A good friend emailed me about some troubles in a Buddhist meditation group she belongs to. It's a lay led group. The problems are some apparent power struggles about even routine matters and also an element of cliquishness. It seems to be just a small number of people out of the group that are creating the issues.

I don't really know how this sort of thing should be viewed from a Buddhist point of view. But if anyone has a solution or a correct way of looking at this I'd like to pass it along to her. She likes the group overall and she really didn't expect to find this type of behavior among meditators.

My specific question is "From a Buddhist point of view, how do we view bad behavior specifically in a Buddhist setting? Should we allow for these very unenlightened behaviors as we ourselves are unenlightened too? Or should be expect more and move on as this type of behavior may indicate that the meditation is this group is just not working somehow.?"

In other words, if meditation is sincere and regular, can these types of defilements simply continue with no improvement in an individual?


The initial instinct will be to assign blame, or to approach the issue from a victim perspective.

As meditators, we must know better and let go of these views.

Powerful emotions can be very good teachers if we know how to harness the energy.

The teachers in the Thich Nhat Hanh sangha have a detailed conflict resolution guide for exactly this situation that I suggest you review


Background: http://www.orderofinterbeing.org/2013/11/conflict-resolution-guide/

We are often the victims and the attackers, if we can realize this, we can solve anything.

A poem by Thich Nhat Hanh

Please Call Me by My True Names

I have a poem for you. This poem is about three of us. The first is a twelve-year-old girl, one of the boat people crossing the Gulf of Siam. She was raped by a sea pirate, and after that she threw herself into the sea. The second person is the sea pirate, who was born in a remote village in Thailand. And the third person is me. I was very angry, of course. But I could not take sides against the sea pirate. If I could have, it would have been easier, but I couldn’t. I realized that if I had been born in his village and had lived a similar life - economic, educational, and so on – it is likely that I would now be that sea pirate. So it is not easy to take sides. Out of suffering, I wrote this poem. It is called “Please Call Me by My True Names,” because I have many names, and when you call me by any of them, I have to say, “Yes.”

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow — even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

  • Thank you Buddho. I believe this group thinks very highly of Thich Nhat Hanh, so this may be well accepted by them.
    – Robin111
    Jul 12 '15 at 17:56
  • 2
    Thanks for helping a friend Robin, it is a long and difficult journey, and good friends are essential.
    – Buddho
    Jul 12 '15 at 17:58
  • 1
    nice post! @Buddho
    – Ryan
    Jul 12 '15 at 20:25
Part 1 - General

Meditation in groups can be both beneficial and tiresome as this might be an example of.

When practicing vipassana meditation one is working with one's defilements. That means that the "filter or suppression" is absent. Everything comes up in the meditation so that one can observe it and learn from it. That goes for all of the group members if they are practicing insight meditation. When a lot of defilements are being stirred up and dealt with it can also affect the behavior of the individuals in the group if they do not know how to handle it. It's easy to fall into the "me too" category and then begin to create small groups within the group creating separation and sabotage.

It could be that the path factor of Sila is being neclected here. When one is practicing the factors of conduct that also means to stay centered in the present - to keep the mind in the present and thereby not following after objects. It seems that some of the meditators from this group is not centered, thereby attaching and clinging to objects, i.e. the pleasant feelings of the company of the other meditators creating the separation group.

The power struggles also indicate that some of the meditators are identifying and taking ownership of objects thereby creating a Self.

It could also be that they are practicing samatha meditation and thereby not working with the defilements but instead keeping them suspended and dormant. The latent defilements can then spring up at any time when they are triggered, e.g. by some of the group members being together in the same room.

As meditators they should work to overcome these behaviors since they are obviously hindrances to progress both for themselves and the other meditators in the group.

Part 2 - Possible Solutions

An idea could be that for a certain duration of time, e.g. 2 months they all practiced silent meditation. They could meet together and meditate together but no talking. They could just say hello to each other in the beginning of the session and goodbye after the session. That could create more solitude in the practice and thereby emphazizing the fact that the practice for ones own liberation can only be done by oneself.

Another method would be to do group sessions in Metta-Bhavana and thereby replacing the separation/sabotage aspect which is based on the root defilement of Hatred with Loving-kindness.

Power struggles are by default tainted with a strong attachment to Self. Another method would be to work on realizing the third sign of existence, i.e. anatta. There are guided meditations that focus on the voidness and emptiness of phenomena. Or they could simply begin practicing vipassana more intensely thereby realizing all of the signs.

A last method would be to open up a civilized discussion about the matter asking people in the group to deal with this in a grown up and "buddhist" way so that they can all benefit from the group meditations.

If everything fails your friend can always go completely solo and practice for herself, thereby not being hindered in her meditative progress. She could also try to find another group or maybe meet only with 1 or 2 from the group that she likes. She could try to find a teacher or come to Buddhism SE and join the community. There are many different options for her.

Most important thing here is her own practice. In the end only she can set herself free.

  • 1
    Thank you Sri Lanka. A lot of good thoughts here. It is appreciated. The metta-bhavana may be especially good. :)
    – Robin111
    Jul 12 '15 at 18:00
  • No problem Robin. Be well.
    – user2424
    Jul 12 '15 at 19:14

When confronted with a situation of this sort, one has a choice between three equally wise options:

  • Accept it
  • Change it
  • Leave it

Unfortunately, most people choose the fourth or fifth (most unwise) options, that are so artfully depicted by Shakespeare in Hamlet; i.e., either they:

suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or [...] take arms against a sea of troubles

Neither works. Ever. My apologies on behalf of the natural oder of the universe...

Sanghas occasionally find themselves facing irrational power struggles - humans being humans, and humans being flawed — and the the only proper response to such is to raise one's hand and say "enough" or perhaps "WTF!?!", with a thoroughly pained expression. Power struggles are the epitome of craving, and Buddhists seek to expunge craving, but craving is deeply rooted in the human psyche. People fail, and sometimes the failure of people leads to the failure of sanghas. Such is life.

If one does not wish to leave a sangha, and one does not wish to accept what is happening within a sangha, then there is only one choice available within the moral universe that a sangha represents: embrace the primal tiger, and roar. There is nothing that quells the craving monkey-mind faster than the roar of the indignant tiger, and nothing that will set people back on the path more quickly than the threat that straying from the path has indelible consequences. Do not be ashamed to let indignation show when indignation is called for. Even masters fail at times, but masters are masters because they are capable of seeing their own failures with all due perspective, so don't worry about that.

Those who cannot see with all due perspective are not masters. Don't fool yourself into thinking they are.

Make this roar public or private as you think best, because it's not about that; use all discretion that applies. But make it known to those involved that you are not there to deal with this karmic nonsense. The sangha is not a tribe; no one wins or loses by being leader; no one cares about the politics of it. The sangha has one purpose — to support those walking the path, as they walk through life — and everything outside of that is pure dukkha.

Never forget it, and never let anyone else forget it.

Forgive me if I sound indignant; I am. Buddhists need to step up in the world.

  • The question is over 5 years old, but I guess the issue described has been around since time immemorial.
    – Max
    Jan 21 '21 at 8:58
  • @NeuroMax: I was aware how old the question was, but as you say... Gautama himself likely had issues of this sort laid at his feet. It never hurts to remind people. Whether it helps or not is a different question. Jan 21 '21 at 9:34

control and power clicques that work witin rigid structures and do not incorpate the views and contributions of others in sanghas re merely a reflection of those people operate in the real world outside of th sangha - inbussiness and so on ..such habit are ifetimes in the making ..its idealistic to expect otherwise..if there is abise ( a common cntrol issue in cprprate or any large orgs, then its reflected in a static sangha leadership over long period calling all the shots @ few new members, many leaving .......watch for the signs and dont allow oneself to be victimised..sangha in sense s just a concept ,,my more trusted freinds arent buddhist at all or part of sangha ..even thugh i suppose a serious buddhist (remeber the story of buddha ws ask of the congrgation present ( ofmr all walks of life -not only buddhist ) who would be enlightned..he said most of the poeple n that congrgation that were not buddhist ,,attchment ,,is a tricky thing

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