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Sangha: The Ideal World Community

Ajahn Prayudh Payutto

A lecture delivered in January 2529/1986 at the Fourth International Congress of
the World Buddhist Sangha Council, held at  Buddha's Light Vihara, Bangkok

As we all know well, two months after the Enlightenment, on the full moon of the eighth lunar month, the Buddha preached his First Sermon at the Deer Park in Isipatana. The First Sermon is called the Dhammacakkappavattana-Sutta or the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dhamma. On hearing this, Kondanna, one of the five ascetics who had waited upon the Bodhisatta when he was practicing self-mortification, gained the Eye of Truth (Dhamma-cakkhu), or the Wisdom Eye, as a first glimpse of Nibbana. Kondanna asked the Buddha for ordination and was admitted as a Bhikkhu, becoming the first member of the Sangha, or the Buddhist Order of monks. He is thus generally known as the Buddha's First Disciple. As until that time there had appeared in the world only the Buddha and the Dhamma, this event marks the completion of the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.

What should be noted here is the arising of the Sangha. Strictly speaking, it was the arising of the first member of the Sangha. That is, Kondanna, who since then became known as Annakondanna, was the first man to see the Truth after the Buddha and also the first to be admitted as a Bhikkhu.

Two Kinds of Sangha

The term Sangha means an assembly or a community. Here again, two kinds of Sangha should be distinguished, namely, the Savaka-Sangha, or the community of (noble) disciples, and the Bhikkhu-Sangha, or the community of Bhikkhus or monks. The former is also called the Ariya-Sangha, or the Noble Sangha (community of Noble or Truly-Civilized Ones), while the latter is also named the Sammati-Sangha, or the conventional Sangha. The Noble Sangha of truly civilized people is formed of four types of persons, who are at four different stages of development, or levels of insight into the Truth. The Conventional Sangha of Bhikkhus, on the other hand, simply consists of four or more monks.

When Kondanna gained the Eye of Truth, he became the first member of the Noble Sangha. When he was ordained a Bhikkhu, he became the first member of the Conventional Sangha. Thus, the event of the First Sermon marks the beginning both of the Noble Sangha of disciples and of the Conventional Sangha of monks.

The four types of persons who form the Noble Sangha are the Sotapanna or Stream-Enterers (those who have entered the stream leading to Nibbana), the Sakadagami or Once-Returners (those who will return only once more to the vicissitudes of this world), the Anagami or Non-Returners (those who will never come again to the dubious conditions of this world), and the Arahants or Worthy Ones (those who have achieved the ideal of perfection and attained to the goal of Nibbana).

The Sotapanna has achieved perfection in morality and has abandoned the three fetters of self-illusion, uncertainty and clinging to mere rules and ritual. The Sakadagami has in addition mitigated lust, hatred and delusion. The Anagami has achieved perfection in mental discipline and further eradicated the fetters of sensual lust and ill will. The Arahant has achieved perfection in wisdom and put an end to five more fetters, namely, attachment to fine-material existence, attachment to immaterial existence, conceit, restlessness and ignorance.

The Monastic Sangha and the Creation of the Noble Sangha

Obviously, it is the purpose of the Buddha, in his conduct for the well-being of the world, to teach all people to progress along these lines of development to become Sotapanna, Sakadagami, Anagami and Arahants. In other words, he wants them to be members of the Noble Sangha. The ideal is surely to turn the world into a community of noble or truly civilized people. To achieve this, however, a sound concrete organization is needed, and it is for this reason that the Conventional Sangha of monks was founded. Truly, the Sangha of monks or Bhikkhu-Sangha has been vested with the main function of teaching all people, regardless of caste, class, sex and nationality, the Dhamma that will help them in their self-development to become Ariya or Arya (noble or truly civilized). The monks thus lead the people in creating the universal community of noble, enlightened and truly civilized people.

Even when the Bhikkhu-Sangha had been newly established, and it was then a very small community consisting of only sixty monks, the Buddha sent all of its members in all directions to propagate the Dhamma. The community was then only three months old. Here, the spirit of acting for the good of the people is strongly evident. The words of the Buddha in sending out his disciples at that time reflect very well the ideal of erecting the world Noble Sangha. In the Buddha's own words (Vin.I.21):

"Go forth, O Bhikkhus, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, for the good, for the happiness of gods and men."

In short, the Sangha of monks or Bhikkhu-Sangha has been set up, both as the instrument and as the starting point and the stronghold, for working out the idea of establishing the universal Sangha of Dhammically civilized people. The main function of this conventional Sangha is, as mentioned earlier, to expound the Dhamma and spread it far and wide, in such a way that the common people may understand and practice it, developing themselves in their progress along the path of being Ariya (noble or Dhammically civilized) and thus joining the Noble Sangha or civilized world community. In the meantime, however, the Sangha of monks also plays a number of significant roles, some central and some interim and peripheral, such as:

As, especially at the beginning, the conditions in the surrounding world are not favourable to the ideal life, the Bhikkhu-Sangha serves as the suitable setting in which zealous members can energetically live their chosen way of life and leading members can actively lead others.

The Bhikkhu-Sangha serves as the core and leading part of the prospective Noble Sangha. By leading exemplary noble lives, the monks exercise their influence on the common people in treading the noble path towards the goal of joining the Noble Sangha.

The Bhikkhu-Sangha also serves as the centre for training both those who join it and the common people, to turn them into members, or make them more prepared to be members, of the Noble Sangha.

Foundations of the Sangha

In the Buddha's time, Buddhism was usually called, "This Dhamma-Vinaya" (the Doctrine and the Discipline). This means that the Dhamma-Vinaya is another name, actually the original name, for Buddhism. It also indicates that the Dhamma and the Vinaya are the two limbs that form Buddhism. This concept is in direct connection with the two kinds of Sangha.

The Conventional Sangha of monks depends for its existence and stability on the Vinaya. It is the Vinaya that gives life to the Bhikkhu-Sangha. A person is ordained a Bhikkhu or is admitted to the Sangha of monks in accordance with the rules of the Vinaya. His Bhikkhuship also ceases if he makes an incurable transgression against the Vinaya. The rules of the Vinaya govern all activities of the community of monks and all aspects of a Bhikkhu's life. Monks or Bhikkhus are graded according to concrete disciplinary rules. A Bhikkhu is classed as a Navaka, or a newly ordained one, if he has been admitted to the Order for not more than five years, and he is required to live in "Nissaya," or dependence, on an Acariya or teacher, that is, he is a dependent. As soon as his years of standing in the monkhood exceed five, he becomes freed of the Dependence and is classed as a Nissaya-Muttaka, or an independent monk. When he completes ten years of standing in the monkhood, he becomes a Thera or an Elder. Now, if he is qualified, he can act as an Upajjhaya or a preceptor. Rights and privileges are vested on the Bhikkhus on equal terms according to the rules of the Vinaya.

The Noble Sangha of disciples, on the other hand, is based on the Dhamma. While the Vinaya governs the external life of a monk, his bodily and verbal activities and his social relations with others, his inner and spiritual side is guided by the Dhamma. Not only the monks, but all people are expected to follow the guidance of the Dhamma. In contrast to the formal admittance to membership in the conventional Sangha of monks, membership in the Noble Sangha of disciples is a matter of self-development and inner attainment. As soon as a person, whether a monk or a layman, realizes the Four Noble Truths and gains a first vision of Nibbana, he automatically becomes a Sotapanna and, simultaneously, a member of the Noble Sangha of disciples. His further progress on the path up to the final goal is graded solely according to the degree of his self-development and inner attainment, without the intervention of any external factors, whether age, sex, authority or even time or space. Thus, a novice twelve years of age may be an Arahant while an aged monk seventy years old may be only a worldling, not attaining even Sotapannaship, and a wise layman may achieve Arahantship in a period of an hour while many monks may strive in vain throughout their lives to secure the same. As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada: He who, though dressed in fine apparel, exercises tranquility, is calm, controlled, certain and chaste and has ceased to injure all other beings, he indeed is a Brahman, a Samana, a Bhikkhu. (Dh.142)

Though the treading of the path of self-development and inner attainment is a personal task, the treader is not all alone or helpless. Besides the Great Teacher, the Buddha, who shows him the Way and equips him with the tools, the conventional Sangha of monks, as regulated by the Vinaya, provides him with Kalyanamitta, or good spiritual friends, who will counsel and encourage him along the Way, with a way of life and living conditions that are advantageous to his endeavor. In particular, those members of the Noble Sangha who are far advanced on the Path or have reached the summit, will find the Bhikkhu-Sangha the best community for them to live in, and it is these people who will best preserve the conventional Sangha of monks and will act as Kalyanamitta, or good spiritual friends, to those who are treading the Path after them.

In short, the two kinds of the Sangha are reciprocally helpful and complementary in the realization of Buddhist ideals. Without the will and effort to join or to maintain the Noble Sangha of disciples, the conventional Sangha of monks is meaningless or, at least, strays away from the ideal set up by its Founder, the Buddha. Without a concrete organization like the Bhikkhu-Sangha as the tool, the task of establishing and maintaining the Ariya-Sangha of disciples would be very difficult, if not an impossibility.

The Real Mission of the Sangha

There is no doubt that peace and freedom are the supreme goals of Buddhism. Both of them are synonyms of Nibbana or Nirvana. Peace can be realized, and freedom can be achieved, if the Sangha of monks exerts itself unfalteringly to maintain and universalize the Noble Sangha of disciples.

Freedom is threefold or can be distinguished at three levels. First, people should enjoy the basic freedom of life in absence of the fundamental insecurities and dangers that threaten their existence, such as poverty, diseases and calamities like drought and famine. Without the minimum of this basic freedom, no one can proceed to enjoy any other more sublime freedom. At the second level is social freedom, in absence of human oppression and exploitation. Included here are tolerance, friendliness and benevolence. With the lack of this freedom, not to speak of the final freedom, even the basic freedom will never be realized or, if the latter has been prevailing, it will surely be lost. The third and last is the final freedom of man's inner life, that is, freedom from mental suffering and from the greed, hatred and delusion that corrupt the mind and cause people to commit all kinds of evils. With the achievement of this level of freedom, real happiness can be attained to and social freedom can be assured. It is also the firm foundation on which to work out any plan or program to overcome the basic insecurities and dangers of life, as otherwise people with corrupted mind will ever increase those dangers and insecurities.

In another classification, freedom is said to be fourfold. There, the final inner or individual freedom is divided into the two levels of emotional freedom, or freedom of the heart, and intellectual freedom, or freedom of wisdom through true knowledge. The four levels of freedom are thus distinguished as basic physical freedom, social freedom, emotional freedom and intellectual freedom.

By teaching and encouraging people to realize the three graded goals and the three phases of good as enunciated by the Buddha, the Sangha of monks works both directly and indirectly to achieve the threefold freedom.

The three graded goals are:

1. Benefits for the present or temporal welfare, called in Pali Ditthadhammikattha, represented by wealth, sufficiency of food and other necessities of life, health and other aspects of physical well-being, which can be ascertained by hard work, diligence, good management, cooperation, economical living and non-negligence in any way.

2. Benefits for the future, or spiritual welfare, called in Pali Samparayikattha, as ensured by confidence in and devotion to the ways of the good, morality, benevolence, wisdom and other virtues.

3. The supreme benefit or the highest good, called in Pali Paramattha, consisting in having a mind that is clean and clear, happy and secure, undefiled by greed, hatred and delusion, and unshaken by worldly vicissitudes, that is to say, the final freedom of Nibbana.

The three phases of good are:

1. The good of one's own or one's own welfare, Attattha, which points to the above three graded goals as realized by oneself.

2. The good of others or others' welfare, Parattha, referring to the same set of three goals which one should guide or help others to attain.

3. The common good or welfare both of oneself and others, Ubhayattha, identified with the same set of three graded goals as far as they should be shared by all concerned, ranging from public utilities and favourable environment to peace and happiness of the mind.

The first two graded goals secure for all people freedom from the basic miseries and insecurities of life and freedom from social abuses such as aggression, crime, oppression and exploitation. People who are endowed with these two grades of freedom are in a good position or are better prepared to aspire to the highest good and to enjoy the final freedom. By conducting oneself towards the realization of the final freedom, one comes to join the Noble Sangha of disciples. Those who enjoy the final freedom will ever fortify and strengthen the first two grades of freedom, as the final freedom is a guarantee of the maintenance of the latter. Moreover, the practices along the line of realizing the three phases of good even furthermore reinforce the establishment of the three grades of freedom.

All in all, it is the mission of the Sangha of monks to work for the prevailing of the three graded goals and the three phases of good, for the realization of the three levels of freedom and thus, ideally, for the establishment and perpetuation of the Noble Sangha of disciples.

Not unlike freedom, peace should be classified. Peace is of two kinds, one is external and the other, internal. External peace is usually social. It is freedom from strife, dissension, quarrelling, commotion, violence, disorder and, on the largest scale, war. Internal peace is the inner peace of mind or spiritual peace. It is a state of freedom from fear, anxiety, annoyance, distraction, obsession and, on the minutest scale, from all traces of mental suffering and defilement. It is obvious that without freedom, there can be no peace. Once freedom is secured, peace is attained to.

As with freedom, the Sangha has much to do with both external and internal peace. The Sangha of monks paves the way through external peace to the inner peace of the final freedom and, once the Noble Sangha is established with this inner peace, a firm foundation has been laid on which the external social peace will rest securely and lastingly.

Evolution of the Monastic Sangha

The importance of the conventional Sangha of monks as the principal agent for expanding and perpetuating the Noble Sangha of disciples has been realized throughout the long history of Buddhism. Thus, a small Sangha of monks was dispatched to foreign lands or distant places to spread Buddhism. Often, only one monk or a group of two or three monks were sent out to do this task and the monk or the group had to depend on local men to believe and ordain before a local Sangha of monks could be established.

In the early periods, especially at the beginning of the career of the Buddha, the members of the Sangha of monks were also Ariya, or members of the Noble Sangha. Their mission, therefore, turned only outward to increase the membership in the Noble Sangha and to receive those who were willing and prepared into the monastic Sangha. As time went on and the monastic Sangha became greatly enlarged, the number of members of the monastic Sangha who were not yet entitled to the membership in the Noble Sangha increased. The monastic Sangha then functioned more and more as the centre for training the unenlightened members, and the energy of the leaders in the monastic Sangha had to be divided between the inside and outside of the monasteries, sometimes too much on the inside, to the neglect of mission for the benefit of the outside. However, generally speaking, once a monastic Sangha has been established in a land, Buddhism is established there.

The different monastic Sanghas in different lands and countries lived and worked in different surroundings and among peoples of different cultures. With the passing of time, throughout the centuries, they developed some new roles and traditions of their own which were local. Some of these roles and traditions developed even at the expense of the original fundamental function of perpetuating the Noble Sangha of disciples. In spite of all local differences, however, the Vinaya keeps the various local monastic Sanghas, although geographically far apart, not too dissimilar to one another.

It is impossible to treat here of all the monastic Sanghas in so many different countries. As the Thai Sangha of today is said to be the largest monastic community in the world, it will be dealt with here as an example.

The Monastic Tradition in Thailand

The monastic tradition in Thailand can be traced back to the time of King Asoka when, around B.E.234 (310 B.C.E.), nine missions of monks were sent out as Dhamma messengers to propagate the Dhamma in different countries. One of the missions, headed by the Elders Sona and Uttara, came to Suvannabhumi, which covered some parts of what we now call Thailand, and succeeded in establishing Buddhism there. We do not know much about the Buddhist situations and developments later than that time until the foundation of the present lineage of the Thai monastic Sangha in the Sukhothai period, around B.E. 1820 (1277 C.E.). We learn that at the time when the present form of monastic Sangha of the Lankavamsa tradition was established in Sukhothai, there prevailed monks of some older local traditions. Before long, the monks of the older traditions became absorbed into the newly established Sangha.

The present tradition of Thai monastic Sangha was established under the full support of the King who himself invited the head monk from afar to found it and since then, throughout the different periods of over 700 years, it has enjoyed the status of the national Sangha under royal patronage and state protection. At present, the large Thai monastic community consists of about 400,000 monks and novices who are accommodated in more than 30,000 monasteries all over the country. In comparison with the whole Thai population of 48 million, of which about 93.4 percent are Buddhist, it makes Thailand deserve the name of the "Land of the Yellow Robe." The fact that such a large monastic community fares well under the support of a Buddhist population of that size shows clearly how devout and generous the Thai Buddhists are.

Right from the beginning, the Thai monastic Sangha has been divided into two sections, town-monks and forest-monks. The division is only a matter of specialization and there is a good relationship between the two, including the transfer of residents. Forest-monks preserve the tradition of meditation, while town-monks specialize in study and engage in religio-cultural activities. In comparison with town monasteries, the number of forest monasteries is small.

The over 30,000 monasteries are also classified into two categories of royal monasteries and private or community ones. Royal monasteries are those erected by the King or having obtained his recognition. They are usually large and contain imposing edifices. Community monasteries are mostly smaller and simple. Only about 200 monasteries are royal and most of them are in the capital, while the majority are private or community ones scattered in the villages throughout the country.

The kings of Ayudhya, beginning 600 years ago, were much influenced by Brahminism, and Brahmin advisers were consulted in cultural and administrative affairs. Consequently, Brahminical rites and ceremonies have continued in state activities side by side with the Buddhist ones. This has sometimes led to the mingling of the two. At the village level, the populace have been more or less attached to animistic beliefs and practices. Through the monks' association with these villagers, some animistic elements have crept into Buddhism. With the integration of animistic and Brahminical elements into Buddhism in the process of assimilation, there has developed a form of popular Buddhism, in which rites and ceremonies are predominant and superstitious beliefs and practices are prevalent.

Town and village monasteries have been, for Thais of all classes, centres of education, both religious and secular. There, basic subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic were taught to boys. The Thais have also developed a custom of temporary ordination. Every young man is expected to stay for a period of about three months (usually in the Vassa or the rainy season) in a monastery as a monk. Here it is education for socializing male members of the society, as they are expected to join the monkhood to undergo monastic and cultural training before running families and assuming other civic responsibilities, including civil and military services, as learned ex-monks. This custom has, however, been on the decline during the last half of the century.

Since the introduction of the modern Western system of education to the country about a century ago, Thailand has been experiencing the problem of inequality of opportunity in education, as large numbers of poor and underprivileged youngsters in the upcountry villages cannot get access to public and higher education. The monasteries have done much to help ease the situation as the monkhood has been the channel of education for these sons of the peasants and villagers from distant areas. Thus, the monastic systems of education in present-day Thailand, whether the traditional system of Pali and Dhamma studies, or the two Buddhist universities in Bangkok, together with their affiliated colleges in the provinces, not only provide monastic learning for monks and novices, but also serve the educational needs of the Thai society as a whole.

Monasteries have been seats of Thai culture and Buddhism has been a foundation of the Thai culture. Arts and architecture have been developed and preserved in the monasteries. A large number of Thai words, especially almost all technical terms, are derived from Pali and Sanskrit. Thai literature has been based to a large extent on Buddhist literature. In fact, most of the Thai literary works in the past were Buddhist in nature and were written by monks in the monasteries. Besides, the monasteries have been centres of social activities, where people assemble in large gatherings, both on religious and on civic occasions, including temple fairs.

Although, since the arising of the Dhammayut group (also call Dhammayuttika) about one and a half centuries ago, the Thai monastic Sangha has been divided into two denominations or suborders of the Mahanikaya and the Dhammayut, the whole monastic community is still unified under one and the same governing body, called the Council of Elders, or the Sangha Supreme Council, presided over by the Supreme Patriarch. The State has enacted laws forming a Constitution under which the monastic Sangha governs itself. According to the present act of B.E. 2505 (1962 C.E.), the Sangha administration is based on the process of centralization. The Supreme Patriarch, who is appointed by the King, has absolute power to govern the whole monastic community and to direct all ecclesiastical affairs. Under him is the Sangha Supreme Council, which serves him as the Consultative Council. Under this highest governing body, at the local administrative level, 73 ecclesiastical provincial governors are responsible for provincial affairs of the Sangha, each in his respective province.

The Sangha, the State and the Ideal World Community

In carrying out its mission, the main concern of the monastic Sangha is surely the good and happiness of the people. However, throughout its history, all evidence shows that the Bhikkhu-Sangha has been in relationship with another central institution of the society, that is, the state, as represented by the king or the ruler. In the Buddha's time, King Bimbisara and King Pasenadi were in close personal relationship with the Buddha and were patrons of the Bhikkhu-Sangha. In Thai history, the monastic Sangha, by tradition, have been patronized by all the kings.

There are at least two reasons that account for this relationship. First, the people are subjects of the state. Their destinies, their suffering and happiness are to a large extent subject to the conditions of the state and to the acts of the king or ruler. For any organization to deal with the people as a whole or to work for their benefit, it is impossible to avoid some contact with the state or with the ruler. Because of this, if possible, a good relationship should be maintained with the state, so that the Sangha will find no difficulty in working for the welfare of the people.

Secondly, the goal of a good government is similar to that of the Sangha, that is, the achievement of the good and happiness for the people. Then, if the government or the ruler is a good one, the cooperation between the Sangha and the ruler or the government will render the mission more effective. The government or the ruler can even be a medium through which the monastic Sangha carries out its mission for the good of people. At least, a good government or ruler can provide the people with conditions and circumstances that are favorable to the practice of the Dhamma.

Accordingly, the duties of the monastic Sangha in connection with the state or ruler are twofold. First, it should counsel him so that he is a good ruler or that a good government is secured. Secondly, it should act in such a righteous way that there will be good cooperation with the ruler or the government in operating for the benefit of the people, or at least that the way will be open for the Sangha to achieve that goal. On the whole, the point is that the secular part of the work for the good of the people should be played by one who should account for it, that is, the ruler or government. If he does not do so, it is also an obligation of the monastic Sangha to see to it that he does, that is, to try to induce him to be a good ruler. The real monastic part of the work under the charge of the Sangha is the more sublime inner life of man.

Although the monastic Sangha has developed new roles, whether central or peripheral, whether temporary or lasting, through the different circumstances of space and time, its real and fundamental mission remains the same all throughout the ages, that is, to perpetuate the Noble Sangha of disciples. In the future, the monastic Sangha, because of the factors of space and time, may have to change some existing roles and play some more different ones, but as long as it keeps to the real mission, the spirit of the Sangha is well preserved. The reason is that the conventional Sangha of monks has been entrusted by the Buddha with the task of leading all people in creating the ideal world community of noble disciples or truly civilized people.

Let us hope that all the members of the Sangha of monks will exert themselves and cooperate with one another in working out the ideal of producing more and more members of the Noble Sangha of disciples, and that Sangha of disciples will grow ever more for the freedom, peace and happiness of all mankind.

Ajahn Prayudh Payutto
Bangkok, Thailand, 1986

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updated: 12-04-2002