The Sangha

In the Buddhist lunar calendar, each month ends on a full moon, and so on the full moon of Thursday, October 5th, the last of the three months of this year’s annual Vassa or Rains Retreat came to an end. On that full moon day each bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) so long as there is a quorum of five or more monks, must invite admonishment from the Sangha, or otherwise, if less than five, from however many monks are present. It’s an annual formality that reminds each monk that he’s in training and therefore will sometimes need help and correction. Because this is an important day for the Sangha, it’s the day we have chosen on which to celebrate the third of the Three Jewels, the Sangha; the other two, of course, being the Buddha and the Dhamma. In the suttas the word sangha, which literally means a group or community, is usually used in one of two ways: either it refers to the Samutti or conventional Sangha of ordained monks and nuns bhikkhus and bhikkhunisor to the Ariya Sangha of Noble Ones — persons who have realised one of the four stages of Awakening that commence with Stream-Entry. Those four stages are in fact a gradual and progressive peeling away of the ten fetters that bind us to the round of rebirth and perpetual suffering. Should you be fortunate enough to Enter the Stream that leads certainly to Enlightenment it will mean that the first three of those fetters, that include a belief in a self or personality, doubt and superstitious attachment to rites and rituals, have been overcome and discarded and you are bound within seven lifetimes at most to attain Enlightenment. Next comes the stage of Once Returner when a further two, sensual desire and ill-will, have been weakened and then you have only one more rebirth to endure. Thirdly, comes Non-Returner when those last two have been finally overcome and abandoned, then there is no more rebirth as a human. That leaves just five left to go, these are regarded as the higher fetters and therefore the more difficult to break free of. They are: the attachment to the realms of form and the formless realms, then conceit, agitation and ignorance. When they’re all gone, that’s when a person becomes an Arahant, an Enlightened One. These stages are clearly great achievements, not easily arrived at and therefore merit our admiration. Not only that, they are an inspiration and a reminder of what we could be doing. And so, whenever we recite a puja we recite not only the qualities of the Buddha and his Dhamma but also the qualities of this Noble Sangha. But let’s not forget the Samutti Sangha, the conventional Sangha, and its achievements and meaning for us. First of all, it is a source of stability and provides leadership and guidance. It has been in existence for a very long time, it stretches right back to the Buddha’s very first sermon. It was set up by the Buddha and during his lifetime he was constantly working with it and as things happened, refining and shaping it, and ensuring it remained fit for purpose – that of enabling one to make it from the hither shore to the farther shore, from Samsara to Nirvana, from bondage to freedom. And over the centuries the Sangha has guarded, cared for and against extraordinary odds maintained unadulterated, unspoilt, the Buddha’s essential message so that some 2.500 years later it is as clear as when first it was given. To this day, the Sangha continues to offer the opportunity for full-time training and practice. Yes, I know, it has had its ups and downs, and inevitably many of the ordinary mortals involved have lost and keep on losing their way but while the Sangha as an institution continues to exist, its great body of knowledge and experience along with what it stands for is not lost and remains to be used and regenerated. In both its forms the Sangha is a fabulous phenomenon and should be cherished.