- See also the Sangha Region of the Republic of the Congo and Sanga for the town in Mali.
Sangha is a word in Indian languages that can be translated roughly as "association" or "assembly". It is commonly used in several senses to refer to Buddhist groups. Traditionally, it almost always has one of two meanings: most commonly, sangha means the order of ordained Buddhist monks or nuns (that is, there is one sangha of monks and one of nuns). In a stricter sense, sangha can mean the assembly of all beings possessing some degree of enlightenment, such as arhats and bodhisattvas; this is referred to as the arya-sangha or noble sangha. In modern Western countries, sangha is often used much more loosely to refer to any group of Buddhist laypeople, with a meaning similar to "congregation."
This article deals primarily with the subject of the monastic sangha. Buddhists traditionally consider monastic life to provide the environment most conducive to advancing toward enlightenment, and the sangha is responsible for maintaining, translating, advancing, and spreading the teachings of the Buddha.
The sangha of monks and the sangha of nuns were originally established by Gautama Buddha in the 5th century BCE, with the goal preserving the teachings, reinforcing discipline, and serving as an example for the laity.
The key feature of Buddhist monasticism is the adherence to the vinaya which contains an elaborate set of rules of conduct including complete chastity and eating only before noon. Between midday and the next day, a strict life scripture study, chanting, meditation, and occasional cleaning forms most of the sangha's duties. Transgression of rules carries penalties ranging from confession to permanent expulsion from the Sangha. Note that monks in most sects of Japanese Buddhism do not vow to follow vinaya, leading some to argue that they can more accurately be called priests or ministers.
Monks and nuns may own only the barest minimum of possessions (ideally, three robes, a begging bowl, a cloth belt, a needle and thread, a razor for shaving the head, and a water filter). In practice, they often have a few additional personal possessions.
Traditionally, Buddhist monastics eschew ordinary clothes and wear robes. Originally the robes were sewn together from rags and stained with earth. The idea that robes were dyed with saffron seems unlikely to be true since it was and still is a very expensive commodity, and monks were poor. The color of modern robes varies from community to community (orange is characteristic for southeast Asian Theravada groups, maroon in Tibet, gray in Korea, etc.)
The word which is usually translated as monk is bhikkhu in Pali or bhikshu in Sanskrit. The feminine form is bhikkhuni or bhikshuni. These words literally mean "beggar", and it is traditional for bhikkhus to beg their food. In most places this has become an elaborate ritual, where lay people feed monastics in order to obtain merit which will ensure them a fortunate rebirth. Although monastics in India traditonally did not work for income, this changed when Buddhism moved to east Asia, so that in China and the surrounding countries monks often engage in agriculture.
The idea that all Buddhists, especially monks and nuns practice vegetarianism is a Western misperception. In some Sanskrit sutras meat eating is strongly discouraged while in much older Pali Sutras the Buddha specifically rejected a suggestion by a senior monk to impose vegetarianism on the Sangha. The Buddha himself is recorded as having consumes meat. The Buddha allowed Sangha members to eat whatever food is donated to them by laypeople, except that they may not eat meat if they know or suspect the animal was killed specifically for them. Consequently, the Theravadan tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma) which follows the Pali scriptures does not practice vegetarianism though an individual may do so at his or her personal choice. On the other hand, the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions accept both Theravada and Mahayanana scriptures, and consequently the practice will vary depending on their interpretation of the sutras. In some areas such as China and Vietnam one expects the Sangha to practice strict vegetarianism while in other areas such as Japan, Korea or Tibet one does not.
The lay community is responsible for the production of goods and services in society, and for the production and raising of children. According to Mahayana sutras, the Buddha always maintained that lay persons were capable of great wisdom in the Buddhadharma and of reaching enlightenment. In the west, there is a misconeption that Theravada regard that the reaching of enlightenment is limited to those who become part of the monastic Sangha. This is incorrect. In Theravad sutra, it is clearly recorded that Buddah's uncle, who was a lay, reached enlightenment by hearing Buddah's discourse.
The distinction between Sangha and lay persons has always been important and forms the Purisa, Buddhist community. Here, monastics teach and counsel the laity at request while laymen and laywomen offer donations for their future support. This inter-connectedness serves as a marriage and has sustained Buddhism to this day.
When a young man aspires to join the sangha of monks, a bhikkhu will first ordain him as a samanera (novice) either for a year or until the age of 20. If the samanera is deemed acceptable and able by the order, he will then receive a full ordination and will now live by the monastic rules of the patimokkha (227 rules for Theravada monks), which are stated in the Tripitaka. A young woman should be ordained, according to Theravada tradition, by both a monk and a nun, first as a samaneri. Then, after a year or at the age of 20, she will be ordained as a full bhikkhuni. The Theravada vinaya has 311 rules of discipline for bhikkhunis.
Within Chinese society, as an example, members of the Sangha are expected to renounce family connections and accept the Sangha as their family. The Chinese term for becoming a monk or nun is to "leave the family" and the Chinese term for renouncing one's membership in the Sangha is to "return the books."
Women's role in the Sangha
Although always maintaining that women were just as capable to attain Enlightenment as men, Buddha originally neither permitted women to join the Sangha of monks nor to form an independent Sangha of nuns. After several entreaties from his aunt and foster-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, who wished to become ordained, and from his cousin and aide Ananada , who supported her cause, the Buddha relented and ordained Mahapajati and several others as nuns. The Buddha established the condition that each new ordination would be sanctioned by at least five bhikkhunis. There have been several speculative theories regarding the Buddha's reluctance to ordain women, including the possibility that it was due to fears that a community of women would not be safe in the society of his day. It is interesting to note that this was one of the few issues about which the Buddha is recorded to have changed his mind.
Before the modern era, the Bhikkhuni Sangha spread to most Buddhist countries, with the notable exceptions being Tibet and Thailand. However, in Sri Lanka, it died out in the 11th century during a civil war. Even after Theravada Buddhism spread to Thailand and Burma, its monastic sangha consisted only of monks. In recent decades, there has been a serious attempt to revive the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha with the assistance of east Asian Mahayanist bhikkhunis. This has resulted in a small but thriving community of nuns in Sri Lanka, who in turn ordained the first Theravada Buddhist nun in the history of Thailand, Ven. Dhammananda . However, the validity of these ordinations is strongly disputed by the conservative Theravada establishment. Meanwhile, a similar process has produced the first fully ordained bhikkhunis in Tibetan Buddhism. In the west, where feminism has been a strong influence, there have been many remarkable Buddhist nuns: two notable examples are Pema Chodron and Ayya Khema.
From Access to Insight: