Sangha Selection

I’ve been meditating for several years now, with a loose Buddhist orientation, but I’ve done so without the privilege of a community or teacher. Lately I’ve been trying to decide on a tradition and sangha (a Buddhist community) to join in order to deepen and anchor my practice. Taking into consideration my location and religious tastes, I hope to make a selection soon.

Halifax, my home city, is an odd place to consider a hub of Buddhism, but it is actually home to one of the largest communities of Buddhists in North America. Our port city is central to the early history of the continent’s European colonization, but it’s also the international home of Shambhala Buddhism, founded by Trungpa Rinpoche. Other, smaller Buddhist groups also have taken root here and the Shambhala Sun Buddhist magazine is published in Halifax. For more on this, read “Halifax a quirky heart of Buddhism“.

Buddhism is loosely divided into three branches, Nikaya, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Zen, for instance, is in the Mahayana branch, while Shambhala would be considered to be of the Vajrayana branch. Each of the three branches can generally be said encompasses more teachings than the previous. Mahayana includes and expands on the Nikaya texts and teachings and then Vajrayana includes Mahayana teachings and adds further teachings. It’s a nuanced and confusing unfolding, but it can be summarized as one of increasing complexity and inclusion.

My personal affinity is more with Vajrayana, largely because I like comprehensiveness and the emphasis on tantra, or bodily spirituality. In balance with this, I have a lot of interest in Mahayana in general and Zen in particular. It turns out that the two sanghas I am most interested in happen to be Zen and Shambhala centres, which makes my decision very hard.

The Atlantic Soto Zen Center in Halifax offers monthly newcomer sessions on the first Monday and seems to be an accessable, though not well known, Zendo. It is associated with an Atlanta centre and offers weekly services. I’m not very familiar with the community, so I would be diving in a bit blind, which could be fun.

Soto is the largest of the Japanese Zen branches, and focuses on shikantaza meditation, quiet mindfulness. My practical experience with Zen has come primarily through work with Genpo Roshi‘s Big Mind process, which is an emergent form of Zen practice. The formalism of traditional Zen brings up aversion in me, but I suspect that working with that and overcoming my bias would be helpful.

The Halifax Shambhala Meditation Centre, as I mentioned, is the home of the Shambhala tradition, founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It has a very robust calendar of practices, with weekly meditation instruction, 2 weekly meditation sessions and other frequent events. The sangha’s presence in the community is strong, and I’ve heard a lot of praise for the work done through it. This vitality of community is a strong draw for me to this organization.

Shambhala is a recently revealed Buddhist sect that builds on Tibetan tradition with the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa. Trungpa was a very controversial and important figure in bringing Buddhism to the west, and had a lot of serious shadow issues that have been noted. Despite this controversy, Trungpa is revered as a great master and his teachings are likewise valued.

I’m still working out the fit of these two options with my life, and I’d appreciate any insight or personal experiences you might have in regard to these two forms of Buddhism.

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