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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: December 2012

Chapter 10 - Buddhist Practice: The Saṅgha


The Buddha is said to have affirmed that he would not die until he had disciples who were monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen (upāsaka and upāsikā) who could teach Dhamma and ‘establish it, expound it, analyse it, make it clear’ (D.ii.104–5). These groups are known as the four ‘assemblies’ (Pali parisā, Skt pariṣat; Jat.i.148). The term Saṅgha (Skt Saṃgha) or ‘Community’ refers in its highest sense to the ‘Noble’ Saṅgha of those, monastic or lay, who are fully or partially enlightened. Most typically, though, it refers to the community of monks and/or nuns, and this chapter deals with this as well as certain types of married clerics. ‘Saṅgha’ in its widest sense was also occasionally used of all the four ‘assemblies’ (A.ii.8) – a sense which became not uncommon in Mahāyāna circles (Prebish, 1999: 203–5).

The terms for monks and nuns are respectively bhikkhu (Skt bhikṣu) and bhikkhunī (Skt bhikṣuṇī), which literally mean ‘almsman’ and ‘almswoman’. The original mendicancy of these, still current to varying extents, symbolized renunciation of normal worldly activities and involvements. While this was an aid to humility, it actually also ensured against becoming isolated from the laity. The often close lay–monastic relationship makes bhikkhus unlike most Christian ‘monks’. They also differ from these in that their undertakings are not always for life, and in that they take no vow of obedience. The Buddha valued self-reliance, and left the monastic Saṅgha as a community of individuals sharing a life under the guidance of Dhamma and Vinaya. The job of its members is to strive for their own spiritual development, and use their knowledge and experience of Dhamma to guide others, when asked: not to act as an intermediary between God and humankind, or officiate at life-cycle rites. Nevertheless, in practice they have come to serve the laity in several priest-like ways.