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.
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