Who Is A True Sangha Member?

The not correctable
are not commendable. 
The incorrect yet correctable
are still commendable.

– Stonepeace | Books

Though not totally right, ‘the Sangha’ is often defined as the fourfold community of Buddhist monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. In the East, the term is usually reserved for monastics only. Either way, some are puzzled by how, if they wish to be lay Buddhists formally, have to take refuge in the Sangha as the third aspect of the Triple Gem (of Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha). Are we supposed to have utmost respect for absolutely anyone who dons the Buddhist monastic robes? What if the person is a new and young child monk, who is going to be in short-term ‘monkhood’, for a week only?

Some would say it is the monastic robes, being symbolic of stricter lifelong commitment to the spiritual life, that we should be respectful to. However, this might give rise to the problem of growth of pridefulness in the wearer of the robes. And again, what if the wearer is really just a beginner, what more without long-term commitment to the robes? Worse, what if the wearer is a total fraud, who is not a real monastic at all? Possibly the worst, what if the wearer is a monastic technically, who nevertheless breaks many precepts? Should we still express reverence to him or her, and support this person?

The answer to these dilemmas is surprisingly simple…. True Buddhists take true refuge in the Arya Sangha, which is the truest Sangha possible. The Arya Sangha is the noble, enlightened and thus holy community of Buddhist practitioners. It is not the ordinary or unenlightened Sangha. We do not take refuge in any single monastic in a Threefold Refuge ceremony. What that monastic offers is the formal administrative process to connect to the Triple Gem, as monastics are generally more spiritually well-versed. Realistically, however, many especially junior monastics are still of the ordinary Sangha. 

Inclusive of all with various levels of enlightenment, from Stream-winners to great Bodhisattvas, why do we take refuge in the Arya Sangha, as these practitioners are still non-Buddhas, yet to be perfect like Buddhas and the Dharma taught? Well, we take refuge in the entire Arya Sangha collectively – the one community of realised monastic and lay Buddhists. As this synergised community is immeasurably great, embodying and expressing the true spirit of the Buddha’s Dharma, it is truly adequate for refuge. That said, the Dharma, starting with observation of the precepts, remains as core of the Triple Gem.

In essence, all Buddhist precepts, lay and monastic, are for guarding our mental, verbal and physical conduct against greed, hatred and delusion, such that they do not grow to harm oneself and others. For example, the basic Fourth Precept also guards against hateful harsh speech. However, in the case of a new ‘monastic’, who was easily angered, he used to demand respect ‘as a member of the Sangha’, which put laypeople off, thus damaging their spiritual affinity with the Triple Gem. Ironically, he was attempting to communicate like a king instead of a wise man, when the reverse would be expected of him. The meaning of this can be found in a dialogue in the Nagasena Bhiksu Sutra…
Once, King Milinda invited Venerable Nagasena to discuss the Dharma, to which Nagasena said he would, only if the king discusses as a wise man and not a king – ‘When the wise converse, they question one another, solve problems together, agree on and turn down a point together. Winners or losers, they know right and wrong… The wise would never have anger or hate… When a king… discusses a matter, he speaks in an unbridled fashion. He advances a point and if anyone disagrees with him and is unwilling to do as the king wishes, then the king will punish or even kill that person.’ (Translated by Ven. Guangxing)

It is worth remembering too, that some laypeople might be unrecognised members of the Arya Sangha (as Stream-winners, Sakadagamis, Anagamis and Bodhisattvas), thus more spiritually realised than some monastics, who might only be members of the ordinary Sangha. Is this not a important reminder for all monastics and laypeople to always be respectful towards one another? Most monastics require lay physical support, while most laypeople require monastic spiritual support. Yet sometimes, these supportive roles are reversed. An example would be Vimalakirti, the great lay Bodhisattva in the Buddha’s time!

If you think you already know enough,
why are you not already a Buddha?
If you are not already a Buddha,
why are you not already learning more?

– Stonepeace | Books

Related Articles:

Safeguarding The Buddhist Community’s Integrity
Refuge In Arya Sangha
Who Do You Take Refuge In?
How Can You Protect The Triple Gem?
Do You Protect Or Endanger The Great Lion?

We Are Still Buddhists; Not Yet Buddhas!
Are There Manifestations Of Buddhas & Bodhisattvas Around?

Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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