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The saṅgha (community) is the third of the three Buddhist refuges, or jewels (triratna), of Buddha, dharma, and saṅgha. The word saṅgha literally means "that which is well struck together"; it derives from a Sanskrit root, han (to strike), with the prefix sam conveying a sense of togetherness and completeness. The idea is that the true Buddhist community is well hammered together, impervious to schism, and in perfect harmony. From the very earliest period the undisputed focus of Buddhist worship has been the saṅgha, together with the Buddha and dharma, and the statement buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi, dharmaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi, saṅghaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi (I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma, I go for refuge to the saṅgha) has been the primary, shared affirmation of Buddhists.

Idealized community

The traditional explanation of saṅgha describes it not as a community of ordinary monks and nuns belonging to a Buddhist order, but as a special community of eight noble beings called āryas (Pāli, ariyas) who carry in their hearts the liberating dharma. They are described in the Ratana-sutta of the Cullavagga of the Sutta Nipāta (II.1.6–7), one of the very earliest Buddhist teachings: "The eight persons praised by the virtuous are four pairs. They are the disciples of the Buddha and are worthy of offerings. Gifts given to them yield rich results … free from afflictions they have obtained … the state beyond death. This is the precious saṅgha jewel."

The first pair of noble beings are those who have reached, or are on their way to, the state of the arhat (one worthy of praise and offerings). The arhats, like the Buddha, have found liberation from unending saṂsĀra (the cycle of birth and death). The three other pairs of noble beings are those who, if not arhats, have reached, or are on their way to, the state of anāgāmin; that is, they are nonreturners to this ordinary world, which is dominated by sense gratification. If they are not yet at that stage of development, they have reached, or are on their way to, the state of sakṛdāgāmin (oncereturners), and they will return once more to this ordinary world. The fourth pair of noble beings are srota-āpannas, stream-enterers, who have obtained, or are on their way to obtaining, a state where they may return to this ordinary world up to seven more times before they reach the goal of liberation at the end of the path. They are called stream-enterers because the stream of the dharma, the understanding of the four noble truths that systematize the content of the Buddha's liberating teaching, has become one with the stream of their minds. In this traditional understanding of the saṅgha, the Buddha, as an arhat, is a member of the saṅgha, and embodies the dharma as well.

The salvific function of the saṅgha has been much discussed. Traditional explanations liken it to a nurse who helps a patient take the medicine (the dharma) that is prescribed by the Buddha, who is likened to a perfect doctor. Early Indian Buddhism (Majjhimanikāya 75, 105), perhaps drawing on ancient Indian medical theory (e.g., Caraka-saṃhitā 9.19), claims that the Buddha or TathĀgata (one who knows things as they are) can only teach disciples the path to the end of suffering, he cannot "wash away the sufferings of others by hand" (Udanavārga). The suffering person effects his or her own cure by putting into practice the eightfold path to freedom taught by the Buddha. Salvific power resides in the dharma, not in the Buddha or in the saṅgha, and according to early Buddhist texts, not in monks or nuns, either as individuals or as a group.

History of the early community

The earliest parts of the Buddhist canon extant in Pāli suggest that the original historical community consisted of those engaging in ascetic endeavors as śramaṇas (Pāli, samaṇa) and pravrājika (Pāli, pabbajita; those gone forth into homelessness). Buddhist ascetics were distinguishable from other similar groups of mendicants primarily by their dislike of intellectual disputation, their avoidance of extreme asceticism, their shared admiration for Gautama Śākyamuni, and a commitment to mental cultivation or meditation (Sutta Nipāta 2). Whereas the very earliest members of the community had no fixed monasteries, and sheltered under trees or in caves, the difficulty of traveling during the rainy season soon led members to take shelter in permanent buildings. It is likely that householders and wealthy patrons who originally gave alms without discrimination to all religious mendicants, be they Jainas, Ājīvikas, or orthodox followers of the Veda, over time began to favor the followers of Gautama Buddha and to understand themselves as responsible for their sustenance and well-being. This led to the basic division of the community into bhiksu (Pāli, bhikkhu; monks) and bhikṢuṇī (Pāli, bhikkhunīnuns), words that literally mean "beggars," and upāsaka and upāsikā (male and female laity). According to tradition, Ānanda, the personal attendant of Gautama, asked that women be admitted into the community, and the first Buddhist nun was MahĀprajĀpatĪ GautamĪ, the Buddha's aunt.

Entrance into the community was originally earned simply by answering the Buddha's call to come forward. When charismatics like ŚĀriputra and MahĀmaudgalyĀyana, with considerable followings of their own, became Gautama's disciples, the community grew considerably larger. Even before Gautama's demise it is probable that senior members of the community were allowed to induct new members by having them recite the refuge formula (I go for refuge to the Buddha, etc.) three times. Gradually a more complex upasampadā (ritual ordination) came into being. By that time, ordination meant ordination as a monk or nun, and for practical purposes the Buddhist community became equivalent to the community of monks and nuns, though the community of the four assemblies (monks, nuns, and male and female laity) was also recognized.

The history of the community of Buddhist monks and nuns over its first five hundred years is primarily a history of saṃgīti (councils) and nikāya (ordination lineages or schools). Immediately after the death of the Buddha, members of the fledgling community met in what was later called the First Council to record the Buddha's teachings. Probably the earliest codification of community rules, the prĀtimokṣa, was formulated at about that time. PrātimokṢa may originally have meant "anti-dissipatory," and its recitation was the main factor connecting the various nikāyas, which were already growing separate because of geography, loyalty to particular charismatic monks, and minor disagreements over discipline.

The Second Council took place about a hundred years after the death of the Buddha. By that time the basic constitution of the community of monks and nuns, and most of the rules and rituals relating to monastic discipline and procedure, had already been codified. The texts in which this codification is found are together called the vinaya (discipline). These texts comprise the first of the three sections of the tripiṭaka (the Buddhist canon). The Vinaya Piṭaka consists of three main sections: (1) the Vinaya-vibhaṅga, a list of personal rules for the different levels of ordination along with stories about how they came into being; (2) the Skandhaka (Pāli, Khandhaka), an explanation of the rules governing community procedures, such as admission to the order and the conducting of the rainsretreat; and (3) the Parivāra, a compendium of additional materials.

The vinaya texts list seven different sets of rules for junior and senior members of the community. Besides the rules for the bhikṢus and bhikṢuṇīs (fully ordained monks and nuns), there are also sets of rules for male and female novices. The further special set of rules for probationary nuns probably reflects a stage in the gradual elimination of the female component of the community. The bhikṢuṇī component of the community eventually died out in India, though it has continued in China and Korea to the present day.

The morality expected of all members of the monastic community is given in the prātimokṢa. At its core are four basic rules of defeat (pārājika): to refrain from taking life, from taking what is not offered freely, from sexual activity, and from lying about spiritual attainments. Transgression of any of these rules entails expulsion from the order. The different nikāyas list slightly different totals for the number of rules, ranging from about 350 for the full bhikṢuṇī down to about thirteen for novices. Among these rules are some that enjoin on members of the community the yellow-, maroon-, or blue-colored robes, the begging bowl, the kuṭi (monastic cell), and dietary habits such as not eating in the afternoon and not keeping food overnight.

The first major split in the saṅgha occurred between the MĀhĀsĀṂghikas (the Great Assembly, or Majorityists) and the Sthaviras (elders). Since most of what we know about the early history of the Buddhist order comes from the Mahāvaṃsa (Great Chronicle), a history written in Pāli from the particular viewpoint of monks of the ancient Mahāvihāra monastery in Sri Lanka (the nikāya from which the present-day TheravĀda school understands itself to originate), there has been a tendency to overemphasize the differences between different Buddhist nikāyas, and to see them as sects fundamentally opposed to each other, rather than as different saṅghas, each connected through the same basic prātimokṢa.

The community of Buddhist monks and nuns has never been a monolithic entity. It is possible that its basic decentralized structure, characterized by the absence of a strong central ruler in favor of consensual assemblies, reflects the customs of the Śākyas, part of the Vṛji (Pāli, Vajji) confederation in the area of northcentral India where Śākyamuni ("the sage of the Śāyas") was born. Although diversity was an integral part of the Buddhist community from an early period, the early nikāyas were careful to formulate themselves in ways that avoided formal schism. Even after the Māhāsāṃghika/Sthavira schism, there was no fundamental split in the saṅgha, and it is an error to imagine that the split into HĪnayĀna and MahĀyĀna Buddhism was based on irreconcilable differences between these early nikāyas.

There were at least eighteen early Buddhist nikāyas, some of which give their names to later schools of Buddhist practice and philosophy. Many, if not all, recited the prātimokṣa in their own vernacular language, and it is likely that each also had a vinaya, and perhaps an entire tripiṭaka. The complete tripiṭaka of the Mahāvihāra nikāya, or Theravāda school, written in Pāli, became available to European-language scholars in the nineteenth century.

Although the original versions of the Vinaya Piṭaka of many of the other schools have been lost, except for occasional texts and fragments, some are extant in Chinese and Tibetan translation. Among them, the Dharmaguptaka-vinaya in particular was followed in China and countries strongly influenced by Chinese Buddhism, and the MŪlasarvĀstivĀdavinaya was followed in Tibet and the regions influenced by it.

Each saṅgha was (and still is to a great extent) defined by a shared recitation of the prātimokṢa at a bimonthly poṢadha (Pāli, uposatha; confession or restoration-ofmorality ceremony) carried out while scrupulously following karmavacana (Pāli, kammavācā; prescribed formula) and ritual action dictated by tradition. Also defining of a community are two other ritual activities: setting up the sīmā (established boundaries) for the varṢavāsa (rains-retreat; Pali, vassavāsa) and the ritual crossing of those boundaries at the end of the re- treat. This custom probably dates back to the original followers of Gautama and to the places where buildings were located for groups of monks and nuns to spend the rainy season. A minimum of ten, or in some cases five, fully ordained members of a saṅgha constitute the required quorum. The presence or absence of these defining acts of a saṅgha is the basic criterion for deciding whether or not the śāsana (Pāli, sāsana; Buddhist teaching) is or is not present in a particular region. Members of different communities keep basically the same rules, but they do not attend each others' ceremonies and they do not form a single saṅgha, except in the sense that they symbolize, through their clothes and adherence to the rules in the prātimokṢa, the community of noble beings described above.

Mahāyāna and Tantric saṅghas

We can see clearly in Edward Conze's translation of the Large Sūtra on Perfect Wisdom (p. 66 ff.) that the idealized Mahāyāna community is based on the eight noble beings. In addition to the eight noble beings of earlier Buddhism, however, the Mahāyāna community also includes bodhisattvas and buddhas. These are theoretically infinite in number, but best known amongst them are the eight bodhisattvas, including Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, KṢitigarbha, and so on, and the buddhas Akṣobhya, AmitĀbha, and Vairocana. These noble bodhisattvas and buddhas are sometimes called "celestial" because they are located not in this ordinary world, but on a bhūmi (high spiritual level) or in a fabulous buddhakṢetra (buddha-field or pure land).

Mahāyāna tradition holds that bodhisattvas and buddhas are not motivated by nirvĀṆa, the partial freedom from rebirth attained by the eight noble beings. They instead produce bodhicitta (thought of enlightenment), attain samyaksaṃbodhi (right and perfect enlightenment), become buddhas, and work for countless ages for the benefit of the world. Noble bodhisattvas are on their way to attaining, and buddhas have actually attained, an everlasting enlightenment that shows itself in manifold ways appropriate for the benefit of the world. The Mahāyāna scriptures therefore claim that the Buddhist community is present in the world to a much greater degree and in many different forms compared to the community of the eight noble beings that is described in the scriptures of the mainstream Buddhist schools.

In Buddhist Tantra, the idealized community is understood to be pervaded by the nature of the guru and further augmented by vidyĀdhara (knowledge holders or sorcerers). Vidyādhara are said to be highly motivated bodhisattvas who utilize esoteric meditation, including sexual pleasure, to quickly attain high spiritual goals. Also given importance in the idealized tantric community are wrathful female figures (ḌĀkinĪ), personal meditation deities (iṢṭadevatā), and dharma protectors (dharmapāla).

The differences between actual historical Mahāyāna and pre-Mahāyāna communities have not been conclusively determined. The records of early Chinese travelers in India suggest that both functioned equally as communities of monks, sometimes even including members of the same nikāya. As for the historical tantric communities, they are also largely an object of speculation. Ronald Davidson has suggested tribal origins for some of them. It is likely that some tantric saṅghas formed around charismatic tantric masters (vajrācārya) and held ritual meetings (gaṇacakra) and other rites as a group. David Gellner has shown that such groups still exist amongst the Newar Buddhists of Nepal.

Modern Buddhist communities

There has been a tendency in European writing since the end of the colonial period to associate Buddhist saṅghas with the emergence and legitimization of the nation-state. Thus it is customary to talk about the Thai saṅgha, Burmese saṅgha, Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese Buddhists, and so on. While this approach clearly has some descriptive value, it is misleading if it suggests a basic change from earlier nikāya structure. For example, in modern Sri Lanka the three nikāyas are divided on the basis of caste and do not cross each other's boundaries; in Tibet nikāyas are divided on the basis of regions, monastic colleges, or sects that may have strong antipathy to each other. Nevertheless, it is clear that for the majority of Buddhists in those countries such differences do not preclude the various communities from being perceived as equally authentic Buddhist saṅghas; taken together in an undifferentiated manner, each saṅgha is esteemed as highly as the idealized community of the eight noble beings itself.

Among new converts to Buddhism in Western countries there are widely differing views about what a Buddhist saṅgha entails. It is probably best understood as any group that meets together and that is joined by a shared Buddhist faith, or any group linked by its members' devotion to a particular Buddhist teacher. The British founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is particularly insistent that his group's Aristotelian friendship between members of the same sex is what makes his an authentic Buddhist community. Groups strongly influenced by Western Christian notions define the saṅgha as a group with a shared level of commitment to social action.

See also:Councils, Buddhist


Conze, Edward, ed. and trans. The Large Sūtra on Perfect Wisdom, with the Divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975.

Davidson, Ronald. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Gellner, David N. Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and Its Hierarchy of Ritual. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Horner, I. B., trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka), 6 vols. London: Pāli Text Society, 1938–1966.

Prebish, Charles. Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit PrātimokṢa Sūtras of the Mahāsāṃghikas and Mūlasarvāstivādins. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.

Gareth Sparham