The Sangha as an Institution
- Thomas BorchertThomas BorchertUniversity of Vermont
Along with the buddha and the dharma, the sangha is one of the “three jewels,” the core aspects of Buddhism in which a Buddhist “takes refuge.” The sangha is responsible for taking care of and propagating the dharma, the teachings of the buddha. It can also be considered more broadly as the Buddhist community, which in turn can be thought of as the group of people who either take refuge in the three jewels or follow the teachings of the buddha. Given this, the sangha has generally been conceptualized in two ways. Most often, it refers to the community of men and women who have been ordained as monks and nuns under the auspices of Buddhist disciplinary teachers. At the same time, it can sometimes refer more broadly to the four-fold community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.
While the sangha may be discussed in the singular, generally speaking it is appropriate to think of sanghas in the plural. In this sense, the term refers not to an ideal community that maintains the teachings of the buddha but rather to the communal and institutional structures through which people define themselves as Buddhist and maintain their Buddhist identities. A particular sangha is revealed by interrogating the linkages (i.e., lineages) between different Buddhists, the kinds of educational structures in place to train adherents, the ways that Buddhists discipline themselves (for example, through the vinaya rules), and the ways in which external governing bodies seek to regulate Buddhist communities.