Sangha

Photo: Mark Healsmith

Following last week’s post, someone has asked what do we mean by Sangha, the third element of the Triple Gem, Buddha, dharma, and Sangha.

There is no distinction in the nature of Buddha, dharma and sangha (CWS. P. 235)

It seems to me that the idea of sangha is everywhere nuanced and qualified in many ways. It is an ancient Indian term that means an assembly or congregation. It could also mean a guild or an association.

The Mahayanaparinirvana Sutra says that Buddha, dharma and sangha are synonymous terms, meaning that they all refer to the underlying transcendent reality of the dharma. Because this is the teaching of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, that is what I mean when I take refuge in the Three Treasures.

To say that there is a distinction in nature among the three treasures … is termed ‘to trust in what is wrong.’ (CWS, p. 235)

You could say, therefore, that the sangha is an organic manifestation of the working of the dharma. The key characteristic of sangha is not the people it comprises but the quality of harmony in the dharma.

Shakyamuni established his sangha after delivering his first sermon. The monks who heard it awakened the dharma eye, saw the truth, and joined the congregation of enlightenment or awakening. Hence, first and foremost, the sangha is the community of those who share the same awakening.

But sangha has come to include all bhiksus, even though very few of them share the same awakening as the Buddha. Hence it can include foolish beings that participate in the world of dharma. They are part of sangha because of the dharma, not by way of any virtue they may claim to have.

Amida Buddha delivered his first sermon to an incalculable number of sravakas and bodhisattvas. (Larger Sutra, p. 38) Sravakas are those who are setting out on the path to the awakening of an arhat; bodhisattvas are on the way to becoming Buddhas. These beings became his sangha. Amida Buddha’s sangha includes these awakened beings and other such people. For example, our sangha in the saha world that we live in especially includes the seven dharma masters.

All people of nembutsu are brothers and sisters (CWS, p. 155)

I think that people of nembutsu participate in the life of Amida Buddha’s sangha by virtue of the Name. Amida Buddha’s dharma–his sangha–comes here, amongst the world of ordinary, foolish, ignorant beings of nembutsu. It begins with you as an individual and extends into a nembutsu community. Remember, it is the Name that bears the virtue, not ordinary beings. We are in no way enlightened and we do not at all dwell in the Pure Land. We live in the world of birth-and-death.

Apart from the Pure Land, I think there are three modes of the nembutsu sangha (assembly) in the world: individual, household and temple.

When Shinran Shonin was about to be born in the Pure Land he said,

When you alone rejoice in the entrusting heart (shinjjn), know that you are with another. When you two rejoice in the entrusting heart, know that there is still another accompanying you. I, Shinran, am that ‘other’ person. (Shinshu Seiten, BCA, 1978)

Such is the sangha of the solitary nembutsu person. So, even for one who lives alone or in a household where they are the sole nembutsu follower, the harmony and love of the sangha still prevails.

At the heart of the nembutsu sangha is home and hearth. All households or families of whatever kind may form spontaneously and naturally into a nembutsu sangha. Families and households are varied and manifold. But where there is harmony; where the Buddha is welcome; and where the life of nembutsu entrusting heart exists, there is the most wonderful sangha of all.

This kind of sangha even has its own vinaya or ‘rule of conduct’:

People in the world–parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, other family members, or paternal and maternal relatives–should truly respect and love each other, refraining from hatred and envy. They should share things with others, refraining from greed and miserliness.  They should always be friendly in speech and expression, refraining from quarrel and dispute. (Larger Sutra, p. 70)

Finally, there is the formal organisational sangha, the temple, which consists of individuals and families.

So, I think that where there is harmony, the common quality of faith in the Three Treasures and the way of nembutsu, there is the sangha of Amida Buddha.