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The Sangha or Buddhist Community

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 3: The Sangha or the Buddhist Community

Venerable Sir and Friends, Yesterday we heard something about the Buddha. This morning we heard something about the Dharma. And this evening therefore we come to the third of the Three Jewels, the third of the Three Refuges, that is to say to the Sangha or, as we may say, the spiritual community. Now the word Buddha requires a little understanding a little explanation. The word Dharma, as we saw this morning, is quite complex in its meaning, there are in fact a number of different though related meanings. But the meaning of this word Sangha is comparatively simple.

Sangha means literally a group or an assemblage. In modern Indian languages it is used in the sense of society or organisation, for instance you have that well known organisation, the Rastria Sabuk Sangha, one of the members of which attain celebrity by assassinating Mahatma Gandhi. So here Sangha means society or organisationor group. Now in Buddhism traditionally, leaving aside the more modern developments, traditionally there are three types of Sangha, or rather three levels or three grades of Sangha.

First of all what we may call the Spiritual; secondly, what we may call the Ecclesiastical; and thirdly, the social. Now, what do we mean by these terms, what do we mean by these expressions? By Sangha in the spiritual sense we mean primarily a group or an assemblage of those having certain spiritual experience or certain spiritual attainments in common. These people with these spiritual experiences or attainments in common may or may not be in actual physical contact. They may be living many, many miles away, many, many miles separated from one another. But they are united as it were spiritually, on a spiritual plane because of the spiritual experiences or attainments which they have in common.

So this is the Sangha as a purely spiritual body or community. People living at distant places, at different times but sharing above space and beyond time the same spiritual attainments and experiences. This is the spiritual Sangha or Sangha in the spiritual sense.

Now, secondly by Sangha in the ecclesiastical sense - I*m not very happy about this word `ecclesiastical', but it is the best we have so we have to make do with it - by Sangha in the ecclesiastical sense, we mean a group of people as it werct set apart from the world and united as a religious order by a common way of lifct especially by a common rule, by also, we may say, by a common spiritual ideal. So this is the Sangha in the ecclesiastical sense. Not exactly in the monastic sense because it is rather wider than the purely monastic, but as I have said as we may say in the ecclesiastical sense. The Sangha.

Now Thirdly Sangha in a social sense, this means the group or assemblage or co lectivity of those accepting certain principles, certain spiritual principles, certain truths, regardless of vocation. That is to say regardless of whether they are as it were separated from the world as an order, especially a monastic order, or whether they are in the world even though not exactly of it.

So we have these three types of Sangha, or three different levels of meaning of the word: the Sangha as a spiritual community of people sharing certain spiritual experiences and attainments, Sangha in the sense of a group or body of people set apart from the world and united as a religious order by a common way of life and common rule, and thirdly Sangha in a social sense as those accepting certain principles regardless of their vocation, regardless of whether they formally profess or do not.

Now in Buddhism these three Sanghas, or the Sangha as existing on these three levels, are known first of all as the Ariya-Sangha, secondly as the Bhikshu Sangha and thirdly as the Maha Sangha. Now we are going to examine the meaning of each of these terms in turn. And in this way we shall explore, I hope, the full significance of the Sangha as traditionally accepted.

Now first of all the Sangha in the sense of Ariya Sangha. Ariya literally means noble. It also means, by extension of meaning, holy. But here there is no ethnic meaning, not in the Buddhist context, even though the word Ariyan originally seems to have applied to a certain group of people or peoples coming down into India from the North Wee They were called Ariyans. So originally it was an gradually ethnic term, but it acquired a certain cultural spiritual significance and in Buddhism Ariya always means holy., in the sense of in contact with the transcendental. And the Ariya Sangha, the Noble or the Holy Sangha is so called because it consists of noble or holy persons the Ariya Pudgalas; in other words consists of those with certain spiritual, or better `transcendental' experiences and attainments in common.

Now, in what we may call basic Buddhism the common sub-stratum of belief and doctrine which is shared by all the different schools, in basic Buddhism four types of holy person, of Ariya Pudgala, are distinguished. These were afterwards sub-divided as we shall see into eight. And these four or eight holy persons or Ariya Pudgalas constitute a sort of spiritual hierarchy, we may say, intermediate between Buddhahood and ordinary unenlightened, not so very holy humanity. So let us deal with the four Ariya Pudgalas, the four holy persons first.

Now, in order to understand the difference between them we must go a little into the background of Buddhist teaching. We have to refer to the path or the Way; the Path or the Way that is leading out of the Samsara, out of the Wheel of life into Nirvana or the stage of Enlightenment. The Path can, of course, be divided into successive stages in different wasy; sometimes it is divided into eight stages, sometimes into seven, and so on. But the basic division is into three great stages three greatstages of the Path. And these are known technically as the stage of Sila, or ethical observance; the stage of Samadhi, concentration and meditation; the stage of Prajna, or wisdom. These are the three stages which must be traversed in one way or another by everybody on the way to Enlightenment, or on the way to Nirvana. In brief, Ethics, Meditation, Wisdom. These are the three great stages.

Now, Wisdom - the third, the highest of these three stages - is again threefold.

We are going into a few technicalities but this is, I think, useful. Prajna is as I have said of three kinds, three kinds of Wisdom: what we call Srota-magga-prajna; what we call Cinta- magga-prajna; and what we call Bhavana-magga-prajna. Now what do these terms mean ? Srota-magga-prajna means the wisdom which comes by hearing; the understanding that we get as it were second when we read something or when somebody tells us. This is acquired knowledge, acquired understanding, acquired wisdom, you may say. And it is called the wisdom which comes by hearing because in the Buddha*s day and earlier very thing which was worth knowing was handed down by oral means. There were no books to read in those days, you had to hear everything. So a learned man was called Bahosrota, one who had heard much; not one who had read much; not one who had turned over many books; but one who had sat at the feet of many tea hers and heard much directly from their lips. So the wisdom which comes by earing really means the wisdom which we get from others at seconhand, which we cquire in the process of learning.

The second kind, Cinta-magga-prajna, is that knowledge, that understanding, that wisdom which we acquire throw our own independant thought and reflection; beginning with reflection on tha which we have heard or learned. It is not enough to hear, it is not enough to learn, we must turn over what we have heard, turn over what we have learned in our own minds, and we must start thinking independantly upon it. We must generate our own ideas, develop our own insights. And this is what is called Cinta-magga -prajna; the wisdom which arises through our own independent thought and reflection and investigation.

And the third kind of Prajna is Bhavana-magga-prajna, that which comes through Bhavana, which ro ly means Concentration and Meditation. That which comes above and beyond the in ellect, which is not heard, which is not learned, which is not even thought ou intellectually, mentally; which comes as it were in the form of flashes of in ght in the midst of deep or profound meditation; which is not conceptual, which is immediate and direct and intuitive as it were. This is what we call Bhavana-magga-prajna.

Now, when we divide the Path into the three stages of ethics, Meditation and Wisdom, the Wisdom which is here meant as the third and culminating stage of the Path is not the wisdom which comes by learning; not the wisdom which comes by thinking; but the wisdom which arises by means of direct insight in the course of, in the process of meditation. And this wisdom which arises in this way as a sort of direct insight, when the mind is very calm when the mind is very still when there is no mental activity when there is no discursive thought when Truth or Reality as it were directly unfolds itself, opens itself to the mind or flashes upon the mind. This is what is often technically called Vipassana; flashes of insight arising in the meditative mind, in the meditative consciousness and - ing the nature of ultimate reality.

Now, this insight, this Vipassana as we call it, has two principal aspects. One, insight into the true nature of he conditioned, the mundane if you like; and insight into the true nature of the anscendental. Insight or Vipassana, ultimately Wisdom, means in the first place seeing the whole of conditioned existance, seeing the whole of what we call the Samsara, the mundane world ...

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