For other uses, see Sangha (disambiguation).
Some of the monks outside the temple at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Rato Dratsang, in India, January 2015

Sangha (Pali: saṅgha; Sanskrit: saṃgha; Chinese: 僧伽; pinyin: Sēngjiā[1]; Wylie: dge 'dun [2]) is a word in Pali and Sanskrit meaning "association", "assembly," "company" or "community" and most commonly refers in Buddhism to the monastic community of bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhuni (nuns). These communities are traditionally referred to as the bhikkhu-sangha or bhikkhuni-sangha. As a separate category, those who have attained any of the four stages of enlightenment, whether or not they are ordained monastics, are referred to as the āryasaṅgha "noble Sangha".[3][4][5]

According to the Theravada school, the term "sangha" does not refer to the community of sāvakas (lay followers) nor the community of Buddhists as a whole.[6][7][8]


In a glossary of Buddhist terms,[9] Richard Robinson et al. define Sangha as:

Sangha. Community. This word has two levels of meaning: (1) on the ideal (arya) level, it denotes all of the Buddha’s followers, lay or ordained, who have at least attained the level of srotāpanna; (2) on the conventional (saṃvṛti) level, it denotes the orders of the Bhikṣus and Bhikṣunis.

Modern lay practitioners may use the word "Sangha" as a collective term for all Buddhists, but the Theravadin Pāli Canon uses the word pariṣā (Sanskrit pariṣad) for the larger Buddhist community — the monks, nuns, lay men, and lay women who have taken the Three Refuges — reserving "Sangha" for a more restricted use.[8][10][11]

The two meanings overlap but are not necessarily identical. Some members of the ideal Sangha are not ordained; some monastics have yet to acquire the Dharma-eye.[10]
Unlike the present Sangha, the original Sangha viewed itself as following the mission laid down by the Master, viz, to go forth "…on tour for the blessing of the manyfolk, for the happiness of the manyfolk out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the blessing, the happiness of deva and men".[12]

Qualities of the Sangha

The Sangha is the third of the Three Jewels in Buddhism. Due to the temptations and vicissitudes of life in the world, monastic life is considered to provide the safest and most suitable environment for advancing toward enlightenment and liberation.

In Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha each are described as having certain characteristics. These characteristics are chanted either on a daily basis and/or on Uposatha days, depending on the school of Buddhism. In Theravada tradition they are a part of daily chanting:

The Sangha: The Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples (sāvakas) is:

  1. practicing the good way
  2. practicing the upright way
  3. practicing the knowledgeable or logical way
  4. practicing the proper way

That is, the four pairs of persons, the eight types of individuals - This Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples is:

  1. worthy of gifts
  2. worthy of hospitalities
  3. worthy of offerings
  4. worthy of reverential salutation
  5. the unsurpassed field of merit for the world.[13]

Monastic tradition

Main article: Buddhist monasticism

The monastic Sangha was originally established by Gautama Buddha in the fifth century BCE in order to provide a means for those who wish to practice full-time in a direct and highly disciplined way, free from the restrictions and responsibilities of the household life.[14] The Sangha also fulfils the function of preserving the Buddha’s original teachings and of providing spiritual support for the Buddhist lay-community. The monastic sangha has historically assumed responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the doctrine as well as the translation and propagation of the teachings of the Buddha.

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 of scripture study, chanting, meditation, and occasional cleaning forms most of the Sangha's duties.[15] Transgression of rules carries penalties ranging from confession to permanent expulsion from the Sangha.

Japanese vinaya

Saichō, the founder of the Japanese school of Tendai, decided to reduce the number of rules down to about 60 based on the Bodhisattva Precepts. In the Kamakura, many Japanese schools that originated in or were influenced by the Tendai such as Zen, Pure Land Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism abolished traditional ordination in favor of this new model of the vinaya.

The Fourteen Precepts of the Order of Interbeing

The Order of Interbeing, established in 1964 and associated with the Plum Village movement, has fourteen precepts observed by all monastics.[16] They were written by Thích Nhất Hạnh.


Monks and nuns may own only the barest minimum of possessions due to their samaya as renunciates (ideally, three robes, an alms 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: saffron is characteristic for Theravadin groups, blue, grey or brown for Mahayanin monastics in Vietnam, maroon in Tibetan Buddhism, grey in Korea, and black in Japan.

Gautama Buddha and his followers, holding begging bowls, receive offerings: from an 18th-century Burmese watercolour

Attitudes regarding food and work

A male Buddhist monastic is a bhikkhu in Pali, Sanskrit bhikṣu while a female monastic is a bhikkhuni, Sanskrit bhikṣuṇī. These words literally mean "beggar"[12] and it was traditional in early Buddhism for monastics to beg for food. In most schools where begging remains customary, it has become an elaborate ritual where lay people feed monastics to obtain merit which will ensure them a fortunate rebirth. Although monastics in India traditionally did not work for income, this changed when Buddhism moved to East Asia, so that in the East Asian cultural sphere, monastics traditionally engaged in agriculture. An emphasis on working for food is attributed to the monastic rules laid down by a Chan Buddhist master, Baizhang Huaihai, notably the phrase, "A day without work is a day without food" (Chinese: 一日不做一日不食).

The idea that all Buddhists, especially monastics, practice vegetarianism is a Western misperception.

In the Pali Canon the Buddha rejected a suggestion by Devadatta to impose vegetarianism on the Sangha. According to the Pali Texts, the Buddha ate meat as long as the animal was not killed specifically for him. The Buddha in the Pali Canon 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 Theravadin tradition does not practice strict vegetarianism, although an individual may do so at his or her personal choice .

Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions vary depending on their interpretation of the sutras. In some Mahayana sutras, meat eating is strongly discouraged and it is stated that the Buddha did not eat meat. In particular, East Asian monastics take on the Bodhisattva Precepts originating in the Brahmajala Sutra, which has a vow of vegetarianism as part of the Triple Platform Ordination, where they receive the three sets of vows: śrāmaṇera/śrāmaṇerī (novitiate), monastic, and then Bodhisattva Precepts, whereas the Tibetan lineages transmit a tradition of Bodhisattva Precepts from Asanga's Yogacarabhumi-sastra, which does not include a vow of vegetarianism. In some areas such as China, Korea and Vietnam the Sangha practices strict vegetarianism, while in other areas such as Japan or Tibet, they do 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, Gautama Buddha always maintained that lay persons were capable of great wisdom and of reaching enlightenment. In the west, there is a misconception that Theravada regards enlightenment to be an impossible goal outside the Sangha, but in Theravada suttas, it is clearly recorded that the Buddha's uncle, a lay follower, reached enlightenment by hearing the Buddha's discourse.

Women's role in the Sangha

Main article: Bhikkhuni
An almsbowl used by members of the Sangha.

Although always maintaining that women were just as capable of attaining enlightenment as men, the canonical texts depict the Buddha as being reluctant to permit women to join the Sangha. After several entreaties from his aunt and foster-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, who wished to become ordained, and from his cousin and aide Ananda, who supported her cause, the Buddha relented and ordained Maha Pajapati and several others as nuns. This was one of the few issues about which the Buddha is recorded to have changed his mind. The Buddha later established the condition that each new ordination would be sanctioned by at least five bhikkhunis.

There have been several 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. According to the scriptures the reason the Buddha himself gave was that the admission of women would weaken the Sangha and shorten its lifetime, and he laid down strict rules subordinating nuns to monks (The Eight Garudhammas).

Before the modern era, the Bhikkhuni Sangha spread to most Buddhist countries including Burma (also known as Myanmar), with the notable exceptions being Tibet and Thailand. However, in Sri Lanka, it died out in the 11th century during a civil war and was not revived. Consequently, as Theravada Buddhism spread to Thailand, the Theravada Sangha consisted only of monks.

In recent decades, there has been a serious attempt to revive the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha with the assistance of Mahayana bhikkhunis from the Chinese lineage. These were introduced from Sri Lanka in 433 C. E., following the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, and subsequently spread to Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan. 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 some of the conservative Theravada establishment.

Meanwhile, a similar process has produced the first fully ordained bhikkhunis in Tibetan Buddhism, where only the novice ordination for bhikkhunis existed. In the west, where feminism has been a strong influence, there have been many remarkable Buddhist nuns: three notable examples are Pema Chodron, Ayya Khema and Tenzin Palmo.

The first bhikkhuni ordination in Australia in the Theravadin tradition was held in Perth on October 22, 2009 at Bodhinyana Monastery. Venerable Ajahn Vayama together with Venerables Nirodha, Seri and Hasapanna were ordained as bhikkhunis by a dual sangha act of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis in full accordance with the pali vinaya.

Sangha as a general reference to Buddhist community

Upāsakas and Upāsikās performing a short chanting ceremony at Three Ancestors Temple, Anhui, China

Some scholars noted that sangha is frequently (and according to them, mistakenly) used in the West to refer to any sort of Buddhist community.[17] The terms parisa and gaṇa are suggested as being more appropriate references to a community of Buddhists. Pariṣā means "following" and it refers to the four groups of the Buddha's followers: monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.[18] The Sanskrit term gaṇa has meanings of flock, troop, multitude, number, tribe, series, class, and is usable as well in more mundane senses.

The Soka Gakkai, a new religious movement which began as a lay organization previously associated with Nichiren Shōshū in Japan, disputes the traditional definition of sangha. They interpret the meaning of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, in particular the "treasure of the Sangha"—which they refer to in English as "Samgha"—includes not only the monastic community, but also lay persons that practice Buddhism correctly.[19][20]

Accordingly, its parent Buddhist sect, Nichiren Shōshū maintains the traditional definition of Sangha as the head temple priesthood collective as sole custodians and arbiters of Buddhist doctrine.

See also


  1. " 僧伽".
  2. "Rigpa Wiki: དགེ་འདུན་".
  6. Sangha - By Bhikkhu Bodhi.(November, 2010).
  8. 1 2 Sangha © 2005–2012.
  9. Robinson et al.(2005). "Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction". Fifth Edition. Belmont,CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, p.327
  10. 1 2 Robinson et al.(2005). "Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction". Fifth Edition. Belmont,CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, p. 32.
  11. "parisā".
  12. 1 2 Spiro, Melford: Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. (1982). Berkeley: University of California. p 279.
  13. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000). "The Collected Discourses of the Buddha: A new translation of the Samyutta Nikaya". Somerville: Wisdom Publications, Sakkasamyutta, Dhajjaggasutta (3), p.319-321.
  14. Robinson et al.(2005). "Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction". Fifth Edition. Belmont,CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, p. 36.
  15. Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo (1995). "Duties of the Sangha". Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
  16. Order of Interbeing Beginnings (Sister Chân Không, Excerpt form Learning True Love)
  17. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997), p.307.
  18. A Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms: parisa
  19. Global Citizens, "A Buddhist Reformation in the 20th Century: Causes and Implications of the Conflict between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu Priesthood", 2000, Jane Hurst. p.79
  20. Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, "Samgha"


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