What is the Sangha?

It appears that disputes have arisen among followers of the sole practice of nembutsu, who argue that ‘these are my disciples’ or ‘those are someone else’s disciples.’ This is utterly senseless.

For myself, I do not have even a single disciple. For if I brought people to say the nembutsu through my own efforts, then they might be my disciples. But it is indeed preposterous to call persons ‘my disciples’ when they say the nembutsu having received the working of Amida. (The Tanni Sho, 6; CWS, p. 664)

As everyone will know, the Sangha is the third of the Three Treasures. People who have committed themselves to the life-long task of hearing the Truth (dharma) and putting it into practice take refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Whenever Shin Buddhists chant The Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (Shoshin Nembutsu Ge) they implicitly take refuge in the Three Treasures. The first four verses praise the Buddha. The fifth to the eleventh verses expound the Dharma and the remaining verses praise the Sangha and its achievements.

This quotation from The Tanni Sho is essentially about the nature of Sangha in our Pure Land tradition. Shinran rejects any notion that he is isolated from the rest of the Buddhist community. Indeed, the Larger Sutra tells us that ‘disrupting the Sangha’ is one of the Five Great Evils. To elevate oneself above the Sangha, and not contribute as an integral part of it, is a form of disruption. It implies that we accept our own authority as being superior to that of our fellow followers on the path.

This is not to suggest that we ought to be in a subservient or passive relationship with the Sangha. Critical debate has always been a characteristic of Buddhism, although this is held in concert with the understanding that the most desirable characteristic of the Sangha is harmony.

As Shinran demonstrates by his own example, the relevant sacred texts are our guides in any dispute. There are many of these in Shin Buddhism. But the Larger Sutra and The Collected Works of Shinran are the most essential.

What is our Pure Land Buddhist Sangha?

From early times, Buddhists have understood ‘taking refuge’ to mean taking refuge in the characteristics that make up each of the Three Treasures. In the case of Sangha, this is essentially the endeavour and realisation of enlightened sages. That means that our Pure Land Sangha is made up of the Seven Dharma Masters. Shinran Shonin makes it clear that this Sangha is the group of enlightened teachers who convey the message – from the ground of their own realisation – that we should put our trust in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

There is another aspect of Sangha in the Pure Land tradition: all who entrust themselves deeply and say the Name are in ‘perfect accord with the Primal Vow.’ (CWS, p. 539) The consequence of this is that such people are also conveying the same message as Shakyamuni Buddha and the Dharma Masters. But it is not by way of anything that they have generated all by themselves. It is entirely through the working of the Primal Vow, the Name, Namo Amida Butsu.