Taking Refuge in Sangha

What Does That Mean?

Observing Buddha's birthday in South Korea. © Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

Since the time of the historical Buddha, people have dedicated themselves to the Buddhist path by taking the three refuges

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Buddha, dharma and sangha together are sometimes called the Three Treasures or the Three Jewels. This article will focus on sangha what it means to take refuge in the sangha. 

Read More: Taking Refuge in Buddha

Read More: Taking Refuge in Dharma

What Is the Sangha?

Depending on the source, sangha may refer to the monastic orders -- ordained nuns and monks -- or it may refer to all Buddhists, lay and ordained. In Asia, the word sangha by itself nearly always seems to refer to monastic orders, in fact. Sometimes it is called the "fourfold" sangha, meaning all ordained nuns, monks, laywomen and laymen. In the West we appear to be using the word sangha in much the same way we use the word church. Sangha might mean all Buddhists, or it might refer to a particular "congregation." 

Monk and scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi said, 

"The Sangha which serves as refuge is not an institutional body but an unchartered spiritual community comprising all those who have achieved penetration of the innermost meaning of the Buddha's teaching. The Sangha-refuge is the ariyan Sangha, the noble community, made up exclusively of ariyans, person of superior spiritual stature. Its membership is not bound together by formal ecclesiastical ties but by the invisible bond of a common inward realization. The one requirement for admission is the attainment of this realization, which in itself is sufficient to grant entrance."

Note that the Pali word ariyan (in Sanskrit, aryan) in Buddhism is used to mean "noble" or "venerable." Here there is no connotation of a racial or ethnic group. Both monastics and laypeople may be part of this "ariyan" community.

The Sangha as Refuge

However, taking refuge in the sangha doesn't necessarily mean going off to live on a mountaintop with enlightened beings.

Chogyam Trungpa wrote of the sangha as a companionship of seekers, people who are struggling together and who can provide feedback for each other. "So taking refuge in the sangha means being willing to work with your fellow students—your brothers and sisters in the dharma—while being independent at the same time," Chogyam Trungpa said.  In other words, the ideal is to support and be supported by each other, but not to simply "go along with the crowd."

In his book The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching,Thich Nhat Hanh said that "practicing with a Sangha is essential. ... Building a Sangha, supporting a Sangha, being with a Sangha, receiving the support and guidance of a Sangha is the practice." 

Thich Nhat Hanh also said, "Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha inter-are. If you look after the Sangha, you are looking after the Buddha." Likewise, "The Dharma cannot exist without a Buddha and a Sangha." Remember, dharma is not just the written teachings of the Buddha. It is also the practice and realization of those teachings. The activity of sangha, where people learn from each other, teach each other, and support each other's practice, gives life to the dharma and to the Buddha as well.

What About Solo Practice?

If working with a sangha "is the practice," as Thich Nhat Hanh says, what does this mean for the many solo practitioners in the West?

Many of us live a long distance from any sort of dharma center. In that case, belonging to a community of practitioners may be difficult, but it's not necessarily impossible. If you can travel to attend even one or two retreats a year, this can be a huge boost to your home alone practice. It's also possible there are other solo practitioners near you, and you could get together periodically to meditate or chant together. 

And don't forget technology. Some Buddhists are finding ways to reach others through the Internet, such as the Treeleaf Zendo, which functions as a virtual sangha. 

Some of us also harbor a stubborn determination to practice alone, however. Particularly those of us who are distrustful of institutions and authority figures -- which is understandable -- may choose to avoid teachers and other practitioners and take an entirely DIY -- do-it-yourself -- approach.

If you think about it, however, DIY Buddhism is self-evidently absurd. Yes, the Buddha taught that we realize enlightenment by our own efforts. But what is enlightenment? In most schools of Buddhism, enlightenment begins with the intimate realization that the "I" is an illusion, and that we are not really the separate stand-alone people units we thought we were. The existence of each of us is the existence of all beings. How can we experience that when we wall ourself off from others?

Sitting in silent meditation together, chanting together, maintaining a dharma center together, giving strength to each other -- these activities break down the walls of ego that separate us. And this is very much the activity of the dharma and the Buddha.