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The term sangha is used for the community of Buddhist monks and nuns.

Buddhism has always made a sharp distinction between lay society and the sangha.

The Sangha is considered to provide an environment most conducive to advancing toward Enlightenment, and is responsible for maintaining, translating, advancing, and teaching the Buddhadharma (teachings of Buddhism).

Monks and nuns keep their heads shaven and wear toga-like robes, the color of which varies from community to community (orange is characteristic of southeast Asian Theravada groups, maroon of Tibet, gray of Korea, etc.) Monks and nuns may not work but must obtain their food and other necessities by begging for alms, may own only the barest minimum of possessions (ideally, three robes, a begging [alms] bowl, cloth belt, needle and thread, razor [for shaving the head], and water filter [for drinking water]), and must strictly adhere to an elaborate code of conduct, including compete chastity. Transgression of rules carries penalties ranging from confession to permannent expulsion from the Sangha. Neither Sangha or lay Buddhists are required to be vegetarian, though this is an ideal, and indeed Sangha members are enjoined to eat whatever food is donated to them by laypeople, except that they may not eat meat if they know or suspect the animal was killed expressly to feed them.

The lay community is responsible for the production of societal goods and services, and for the production and raising of children. The Buddha always maintained that lay persons were capable of great wisdom in the Buddhadharma and of reaching Enlightenment, and the Buddhist scriptures contain many examples.

Although always maintaining that women were fully as capable of attaining Enlightenment as men, Buddha originally neither permitted women to join the sangha of monks nor to form an independent sangha of nuns. After considerable entreaty from his aunt and foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who wished to ordain, and from from his cousin and aide Ananada, who supported her cause, the Buddha relented and permitted the formation of a female Sangha.

(Some have speculated that Buddha's reluctance to permit their ordination was due to fears that a community of women might not be safe in his contemporary society. Indeed, Buddhist [male] monasteries have often been troubled by robbers, leading to some training in the martial arts. The classic example is the Shaolin monastery said to have been founded by Bodhidharma, though the historicity of these accounts is quite suspect.)

External links:

From Access to Insight:

  • "The Bhikkhus' Rules, A Guide for Laypeople.:The Theravadin Buddhist Monk's Rules Compiled and Explained"
    by Bhikkhu Ariyesako.
  • "The Buddhist Monastic Code: The Patimokkha Training Rules Translated and Explained"
    Introduction / Dhamma-Vinaya
    by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff)
  • "Duties of the Sangha"
    by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo (Phra Suddhidhammaransi Gambhiramedhacariya)
    Translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu