Sangha is a term used to refer to a community consisting of monastics, living a life free from sexual desire, desiring to live in harmony and purity, supporting each other in pursuing a life of liberation and awakening ideals. A Sangha community must consist of at least four ordained monks; any group with less than four fully ordained monks, or three fully ordained monks and one new monk, cannot be considered a Sangha.
LotusBuddhas also emphasizes that the ultimate purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to personally attain liberation from suffering and to preach the path to liberation for all beings. “Monks, both in the past and present, I only speak of suffering and the cessation of suffering.” This teaching is recorded multiple times in Buddhist scriptures. Therefore, all actions of the Buddha, including the establishment of the Sangha, are not separate from that purpose.
Meaning of the Sangha in Buddhism
The term “Sangha” originates from the Sanskrit and Pali languages, commonly associated with Buddhist philosophy and practice. It is a cardinal component of Three Jewels of Buddhism, which also comprise the Buddha (the Enlightened One) and the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha).
The Sangha broadly refers to the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis) who have renounced worldly life to fully devote themselves to the path of spiritual enlightenment, as guided by the teachings of the Buddha. Sangha’s traditional definition emphasizes the monastic community, whose members abide by the Vinaya – a set of monastic rules and regulations established by the Buddha.
On a more comprehensive level, the Sangha can encompass the broader Buddhist community, including both ordained members and lay followers. This is often referred to as the “Fourfold Sangha,” comprising male and female monastics and male and female laypersons.
The Sangha plays a crucial role in preserving, practicing and propagating the Dharma. As custodians of Buddhist teachings, they carry forward the transmission of knowledge, philosophy and practices across generations. They also offer guidance and support to lay followers and serve as a living embodiment of the Buddha’s teachings. The existence and conduct of the Sangha reflect the practical aspect of Buddhism, making the Buddha’s teachings more accessible and relatable.
The importance of the Sangha extends beyond its role as a religious community. It is often seen as a model for harmonious and ethical living. The principles of mutual respect, cooperation, mindfulness and pursuit of wisdom, which form the foundation of the Sangha, represent a framework for a harmonious and enlightened society.
Moreover, the Sangha’s importance is recognized and valued highly within the Buddhist tradition. It is considered a field of merit for the laity; lay followers are encouraged to make donations (material or otherwise) to the Sangha, which is believed to accrue positive karma. The Sangha, in turn, is expected to conduct itself in a manner worthy of such offerings, adhering strictly to the Buddha’s teachings and the Vinaya.
Origins of the Sangha
The origins of the Sangha trace back to the life and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, commonly known as the Buddha. After his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha embarked on a mission to disseminate his newfound understanding of the nature of suffering and the path to its cessation. It was during this period of teaching that the Sangha, as an institutionalized monastic order, began to take shape.
The Buddha’s first discourse, known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or the “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma”, delivered at the Deer Park in Sarnath, India, marked the initial establishment of the Sangha. It was after this discourse that a group of five ascetics, once companions of the Buddha during his period of intense austerity, became his first disciples. This congregation, often referred to as the Pancavaggiya monks, marked the inception of the Sangha.
Following this, the Buddha’s profound teachings began to attract a diverse range of followers, and the Sangha gradually expanded. It initially consisted solely of monks, who renounced worldly life to devote themselves fully to spiritual practice in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.
The formal institutionalization of the Sangha occurred with the implementation of the Vinaya Pitaka, a set of disciplinary rules and procedures that the Buddha established for the monastic order. These rules, evolving in response to specific incidents and challenges within the community, set a code of conduct for monks, guiding their behavior and interactions within and outside the Sangha.
Approximately five years after the formation of the male monastic Sangha, the Buddha, persuaded by his stepmother Mahapajapati Gotami and his closest disciple Ananda, established the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the order of nuns, thereby allowing women to renounce worldly life and fully dedicate themselves to the spiritual path.
The Sangha evolved into a structured and hierarchical community, distinguished by seniority in terms of ordination date. The community would gather for key events such as the recitation of the Patimokkha (a summary of the Vinaya rules) and the observance of Vassa, the rains retreat.
The nine qualities of the Sangha
In Buddhism, the Sangha is recognized not merely as a community of monks and nuns, but also for its distinguishing characteristics and qualities. These characteristics, encapsulated in the ‘Nine Qualities of the Sangha,’ elaborate upon the virtuous and significant role of the Sangha within the Buddhist tradition.
- Practicing the Right Way: The Sangha is acknowledged for adhering to the teachings encapsulated in the Doctrine (Dharma) and Discipline (Vinaya) as instructed by the Buddha. The adherence to these precepts, alongside the pursuit of an immaculate way of life, constitutes practicing the right way.
- Practicing the Straight Way: This quality signifies the Sangha’s pursuit of the Middle Path, which steers clear of the two extremes: indulgence in sensual pleasures and self-mortification. It involves the renunciation of any physical, verbal, and mental misconduct, thereby practicing a path of straightness and honesty.
- Practicing the True Way to Nibbana: The Sangha is dedicated to the true way as they strive towards the ultimate goal of Buddhism, Nibbana. This state of liberation from the cycles of rebirth and suffering is recognized as the ultimate truth.
- Practicing the Proper Way: The Sangha follows the path of those deemed worthy of correct action. This involves practicing virtue, concentration, and wisdom, the three sections of the Buddhist Eightfold Path.
- Being Worthy of Gifts: The Sangha is seen as deserving of offerings or gifts, often referred to as the four requisites: food, clothing, medicine and lodgings. These offerings, brought even from distant places, are believed to bear substantial benefit to the giver.
- Being Worthy of Hospitality: The Sangha’s purity and virtues make it a suitable recipient of hospitality, similar to esteemed visitors or loved ones. This hospitality usually comes in the form of gifts or services.
- Being Worthy of Offerings: This quality reflects the Sangha’s worthiness to receive offerings made with faith and goodwill. By virtue of its spiritual purity, the Sangha enhances the fruitfulness of these offerings.
- Being Worthy of Reverential Salutation: The Sangha is worthy of utmost respect, often demonstrated by salutations performed with hands placed together above the head. This gesture symbolizes deep reverence and respect for the Sangha’s virtuous qualities.
- Being the Unsurpassed Field of Merit for the World: The Sangha is considered the unparalleled sphere for accruing merit. By offering to and associating with the Sangha, followers can amass merit, which is believed to lead to welfare and happiness.
In tandem with these nine qualities, the concept of the “Four Pairs of the Noble Persons” refers to individuals at different stages of enlightenment, each pair representing one who is on the Path (practicing towards) and one who is in the Fruition (having realized) of each of the four stages.
In summary, the ‘Nine Qualities of the Sangha’ underscores the Sangha’s integral role in the propagation of Buddhism, demonstrating its reverence and value within the faith.
The role of Sangha in the Three Jewels
The role of the Sangha within the Three Jewels is manifold, yet its essence is encapsulated in two core functions: preservation and propagation.
- Preservation: The Sangha serves as the custodian of the Buddha’s teachings. By dedicating their lives to studying, understanding, and practicing the Dharma, members of the Sangha ensure that the wisdom of the Buddha is preserved and perpetuated. They adhere to a stringent code of conduct, the Vinaya, which directs their day-to-day behavior and enshrines the moral and ethical principles outlined in the Dharma.
- Propagation: The Sangha plays a pivotal role in spreading the teachings of the Buddha. They provide instruction and guidance to lay followers, elucidating the intricacies of the Dharma and assisting others in their spiritual journey. Through discourses, meditation retreats, and counseling, the Sangha brings the Dharma to life, making it accessible and applicable to a diverse range of followers.
Additionally, the Sangha exemplifies the practical implementation of the Dharma. They serve as a living embodiment of the Buddha’s teachings, providing a tangible demonstration of the transformative power of these teachings. The Sangha, in its dedication to a life of simplicity, renunciation, mindfulness, and compassion, models the Buddhist path for laypersons.
Further, the Sangha serves as a field of merit for laypeople. By offering material or moral support to the Sangha, lay followers can accrue merit, a concept of significant importance in Buddhism associated with future happiness and progress on the path to enlightenment.
Sangha also provides a supportive and conducive environment for spiritual growth and development. For those seeking to deepen their practice or commit fully to the path of liberation, the Sangha offers a structured and nurturing community focused on the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.
How to practice in the Sangha
Practicing in the Sangha, the monastic community in Buddhism, entails a commitment to the path of spiritual awakening as laid out by the Buddha. The life of a monastic is marked by renunciation, discipline and continuous practice. Here are some key elements to consider when practicing in the Sangha:
Adhering to the vinaya: The Vinaya is the regulatory framework for monastics, consisting of precepts that guide ethical behavior. Depending on the tradition and level of ordination, monastics follow a set number of precepts. For instance, monks and nuns in the Theravada tradition follow 227 and 311 precepts, respectively. These rules govern various aspects of monastic life, from interpersonal relations to lifestyle choices, and adherence to them is central to practicing in the Sangha.
Meditation and Mindfulness: Central to the life of a monastic is the practice of meditation. Various techniques, such as Vipassana (insight) and Samatha (tranquility), are employed to cultivate mindfulness and deepen understanding of the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings. Regular meditation helps develop concentration, clarity, and equanimity, leading to deeper insights into the nature of existence.
Study of the Dharma: Monastics dedicate significant time to studying the sutras (scriptures), learning the Buddha’s teachings, and understanding the profound philosophical insights they contain. This study is not purely academic; it’s meant to inform and deepen one’s practice and personal experience.
Teaching and supporting the lay community: Part of the Sangha’s role is to teach and guide lay followers on their spiritual path. Monastics often give teachings or lead meditation retreats. They also perform religious services and rites for the lay community.
Living in community: Living in the Sangha involves communal living. Monastics learn to live harmoniously with others, which often involves duties such as shared chores, communal meals and group rituals. This shared life teaches monastics about cooperation, patience and the practice of loving-kindness.
Practicing simplicity: A fundamental aspect of monastic life is the commitment to simplicity. Monastics relinquish most material possessions and are content with basic necessities: robes, alms food, shelter and medicine. This simplicity supports their spiritual practice by minimizing distractions and attachments.
Following the path to enlightenment: The ultimate aim of practicing in the Sangha is to progress on the path to enlightenment. Monastics strive to fully understand and embody the Four Noble Truths and follow the Noble Eightfold Path, the core teachings of the Buddha.
It’s worth noting that the decision to join the Sangha shouldn’t be taken lightly. It involves a significant commitment and a willingness to live a life of simplicity, discipline and continuous spiritual practice. For those who feel called to this path, the Sangha can offer a supportive and conducive environment for deep spiritual growth and understanding.
Conventional Sangha and Arya Sangha
In Buddhist tradition, the term ‘Sangha’ is used in two primary contexts: the Conventional Sangha (Sammuti Sangha) and the Arya Sangha. Both interpretations are integral to understanding the broader notion of the Sangha within Buddhism, but they differ in their composition and spiritual attainment.
The Conventional Sangha refers to the monastic community composed of ordained monks and nuns. This community adheres to a rigorous set of disciplinary rules, known as the Vinaya, and devotes itself to the study, practice and propagation of the Buddha’s teachings. The Conventional Sangha includes both individuals who have attained various stages of enlightenment and those who are still on the path towards it.
The primary function of the Conventional Sangha is to preserve and perpetuate the Dharma, thereby serving as a spiritual guide for lay followers. By renouncing worldly pursuits and dedicating themselves to spiritual practice, members of the Conventional Sangha embody the principles and teachings of Buddhism and serve as a model for those in the wider community.
On the other hand, the Arya Sangha, also referred to as the Noble Sangha, consists of individuals who have achieved direct insight into the ultimate truth of reality, as expounded in the Buddha’s teachings. These individuals have realized at least one of the four stages of enlightenment (stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, or arahantship), thereby making significant progress on the path to liberation from suffering, or Nibbana.
The Arya Sangha includes laypersons and monastics alike. What distinguishes members of the Arya Sangha is not their monastic status or adherence to the Vinaya but their profound realization of the Dharma. The Arya Sangha embodies the spiritual ideal of the Buddhist path, representing those who have directly experienced the transformative power of the Buddha’s teachings.