Columbus and surrounding areas has a wide diversity of groups, representing many cultures, and for someone new to Buddhism it can be intimidating to make your first foray out.
In terms of visiting, there are basically two kinds of communities:
The term “Sangha” really just means “community” or “assembly.” It is one of the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) of Buddhism to which all Buddhists “go for refuge.”
Informally, it is the term that some Buddhists (specifically those from the Mahayana schools) use to refer to their own particular congregation. A “Sangha” can get together regularly in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s participated in other kinds of clubs/meetups/etc. They have a scheduled time for their get-togethers, where meditation is usually practiced and they may meet at more than one location without their own dedicated space or temple. For these, look in the menu to the left for “Sit Now” to see meeting times or browse the “Buddhist Groups by Name” and follow the link to see each Sangha’s activities.
Other Buddhists (specifically those from the Therevada schools) use the term “Sangha” to refer only to the community of monks and nuns. Monks and nuns come and go from temple to temple so the lay community organizes around the physical temple, often called a “Vihara” or “Wat.”
A traditional Buddhist Vihara is an open place where monks and nuns live and where lay practitioners can come and go throughout the morning and on lunar holidays. In Columbus, all these communities are identifiable because they are called “Wat such-and-such.” Columbus has a large population of Americans of South-East Asian origin and many of the local Wats are maintained by families specifically with roots in Laos.
Even if you’re not knowledgeable in South-East Asian culture, don’t be intimidated. Visiting a Wat is easy. They are often open and can be a welcome place for people seeking friendly community and a quiet place to sit in devotion or meditation. Lay Buddhist families typically come in the mornings around 10:00 am to offer food for the monastics, who eat once a day. This is done in a ceremonial way (called “Sai Bat”) where monastics lead lay people in chant, monks and nuns eat from whatever is offered, and then the whole community shares the remaining food and socializes together. All people are welcome to participate in practicing “dana” (generosity) and no one needs to be a self-identified Buddhist in order to do so. While there may be a language barrier (depending on the congregation) this can be a good time to ask questions. The temple may host introductory courses or other opportunities for deepining one’s practice.
Note: Because a traditional Wat is a safe place for people new to American culture, it is good to know some basic protocol when visiting to be respectful and not to accidentally offend.
- Shoes come off and are left outside.
- Clothes should be chosen to be comfortable when sitting on the floor and should respect traditional Asian norms of modesty (i.e. in a temple people don’t typically wear shorts or tank tops).
- Foot direction: All cultures communicate with their own system of “body language” and for those raised in typical American society one can be blind to the subtle significance of feet in Asian cultures. People in Asia don’t typically use their feet as a secondary hand to move things and, while sitting on the floor, it is considered insulting to point the sole of one’s foot directly at someone–i.e. with legs outstretched in someone’s direction. This attention to foot direction also applies to the Buddha-alter itself, as the alter is where practitioners direct their greatest respect. This may seem odd if you’re not used to it, but the solution is not difficult. Just to keep your legs in a cross-legged or kneeling position and, if you need to stretch out, to do it directing your feet away from the alter and other people.