The Meaning of Sangha

Defining the Sangha and the Sangha Gem

The word “Sangha” is a Sanskrit word that means, literally, a community that joins and lives together. In this sense, I sometimes use the term “network” for it, because all these various people or things that are joined together interact and form a whole. On one level, it can refer to a group of people that live, function and work together as a community. On another level, it can refer to a community of purifications and realizations on a mental continuum that also exist together, interacting and working together. More precisely, on this second level, sangha refers to the true stoppings (true cessations) of true sufferings and their true causes, plus the true pathway minds (true paths) that led to the attainment of those true stoppings on the mental continuum of an arya. That arya can be either us or someone else. These true stoppings and true pathway minds also constitute a Sangha, a community living together, in other words, existing and functioning together.

Instead of translating the term sangha, the Chinese transliterated it using the word seng-jia (僧伽), or simply seng (僧), which sounds like Sangha. That is the classical term that they use for a member of the monastic community: a monk, a person of the Sangha; it can also mean a Sangha in a higher sense. We also use the word “Sangha” rather than translating it.

The Tibetans did not just take the word “Sangha” as we do or the Chinese did. They translated it with the word gendun (dge-’dun), which means “those people or things that are intent on a constructive goal.” Gen is “constructive” and dun is “intent on.” That constructive goal is either liberation or enlightenment. So we can have a community of people that are aiming for, or intent on, reaching liberation or enlightenment, or we can also have purifications and realizations on a mental continuum and they are, in a sense, intent on or aimed at achieving a goal – also liberation or enlightenment.

I always think that it is helpful to look at the words first to get some feeling of what they mean. When we look, for instance, at the word that is usually translated as “refuge,” the Sanskrit word is sharanam, which means protection. The expression “to go for refuge,” then, means to go for protection. This implies that it is an active process, we are actually doing something, it is not just to sit there and receive protection. That is why I call it “going in a safe direction”: it is to put a safe direction in our life, going toward that in our life, and doing so in order to gain protection from suffering. We can also receive protection from others in the sense that they can offer us a model on how to protect ourselves. A Buddha is a model: we want to become like that, and if we reach that goal, then we are really going to be protected from fear and suffering. In other words, if we actually put the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, into practice as the way to become a Buddha ourselves, we will protect ourselves from suffering.

What is the role of the Sangha in this? It is usually said that the Sangha helps us to go in that direction. We have to examine that to see what it actually means. It could mean many things.

When we take refuge, it is not in the sangha in general; it is in the Sangha Gem. The Sangha and the Sangha Gem are different. To go in that safe direction of the Sangha Gem, we obviously have to know what it is. That is the danger of calling a community of people in the Dharma center “sangha,” because if we don’t know clearly what the Sangha Gem is, we might think it refers to the people in our Dharma center. Then, if that community disappoints us, or acts improperly, we might lose our refuge thinking, “This is not at all something trustworthy.”

The same can happen if we think that the Sangha Gem refers just to monks and nuns, because there can be monks and nuns who are quite disturbed emotionally and we might think, “How can I take refuge in them?” So that is not what the Sangha Gem refers to either. That is why, in order to really take safe direction, it is very important to identify correctly what we actually mean by the “Sangha Gem.”

There are people in the West who think, “If the Sangha Gem is just referring to the monastics, we can do away with that. We don’t need monks and nuns. We can have a modern Buddhism without them.” However, monastics are not what the Sangha Gem is referring to at all. People may think that the monastic tradition is something ancient or medieval, and that it is unnecessary in our modern society. “We don’t need the refuge in the Sangha.” This is a big mistake, because in this context, the Sangha Gem is not identified correctly.

What is the Sangha Gem? Let us look at what (1) the Theravada tradition, (2) the Mahayana tradition that the Tibetans follow, and (3) the Zen tradition say about it. This will help us get a broader perspective. I think that it is also very helpful for opening our minds, and not being just narrowly encased within our own tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, to look at other perspectives within Buddhism. In this way, we can also see what is shared in common by all Buddhist traditions.

Sangha in the Various Buddhist Traditions

Sangha in Theravada

In Theravada, the Sangha Gem is specified from the perspective of the teachings. Thus, it refers to anyone who has achieved any of the four stages of spiritual attainment starting with the arya level. An “arya” is somebody who has had non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths. In Theravada, the four stages that start with that cognition are called: “stream-enterer,” “once-returner,” “non-returner” and “arhat.” When we hear those terms in Theravada, we should not think, “Oh, stream-enterer, that is just a beginner. Anybody can reach that.” This is actually an arya level. From the Theravada point of view, the Sangha Gem refers to the Arya Sangha. They are called a “Gem” from the point of view of their attainment, the realization and non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths and, in particular, of no such thing as an impossible type of self (anattā). That person can be either a monastic or a lay person.

You can also speak of Sangha as specified in the Vinaya, the rules of discipline. From that perspective, it refers to a community of fully ordained monks or nuns and, more specifically, to a group of four of more fully ordained monks or nuns that are required to be present at certain rituals where a quorum of monastic members is needed to hold the rituals. For instance, in full monk ordination you need a certain number of fully ordained monks present and for full nun ordination you need either all fully ordained nuns or both fully ordained monks and nuns. These fully ordained monks and nuns who are specified according to their vows are Sangha, but they are not necessarily the Sangha Gem. They are what are called the “conventional Sangha,” not the Sangha Gem. Obviously, some monastics could also be aryas, and then they would be both conventional Sangha and Sangha Gem.

The assertion of there being a distinction between the Sangha and the Sangha Gem, found here in Theravada, is asserted in common in all other forms of Buddhism as well. The technical terms that are used may vary, but there is a general differentiation that is always there.

Sangha in Mahayana

What does the Indian Mahayana tradition that the Tibetans follow say about this? What was the traditional view in India that the Tibetans first encountered?

In Indian Mahayana Buddhism, one of the great masters, or sources we should say, of the teachings is Maitreya. Maitreya is the next universal Buddha who will come after Shakyamuni. A great Indian master called Asanga had various visions of Maitreya and he wrote down the teachings received from Maitreya in what are called the Five Texts of Maitreya. These Five Texts of Maitreya are studied very centrally, not only in Indian Buddhism, but also by the Tibetans. When we look at the definitions of the Three Gems, we refer to these texts of Maitreya. In three of these texts, the Three Gems are defined slightly differently, although they are not really contradictory. The Tibetans, who are very good at putting together things that on the surface look contradictory, actually follow all of them. These texts define two positions: two of them take one position and one takes the other.

We find one position in a text called in Sanskrit Abhisamayalamkara, in Tibetan mNgon-rtogs rgyan. It means “Filigree” or “Ornament of Realizations.” This is the major treatise that all Tibetans study for five years as part of the training to become a kenpo or a geshe. This is a very complicated text which is, basically, the key for understanding all the Prajnaparamita Sutras, as it organizes this huge Prajnaparamita literature into understandable categories and topics. The Prajnaparamita Sutras are enormous, there are many versions of them; one is a hundred thousand verses and so on. It is not easy to really study them and get the meaning clearly, so this text helps us to do that.

According to the Abhisamayalamkara, each of the Three Gems has two levels: the apparent or conventional level and the deepest or ultimate level. The apparent or conventional level conceals the deepest one.

There is another text by Maitreya called Uttaratantra, in Tibetan rGyud bla-ma, which means “Furthest Everlasting Continuum.” This text is about Buddha-nature, and it is also completely central to Buddhist studies by the Tibetans. The Uttaratantra gives the full definitions of the Three Gems. The only point in which it disagrees with the Abhisamayalamkara is that the definitions it gives for the Dharma Gem refer only to the deepest level Dharma Gem and not to the Dharma Gem’s apparent level. Other than that difference, the two texts assert the same position. The first text gives the two levels of the Three Gems; the second text defines the Dharma Germ in terms of only one of those levels, the deepest one. Here, however, our topic is the Sangha Gem, in which case the definitions given in the Uttaratantra apply to both the conventional and deepest Sangha Gem. Let’s look at the explanation of all three Gems.

The Buddha Gem, in its apparent level, is the Form Bodies of a Buddha, Rupakaya (a Corpus of Forms). It is what you see. There are two types of Form Bodies: Sambhogakaya (Bodies or a Corpus of Full Use) and Nirmanakaya (Emanation Bodies or a Corpus of Emanations), which are the subtle and gross forms in which a Buddha appears. The deepest level that this corpus of enlightening forms conceals is a Buddha’s Dharmakaya, a Body or Corpus that Encompasses Everything. A Dharmakaya has two aspects. One is called a Jnana Dharmakaya, sometimes called “Wisdom Dharmakaya” or “Deep Awareness Dharmakaya,” a Corpus of Deep Awareness that Encompasses Everything. That refers to the true pathway minds (true paths) on the mental continuum of a Buddha, the Fourth Noble Truth. The other aspect of a Dharmakaya is called a Svabhavakaya, a “Nature Body” or Corpus of Essential Nature, and that refers to the true stoppings or true cessations on a Buddha’s mental continuum, so it is the Third Noble Truth. Therefore, Dharmakaya refers to the Third and Fourth Noble Truths on the mental continuum of a Buddha. That is the deepest Buddha Gem.

What is the Dharma Gem? The apparent level of the Dharma Gem is the twelve categories of teachings given by Buddha’s enlightening speech. That is, the actual words that Buddha taught. This is what we hear or see written. The deepest Dharma Gem is what is underlying that: the realizations of what Buddha taught. This refers again to the Third and Fourth Noble Truths: true stoppings (true cessations) and true pathway minds. True stoppings are the total eradication of the first two Noble Truths from a mental continuum: true suffering and its true causes. The true pathway minds are either the deep awareness that eliminates the first two Noble Truths, or on the mental continuum of a Buddha, the resultant deep awareness, which is free of these two. The Fourth Noble Truth on the mental continuum of a Buddha doesn’t have to work to eradicate the first Two Noble Truths because it is already free of them. In short, when we talk about the deepest Dharma Gem, we are talking about the Third and Fourth Noble Truths that are on the mental continuum of anyone from an arya up to a Buddha. When we talk about the true pathway minds on the mental continuum of an arya, it refers to the deep awareness that is going to eradicate the first Two Noble Truths. When we speak about the true pathway minds on the mental continuum of a Buddha, it is the deep awareness that is free of those.

The apparent Sangha Gem is the individual person of any arya, whether lay or monastic. Therefore, it is not the group or community of these arya individuals taken as a whole, but each member of the community. That is what we see. What lies underneath that? The deepest Sangha Gem, which is again the Third and Fourth Noble Truths on the mental continuum of an arya. Note that Buddhas are included here as the highest level of an arya.

From the point of view of this tradition of Maitreya, the deepest level Three Gems are basically the same: the Third and Fourth Noble Truths.

  • The deepest level of a Buddha Gem is the Third and the Fourth Noble Truths of a Buddha.
  • The deepest level of a Dharma Gem is the Third and Fourth Noble Truths from an arya up to a Buddha.
  • The deepest Sangha Gem is again the Third and Fourth Noble Truths from an arya up to a Buddha.

So at which level of the Third and Fourth Noble Truths do we find in all three Gems? Only the level of a Buddha. It is on that level that we have the Three Jewels converging in one person, namely a Buddha. The Tibetans apply this point when they talk about the Three Jewels as all being present in one person, namely the Guru as a Buddha. This is the basis for that assertion. So this is where the Tibetans get this from, and it is especially prominent in tantra.

The other tradition of Maitreya derives from another of his texts called the Mahayanasutralamkara, A Filigree of Mahayana Sutras or Ornament of Mahayana Sutras. This tradition speaks about the Sangha Gem only in terms of the individual person of an arya. It does not speak about the Third and Fourth Noble Truths. When the Tibetans speak in terms of sutra, they follow this second tradition. There, Buddha Aryas are not included as the Sangha Gem, only aryas of lesser attainment than that of Buddhas. The tantra point of view, in which gurus are considered embodiments of the Three Gems, is in accord with the first tradition of Maitreya in which Buddha Aryas are included as the Sangha Gem.

Each of the Three Gems has a representation, which is called a “nominal Gem,” but they are not actual providers of safe direction. In other words: for most of us the actual Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are not something that we can meet, but we can meet what represents them. The nominal Buddha Gem would be representations of Buddhas, like paintings and statues. When we offer prostrations to a statue or a painting, this is not the actual Buddha Gem; it just represents it. We are offering prostration to what the painting or statue represents. We do not take refuge in a statue; we are not idol worshippers in Buddhism.

Similarly, the nominal Dharma Gem would be the printed Dharma texts representing both the words of the Buddha and the realizations of them. In the same way, we don’t take refuge in books, do we? Similarly, what represents the Sangha Gem is a group of either four fully ordained monks or fully ordained nuns. We don’t actually take refuge in the monastic community, which is just the nominal Sangha Gem, what the Theravada call the “conventional Sangha.”

Is the presence of a Sangha Gem sufficient for perpetuating the Sangha?

No, not by this definition. The number of fully ordained monks needed to give full monk ordination differs in various traditions, but even fully ordained monks are not sufficient. To give ordination, they need to have been monks for ten years, but again there are variant traditions concerning how many years they need to have been ordained. For giving full nuns ordination there are several traditions regarding how many fully ordained monks or both fully ordained monks and nuns are required, and the number of years that they need to have held their full ordination vows.

Sangha in the Tibetan Tradition

This is what we find in the Indian Mahayana tradition, so it is interesting to look at what we have in the Tibetan tradition. In Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa speaks about common and special objects of refuge. The common ones are those that are common to both Hinayana and Mahayana. The special ones are exclusive to Mahayana.

With respect to the common Sangha Gem, Gampopa says that there are two: ordinary beings and aryas.

The Sangha that is ordinary beings refers to a group of four or more fully ordained monks or nuns who have not yet attained the stage of an arya. Gampopa only mentions fully ordained monks, since the full nun’s ordination lineage did not get transmitted to Tibet. However, the term “fully ordained monk” (dge-slong, Skt. bhikṣu) can also be used as a general term that covers both monks and nuns.

The Arya Sangha refers to any of the eight individuals from four pairs. This is the same as what Theravada asserts as the Sangha Gem. The four pairs, or the four groups, are stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and arhat. Each of them is divided into two: the “enterer,” that is the one who is starting to get the realization of that level, and the “resultant,” the one who has attained that level. Gampopa does not state whether or not these aryas need to have full monk or nun ordination.

The special Sangha Gem, asserted exclusively by Mahayana and not shared in common with the Hinayana schools, also has two aspects, differentiated in terms of how it is specified.

When specified in terms of objects that are before us, the special Sangha Gem refers to the bodhisattva sangha. This presumably includes fully ordained bodhisattva monks and nuns that are both aryas and not yet aryas.

When specified in terms of their realizations, the special Sangha Gem refers to arya bodhisattvas – those with any of the ten bodhisattva levels of mind (sa-bcu).

What does Nyingma say? In a text by the great early Nyingma master Longchenpa, called Kindly Bent to Ease Us, the Sangha Gem is the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, again in the four stages of stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arhat, and the arya bodhisattvas. But here they add those known as “Mantra Holders” and “Holders of Pure Awareness” (rig-’dzin in Tibetan). These are basically aryas who have followed the dzogchen path of tantra. Nyingma adds a tantra aspect to the specification of Sangha.

What about Sakya? Their basic text is called The Beautiful Ornament of The Three Visions, by Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrub. These are the basic lam-rim graded paths of the four traditions. There he says that the Sangha Gem is the arya community, without going into all the different divisions as Nyingma or Kagyu do. Interestingly, when he talks about the ordinary-being Sangha, which is the nominal Sangha Gem, he says, “Those who have entered the Dharma before oneself.” This refers to monks who have received ordination before us. In other words, not the junior monks. In the monastic community you sit according to when you received ordination, therefore it would be everybody sitting in front of you in the assembly, but not those who are sitting behind you. I find it quite interesting that in Sakya it is defined in that way.

In the Gelug tradition, what does Tsongkhapa say in the Lam-rim chen-mo, The Graded Stages of the Path? Tsongkhapa does not identify the Three Gems precisely the way that we have been doing. He discusses the difference in terms of their activity, qualities and so on, but it is very clear from his presentation that he is taking it in exactly the same way as Gampopa. He says that the Arya Sangha is the main Sangha, the Sangha Jewel. Pabongka says the same in his Liberation in The Palm of Your Hand, but he says specifically that the monastic Sangha is merely the nominal Gem, not the actual Gem.

It is interesting here that the general consensus is that the Arya Sangha is the actual Sangha Gem, which agrees with the Theravada. However, whereas Theravada only talks about the Hinayana aryas, the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, in the Mahayana that the Tibetans follow, we add the bodhisattva aryas, and in the Nyingma tradition they make the special mention of the arya tantric practitioners. Remember that arya includes a Buddha; arya is anyone with non-conceptual cognition of voidness, and a Buddha has that too. Then, the conventional Sangha, or the nominal Sangha Gem, which is not what we actually take refuge in, is the monastic community. That is specified slightly differently, but it is basically the same.

In the Tantric Tradition the Guru Incorporates the Three Gems

In order to look at the Tibetan tantric tradition with regard to the guru incorporating the Three Gems, we can refer to the first tradition of Maitreya, particularly the rGyud bla-ma, The Furthest Everlasting Continuum. Gampopa talks about this at length in Jewel Ornament, where he says that there is a difference between an ultimate and a provisional provider of safe direction.

From the point of view of the true paths and true stoppings, before you achieve Buddhahood, where do you start achieving them? Only when you become an arya. Imagine, for instance, that you have one of those old-fashioned radios or televisions with little tubes inside stuck on a board. You want to convert that into a computer’s motherboard. Here you have wrong understanding represented by the old tubes. What you want to do is take them out and put in new chips: These new tubes are the non-conceptual cognition of voidness. When you take out one, that is its true stopping; it is an absence of that tube, it is voidness. That is a true stopping, the Third Noble Truth. Then you put in a new tube, and that is the Fourth Noble Truth. That new tube is what takes out the old one, and what replaces it. That new tube, on the one hand, is the thing that removes the old tube, so it is like the path that functions to get rid of the old one, and, on the other hand, it is also the result, the Fourth Noble Truth. It is both the path and the result.

You start doing this when you are an arya, which is when you get rid of some tubes and replace them with new ones. So you have some absence of old tubes and some presence of new tubes; some Third Noble Truths and some Fourth Noble Truths. This means that those aryas who are not Buddhas are only provisional providers of safe direction; they do not have the complete set of Third and Fourth Noble Truths. A Buddha has total absence of all the old tubes and presence of all the new tubes. Therefore, only Buddha is the ultimate provider of safe direction, because only a Buddha has a full set of Third and Fourth Noble Truths. When we talk about the Sangha Gem, we need to focus on the ultimate Sangha Gem. The ultimate Sangha Gem is only the Buddhas. The Arya Sangha before Buddhahood are just provisional providers, they can only help us up to their stage, but not beyond.

That leads into the perception of the guru being all three as a Buddha. In Tibetan Buddhism we always take refuge in the guru. Why the guru? Because the guru incorporates all Three Jewels, including the Sangha. How does it include the Sangha? Because a Buddha, as an Arya Sangha, is a Sangha member. Buddha is all three from the point of view of the Third and Fourth Noble Truths in the mind-stream of a Buddha, so all is incorporated into one. That is why we have the guru, and refuge in the guru.

It is interesting that in Theravada they don’t speak of the Fourth Jewel, or take refuge in the guru. They speak about taking refuge in your own karma, because to build up positive karma is what is going to bring you protection from true suffering and its causes. This again confirms that refuge is an active process.

Causal and Resultant Providers of Safe Direction

Another point of difference from Theravada concerns refuge or safe direction from the perspective of its causal and resultant providers. When we take causal safe direction, we are taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as external beings, because they provide a direction that acts as a cause for our own attainment of the Three Gems. We are going to become the Three Gems. How do you become the Three Gems in terms of becoming a Buddha? A Buddha incorporates the Three Gems. It is “cause” we take in terms of external Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That is called “the mere taking of safe direction.” The special taking of safe direction is “the resultant taking of safe direction.” This refers to the Triple Gem that we will achieve in the future based on our Buddha-natures. That is providing a direction for us; the future Three Gems that we will become is the object that provides us the safe direction. So when we make prostrations, for example, we are making prostration in terms of taking refuge, safe direction. We are showing respect, not only to the causal Three Gems, the external ones, but also to our own future attainment, our own becoming the Three Gems.

We can think: “What does the Arya Sangha, the Sangha Gem, mean in terms of what I am going to achieve?” It could mean the arya state that I am going to achieve, which would be provisional, or it could refer to the ultimate level, the Buddhahood that I am going to attain. When we have bodhichitta, this is a mind aimed at, or focused on, our own future enlightenment. It is not enlightenment in general, it is not Buddha’s enlightenment, it is our own enlightenment that is going to exist somewhere in the future of our mental continuum. It has not yet happened. This is the ultimate provider of safe direction that we aim to achieve. This all ties together very well.

It is clear that the Buddha incorporates all the Three Jewels, but why the guru?

The guru represents the Buddha. This is getting into the topic of seeing the guru as the Buddha. This is a huge topic and we would need a whole weekend to discuss it, so we are not going to talk about that. Basically, when one sees the guru as a Buddha, one is seeing the Buddha-nature in the guru in terms of its full realization. Just as when we take resultant safe direction in ourselves, we are aiming at our own future achievement of the Three Gems. To be able to see that in ourselves, we need to see that in the guru. Seeing it in the guru helps us to see it in ourselves. When we see it in ourselves, it doesn’t mean that we are literally enlightened. The same applies to seeing the guru as a Buddha, it doesn’t mean that the guru is omniscient and knows, for example, the telephone number of everybody in the universe, does it? It does not mean that.

What Is the Difference between the Three Gems?

Each of the Three Gems refers to the ultimate source of refuge, the Third and Fourth Noble Truths on the mind-stream of a Buddha. What is the difference between these three?

Earlier we talked about the deepest aspect of the ultimate source or ultimate provider of safe direction, in other words, the deepest aspect of the Buddha Gem – either the Buddhas out there or the one that we ourselves are going to achieve. Then we saw that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha Gem, in terms of that source of safe direction, all refer to the Third and Fourth Noble Truths on a person’s mental continuum. What is the difference between these three? It is looking at these true stoppings and true realizations from three different points of view.

From the point of view of the Buddha Gem, they are sources of inspiration, what is usually translated as “blessings.” We receive inspiration from these true stoppings and true paths. The Buddha Gem inspires us to become like that, whether it is seen in a Buddha out there, or in our own future attainment of it.

From the point of view of Dharma, they are the sources of actual attainments, siddhi in Sanskrit. If we can achieve these true stoppings and true paths, then that is the source of our attainment of enlightenment.

From the point of view of Sangha, they bring about enlightening influence, sometimes called Buddha-conduct. In terms of Buddhas out there, the true stoppings and the true paths on a Buddha’s mental continuum enables that Buddha to exert an enlightening influence on everybody. When we ourselves attain that stage, then the true stoppings and true paths on our own mental continuum will be the source for influencing others in a positive way.

How do we relate to this with respect to Sangha? When we focus on Sangha, we are focusing mainly on its influence, its activity, what it does. When we talk about a monastic community or a community at a Dharma center, it is helpful to consider this main aspect: How does it function? What does it do? How does it influence us? How does it influence others? That is the main point that we can learn from this presentation. There is a lot more that can be said in terms of the tantra presentation, but we don’t have time.

Sangha in the Zen Tradition

Let us look at what the Zen tradition says. Dogen, the Japanese founder of the Soto Zen tradition, wrote about the Three Jewels very clearly. According to Dogen, the Sangha Gem has two levels. One is the level of what he calls the “Celestial Buddhas,” which refers to the great bodhisattvas like Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Kshitigarbha. We have this in the Tibetan tradition as well where, in the refuge tree fashioned in a tantra sense, you have Manjushri and all of the other great bodhisattvas around the central figure of Buddha representing the Sangha. This is also in the Zen tradition.

The other aspect of a Sangha Gem is the four stages of aryas. Here it refers to the shravaka aryas, pratyekabuddhas aryas, bodhisattva aryas and Buddha aryas, which is consistent with everything that we discussed before.

Dogen speaks about three aspects of the Three Gems: the “Single-Bodied Three Gems,” the “Manifested Three Gems” and the “Maintained Three Gems.” The “Single-Bodied Sangha Gem” is the peace and harmony of all the factors of enlightenment. At a more abstract level, it can be the peaceful interconnectedness and harmony of everything. We can see from this the idea of a community and network in which everything works in harmony. I think it is very important in a community of monastics or a Dharma center for everybody to work together interconnected harmoniously, without leaving anybody out.

The “Manifested Sangha Gem” is the learning and practice through which one achieves the level of arya. This is similar to what we discussed earlier about the enlightening influence, the function, the activity of the Sangha Gem. What is the main function of the Sangha within our Dharma center? It is to be able to study, practice, meditate together to reach the goal of attaining true stoppings and true paths.

The “Maintained Sangha Gem” refers to the ways the Sangha endures: how does it maintain itself, how does it continue, and how does it abide by relieving all suffering and by being free of samsara. What does that mean, what is the community doing? Obviously, we are practicing and meditating together in order to reach arya-level and above Third and Fourth Noble Truths. How do we maintain the community so that it persists forever? We maintain the community by trying to help not only ourselves but also others, by relieving suffering and by becoming free of samsara, which means doing that in a non-samsaric way. In other words, we are not helping ourselves and others to make money or to become famous or to compete with other Dharma centers. We are not doing that for samsaric reasons; we are doing all that with an enlightening and pure motivation. If you have that, the center will endure. If you are helping others and yourselves just for worldly concerns, to compete or to become famous, things are not going to last. Other people are going to destroy or try to destroy you. This is really important because most Dharma centers encounter financial problems and those who run them are always worried about paying the bills or attracting more students, and it becomes a business. Then, of course, you have to compete with other businesses. That is always going to lead to more and more worries and problems. It takes your attention away from actual Dharma practice, from studying, practicing and meditating together, which is the main function of the sangha. It is true that if you want to maintain the center you have to think about economic factors. But the main thing is not only to meditate, study and practice together, but also to try to help others with a pure, non-samsaric motivation. You teach others in order to help them, not just to attract a big audience and make money.

This Soto Zen presentation is very relevant to how to maintain a Dharma center so that everybody works harmoniously in an interconnected way. By doing this we move toward the goal of achieving the Sangha Gem, of becoming aryas. Although we take the monastic community as a model, it does not mean that we all have to become monks and nuns, but that we take the ideal of a monastic community the way that Buddha envisioned it. Obviously, many monastic communities can be quite samsaric in their orientation, but we don’t take those as our examples. We take a purer example as a model, as an ideal, because our ultimate source of direction are the Buddhas. Anyone before a Buddha still has limitations; before arhatship they are going to have samsaric shortcomings. One has to keep in mind that they are only provisional sources of safe direction, and that it is the Buddha whom we take as our ultimate source of direction. This is very important because it is easy to get discouraged when we see faults in monastics, or even in highly realized beings. Unless they are a Buddha, they are not the ultimate source of direction, the ultimate source of refuge. They still have limitations, so what do you expect?

Don’t take all that we discussed earlier as just scholarly information and facts. The point is to apply it, to see what does it tell us in terms of how to live according to the Dharma. These are important points.

What are the clues if the Dharma centers are running in a samsaric way?

Some clues of falling prey to this mistaken approach is if the main activity and focus of the Dharma center becomes raising money and running campaigns to get more students. Or if you buy a big place and then spend all your time working to maintain it, and have little or no time for practicing, meditating and studying together. Your main focus becomes worldly things. Then I think that there is some danger there. I have seen that in Dharma centers that I have visited around the world. All that the members are there for is building and working: working in the store, in the restaurant, building or repairing the house. Then the Dharma focus is lost, it just remains theoretical, “Oh yes, we are doing this to benefit all sentient beings.” I am talking about the main focus, obviously you need volunteers, and you have to do this or that, pay the rent and so on, but don’t lose the main focus. The main focus is practicing and studying together, and trying to benefit others. When the new Dharma center or the new big statue is more important than actually getting together to practice, then you are in trouble. Of course, if you need a larger place, then it is natural and necessary to raise money, to work on restoration, etc., but don’t lose the focus. There are many examples of Dharma centers that have lost that focus and then the people don’t interact harmoniously at all, and instead of being a source of joy and peace, a Dharma center becomes a source of anxiety, tension and fights. Then you have lost the way.

If a Dharma center is not a source of quiet but a source of disharmony; not a source of harmony but people gather more for socializing than for Dharma, and the leaders have not only accepted but inspired this, is this also something wrong, or can it be justified in some situations?

I think it is important for a group to be able to share many things together, including more relaxed time with each other. Things like going for picnics, having meals together, etc., are very helpful for creating some sort of community feeling. But, again; what is your focus? Is your focus mostly on that, or is it on studying, practicing, meditating together and helping others? I think a little socializing is helpful, as long as it is not the main focus. Is it a social club or a place for practice and learning and meditating? I think that it is a big mistake to have a Dharma center where everybody is dead serious and nobody talks to each other; you just come in and sit to meditate staring at the wall, and then everybody leaves without talking to each other. That is not ideal either.

What if this is the only place you know? What should you do when you have been going to places like this for a long time and you don’t know of any other places, or when people don’t tell you that there are other places?

Search on the internet. It is an active process; don’t just wait for things to come to you.

Sometimes these groups are very closed and you cannot even read their websites.

Go elsewhere. Look. When it is not available where you are and if it is very important to you, go somewhere else. It doesn’t help to complain. If what is available near you is not satisfactory, either you try to create something which is satisfactory, or you go somewhere else where it is better, if this is very important for you in your life. If it is only a hobby, it is something else.

The Monastic Sangha

After Buddha gave his first discourse, a group of celibate monks began to follow him wherever he taught. At the beginning, they automatically became monks under those very special circumstances, and followed Buddha. About twenty years after his enlightenment, Buddha started the first rainy season retreat. That was the start of the establishment of monasteries. Before that, they simply wandered around. Shortly before Buddha passed away, he started the tradition of nuns. The various monastic vows developed over time. It was not that Buddha just sat down and said, “These are the rules.” As the community had more and more experience, when trouble arose, like problems when begging for food, and so on, then Buddha would say, “Ah, there is the necessity for a vow to avoid this trouble,” and he sent out these various rules of discipline so that things in the community would work harmoniously. This is how the vows evolved. Buddha said that the existence of the monastic sangha was the key to ensure that his teachings would endure. This is very important! Buddha himself said that it is essential that there be a monastic tradition. Monks and nuns devote themselves fully to uphold the complete teachings of Buddha.

The Buddha’s teachings fit into three baskets, known as the Tripitaka. The first basket, the sutras, deals with how to develop various concentrations, including advanced concentrations. These are called “the training in higher concentration.” The second basket, the Abhidharma, or “the topics of knowledge,” deals with the training in the higher wisdom of discriminating awareness. As lay people, we might be able to uphold these two, but not the third basket: the Vinaya, the “rules of monastic discipline.” Monks and nuns uphold those precepts in addition to the first two. Although we as lay people don’t keep all the disciplines, we can help to sustain them by supporting the monks and nuns.

Why does one become a monk or a nun? It is not just the wish to uphold all of Buddha’s teachings, which is very nice. The primary reason to take ordination is to develop ethical discipline, self-discipline. To be able to develop discipline we need the vows, and the community support. It is very difficult to develop that discipline by ourselves if we have a family, a job, and so on. That is why one becomes ordained: to develop ethical discipline with the support from the vows and the support from the lay community. That ethical discipline becomes the basis for developing higher concentration and higher wisdom. In addition, becoming a monastic and renouncing lay life helps us to develop complete renunciation.

When you renounce lay life, you renounce having a family and other mundane things. That is the first step in developing full renunciation of all of samsara in order to gain liberation. You renounce your appearance, how you have your hair, how you dress: you are always going to dress the same, you are always going to have a shaved head. You renounce trying to attract a partner, and so on. This is a good basis for developing the full renunciation necessary for obtaining liberation.

I am not saying that having a family and working are bad, they are neutral, neither good nor bad. The point is that they tend to create a situation in which we have more worries, more desire, and more anger. That is what we are renouncing. Becoming a monastic is actually a step toward placing our full focus on learning and meditating, practicing to reach liberation and enlightenment. Although we could do that as a lay person without a family, it would be quite difficult to support ourselves. We may still have to work even if we don’t have a family; and that takes one’s time away from study and practice. By joining a monastery, we get support from the lay community.

One of the main responsibilities of the Buddhist lay community has been to support and feed the monastic community. The monastic community is worthy of respect and support. They are not lazy people who just want a free meal and not to have to work. In one of the earliest Mahayana sutras, the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra, there is a discussion about lay bodhisattvas and whether it is possible to be a bodhisattva and attain enlightenment as a lay person. Vimalakirti is the name of a householder bodhisattva. A great deal of this sutra makes fun of the monastic arhats. I think this sutra points out that problems can arise if a monastic becomes arrogant and too removed from helping people.

The monastic life is always taken as the ideal. In the beginning of the fourteenth century, a Thai king by the name of Luthai joined the monastic order for three months and then he left. He started the Thai custom of men having the option of becoming monks for a short period of time, rather than ordaining for their entire lifetime as it was before. In the nineteenth century the Burmese adopted this custom as well. Consequently, in these countries all the men – because the nun tradition is broken in these countries as it is in Tibet – will ordain as teenagers for a certain period, which is usually about three months. If you think about it, this is a much nicer alternative than having to join the army for a period of time. This also helped to bring the villages and the communities together because every mother would feed the monks when they go around, since her sons would also be monks at some time. So this reinforces the custom that the monastic community is fed and supported by the whole village. All the men will have some experience of monastic life, so they become very sympathetic, and can then understand that it is not something that is so distant. Of course, many remain monks for their entire life, not just three months.

In the Thai and Burmese villages, the monks also run schools for the local children. This was in the old days, I don’t know about the present when there are government schools, but traditionally that was what they did. The monks did not only meditate and study, but were also involved in some sort of social service. Again, not everybody, it depended on what you wanted to do. In the Chinese monastic communities as well, monks and nuns engage in social welfare activities. Now in Thailand, for instance, the monasteries and the monks are the main ones to take care of people dying from AIDS when nobody else wants to take care of them; there is a huge AIDS problem in Thailand. The Tibetans have been rather lax in this social service aspect, this is something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama acknowledges and thinks needs to be corrected. I think that in Tibet much of that can be explained in terms of the geographic situation. The monasteries were very isolated, and you could not leave your monastery and walk down to the town or village to collect food in your begging bowls. So the lay people would come up to the monasteries and give offerings. I think this is why there is more distance.

I think it is very important to have the opportunity of a monastic alternative, instead of going to the army or doing regular social work. If there are opportunities for people to be monks or nuns, to devote their entire life to Dharma practice, helping others if you want, and they are supported by the Buddhist community at large, then the teachings endure. This is what Buddha said. Of course this relies on ethical discipline, practice and meditation in the group, not just doing social welfare and then going to parties and getting government money for that. It is, therefore, very important that in the West we try to support the monks and nuns. In reality, to be a monk or a nun requires a monastery; it is always a community thing. It was never intended for people to ordain and live by themselves, wearing lay clothes and going out to work during the day; that is not the ideal for a monk or a nun. Unfortunately, many people have had to do that in the West, but we must understand that it is difficult for them, and not criticize them because they lack the right circumstances to be a monk or a nun properly. There are many lay people and many Dharma centers that look down on monks and nuns and treat them almost like servants who are expected to run the Dharma center, make the tea and do these sorts of things. That is completely backwards. The lay people ought to do that, not the monks and nuns.

For the monks and nuns to be objects of respect, they need to keep the vows, to be proper monks or nuns. The texts say that even a patch of cloth from a monk’s or nun’s robe is worthy of respect. This means that even if they are not really living up to the vows properly, one still respects the robes. One respects the fact that they are trying to work on themselves by taking the step of ordaining. You come across some monks and nuns who are not trying to develop themselves. Some, for example, were dumped into a monastery as children because their parents could not feed them. Even then, we have to differentiate the monastic institution as such, as represented by the robes, from the person. I think that as Buddhists it is very important to reflect about our personal attitude toward monks and nuns and the whole monastic institution. Is it something that we consider quite trivial and unimportant, and never even think about it? Or is it something that is really a proper object for respect? After all, even if they are not the actual Sangha Gem, they represent the Sangha Gem for us. They represent their heading toward the arya state, toward true stoppings and true paths, which is the actual Sangha Gem.

There are some organizations that help monks who are working and doing something else around the world.

There are many programs that support monasteries for the Tibetans in India and Nepal, but not so much for Westerners. This is the problem. People tend to be much more sympathetic to ethnic monks and nuns, and not so much to Western ones. The Western ones are actually the ones who really need the help. However, that gets into a whole big discussion about the way to run a Western monastery.

At this moment, the main focus for us who lead worldly lives is building better Dharma centers. What can we do to help the monks and nuns?

What is the traditional way to help? The traditional way is to feed them and give them a place to stay so that they don’t have to earn money to pay rent and buy food. Help them with health insurance, for instance. A Dharma center could certainly arrange group health insurance for monks and nuns, for example, this would be very helpful.