What is the Sangha?
The Sangha is the Buddhist community with some definitions narrowing it to those of “sufficient attainment”. Unfortunately, this definition raises more questions than it answers. Even ignoring whether “sufficient attainment” is something we could figure out, questions about the community arise. What defines the community? Is it the local temple? All the Buddhists in the area? All the Buddhists in the world?
To explore what’s a Sangha (both in terms of a definition and what makes a good one), it helps to understand it’s purpose.
The Sangha’s Purpose
Reality is largely a social construct. Social groups supply pressure which shapes values which in turn shapes perception and self-image. This pressure comes in many forms such as acceptance, rejection, reward and reinforcement. This pressure is so powerful that it is often internalized and hence operative even in the absence of any group or stimulus. For example, one who wears a silly outfit in private may feel silly even though no one is around. Or take self-image: people often identify themselves differently when at work, with friends, or even when being berated.
Social groups can shift in the course of a day. Sometimes they consist of friends, other times peers, other times the nation. Additionally, they sometimes conflict and hence one group would exert greater pressure than another.
Given the above, it’s logical to seek social groups that reinforce one’s values and puts social pressures to work for them. For instance, a weight loss group can combat the social pressure to eat badly. When pressured to eat fatty foods thanks to peers or commercials, the weight loss group can keep one on a diet by exerting stronger pressure in the form of shame or disapproval.
Therefore, the sangha can be seen as a source of social pressure to reinforce adherence to the dharma. This also helps clarify what qualifies as a Sangha.
What is NOT the Sangha?
So the Sangha consists of the fellow Buddhists one has contact with right?
I found this out early on:
I found a new Buddhist Temple to attend. On my first day, I headed for the largest building there, which was where most of the people went. However, I discovered it housed traditional services. Fortunately, someone directed to the much smaller meditation hall, outside of which lingered a much smaller group.
Since my motivation was improving my life, people who used Buddhism as a traditional religious practice would not reinforce my values. Hence, the Buddhist Temple at large was not my Sangha.
So the Sangha was the meditation group, right?
I too found this out early on:
The people in the meditation group had a variety of motives. For example, some were Wiccans who meditated to improve their magical skills. Others believed meditation would make the universe cooperate with them. Yet others meditated to improve life skills and hence get ahead through more mundane means.
Since my motivations for practice were to improve the quality of my life via inward means, people who meditated for other reasons would not reinforce my value. Hence these people were not my Sangha.
But the remaining meditators were my Sangha, right?
I found this out a bit later:
One time I chatted with a lady after meditation. We were talking about various Buddhist topics when she said “Buddhism is so nice. Unlike Christianity where you are damned if you screw up, in Buddhism you get many chances [rebirths] to get it right!”. I smiled politely and said nothing. Another time I was talking to someone who started going on about No Soul and Buddhism’s Atheism. It was very clear his understanding of Buddhism was motivated by his Atheist (or anti-religious) agenda. I wanted to explain to him that it was no-self and the Soul as a metaphysical construct was a different matter and Buddhism’s “atheism”… but I realized there would be no point so I said nothing.
Since my agenda in Buddhism was my mental state, people who used Buddhism to grind religious axes would not reinforce my values. Hence, these people were not my Sangha.
Very well, but at least those remaining ones who actually shared my motivations were my Sangha right?
It took a bit longer to find this out:
A friend invited me to a naming ceremony — the ceremony where one “officially” becomes Buddhist. I showed up out of respect, but objected to the whole thing: one was Buddhist if one lived by the dharma, and a pointless ceremony wouldn’t change that. Nothing in the ceremony changed my mind. It was entirely in Chinese even though none of the “converts” spoke it. It was actually amusing to see the bewildered smiles on their faces; it was clear they didn’t know what the hell was going on. Then they had to recite their vows — which of course were not in English. For all they knew, they could have been reciting the recipe for steamed dumplings. Once done each got an envelope with their new Buddhist (Chinese) name and were presumably closer to Nirvana.
Since I consider rituals to be pointless at best and damaging at worst, those who are attached to rituals would not reinforce my values. Hence these people were not my Sangha.
In all fairness, the use of ceremony may make something “official” for some people and hence strengthen social pressure. However, one must take ritual seriously for this to happen. So while I understand why some may go through this ceremony, it still changed nothing.
What is the Sangha?
Applying this filter can leave very few people. However, just as the Sangha can shrink, so can it grow. Since a social group need not be physically present to assert influence, remote groups like discussion boards and personalities can qualify as part of a sangha.
Additionally, the sangha can be extended in another dimension. Since the sangha supports the dharma which is not just Buddhist, the sangha need not be Buddhist either. Anyone who seeks inward happiness can be one’s sangha. This means Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists and Agnostics can be far better sangha members than “Buddhists”.
Is a Sangha Necessary?
The social influence on thought may bother some, who may respond with cliches of not being sheep and rising above the herd. Some may even claim that meditation and other Buddhist practices liberate them from conformity. However, one could counter that this independence implies the independent self that Buddhism rejects.
Of course the point is finer: we are all conditioned and liberation from social pressure simply shifts the conditioning to other — possibly better — variables. However, while that is going on, why not take advantage of our condition where we can? Until social pressure is no longer a factor, careful selection of a social group can be a boon.
A sangha is not the people who happen to be in the same room or who adopt the same label. The sangha is the group with shared values. All types of people are in Buddhist groups, from some very inspirational people, to toxic individuals who are valuable only as an example of how NOT to live. There is no magic that comes with the label “Buddhist” that makes Buddhists better sangha members or non-Buddhists worse sangha members. The sangha is everyone of any philosophical and religious orientation who shares the inward search for happiness.