Monks: The only kind of Sangha?
The Sangha, or 'Community,' lies at the heart of traditional Buddhism. In the more conservative Theravada Buddhism, it has two main connotations: the Bhikkhu-Sangha, or the Order of Monks, and the Arya-Sangha, the Order of Noble Ones (the enlightened). A third usage, the Bhikkhuni-Sangha (the Order of Nuns), is more controversial, as the traditional lineage of fully-ordained nuns died out in Theravada Buddhist countries centuries ago. Attachment to long-established conventions prevents many Theravada Buddhists from recognizing attempts to reestablish this Order. So, in Theravada Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, only monks or enlightened ones may be considered to be members of a Sangha. (And, in what others see as erroneous interpretations of the Pali Canon, many consider it impossible for laity to realize enlightenment, which means only fully-ordained monks are within the Sangha.)
In Mahayana Buddhism, which is more diverse and adaptive than Theravada Buddhism and found in places such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China, and Tbet, such classifications regarding who can be a member of the Sangha exist, but are much looser. For example, the Arya-Sangha clearly includes many lay Buddhists, both male and female. Furthermore, nowadays many Buddhist groups or communities consider themselves to constitute a Sangha. An example of this is the Dogen Sangha which has many branches in Japan and the West. This latter interpretation of a Sangha is found widely on the Internet.
E-Sangha is a popular virtual Sangha made up of both ordained and lay Buddhist members that meet online to share Buddhist teachings and advice. Of course, as with any Web-based message board or chat room, not all of the communications on such sites are, um, enlightening, sometimes no more than places to argue one's opinion. Virtual Sanghas do seem to be on the increase, however, and considering the fact that anyone visiting this blog is a member of what could be deemed the Buddha Space Sangha, it would seem somewhat churlish to dismiss the idea of an Internet Sangha out of hand.
So, what do you think, dear reader? Are you an ordained Sangha-member, an enlightened Sangha-member, or perhaps you see yourself as a member of the Wide Wide Web Sangha. Should the word Sangha set in stone with the traditional meanings as defined above, or is it, like Mahayana Buddhism - and, in truth, Theravada Buddhism as well - an organic entity that changes over time to suit the needs of current Buddhists? And, most crucially, what form do you think a modern Sangha should take?