A. You don't have to join any sangha (community) in order to be a Buddhist. Anyone can start learning about, reflecting upon and practicing Buddhism just by hearing or reading about it.
Being a Buddhist is more a matter of turning your heart and mind in that direction, and of practicing Buddhism and living in accordance with its ethical and compassionate, nonviolent guiding principles, than of any formal conversion ceremony.
Of course, a spiritual community, congregation or group can help you in various ways, and has proven helpful to many, including myself. It may be an easier and more direct path for you to learn how to meditate, chant, pray and study Buddhism with a group or a teacher, than to just go it alone.
Meditating and doing various Buddhist practices with others seems to generate a great power and blessing of its own. Spiritual friends, elders and teachers also can be of great service and help along the way. However, joining a group can get in the way for certain people. What works best is a very personal decision based on psychological makeup and background, hopes and aspirations.
The Buddha himself said:
"How joyful to look upon the awakened
And to keep company with the wise.
Follow the shining ones,
The wise, the awakened, the loving,
For they know how to work and forbear.
But if you cannot find
Friend or master to go with you,
Travel on alone--
Like a king who who has given away his kindgdom,
Like an elephant roaming free in the forest.
If the traveler can find
A virtuous and wise companion
Let him go with him joyfully
And overcome the dangers of the way.
As the moon follows the path
Of the stars."
These three are the Buddha (Enlightened Teacher), the Dharma (Liberating Teaching and Practice), and the Sangha (Community of Kindred Spirits). This is traditionally known as the Three Jewels, or Triple Gem ("Tri-ratna").
On an inner level, Buddha represents Truth, and knowing the Truth; Dharma represents The Path of Truth and True Spiritual Practice; Sangha represents Living the Truth and Embodying Truth in daily life. These three offer us a reliable refuge or unassailible citadel of certainty and protection amidst confusion, suffering and the inevitable travails of everyday existence.
Along the Way of Awakening, I have found that the practices of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are each equally important, both as refuges and as facets of spiritual life and deepening development.
Some people emphasize solitary study and meditation practice--Dharma practice-- as their primary path. Others stress devotion to the teacher or guru, which would be like Buddha practice. I think these are extremely helpful and useful for us. But Sangha practice in a community of fellow wayfarers is one of the most important parts of our spiritual life and further development, in Buddhism as it is in so many other traditions.
Once the Buddha was asked by his attendant, his cousin the monk Ananda: "Lord, is it true--as I have heard-- that spiritual friends are half of the holy life?"
Buddha replied: "No, Ananda: spiritual friends are all of the holy life."
Spirituality includes learning to love, and to better live in peace, harmony and friendship with those around you, and with all beings. Through sangha practice we learn patience and forbearance, how much everyone is just like us, and how everyone wants and needs much the same as we do.
On a deeper level, as you enter in a more committed way into community practices, one's rough edges are smoothed and we learn to love even those we may not always like.
These are some of the virtues and benefits of group practice.