Growing up as the first ethnic kid in the neighborhood put me in an interesting position. I was the first in my family to be born in America, and the first in the neighborhood to have a skin color that was slightly darker than the rest, and a name that was really odd. I had to learn American customs on my own, and it was always kind of funny because I had no one to explain any of it to me. As a result, I became a loner—not out of choice, but out of the reality of my situation.
The cool thing about being a loner is that you pretty much make up your own rules. It gives you a sense of freedom. Recognizing the hypocrisy of certain things was something I had no problem vocalizing because I had nothing to lose by saying something. Looking back at it now, I see the immensity of the pain I felt…but when you are hurting, you want other people to hurt like you so you say whatever you feel like.
By the time I got to high school, I was no longer the only ethnic kid, so things became a lot easier—but the feeling of being a loner still stuck with me. I learned to be friends with all kinds of people, but yet somehow managed to be detached from it all. Graduation day couldn’t come soon enough, and when it did, I was in heaven.
When Buddhism and spirituality came into my life, I found myself curious about what it would be like to be part of a sangha (community) of like minded people. For some reason, I had this image in my head of people who were just like me and that it would be like walking into a utopia. I have no idea why I held this image in my head but I did.
Through a series of events, I found myself at a lecture that was being given by a monk from a very prestigious Buddhist order in India. After the lecture, the monk came up to me and introduced himself. He somehow knew what I was going through in my life and asked me why I was so lost and confused. I told him what my thoughts were on the issue and he explained how I was off the mark. It was one of the most interesting conversations because on some level he knew me better than I did. He then asked for a pen and paper, wrote down his email and said the following: “You have a very good heart. Email me in two weeks and I will have some more information to share with you”.
So here I was with an email address of a Buddhist Master. I did as he requested and two months later, after a series of tests, he asked me to be initiated into his order. I had found my sangha without really trying and was so excited about what initiation would bring. It came to my attention that not everyone is given the opportunity to be initiated. I had learned that there were people who were trying for years to get initiated and were refused. Here I was being offered the opportunity and I was humbled by the whole thing. Many people who were of the same sangha ended up getting jealous and envious. Wasn’t a sangha supposed to be a group of people who were walking the spiritual path and doing their best to not engage in petty human emotions?
With each encounter, I came to notice that although the people in my sangha were believers in spirituality and Buddhism, they really were no different from people that I knew who were not on a spiritual path. Gossiping, judgment, arrogance, envy and all other kinds of human emotions were vividly on display in the sangha.
I was shocked and greatly disappointed. I called my teacher who lived 3,000 miles away and voiced my feelings. I ranted and raved for about fifteen minutes and shared with him that how could there be such hypocrisy in a sangha. When I was done talking, he said: “what made you think they would be any different from those who are not on a spiritual path? It is not your concern what they do. It is not your job to correct them. Your job is to work on yourself and only yourself. Those who are meant to walk the path, will and those that aren’t, will disappear. Just let it go.”
I knew that what my teacher said was true but I really didn’t like hearing any of it. In my heart, I so much wanted a sangha to be paradise and I was not ready to give up on that notion. However, with each encounter, I found myself not enjoying the group that I was with because the hypocrisy was just too much for me. I eventually separated from the group. I still continued my studies with my teacher via the phone since we lived thousands of miles apart.
About a year later, I had a similar experience with another group of like minded people and again, I was greatly disappointed with the experience. However, this time around, I was determined to make my peace with the whole thing and did what I could to work through my resistance. I came to see that even though someone may be on a spiritual path, they still have their issues to work on. That is what draws people to such a path. They have issues and they want to feel better – we all do. A sangha is a place where people should feel safe to be open and to share their experiences.
I noticed that neither of the sanghas I was in had such unconditional acceptance and both were run by fellow students who felt tremendous pride from having such an honor. A sangha is only as strong as all of its parts and it is the leader who sets the tone. I also came to see that my judgment was getting in the way, and vowed to work on it. Compassion is easy when it is directed to something that you naturally feel drawn to, but it is much harder to practice when the object in mind just makes you want to turn in the other direction and run. So I began to work on being more compassionate with everyone.
I had no idea how I was doing until recently. I found myself in a sangha due to a training class I signed up for and this time around it has been sheer pleasure. The leader of the sangha is dedicated to having an environment of unconditional acceptance and everyone in the group adheres to that instruction. Certain human behaviors still rise to the surface but this time, I was not bothered by any of it. Actually, instead of judging the behavior, I saw how I could relate to it.
The whole experience has helped me to understand myself more and to realize that there is a lot of suffering out there in the world. Some people have a handle on it and others don’t. They try to make the best out of it based on what they know. I have finally relinquished my desire to try to fix someone. Instead, I now try to share in the journey. It has also made me recognize the wisdom of being in a sangha for it helps us to understand ourselves better.
When we understand ourselves better, we become better at being in the world and not of it.