Friday, May 1, 2009

The Sangha Revisted

The third refuge is Sangha, which means a group. ‘Sangha’ may be the Bhikkhu-Sangha [the order of monks] – or the Ariya-Sangha, the group of the Noble Beings, all those who live virtuously, doing good and refraining from evil with bodily action and speech. Here, taking refuge in the Sangha with ‘Sangham saranam gacchami’ means we take refuge in virtue, in that which is good, virtuous, kind, compassionate and generous. We don’t take refuge in those things in our minds that are mean, nasty, cruel, selfish, jealous, hateful, angry – even though admittedly that is what we often tend to do out pf heedlessness, out of not reflecting, not being awake, but just reacting to conditions. Taking refuge in the Sangha means, on the conventional level, doing good and refraining from evil with bodily action and speech.

(‘Now is the Knowing’ by Ajahn Sumedho, p.15*)

Ajahn Sumedho has a wonderful way of explaining things, which often appears very simple, but leads us to reflect more deeply on what he’s talking about. When discussing the Sangha, the venerable monk describes in pretty succinct language what the word means in Theravada Buddhism. He looks at the Pali phrase used to take refuge in the Sangha, but gives it a contemplative interpretation by relating it to certain positive qualities, such as virtue, kindness, and generosity.

Unlike many a guru, Buddhist or otherwise, Ajahn Sumedho does not encourage us to take refuge in him or the ordained Sangha to which he belongs, but instead directs us to reflect on what it actually means to take refuge, and what the word ‘Sangha’ actually points to. And, apart from those ordained & liberated members of the Buddhist fraternity, what is it that this word refers to? It is all that’s positive & inspirational in the spiritual life, leading us to deepen our practice of Buddhism by developing the understanding that virtuous living is the basis for genuine progress towards enlightenment.

On one level, of course, Buddhists take refuge in the Triple Gem, which includes the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – the Awakened One, the teaching, and the Community of Enlightened & Ordained Buddhists. These three supports can help us to avoid some of the excesses that we humans are prone to, with the Sangha providing examples of how to live a life conducive to spiritual awakening. But, closely related to this, are the very qualities that the Sangha embody for us, such as goodwill, compassion, generosity, and the like. Ajahn Sumedho suggests that taking refuge in these modes of behavior is entering into the Sangha, conducting one’s life in a way that parallels the lifestyles of the awakened ones.

Cultivating awareness of our habits, whether mental, verbal, and physical, can enable us to understand them, letting go of the more harmful modes of behavior and cultivating those assist in our awakening. Reflecting on how we talk with others, for example, can reveal our inner thoughts about them, and what we really think of ourselves, as well. Do we experience other people as completely separate from us, or are they somehow connected to us at a fundamental level of our being? How we interact with them reveals so much, for it’s easy to talk of being one with others, or living in harmony, but to actually live in such ways means that we have experienced the interdependent nature of all people & things. And, as a reader of this blog has previously suggested (see here: Sangha), we can see everyone & everything as belonging to this ‘Sangha’ that includes not only ordained & enlightened Buddhists, but all living beings in the universe.

*To download 'Now is the Knowing' by Ajahn Sumedho, please click here:
Buddhanet E-Book Library


JD said...


I think reflecting on the Sangha is a good thing for all Buddhist but may prove especially helpful for Buddhists such as myself who do not have the support of a regular sitting group or monastery around.

If we feel dismay in our ability to practice we can think of all the Ariyas and how they were human beings just like ourselves. If they could do it, then why can't we? Everytime we practice we can remember that we are continuing the lineage of the Buddha and his Noble disciples and that by becoming a Noble one ourselves wee help keep the sasana alive and may even be able to benefit others also.

At the same time, we can look at our thoughts, words and deeds and think about whether or not we are acting in ways that would be fitting for a member of the Sangha. Ajahn Thanissaro sometimes has us ask, "what would you do if the Buddha were looking over your shoulder right now?" We could also change that to, "what would you do if the Noble Sangha were looking over your shoulders right now? And if you are a Mahayana follower or have room in your heart for those teachings you may suggest that the Bodhisattvas are watching you and supporting your efforts to practice.

Ajahn Sumedho seems to bring up a nice point when he mentions that acting in line with the modes of conduct expected of a Buddhist is pretty much "entering into the Sangha."

A healthy sense of hiri and otappa might come up when we think about our actions and how they may or may not be fitting for a Dhamma practicioner who aspires to live up to the standards of the Sangha, and both of the qualities are things that the Buddha praised for helping us to stay on the path.

A timely reflection Gary. I hope you enjoyed the beach. It just so happens I have a long weekend ahead of me so I may try to go find a beach around here to visit. I wish you well.

G said...

Another excellent set of reflections, Justin.

As one of the six reflections encouraged by the Buddha in the Tipitaka - the others being reflecting on the Buddha, the Dharma, morality, liberality, and deities, for those who don't know - contemplating the Sangha is indeed a good thing for us all.

Reflecting on our behavior & seeing if it is worthy of a member of the Sangha - however we define the word - is a wise course of action that will bear much good fruit if pursued for many years of practice.


Kyle said...

You wrote "Cultivating awareness of our habits, whether mental, verbal, and physical, can enable us to understand them, letting go of the more harmful modes of behavior and cultivating those assist in our awakening"

Perfectly said, great post!

G said...

Thanks, Kyle.

Be well in the Dharma,