The Jewel of Sangha – Part I

I have more than a few thoughts on the subject of sangha. Too many to cram into one post, so I’m going to spread them out over a number of posts which may not be consecutive.

First, a little background:

Thich Nhat Hanh walking with sangha members

In the Buddha’s day, “sangha” was a common term used to describe various assemblies and groups, some of which were governing bodies. Sangha had the connotation of “collective” and “republic” and it appears that it was interchangeable with another term “ganas” meaning “flock, troop, multitude, number, tribe” etc.

It’s likely that the Shakya clan to which the Buddha belonged had a form of republican government, and that the Buddha’s father, instead of being a rich and powerful monarch as popularly described, was actually the elected head of the tribal council.

J.P. Sharma, in Republics of Ancient India says that in the tribal sanghas “each member of the assembly was called a ‘raja’ (ruler), but none had the individual power to mold the decisions of the assembly.”

The Buddha infused his sangha with this same spirit. He repeatedly told his disciples that “It is [not] I who leads the brotherhood” and that “the community is not dependent upon me.” The original sangha functioned as a small, mobile republic. You could even call it a form of collectivism, and certainly it was a community founded on the values of “sharing, participation, and fellowship.”

The community may have been centered around the Buddha as the founder and the teacher, but the sangha did not exist for the Buudha. Its purpose was to serve all the members of the community, and society as a whole.  A sangha should not exist for its own sake, as a sort of corporational person. The jewel of sangha is people. Sangha is about people.

The members of the Buddhist community were called Bhikkhus, which normally we see translated as “monk,” but they were not monks. The word bhikkhu means “sharesman.” The sangha members were sharesmen in two senses: they shared in the life of the community, and they received shares of food from the householders who supported them.

While based on the republican ideal of earlier sanghas, the Buddhist community was something entirely new in the way it introduced the very idea of community into the spiritual tradition of India, stressing the importance of human interaction. Prof. Trevor Ling writes,

One of the important achievements of early Buddhism was that it developed a new context for the spiritual quest. Traditionally, in India, the search for salvation from the evils of human existence meant a life of solitude. For the Buddhist it meant a life in the community. For a time, however, in the earliest period of Buddhist history, the old idea seems to have survived. So strong a hold did the Indian tradition of solitude have that even among Buddhists there were those who tried to practice the Buddha’s teaching by the old method and, as an ancient text [Khaggavisana Sutta] puts it, ‘fare lonely as rhinoceros.” But it was among the Buddhists that there soon emerged, for the first time in Indian history, an ordered community of those who were seeking for salvation from the human malaise as they saw it.

The sangha was not to be a community set apart from the larger community, either. The Buddha and his followers almost always stayed on the edge of cities and towns, and daily went into these places and interacted with ordinary people.

The householders supported the Bhikkhus; in return, the Bhikkhus instructed the householders, cleared up their doubts, provided an example and an inspiration. In this reciprocal relationship, one was not inferior to the other. They simply had different roles in society.

Some believe that as monastics or ordained persons they are on a higher path. I think it is a path. However, even if you believe the former, then you can pursue that without having to assume the trappings of “clergy.” I think the only reason anyone should become a monk or roshi or the like, is in order serve people by teaching them, sharing insights and knowledge. If it is only about you becoming awakened, you don’t really need a title or a robe to accomplish that goal.

The way that I envision sangha comes largely from the Soka Gakkai, the lay mega-organization based on Nichiren Buddhism, which I participated in for many years. I remember the first time I attended a teaching by the Dalai Lama after I had left the organization. I didn’t understand a lot of what he was saying because many of the terms he used were not used in the Soka Gakkai. Like bodhicitta. I thought he was mispronouncing bodhisattva. Anyway, after one of the sessions everyone was milling around outside the auditorium and I began asking the monks questions. Naturally, most of them didn’t speak English very well. I finally found an American monk and started asking about this and that, and after a few minutes, he said “You ask too many questions.” Like I was bothering him or something.

But that’s what I was taught to do in the Soka Gakkai. In fact, we were expected to gather around those who were senior in faith and ask questions. It was called having a seeking spirit. I wanted to say to the monk, “Isn’t that why you are a monk? To answer questions? To explain Dharma?” I didn’t, and as I began to get acquainted with different forms of Buddhism, I soon realized that the ordained did not necessarily feel they had a duty to answer questions or explain anything.  In some cases, the people were there to serve them.

In the Soka Gakkai, in theory at least, a person takes on a leadership role for the sole purpose of serving others. I was once told that my attitude as a leader should be “Do anything for people.” I think that is good attitude for Buddhist leaders, monks, roshis, lamas, teachers, etc. to have. Sangha is about people.

I don’t like the idea of a “twofold” or “fourfold” Sangha. We should all be equal. Ordained members should not feel superior to lay members, and men should not be superior to women. I don’t like to go to a Vesak celebration and see the “monks” eat first, while the people have to wait. In most American Indian tribes, the chiefs always ate last. I think that’s another good attitude to have. The people come first. Sangha is about the people.

To be continued


3 thoughts on “The Jewel of Sangha – Part I

  1. I don’t like the idea of a “twofold” or “fourfold” Sangha. We should all be equal. Ordained members should not feel superior to lay members, and men should not be superior to women.

    I agree, but I also understand why the Buddha was at first so reluctant to establish the bhikkhuni sangha. He seemed to know that mixing the two sexes would lead to sexual misconduct and general messiness. I agree that one should not be superior to the other, but for each to have their own space I think is fine. Not completely necessary, but certainly helpful.

    Nice post David. Looking forward to the series.

    1. Thanks Adam, for you kind words.

      As I am sure you understand, the point I was making wasn’t about men and women mixing together, but about how women are treated within sanghas. Buddhist nuns are treated like second-class citizens and in some sanghas it is the men only who make the decisions, etc. I’m calling for more equality. Women should have the same status as men. We’re not in the Fifth century BCE anymore. Sanghas must evolve.

  2. Oh yes, I’m in total agreement there, and that point made it through loud and clear. It’s shameful to watch what happend with Ajahn Brahm and the bikkhuni ordinations.

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