Refuge in the Sangha: The faith in the people as the evidence that enlightenment is real.

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The passage for Today’s talk is from Anguttara Nikaya.

“He acquires unwavering confidence in the Sangha thus: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples is practising the good way, practising the straight way, practising the true way, practising the proper way, that is, the four pairs of persons, the eight types of individuals; this Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples is worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of reverential salutation, the unsurpassed field of merit for the world.”     MN7.7

The Sangha as a Religious Community

Based on the passage that I just read, I would like to talk about the Sangha today, which is the third element of the three jewels in addition to the Buddha and the Dhamma. Buddhist faith requires people to take refuge in the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, by which they become Buddhists. In looking at other religions and characteristics of their faith, the Buddha and the Dhamma, which are the founder of the religion and its teaching, seem to be enough to constitute the objects of religious faith. In this regard, taking refuge in the Sangha seems to be redundant.

Then, as to the Sangha, the questions are as follow: Why is the Sangha so important and essential in Buddhism? Why did the Buddha include the Sangha in the three jewels in terms of that the two jewels seem enough to make the objects of faith? If the Sangha is so important within the system of the religion, what are its roles in Buddhism? Before all these questions are answered, who belongs to the Sangha?

The Object of Faith

Only when one can find a sort of noble qualities in other people or something outside of one’s family, he or she confer trust to them so they rely on them. Christians see in Jesus the quality of being the son of God. This becomes their faith and they believe in and rely on him in their prayers. The Prophet Mohammed is regarded as the deliverer of God’s message in Islam world. Muslims find in him the quality of being God’s messenger so that he becomes the actual object of Muslim faith.   

Likewise, Buddhists find the quality of enlightenment in Gotama Buddha in whom they take refuge to rely on for their living. Also, they find the quality of being true in the Dhamma of the Buddha’s teaching in which they also take refuge. In addition to these two, the Buddha and the Dhamma, Buddhist faith further requires its followers to take refuge in the Sangha, which is the community of Buddhist people.

Comparing with other religions, it seems peculiar that Buddhism asks its followers to have faith in its community as well. Usually, having faith in the founders of religions and their teachings are what constitutes religious faith. As far as I know, there are no other religions that explicitly state that having faith in their community is essential to become their followers except Buddhism.

In general, people of a community is an indispensable factor for a set of a religious doctrine to become a religion. For example, there is no Judaism without the Jewish community. Nonetheless, it does not explicitly asks Jews to have faith in the community of Jewish people. Faith in God and in its sacred text would be enough when someone was born Jewish to become a religious Jew.

The Community as an Object of Religious Faith

In order for Buddhism to be a religion, the community of people following as a way of life is indispensable. Yet, the Buddhist community does not remain as just an element of the religion. It further goes out and plays a role as an object of faith. Thus, what is peculiar to Buddhism is that it asks people to have faith in its community of those on the path, and, as the passage that I read at the beginning says;

“He acquires unwavering confidence in the Sangha thus: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples is practising the good way, practising the straight way, practising the true way, practising the proper way, that is, the four pairs of persons, the eight types of individuals;

Although the official definition of who are Sangha members has been controversial and still in debate, the passage from Majjhima Nikaya describes that the Sangha is the four pairs of persons, the eight types of individuals such as;

  1. One who is on the path to becoming a stream-enterer,  
  2. One who becomes a stream-enterer,
  3. One who is on the path to becoming a once-returner,
  4. One who becomes an once-returner,
  5. One who is on the path to becoming non-returner,
  6. One who becomes a non-returner,
  7. One who is on the path to becoming an arahant,
  8. One who becomes an arahant.

These four pairs and eight types of people are not ordinary ones who are trapped in an endless circle of life, namely Samsara. Through practicing the way that is “good, straight, true, and proper,” they have completely cut, or will soon cut, the chain of Samsara so they will not be subject to it any longer.

Right after his enlightenment, the Buddha started to show people the way and path to enlightenment, which is good, straight, true, and proper. Five ascetics became his first disciples, which was the beginning of the Sangha in Buddhist history as many of you already knew.  

Who Belongs to the Sangha?

By abandoning the secular way of their life, people left their home and went forth to become the disciples of the Buddha to practice the way that he taught. As a result, many of his disciples were on the path to becoming stream-enterers, once-returners, non-returners, arahants while many of them achieved the four level of spirituality to be regarded as noble ones.

However, by other interpretation of the passage, the body of the Sangha can be broader than the four pairs and eight types of people. The community of Buddhist monks and nuns are on the path to become stream-enterers at least so they can be thought as Sangha. In this regard, the main body of the Sangha can be the community of monks and nuns.  

Again, all Buddhist people, regardless of being monastics or lay followers, strive on the path of the Dhamma to achieve the four levels of spirituality. In this case, all Buddhists and the community can be the main body of the Sangha. In other words, anyone who is on the path to enlightenment through practicing the good, straight, true, and proper way of the Dhamma is of the Sangha. It is because enlightenment and its path are open to all beings.

And why is the Sangha so important and essential in Buddhism? In order to address this question, we should, before anything else, think about their roles in terms of the fact that Buddhism is a religion. In my opinion, the Buddhist community of the Sangha plays a critical role in two aspects.

As the witness of Enlightenment

First, the Sangha of the four pairs and eight types of people are crucial because it can remove the doubt that enlightenment is subjective to be self-delusion. Like the question of whether God exists, the question of whether enlightenment is real is the fundamental issue.

The Buddha seems to have resolved the issue through the community of the people, who achieved enlightenment like him although this was partial and not as complete as he did. By proving that other people can do as he did, the Buddha seems to elude the danger that enlightenment is self-delusion. If enlightenment was exclusive so only a specific person could only access to it, the problem of the question would have gotten worse.

However, in the democracy of enlightenment, everyone can access to it through practicing the right way, which the Buddha taught. The four pairs and eight types of people such as the stream-enterers, once-returners, non-returners, and arahants are the evidence that the perfection of wisdom is real so human beings have limitless capacity in them.

As the Torch-Bearer of the Dhamma

Second, the Sangha is crucial because it is the carrier and torch-bearer of the Dhamma for the happiness and well being of people and the world. The community of monks and nuns and the places where they live have been carrying the Dhamma of the Buddha’s teaching ever since the Buddha’s death, namily. Death. Having faith in the community is important even when there is no single stream-enterers, once-returners, non-returners, arahants. It is because faith is critical that the Buddhist community carries the truth and the right path to enlightenment by which people can always rekindle the torch of enlightenment. If there is no Buddhist monastic community, the torch will be carried by the lay followers as the body of Sangha.

Now it is time to answer the question: Why did the Buddha include the Sangha in the three jewels in terms of that the potential that the two jewels seems enough to make the objects of faith?

Take Refuge in Oneself

Interestingly, saying to take refuge in the Sangha means that the Buddhist people take refuge in themselves if we choose the meaning of the Sangha as the whole Buddhist community including monastics and lay people. In other words, taking refuge in the Sangha means the self-confidence that one believes in oneself to achieve enlightenment based on the fundamental belief of Buddhism that all human beings are capable of the perfection of wisdom. As we know, self-confidence is crucial when we try to achieve something meaningful.

This seems to be one of the reasons that the Buddha included the Sangha in the three jewels, of which all together constitute Buddhist Faith.  

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