Sangha in Buddhism
Sangha is one of the Three Jewels in Buddhism, which are three things which we turn to for refuge. Sometimes referred to as the Three Refuges, these different aspects of practice are equally important. We can think of the jewels as true refuges: places where we go for safety. Traditionally, the Buddhist symbol used to represent these three refuges are three jewels. Sangha is just one of these refuges, with the other two being the Buddha and the Dhamma.
What is Sangha?
The word sangha is a Pali word most commonly translated as community or association. Traditionally (in the Pali Canon), the word sangha refers to the association of monks and nuns. In modern traditions, the word sangha includes laypeople. The sangha may be seen as the community of others on the path, and is an integral part of a healthy practice.
Sangha as a refuge is an important part of one’s meditation practice. We participate in and interact with the sangha in order to grow. Taking refuge in the sangha means we find safety and strength in fellow walkers of the path. We can turn toward our community in times of need, when we need advice, or simply when it feels like a safe harbor for us. Although Buddhism is often seen as a solitary path with the image coming to mind of a person meditating alone in an isolated environment, the sangha is incredibly important. We learn from our sangha, we are supported by the sangha, and we may offer support and kindness to those around us.
The Upaddha Sutta reads:
The Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One: “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”
Ananda is pointing out the importance of friends on the path. The Buddha’s response goes a bit further:
“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”
These are just my opinions, but it seems that the Buddha is stressing here the importance of fellowship in our practice. Wholesome friendship is the “whole of the holy life.” Take a moment to think about this statement that the Buddha is making… Good community is of the utmost importance. In the Mahatma Sutta, the Buddha gives some insight into how and why sangha is important:
At any time when a disciple of the noble ones is recollecting the Sangha, his mind is not overcome with passion, not overcome with aversion, not overcome with delusion. His mind heads straight, based on the Sangha. And when the mind is headed straight, the disciple of the noble ones gains a sense of the goal, gains a sense of the Dhamma, gains joy connected with the Dhamma. In one who is joyful, rapture arises. In one who is rapturous, the body grows calm. One whose body is calmed experiences ease. In one at ease, the mind becomes concentrated.
The Buddha is pointing here to the benefits of a healthy sangha. When we engage with the community, our practice is lifted greatly. We see our goal clearly, gain joy, find rapture, grow calm in the body, experience ease, and have a concentrated mind. If you sit with a sangha regularly, you will find these to be quite true. Sitting with a sangha helps us build our practice greatly.
The last point to be made is how we engage with the community. In the Dighajanu Sutta, the Buddha answers the question, “What is meant by admirable friendship?” His instruction is to learn from and emulate the wholesome qualities in others. When we spend time around people who are walking the path, we are able to pick things up here and there. If you wish to be a better basketball player, how do you do so? You practice, play with those better than you, and maybe help guide those who still have much to learn. We can do these things in our communities. We have our own sitting practices, learn from others, and may offer our experience to help others.
How to Take Refuge in Sangha
We now have some insight into the importance of finding a community, but how do we actually take refuge in said community (or find a community at all)? If you’re interested in engaging with a sangha, I urge you to follow that interest and investigate practicing with a community. It can be scary. I remember my first few times sitting with new sanghas very well. I was uncomfortable, felt out of place, and even felt like the group was a clique and I was on the outside. I continued to return and practice, and as I grew to know people and reach my hand out, I was able to find a sangha that really felt like a safe place for me. Reach your hand out, talk to somebody new, and have some trust in the community.
There are many different schools of Buddhism, meditation, and spiritual traditions. It may take some investigation to find the right sangha for you. My main community for a couple years was a twelve-step community. No, it wasn’t a Buddhist sangha, but it was a community nonetheless. The act of showing up and participating with my fellowship helped me immensely. Allow yourself to find something new if need be. Allow the discomfort. The first key we try doesn’t always unlock the door, so keep an open mind and find what works for you.
I am a bit dharma-spoiled living in California. There are many meditation groups within just a few miles from my home on any given night. Of course, many people live in places where group sits are not so easily accessible. That doesn’t mean you are blocked from finding a sangha. Maybe start one! You may also find online meditation groups, long distance dharma buddies, or a meditation coach/friend to work with. Ideally, you can sit with an in-person group, but we have to find sangha wherever we can! If you want help finding a local sangha, online group, or an “admirable companion,” you’re welcome to email us at [email protected]!