The Sangha, traditionally speaking, has two connotations; firstly, it refers to the two orders of monks and nuns, originally founded at the onset of Buddhist history, and, secondly, it makes reference to those men & women that have achieved awakening or enlightenment. It is this latter group that are included in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, which every Buddhist takes refuge in as a source of inspiration upon the Path. In more modern times, the term Sangha has been extended to include non-celibate priests, as are found in Japanese Buddhism, and even to the whole Buddhist community at large, including lay people, as often happens in the Western Buddhism. In more traditionally-minded Buddhist societies, this latter meaning of Sangha is unrecognized, and only an ordained priest, monk, or nun is recognized as a member of the Order.
For the author, having taken refuge in the Forest Buddhism of Ajahns Chah & Sumedho, and living in conservative
A Zen priest ready to whack the Sangha!
In truth, Sangha is another word and concept. We can use it effectively to encapsulate some abstract idea, or we can attach to the meaning we give to it, creating suffering around it. Even reflecting on the usage of Sangha to indicate the community of enlightened ones can lead to the realization that the mind is creating duality between enlightened and not enlightened, Sangha member and non-member. Sometimes, perhaps always, it can be useful to get back to basics so as to see things with a little more clarity. So, let’s get simple!
Traditional relationship between Sangha & the laity
Sit comfortably with eyes shut, perhaps in your meditation position, and, after settling down through an exercise such as watching the breath, mentally say the word ‘Sangha.’ Listen to its sounds: s-a-ng-gh-a. What reaction occurs in the mind to these sounds? Repeat the word slowly several times, and notice the space that precedes and follows each word. How does experiencing the word in this silent context affect the mind’s response to it? Now say the word internally and focus on the various connotations that arise in relation to it. What images come to mind; monks, nuns, robes, bowls, meditators, a chanting congregation, a gentle smile? Break the word into two syllables, and silently recite ‘sang’ on the in-breath, then internally say ‘gha’ on the out-breath. As the air gently sweeps into your body and then out again, see how any controversy or confusion associated with the word itself disperses into the softness of your breathing. How do you feel about the word ‘Sangha’ now?
Nuns form part of the traditional Sangha
What of yourself, dear reader? Are you a member of a Sangha, or the supporter of one? Does it concern you that if you use the term Sangha to mean one thing, and Asian Buddhists use it to mean something quite different, misunderstandings can arise, and the suspicion that Westerners are yet again taking another cultural tradition and bastardizing it to suit themselves? Is the distinction between renunciate and lay person an important one in the Buddhism that you practice, or do you think that such categories are no longer relevant to modern Buddhism?
Is any collection of Buddhists a Sangha these days?