several times yearly I try to get away to a yoga and retreat center and have always loved the presenters there but it is sangha only in the sense that most people there are there for the same reason.

There is a local buddhist center not far from my home at all that I attend weekly and still do not feel the level of comapionship presented in the article. They are from a branch of Buddhism that is very ritualistic and almost seem to deify their founding teacher. I have issues with that level of what seems to me to be hero worship, when the Buddha himself said to not even trust his own words unless they resonated with our experience.

I am sorry if this is rather rambling, but I long to experience the kind of sangha presented one day. I take refuge in the Three Jewels.

softwear1's picture

i was wondering if our handle or your name 'massrunner ' meant you are in massachusetts. I belong to a sangha and attend another one from time to time. I agree with you and oeuld like to know if youv re in mass. and nearby maybe we can talk. I am name above ....at comcast dot net..
I like thich nhat hanhs definition of a sangha... and experienced his creating many sanghas at a large retreat at omega years ago...

jackelope65's picture

Thank you for Thich Nhat Hanh's wise words. I usually am n Costa Rica, but my sangha is in Maine where I lived for 20 years. When I am in the USA, the first time I enter my sangha and the passage of time seems nonexistent. In Costa Rice, my wife and I meditate and read daily and I do not feel any separation from my sangha. Emptiness of this world is my only explanation, and true separation does not seem to exist. Great love and respect seems to flow back and forth no matter where I am physically. Great love for our teacher, Thrangu Rinpoche, draws us together.

wideawake's picture

I have great respect for TNH, and I want to put into practice what he says. I am not doing so in this case, and I wonder if this is a mistake or okay. There is an established, strong sangha a little under an hour away from my home, but I rarely go there. This has bothered me. Sometimes a voice says, "you should go there. how can you not go there?" I want to say my reasons out loud to you to see if this helps bring clarity. It is expensive to drive there, and there are many deer that like to run into the road when it is dark. I would need to get up very early in the morning in the dark and leave my husband. Our car is not that reliable. My husband supports my meditation and has made me a place I can meditate at home because he prefers I not make that drive but he is not pressing me not to go. The nearby sangha is Zen, but I practice and study mainly another type. I have been viewing this online world as my sangha, but I am aware that the challenges/contributions of life in the virtual sangha are not the same as those of the in-person sangha. I don't want to fool myself if is better to go, nor do I want to spend all the energy going just to prove I'm not unwilling to do what is needed. Right now I am sitting in the middle of this, watching this argument. Going occasionally is a cop out - not really participating, not really letting it go. Starting something here is a possibility, but the few who might possibly participate are not very engaged. Rather than waste time on that, I work at being consistent and committed to deepening my solitary practice, and for finding ways to weave Buddhist principles and ideas into conversations with non-Buddhist friends when it feels appropriate. (alas, not so often.)

littlestbird's picture

I think this is great. thank you.
Personally I will soon be donating my life and time to work serving fellow meditators be feeding them while they are on retreat and take many retreats myself. It is for me the closest thing to a Sangha I can find in this world and I am grateful for even the opportunity to have been introduced to some of the Buddha Gotama's teachings. I hope any and all interested in finding a group for themselves to be a part of do and I even hope many not searching find one anyway.
In my experience over the past few years after my first 10 day retreat, practicing buddhism in the modern world can be incredibly difficult and though the patience fostered in meditation can be useful in dealing with difficult situations, I find time and time again the source of difficult situation being continually rooted in deceptions and selfishness. Surely we as practitioners cannot stop all the confusion in the world, but it so me seems to be of benefit to align myself with people who are at least trying to live more selflessly and compassionately as opposed to spending my time around others who inhabit a world that actually seems to foster desire, greed, and in turn suffering.
thank you

Michael Jaquish's picture

There is actually a scientific basis for avoiding isolation. According to today's issue of ScienceDaily (Nov. 11, 2012) — "Animals that are socially isolated for prolonged periods make less myelin in the region of the brain responsible for complex emotional and cognitive behavior, researchers at the University at Buffalo and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine report in Nature Neuroscience online."

Interaction with other beings therefore, either as part of an organized sangha or with the secular community at large, is clearly important on a number of levels. Meditation is best performed in isolation of course, but once one has used meditation to develop awareness that leads to greater mindfulness and insight, the real spiritual growth likely takes place as one uses such insight to interact with other beings by putting the Dharma into action.

celticpassage's picture

This is another example of a misapplied concept because it has "science" behind it.

Firstly, these types of results are generally concerned with extreme conditions, and typically during critical windows of development. By the time one is able to choose Buddhist practice or not there isn't an issue with brain development.

Secondly, no one (unless the victim of abuse) lives in that degree of isolation.

Thirdly, a quote like that is taken out of context and so is essentially meaningless.

celticpassage's picture

In general I don't care much for this author's writings since I find them politicized and commercial.
This could be construed as a message put out to swell the ranks of sangha's, since, perhaps, Buddhism isn't doing as well in the western world as was hoped.

Besides, unlike modern Buddhism (including this author) teaches, you shouldn't spend one moment chasing after enlightenment.

wsking's picture

Who is this "I" who likes or doesn't like? Who measures and labels?

Not doing as well? Two to three hundred years....see you then! Hearts and minds, heart. Change the heart. That takes a lot of time....to be real.

Gassho!
_/|\_

steph.mohan's picture

I've just joined the Tricycle community today after being a newsletter recipient via email for some time and a practicing Buddhist for about 3 years. Mine has been a solo journey from a physical perspective, but I have felt very much a part of a virtual global Sangha pretty much since the start even if mostly an anonymous member! ....I became Buddhist in mid-life, while on sabbatical touring New Zealand with my husband in 2009. I was studying for a coaching certification and found myself visiting Buddhist sites more than study related sites! When hubby and I returned to Singapore in 2010, I got an Iphone and added the listening to of Podcasts from Buddhists of all persuasions, from all over the world - monks and lay-people with a myriad of perspectives on all things Buddhist. It was in this way that I began to listen in regularly to the Manchester Buddhist centre podcasts and first heard about Tricycle!
I have enjoyed many serendipitous experiences by allowing myself to follow my intuition on things I listen to and read and feel drawn to.
So, in summary, I rely on my virtual Sangha for spiritual and educational nourishment and connection...and I rely on myself for my own spiritual journey towards awakening.
I am happy and I already feel at home in this new home.... :)

Monty McKeever's picture

It's great to have you Steph, welcome!

Sareen's picture

My experience so far has been that sometimes I need a formal sitting group and sometimes I do not.There is a long history of many practitioners spending some portion of their practice in relative isolation(caves even). At first, I needed to be exposed to teachers and communities to absorb the teachings and the practices. Eventually it became apparent that there was going to be a long period of time where consistent, intensive practice, utilizing the understanding gained from my interactions with community and teachers, is needed. At this stage, seeking out "more teaching" can be a manifestion of desire. Interaction with community and teachers is still helpful. and under the right circumstances, I can also benefit spiritual community with my practice experience.

I agree with comments about the risks of experiencing the impact of unskillful behavior in association with sangha and community . At the same time, these imperfections and struggles have provided great material for practice and seem to be a necessary part of the path. They always illustrate something about my own conditioning and help me to see more clearly where I struggle. It has been very important to learn how to leave unhelpful situations and I always know that my own conditioning has impacted my experience so others in the community may be having a very different experience. As practice deepens, resting in the power of "not knowing" allows for healthy change to arise from challenges encountered in spiritual community and opens me up for a greater possibility of encountering teachers and community that will provide the stimulus I need to continue evolving on the path. It seems to essential to rest very deeply, without controlling, and open to possibility. As I do this and take the next step I am "comfortable with uncertainty" and grateful for all the revelations, even the painful ones, that come as I travel along the path of awakening.

mariahon's picture

Thanks for all your answers. I'm not discouraged by his statements , nor do I believe that one must have a sangha and a teacher, but i would dearly love to have them, and am discouraged by the fact that I cannot find a vipassana center in this country that isn't about money , where teachers do not live ,and/or does not desperately need people who are young and strong to help out [ Goenka's places]. It 's a bit hard to understand that countries that are so poor [ Thailand, Burma , etc have monasteries that one can go live in for periods of time, whereas a country as rich as ours, does not....[ if i were not sick I'd go over there but i can't] ...

Julie Miller's picture

Thanks to all who commented in response to my questions. I do greatly respect Thich Nhat Hanh, and find his writings very valuable. Personally, I am not discouraged by such advice- but the reader can probably sense that "organized religion" is a well-honed aversion of mine. In addition, I'm always struggling with my personal preference for improvised near-hermitude; in other aspects of my life, as well as in practice. When you find yourself in midlife, living in a beautiful, tranquil 'middle of nowhere,' content with the company of your partner & a few house cats, it's tough to get off your butt and scour the countryside for other people interested in Buddhist practice. The prospect sounds about as appealing to a 50+ woman as "start dating again!" I'm not doubting that it might be beneficial at some point, and it's at least feasible for me- I could travel, and live reasonably near Seattle. But when I wrote that comment, I was more thinking of perhaps younger people, stuck out in 'flyover country,' perhaps without the money or resources to "drive a few hundred miles," and imagining their discouragement at reading the constant advice that the first thing a person must do is "find a worthy teacher" if they want to explore Buddhism. I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming- where it was hard enough to find a fellow Democrat, much less a lama!

eternallyperplexed's picture

It can be discouraging if the idea of Sangha is taken too literally, or too traditionally, as this article does. I hope mariahon and Julie do not get disheartened. TNH is of course rightly revered for his presence and teachings, and he may be using the model of the ideal Sangha in this article. Many are far from it.

There is no 'one size fits all' Sangha, conceptually and practically. I have seen dysfunctional Sangha's that hurt people, and discouraged spiritual practice.

My primary Sangha is Nature: breeze, trees, birds, dog, waves, grass; silence, solitude, serenity. Also, as suggested by Maura, the net is a powerful tool for connection, which is maybe the broadest concept of Sangha. When I want to connect to people, I can do so in many ways, and I am doing so right now.

In addition, I am lucky enough to have some like minded people around. There is an evolving and loosely knit group of people who meet occasionally to sit, and we take two long weekends a year to do somewhat more intense meditation, and also socialize. There is no fixed teacher or leader, as many have been burnt by egotistic charlatans. No hard rules. Instead, 'The group is the Guru'; we learn from each other by sharing experiences and readings.
It works. Most of us feel we are becoming more mindful, and that spurs us on to live life in a more compassionate and wise manner. The struggle feels more meaningful and noble.
Bows to you all.

melcher's picture

Sounds to me that what you have is exactly what TNH is recommending; A group of kindly supportive practitioners. I don't think his suggestion requires a specific structure or a specific schedule.

hidden56's picture

It is important to remember that he says to start a sangha if you cannot find one. This does not have to mean converting people. Thich Nhat Hanh is adamant about people finding nourishment from the relationships they are already a part of. If we bring the element of mindfulness to them we will begin to transform them.

Also, the connection he writes about here is not a precondition for enlightenment. It is enlightenment. When we recognize the nature of inter-being, we see all beings in all others. The single pointed mind is, focused like a laser, sees the entire cosmos. Therefore, to be enlightened is to experience those connections, inter-being, deeply, even when all by ourselves. (We can never really be alone.)

mariahon's picture

I have a health challenge, and I practice vipassana alone except for the occasional retreat . I would dearly love to have a sangha and a teacher who was around - I don't see this happening unless i move into a monastery, and that is unlikely as they appear to need people who are young and strong and can contribute...If anyone knows otherwise, i am looking hard.

Maura High's picture

Julie's questions are very valuable, but she should know that by reading Tricycle posts and responding, she is actively part of a sangha! One doesn't have to be present literally in the same room as another practitioner to be part of a community. Those old hermits all were able to practice in solitary situations because they were supported by a community, who brought them food and necessities and who visited from time to time. Thich Nhat Han would understand the difficulties of someone who lives in a place where there are no teachers, no fellow-practitioners to sit with, talk with, or learn from. He would applaud your efforts to reach one from time to time, or to create one of your own using all the modern means available. The sangha also can be interpreted as more than just one's own faith community, but everyone, every being, that supports one's practice.

sallyotter's picture

The Buddha said to question everything. I have to be careful that the questioning isn't from the ego, which really doesn't want me to become enlightened. Too many "Yes, But"s.
I live in a small town in central Florida, have been reading and practicing for about 7 years. A sangha has evolved here, amazingly. We have even found a teacher altho we travel over 100 miles each week. But the carpool trip is also part of learning and sharing. We aren't dogmatic. Some of our members are still practicing Christians but there is something so compelling about our way of life.
Just keep practicing, share what you are doing when someone asks, and they will. That's how our group has grown.

Julie Miller's picture

If spiritual progress is not possible practicing in solitude, then what is the point of a prolonged retreat? Or the isolation favored by mystics of many spiritual traditions?

Many teachers, especially those from more traditional, communal societies don't realize how improbable it is to find the kind of sangha community described here in the largely Christian, almost 100% materialist United States.

I don't think learned teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh are always sensitive to how discouraging statements that 'enlightenment is not possible without a formal teacher relationship,' etc. can be to the isolated practitioner under those circumstances. Especially in rural areas, the goal of sustained contact with a teacher and/or a community of practicing Buddhists is out of the question- there aren't any Buddhists around!

The suggestion that spiritual progress cannot be attained without actual physical contact with sangha seems to me an expression of attachment to religious & cultural traditions that may be ideal, but not indispensable. Such deprivations may not impede the progress of a person from a different background as much as some of these well-meaning teachers assume.

The article states, rather dogmatically: "You cannot achieve enlightenment by locking yourself in your room." How does the author know that?

And why is "locking yourself in your room" the only alternative to sangha, experienced as the author recommends? Virtual sangha is the best many of us can manage, and who knows- it may be enough.

midassyd's picture

I do not know how to find such a group, or, if I should find one, I do not know how to evaluate whether the group is of the right spirit.

wsking's picture

They should be from a valid Buddhist lineage. There should be an ordained monk teaching, or an experienced western student of at least ten years and much meditation. Or they should be studying online with someone. Really, really check up on the leaders because there are definitely some fakes out there. There should be a strong meditation practice and you should feel comfortable with the lineage master. Check up on them and investigate them.
All this takes some time, so I would not be like a frog, jumping around too quickly. If the teacher separates academic learning from practice, I would not stay. Those people don't really teach Buddhism, but just make Mindfulness their religion. That is not what the Buddha taught. There is much much, much, more to Buddhism than that. If they don't know, they won't be able to help you beyond a certain point. Meanwhile, get to that point, because the more you seek, the more you find, and it is true that when the student is ready the teacher appears, the doors open. You have to be looking for them though, you have to be asking for them to come when you pray, and not be too attached to the comfort of where you are to let go and keep going on. Ultimately, you are responsible. Be like a bee, take the nectar, but keep going, keep looking, keep listening, keep learning. Do NOT believe what people tell you about anything, test it for yourself. Test it against teachings and teachers of the past. Stand on a firm foundation of academic knowledge and no one can trick you. Be like a Siberian goose, who, seeing a bowl of milk mixed with water, can take the milk and leave the water!

The way Buddhism really is, the mindset of what Buddhism really is, does not exist in our country. You have to go abroad if you want to find it undiluted by an American point of view. And you have to be very careful to listen to Buddhism undiluted by the American point of view. You want the real McCoy, don't you? If your teachers have not done that, there will be a lot they don't know, however sincere they may be. You should know this.
Gassho
_/|\_

mariahon's picture

here are some links where you might find local sitting groups and sanghas:

-1- http://www.buddhanet.net/

-2-http://www.dharmaweb.org/index.php/Massachusetts

-3-http://www.dharmanet.org/
I think if you go and sit with them, read about them, you will find out if they are good for you. I am looking for a link / article that has guidelines for evaluating....