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The word “Sangha” is a Sanskrit term that means “community,” and which is used primarily to refer to the Buddha’s ordained followers, who are known as bhikshus and bhikshunis, or monks and nuns. Nowadays, as Buddhism has spread throughout the Western world, it has become quite common for the Buddhist community as a whole, or even just small groups of lay followers at a Dharma center, to be said to form a sangha.

Conventional Sangha and Arya Sangha

Usually, the term Sangha is used to refer to these two groups of bhikshus and bhikshunis, the nuns and monks who follow the Buddha’s teachings. The term bhikshu actually means “beggar,” and was used because the ordained community were supposed to renounce most material goods and wander from place to place, depending upon others for food. A minimum of four fully ordained or novice monks or nuns, whatever the level of their awareness or realization, is required to form a Sangha. We call this the conventional Sangha. There is also the arya Sangha, which refers to individuals, ordained or not, who have actually attained some of the realizations of the Dharma path.

It is important to make a distinction between the conventional Sangha and the arya Sangha. While there are many excellent ordinary monks and nuns, there can also be those who are just as emotionally disturbed as we are – and that might make us question why we should take refuge in them. Thus, as one of the Three Jewels, it is the arya Sangha that is the true jewel that we take refuge in. They are the ones who can genuinely help us to go in the right direction.

– Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II, Matt Lindén (www.studybuddhism.com)

The real meaning of Sangha

In order to practice the Dharma well, we need reliable examples to help and guide us, people who have learned and practiced the Buddha’s teachings, and actually attained some of its goals. We call the community of such people the “Sangha”. These are the role models we rely on. Nowadays, we often turn to celebrities as our role models: celebrities such as singers, actors, and actresses. But these people have their own problems. We know that in the private lives, they’re often a mess! The Sangha on the other hand, are people who have already gotten rid of some of their problems, and they are working to get rid of the rest. Doesn’t it make sense to follow their examples is we want to get rid of our own problems too?

What are the qualities of the Sangha?

When they teach, they don’t just repeat what they have already learned from books. They speak from their own authentic experience. This is really inspiring. Their only wish is to help others, and they practice what they preach. Think of a smoker who is trying to tell us about the dangers of smoking. Will you really buy that? For that reason, the Sangha is always sincere in their practice. So, definitely we can trust them.

When we spend time with bad company, we pick up so many bad qualities from them, and often we don’t realize ourselves how it affects us. Similarly, if we hang out with good friends, we pick up their good qualities almost effortlessly. So, the Sangha has a very good influence on us to improve our Dharma practice.

Now, how can we choose a good role model? Although we might not meet a real member of the Sangha, someone with real attainments, still we can meet people who are more experienced in the Dharma and get inspiration from them. Seeing their examples, we become encouraged to follow in their footsteps.

– Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II

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