This article concerns the concept of Sangha in Buddhism. For information on other senses, see Sangha (disambiguation).
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Sangha (Pali: सन्घ saṅgha; Sanskrit: संघ saṃgha; Wylie: 'dus sde) is a word in Pali or Sanskrit that can be translated roughly as "association" or "assembly," "company" or "community" with common goal, vision or purpose. Sangha is the third of the Three Jewels in Buddhism.

The term is commonly used in several senses to refer to Buddhist or Jain groups.

Traditionally, in Buddhism Sangha almost always has one of two meanings: most commonly, Sangha means the monastic Sangha of ordained Buddhist monks or nuns. In a stricter sense, Sangha can mean the assembly of all beings possessing some high degree of realization, referred to as the arya-sangha or "noble Sangha". This article deals primarily with the subject of the monastic Sangha. Buddhists traditionally consider monastic life to provide the environment most conducive to advancing toward enlightenment, and the Sangha is responsible for maintaining, translating, advancing, and spreading the teachings of the Buddha. According to the same tradition for a country or nation to be considered as truly Buddhist, the majority of the nation must be Buddhist and include at least a fourfold sangha of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas and, upasikas.[1] That is why there is also a tradition of yogic tantric practitioners who are laypeople but still Buddhist practitioners.


Qualities of the Sangha

In Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha each are described as having certain characteristics. These characteristics are chanted either on a daily basis and/or on Uposatha days, depending on the school of Buddhism. In Theravada tradition they are a part of daily chanting:

The Sangha: "The Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples (Savakas) is:

  1. practicing the good way
  2. practicing the upright way
  3. practicing the knowledgeable or logical way
  4. practicing the proper way;

that is, the four pairs of persons, the eight types of individuals - This Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples is:

  1. worthy of gifts
  2. worthy of hospitalities
  3. worthy of offerings
  4. worthy of reverential salutation
  5. the unsurpassed field of merit for the world."[2]

Monastic tradition

Upasakas and Upasikas performing a short chanting ceremony at Three Ancestors Temple, Anhui Province, China

The Sangha of monks and the Sangha of nuns were originally established by Gautama Buddha in the 5th century BCE in order to provide a means for those who wish to practice the Dhamma full time, in a direct and highly disciplined way, free from the restrictions and responsibilities of the household life. The Sangha also fulfils the function of preserving the Buddha’s original teachings and of providing spiritual support for the Buddhist lay-community.

The key feature of Buddhist monasticism is the adherence to the vinaya which contains an elaborate set of rules of conduct including complete chastity and eating only before noon. Between midday and the next day, a strict life of scripture study, chanting, meditation, and occasional cleaning forms most of the Sangha's duties. Transgression of rules carries penalties ranging from confession to permanent expulsion from the Sangha. The founder of Japanese Tendai decided to reduce the number of rules down to about 60 (Enkai). In Kamakura Era, many sects (Zen, Pureland and Nichiren) that originated from Tendai sect abolished vinaya entirely. Therefore Japanese Zen, Pureland and Nichiren, are led by priests (or minister) rather than by monks.

Monks and nuns may own only the barest minimum of possessions due to their samaya as renunciates (ideally, three robes, an alms bowl, a cloth belt, a needle and thread, a razor for shaving the head, and a water filter). In practice, they often have a few additional personal possessions.

Traditionally, Buddhist monastics eschew ordinary clothes and wear robes. Originally the robes were sewn together from rags and stained with earth. The idea that robes were dyed with saffron seems unlikely to be true since it was and still is a very expensive commodity, and monks were poor. The color of modern robes varies from community to community (saffron is characteristic for southeast Asian Theravada and Mahayana groups, maroon in Tibet, gray in Korea, black in Japan etc.)

The word which is usually translated as monk is bhikkhu in Pali or bhikshu in Sanskrit. The feminine form is bhikkhuni or bhikshuni. These words literally mean "beggar", and it is traditional for bhikkhus to beg their food. In most places this has become an elaborate ritual, where lay people feed monastics in order to obtain merit which will ensure them a fortunate rebirth. Although monastics in India traditionally did not work for income, this changed when Buddhism moved to east Asia, so that in China and the surrounding countries monks often engage in agriculture.

The idea that all Buddhists, especially monks and nuns practice vegetarianism is a Western misperception. In some Sanskrit sutras meat eating is strongly discouraged whilst in Pali Sutras the Buddha specifically rejected a suggestion by a senior monk to impose vegetarianism on the Sangha. The Buddha himself is recorded as having consumed meat. The Buddha allowed Sangha members to eat whatever food is donated to them by laypeople, except that they may not eat meat if they know or suspect the animal was killed specifically for them. Consequently, the Theravadan tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma) which follows the Pali scriptures does not practice vegetarianism though an individual may do so at his or her personal choice. On the other hand, the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions accept both Theravada and Mahayana scriptures, and consequently the practice will vary depending on their interpretation of the sutras. In particular, East Asian monastics take on the bodhisattva vows from the Brahma Net Sutra which has a vow of vegetarianism as part of the Triple Platform Ordination where they receive the sramanera/sramanerika, bhikshu/bhikshuni and bodhisattva vows, whereas the Tibetan lineages transmit the bodhisattva vows from Asanga's Yogacarabhumi, which does not include a vow of vegetarianism. In some areas such as China, Korea and Vietnam one expects the Sangha to practice strict vegetarianism while in other areas such as Japan or Tibet one does not.

The lay community is responsible for the production of goods and services in society, and for the production and raising of children. According to Mahayana sutras, the Buddha always maintained that lay persons were capable of great wisdom in the Buddhadharma and of reaching enlightenment. In the west, there is a misconception that Theravada regards enlightenment to be an impossible goal outside the Sangha. This is incorrect. In Theravada suttas, it is clearly recorded that the Buddha's uncle—who was a lay follower—reached enlightenment by hearing the Buddha's discourse.

An almsbowl used by members of the Sangha.

The distinction between Sangha and lay persons has always been important and forms the Parisa, Buddhist community. Here, monastics teach and counsel the laity at request while laymen and laywomen offer donations for their future support. This inter-connectedness serves as a marriage and has sustained Buddhism to this day.

Women's role in the Sangha

Although always maintaining that women were just as capable of attaining enlightenment as men, the canonical texts depict the Buddha as being reluctant to permit women to join the Sangha. After several entreaties from his aunt and foster-mother, Maha Pajapati Gotami, who wished to become ordained, and from his cousin and aide Ananda, who supported her cause, the Buddha relented and ordained Maha Pajapati and several others as nuns. It is interesting to note that this was one of the few issues about which the Buddha is recorded to have changed his mind. The Buddha later established the condition that each new ordination would be sanctioned by at least five bhikkhunis.

There have been several theories regarding the Buddha's reluctance to ordain women, including the possibility that it was due to fears that a community of women would not be safe in the society of his day. According to the scriptures the reason the Buddha himself gave was that the admission of women would weaken the Sangha and shorten its lifetime, and he laid down strict rules subordinating nuns to monks (The Eight Garudhammas).

Before the modern era, the Bhikkhuni Sangha spread to most Buddhist countries including Burma (also known as Myanmar), with the notable exceptions being Tibet and Thailand. However, in Sri Lanka, it died out in the 11th century during a civil war and was not revived. Consequently, as Theravada Buddhism spread to Thailand, the Theravada Sangha consisted only of monks.

In recent decades, there has been a serious attempt to revive the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha with the assistance of Mahayana bhikkhunis from the Chinese lineage. These were introduced from Sri Lanka in 433 C. E., following the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, and subsequently spread to Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan. This has resulted in a small but thriving community of nuns in Sri Lanka, who in turn ordained the first Theravada Buddhist nun in the history of Thailand, Ven. Dhammananda. However, the validity of these ordinations is strongly disputed by some of the conservative Theravada establishment.

Meanwhile, a similar process has produced the first fully ordained bhikkhunis in Tibetan Buddhism, where only the novice ordination for bhikkhunis existed. In the west, where feminism has been a strong influence, there have been many remarkable Buddhist nuns: three notable examples are Pema Chodron, Ayya Khema and Tenzin Palmo.

The first bhikkhuni ordination in Australia in the Theravadin tradition was held in Perth on October 22 at Bodhinyana Monastery. Venerable Ajahn Vayama together with Venerables Nirodha, Seri and Hasapanna were ordained as bhikkhunis by a dual sangha act of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis in full accordance with the pali vinaya.

Sangha as a general reference to Buddhist community

Some[3][4] commentators have noted that sangha is frequently (and according to them, mistakenly) used in the West to refer to any sort of Buddhist community. This could be problematic in a doctrinal sense insofar as a given collection of Buddhists might not fully constitute a triple gem (of Buddha, dharma, and sangha) where other sentient beings could take refuge, and as such, might not merit the reverence and the measure of community support (i.e., recourse to bhiksa in whatever form) provided for in the sutras for the sangha formative of the triple gem.

It is suggested by these commentators that the terms parisa or gana would be a more appropriate reference to a community of Buddhists. Parisa means "following" and it refers to the four groups of the Buddha's followers: monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. [2] The Sanskrit term gana has meanings of flock, troop, multitude, number, tribe, series, class, and is usable as well in more mundane senses.

However, application of sangha to any sort of Buddhist community is backed by other commentators, mainly coming from movements with a significant proportion of lay people, and often among Mahayana, Vajrayana and Vipassana groups. They refer to the word sangha being traditionally also used to encompass lay followers, in sutras like Anguttara-Nikaya II.1.vii.[5] The doctrinal problem of sangha-as-gem-to-be-revered they solve in two ways: firstly by stressing that the arya sangha is a much greater refuge than the lower levels of sangha, and secondly by stressing that sangha denotes the sacred dimensions of gathering as a community of Buddhists, in contrast with its more mundane dimensions. The sacred dimensions of such peer relationships are governed by the concept of kalyana mittata.

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000). "The Collected Discourses of the Buddha: A new translation of the Samyutta Nikaya". Somerville: Wisdom Publications, Sakkasamyutta, Dhajjaggasutta (3), p.319-321.
  3. ^ The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997), p.307.
  4. ^ Frequently Asked Questions About Buddhism
  5. ^ 4:1 Bhandagamavaggo - English

External links

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