The Qualities of the Arya Sangha

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Introduction and Source

When taking safe direction (refuge):

  • The deepest Sangha Gem (don-dam-pa’i dge-’dun dkon-mchog, ultimate Sangha Gem) – the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuum of a highly realized being (’phags-pa, Skt ārya). Such beings have achieved a seeing pathway mind (path of seeing), an accustoming pathway mind (path of meditation), or a pathway mind needing no further training (path of no more learning). They gain these from having had nonconceptual straightforward cognition of the four noble truths. The aryas may be of the listener (nyan-thos, Skt. śrāvaka), self-evolver (rang-rgyal, Skt. pratyekabuddha), or bodhisattva (byang-chub sems-dpa’) class. With pathway minds needing no further training, aryas attain liberation and become liberated beings (dgra-bcom-pa, Skt. arhat) of their respective classes.
  • The apparent Sangha Gem (kun-rdzob-pa’i dge’dun dkon-mchog, superficial or conventional Sangha Gem) – the individual person of any arya, whether lay or monastic.
  • The nominal Sangha Gem (brdar-btags-pa’i dge-’dun dkon-mchog) – an assembly of four or more fully ordained monks (dge-slong, Skt. bhikṣu) or fully ordained nuns (dge-slong-ma, Skt. bhikṣuṇī), with purely kept vows and on the level of from an ordinary being (so-skye) (someone who is not yet an arya) on upwards. The nominal Sangha Gem is not an actual source of safe direction (skyabs-gnas).

[See: Identifying the Three Precious Gems]

In the Mahayana tradition, the good qualities of the Arya Sangha refer to the qualities of the apparent Sangha Gem, and primarily to the qualities of arya bodhisattvas before attaining enlightenment. With seeing and accustoming pathway minds, these arya bodhisattvas progressively develop ten levels of highly realized minds (sa-bcu, Skt. daśa-bhūmi, ten bhumi minds). With each level bhumi mind, the force of their non-conceptual cognition of voidness during total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) and seeing discordant appearances during periods of subsequent realization (rjes-thob, post-meditation) to be like illusions progressively enhances, in turn, each of their ten far-reaching attitudes of giving, ethical self-discipline, patience, joyful perseverance, mental stability, discrimination awareness, skill in means, aspirational prayer, strengthening, and deep awareness.

[See: The Five Paths: Advanced Presentation. See also: The Ten Perfections in Theravada, Mahayana and Bon]

Moreover, with each of these levels of bhumi mind, arya bodhisattvas gain an increasing number of qualities. These qualities are outlined by Chandrakirti in his Engaging in the Middle Way (dBu-ma-la ’jug-pa, Skt. Madhyamākavatāra). Here, we shall follow the explanation of them given by Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) in his Illuminating the Intent: An Explanation of (Chandrakirti’s) “Engaging in the Middle Way” (dBu-ma dgongs-pa rab-gsal).

The Good Qualities of Arya Bodhisattvas with Each of the Ten Bhumi Levels of Mind

With the attainment of a first-level bhumi mind (first bhumi), arya bodhisattvas gain twelve sets of good qualities each involving a hundred things (yon-tan brgya-phrag bcu-gnyis), most of which happen in a moment. In each instant, they can:

(1) Behold 100 Buddhas

(2) Receive enlightening inspiration from all 100 of them

(3) Live for 100 eons

(4) See the no-longer-happenings (’das-pa, the “past”) and the not-yet-happenings (ma-’ong-ba, the “future”) of phenomena for 100 eons

(5) Enter and arise from 100 absorbed concentrations (ting-nge-’dzin, Skt. samādhi)

(6) Shake up 100 world-systems

(7) Illuminate all 100 with their radiance

(8) Make 100 limited beings (sentient beings) ripe for realizations through helping them make their minds agile

(9) Travel to 100 pure-land Buddha-fields

(10) Open 100 gateways of Dharma preventive measures through giving teachings

(11) Emanate themselves in 100 bodies

(12) Have each body surrounded by 100 bodhisattvas.

When they achieve a second-level bhumi mind (second bhumi), each of these twelve sets involves 1,000 things, mostly happening at once; with a third-level mind 100,000; with a fourth a billion; a fifth 10 billion; a sixth a trillion; and a seventh 100 quintillion. After this, the numbers involved with the twelve sets of good qualities increase to astronomical figures.

The Qualities of a Bodhisattva Arhat Exceed Those of a Shravaka or Pratyekabuddha Arhat

According to the Gelug Prasangika presentation, with the attainment of an eighth-level bhumi mind, arya bodhisattvas attain liberation and become bodhisattva arhats. Even before they achieve eighth-, ninth- and tenth-level bhumi minds, arya bodhisattvas, when achieving a seventh-level bhumi mind, already outshine shravaka arhats and pratyekabuddha arhats. This is because, at that point, they have the ability to alternate instantly between total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) on voidness and the subsequently attained realization (rjes-thob, post-meditation) that when discordant appearances of true existence arise once again, these appearances are like an illusion.

Nevertheless, the good qualities of shravaka arhats are extremely extensive. They can:

  • Manifest one form into many and many into one
  • Transform and emanate many objects through the power of their absorbed concentration on the elemental sources (khams) – the basic elements of earth, water, fire, and wind
  • Fly through the air and miraculously transport themselves to wherever their disciples may be, and so on.

The methods at their disposal for helping others are beyond the realms of imagination.

It is wrong, then, to think that shravakas totally lack compassion and do not work to benefit others. Love and compassion constitute essential features of all the Buddha’s teachings, both Hinayana and Mahayana. After all, metta-bhavana (meditation on love) forms a central part of Theravada practice. Shakyamuni Buddha’s two main disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, were shravaka arhats and, after achieving liberation, they led many other disciples to liberation as well.

The Good Qualities of Eighth-Level Arya Bodhisattvas

Having attained liberation with an eighth-level bhumi mind, arya bodhisattvas gain ten powers (dbang-bcu) in addition to a vast increase in the numbers involved with each of the twelve sets of good qualities mentioned above. These are the powers over:

(1) Their own life spans – they can live as long as they wish

(2) Their minds – they can enter and arise from limitless types of absorbed concentration

(3) Necessities of life – they can find everything they need

(4) Activities – they know and can teach any art or science

(5) Birth – they can be born whenever and wherever they wish

(6) Prayers – to manifest themselves in any form needed

(7) Aspiration – they can manifest anything they see fit

(8) Extraphysical emanation – they can go to any pure-land Buddha-field that they wish

(9) Deep awareness – they are unimpeded in their learning

(10) The Dharma – they understand all the words and meanings of the teachings.

These powers, although beyond ordinary comprehension, still do not approach the qualities and skills of a Buddha’s omniscient awareness. Therefore when such bodhisattvas are described as understanding all the Dharma, and so on, this means just to their own levels of ability.