Way back in ancient times, maybe ten years ago, a Western monk living here in Myanmar sent me some old copies of the Inquiring Mind magazine, a journal of the Western Vipassana community. I remember there was a regular section in the magazine that had me somewhat confused—it was called "Sangha Speaks." The confusing thing about it was that it was never a monk who was speaking, or a nun either. It was always a layperson, and sometimes even a relative beginner in Dhamma.
Before I became a monk, and for many years afterwards, I had almost no interaction with Western-style Buddhism. For that matter, I tried to keep at arm's length even Southeast Asian-style Buddhism, pursuing as much as I was able ancient Indian, original-style Buddhism. So it wasn't until after my return to America in 2011 that I learned, and very quickly, that lay meditators in the West refer to themselves as "Sangha." In fact many of them consider themselves to be members of THE Sangha, even to the extent of taking refuge in their own lay community, when and if they take refuge in the Tiratana, or Three Treasures—the "Triple Gem."
A few months after my return in 2011, while I was still struck by this still (to me) strange and exotic fact, I happened to explain to an American fellow who had volunteered to feed me that day that in Asia, and in the Pali texts, the word "sangha" refers almost exclusively to monks, with its adoption by lay meditators being, as far as I could tell, a modern Western innovation. He harrumphed once or twice while I was explaining this, and immediately after our brief conversation, and as a result of it, he informed a mutual friend of ours that, in his opinion, I was "opinionated."
But what I had said about "sangha" was not a matter of mere personal bias; really, I was stating a straightforward, empirical, and rather obvious fact. In a Buddhist country like Burma, "sangha" and "monks" are practically synonymous. If a visiting Western lay meditator were to walk through a door, or sit on a platform, with a sign on it saying "SANGHA ONLY," he or she would either be politely requested to go somewhere else, or would be stared at and regarded as an ignorant and/or arrogant barbarian. It is true that if a Burmese Buddhist person were asked, "Does the Sangha include nuns and novices?" they might consider it for awhile and say, "Well, it could…"; but in Buddhist Asia ordinary laypeople, even though they might keep five or eight precepts, meditate every day, and attend retreats regularly, just do not make the cut. Unless maybe they are Goenka meditators who have absorbed Western attitudes about Buddhism.
So anyway, to make a long story much longer, ever since 2011 I've been curious as to whether there is any precedent in the literature of Pali Buddhism for lay meditators in general being included under the designation of "Sangha." I have heard a rumor, or legend, that there is at least one Sutta which declares lay disciples (upāsakā/upāsikāyo) and/or lay supporters (dāyakā/dāyikāyo) to be members of the Buddhist Sangha. If I've ever read it I don't remember reading it, and I don't know which Sutta it might be. If any of you out there know the reference, please do us all a favor and post it in the Comments section, or send it to me in an email so I can post it, or something.
I have at hand two Pali-English dictionaries: the Pali Text Society dictionary edited by Rhys Davids and Stede, and the Buddhist Dictionary of venerable Nyanatiloka. These are arguably the two most important Pali-English dictionaries for a Western, English-speaking student of Dhamma to have. The PTS dictionary gives the following three definitions for "Sangha":
1. multitude, assemblage (some of the references given are to a sangha of birds in the Jātaka literature, the sangha of a person's relatives in the Salla Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta (Sn 584), and a sangha of devas in the Nālaka Sutta, also of the Sutta Nipāta (Sn 680).)
2. the Order, the priesthood, the clergy, the Buddhist church (Obviously monks and nuns.)
3. a larger assemblage, a community (This definition is rather obscure, and, judging from the references, appears to refer to a group of people more numerous than just a few (a gaṇa), and who are not necessarily Buddhist.)
Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary simply says this:
SANGHA (lit.: congregation), is the name for the Community of Buddhist Monks. As the third of the Three Gems or Jewels (ti-ratana, q.v.) and the Three Refuges (ti-saraṇa, q.v.), i.e. Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, it applies to the ariya-saṅgha, the community of the saints, i.e. the 4 Noble Ones (ariya-puggala, q.v.), the Stream-winner, etc.
So the two dictionaries I have had ready access to are evidently not very complete, and are not quite conclusive in resolving this issue.
But then this year I spent the rains retreat at a monastery possessing the huge, encyclopedic Tipiṭaka Pāḷi-Myanmar Dictionary (တိပိဋက ပါဠိ-မြန်မာ အဘိဓာန်). The compilation and publication of it was begun decades ago and is still not completed, although it is complete up through volume 21, which goes about halfway through the letter "s"; so I looked up "sangha" in it. The entry is three pages long and contains no fewer than 27 definitions, not including several more pages of definitions of compound words beginning with "sangha-," or rather "saṁgha-." A paraphrase of the various interpretations follows.
The etymological derivation is as a noun form related to the Pali verb saṁhanati, meaning to join together, to make complete. (On the other hand, the PTS dictionary relates it to saṁharati, to bring together, to collect—although in either case the resultant meaning is essentially the same: assembly, congregation.)
1. in general, for example in Jātaka stories, any group of living beings. (For some reason I do not fathom, following this statement, and before the first numbered subentry, there is the explanation, in parentheses, that "saṁgha" may be used as a Vinaya technical term referring to four or more fully ordained monks or nuns. One monk or nun alone is a puggala, an "individual"; and two or three constitute a gaṇa, or "gang." Thus a sangha is, in this technical sense, a congregation of ordained renunciants (all male or all female) numerous enough to conduct formal ecclesiastical acts.)
1(a). a herd of pigs. (This would be called a sukarasaṁgha. The only reference given is to the Jātaka literature.)
1(b). a herd of deer or other game animals.
1(c). a group of male or female inhabitants of a town. (The single reference given is to a story in the Majjhima Aṭṭhakatha, in which a crowd of townspeople gather at a park.)
1(d). a group of wealthy brahmins. (The primary reference is to the Caṅkī Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, in which some brahmin householders, upon hearing that the Buddha has arrived in their vicinity, form "in groups and bands" (saṁghasaṁghī gaṇībhūtā) to go pay their respects to him.)
1(e). any group of beings receptive to admonishment or spiritual instruction. (Thus in the stock formula describing the virtues of the Buddha, when he is called satthā devamanussānaṁ—"teacher of gods and humans"—the gods and humans instructed by him, in this sense, form a sangha.)
1(f). all beings who have attained to any of the eight classes of ariya-hood, that is, path and fruit of the four stages. (That is, all those who have "experienced" Nibbāna at least for one moment, and who are thus either fully enlightened or else firmly established on "the path of no return," so to speak. There are numerous references throughout the Tipitaka for this sense of the word. This sense is called the ariyasaṁgha, or "Sangha of the Noble Ones.")
1(g). all fully ordained Buddhist mendicant renunciants, especially Theravada ones. (This group is referred to as the sammutisaṁgha, or "conventional Sangha." There are of course lots of references for this sense too.)
1(h). all of the paths and fruits of the four stages of ariya-hood, taken in abstraction from the beings who have attained them. (This is called the paramatthasaṁgha, or "ultimate Sangha," and is, as far as I can tell, peculiar to the Abhidhamma literature.)
1(i). the mendicant renunciant disciples who form the following or entourage of a Buddha. (For example, in the Suttas when it says that the Buddha went to such and such place with a following of 500 bhikkhus, those 500 bhikkhus would constitute the Sangha in this sense. It is referred to as the buddhapamukhasaṁgha, or the "Sangha with Buddha at the front.")
1(j). If I understand this one correctly, and if the old Burmese monk who explained it to me understands it correctly, then it would be essentially, although in a less technical sense, the same as the next one, i.e., the ordained Sangha taken very generally. (In Burmese this is called the အမှတ် မရှိသော သံဃာ, or "nondescript Sangha." The only references are to the Nidhikaṇḍa Sutta of the Khuddakapātha and the commentary to same, in which Sutta the Sangha is cited simply as an opportunity for merit, and a source of treasure that cannot be lost or stolen.)
1(k). the totality of all ordained Buddhist renunciants as a society, organization, or "corporate entity." (For example, if someone makes a donation to "the Sangha" in general, and not to an individual monk, to the resident sangha of a particular monastery, or to some other specified group, then this is the Sangha that it goes to, and all of the members of the Sangha share in the ownership, in communistic fashion. The Sangha in this sense is called the cātuddisasaṁgha, or the "Sangha of the Four Quarters"—east, south, west, and north. This is primarily, but not exclusively, a Vinaya term.)
1(l). any and all bhikkhus, that is, all fully ordained Buddhist monks. (This is called the bhikkhusaṁgha, and it is probably the most common meaning of the word "saṁgha" found in the texts, both Vinaya and Suttanta.)
(Following the foregoing subentry is a paragraph in parentheses giving more technical Vinaya definitions: (i.) a group of (at least) four bhikkhus in good standing, and who are thereby qualified to conduct most formal ecclesiastical acts, such as sangha uposatha. (This sense goes by the designation of catuvagga bhikkhusaṁgha.) (ii.) a group of (at least) five bhikkhus in good standing, and who are thereby qualified to conduct formal acts requiring (at least) five bhikkhus, particularly the sangha invitation ceremony at the end of the rains retreat, and ordination ceremonies outside of the "Middle District" of the Ganges Valley. (This one is called pañcavagga bhikkhusaṁgha.) (iii.) a group of (at least) ten bhikkhus in good standing, considered in the sense of being qualified to conduct ordination ceremonies in the Middle District. (I.e., dasavagga bhikkhusaṁgha.) (iv.) a group of twenty bhikkhus in good standing, who are thereby qualified to conduct a reinstatement ceremony, or abbhāna saṁghakamma, for a monk who has undergone penance for committing a saṁghādisesa offence. (Vīsativagga bhikkhusaṁgha.) (v.) a group of more than twenty bhikkhus in good standing, considered in the sense of being qualified to carry out any and all formal acts of the Sangha. (Called atirekavīsativagga bhikkhusaṁgha.))
1(m). the Community of all fully ordained Buddhist nuns. (I.e., the bhikkhunīsaṁgha.)
1(n). the Community of all bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs combined (This is called the ubhatosaṁgha, or the "Sangha of Both.")
1(o). a congregation of fully ordained monks or nuns who live in the same general locality and who perform their formal ecclesiastical acts together. (This is one of the more common meanings of the word, and is presumably the sense implied at the beginning of a recitation of a formal act: suṇātu me bhante saṁgho—"Venerable sirs, may the sangha hear me." The Pali term for this sense is samānasaṁvāsaka saṁgha, or the "sangha living in the same community.")
1(p). a congregation of the renunciant disciples of a non-Buddhist philosopher, such as Pūraṇa Kassapa.
2. the qualities of the (ariya-)sangha, as found in the stock formula beginning "suppaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṁgho…," and which is the traditional object for the meditation technique of reflection upon the Sangha (one of the forty traditional standard meditations in Theravada).
3. the very name "sangha." (I'm not exactly sure why the venerable authors of the dictionary bothered to include this one, unless maybe it was for the sake of being totally comprehensive. The only reference is to a passage in the Vinaya declaring that monks should not cling to the word/name "saṁgha."
4. Saṁghā is the name of an elder bhikkhunī whose verses are included in the Pali text Therīgāthā.
Oddly, there is a separate entry for "saṁgha," saṁgha², with an allegedly different etymological derivation, in that it is considered to be a contraction, or abbreviation, of saṁgha¹+sannipāta, referring to the act of the coming together, or the convocation, of a sangha. The only reference is to Vinaya commentarial literature.
It appears that the venerable scholar sayadaws who compiled the dictionary were not aware of any reference in the Pali texts to laypeople being included in a specifically Buddhist Sangha, let alone THE specifically Buddhist Sangha. It appears that they weren't aware even of semi-ordained novices being members of the Sangha, which is more surprising. Definition 1(e) seems to come closest to filling these two voids. Then again, it may be that the Burmese dictionary, huge and comprehensive-seeming as it is, is not really complete; for example, the sanghas of birds, relatives, and devas cited in the PTS dictionary are not explicitly mentioned here, although they would fall under the first general definition of "any group of living beings."
With regard to lay meditators calling their group a "sangha," I see no problem at all. Obviously, if a herd of deer, a herd of pigs, or an assembly of devas can be called "sangha," then so can a group of people who practice Buddhist meditation. They are, after all, a group of living beings.
With regard to lay meditators considering themselves to be members of THE Sangha, as in the trinity of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, an issue does arise however, as it appears to receive no support from the Pali, especially if that aforementioned legendary Sutta doesn't exist. And even if it does exist, the reference in question would appear to be an obscure anomaly in the textual tradition. The concept of Refuge has undergone a modern mutation.
As a newcomer to the whole Sangha scene I was taught that, traditionally, laypeople take refuge in the bhikkhu-sangha, i.e., in monks, while monks take refuge in the ariya-sangha, which, maybe ironically, includes laypeople. It is fairly clear to me that when Burmese Buddhists take the third Refuge, what they mainly have in mind is monks; and throughout the Suttas, again and again, when a person converts to Buddhism he or she utters the same stock formula beginning with, "Wonderful, venerable Gotama! Wonderful, venerable Gotama! Just as, venerable Gotama, one might set upright what has been overturned…." and ending with, "I go to the venerable Gotama as a refuge, and to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of bhikkhus." However, if Western lay Buddhists have some personal antipathy for taking refuge exclusively in monks, then there is presumably no major obstacle to their taking refuge in the ariya-sangha as monks are supposed to do, especially since there is support for it within the tradition anyway, going way, way back.
But for a group of lay meditators living worldly lives to consider monks, radical renunciation, and the so-called Holy Life to be unnecessary and/or irrelevant to Dhamma, and to consider their own group to be representative of THE Sangha, is arguably not just a variation within Theravada Buddhism, but a major deviation from Theravada Buddhism. This is all the more evident when one notices that many members of these lay sanghas do not even consider themselves to be Buddhists, and that many of those who do consider themselves as such nevertheless reject even basic fundamentals of the system, both theoretical and practical.
It is good to bear in mind, even if the thought is an unsavory one, that Theravada, and Buddhism in general, was founded by a bhikkhu, mainly for bhikkhus. As G. C. Pande wrote in his monumental Studies in the Origins of Buddhism, "There is little reason to suppose that Buddha addressed himself to Everyman and not to the monk. As a matter of fact, the Buddhists appear to have been from the beginning primarily a community of monks." (p. 401 of the 3rd edition) The Buddha was a renunciant ascetic sage who established Dhamma first and foremost as a system for maximizing one's chances for full Enlightenment in this very life; and that system practically begins with a formal renunciation of worldliness. People who were serious about waking up in this very life would be ordained into the Sangha and strive; those who were not so serious would humbly admit this fact, do the best they could within a worldly context, and support those who they felt were really giving it a serious shot. Thus Buddhism was designed as a kind of professional spectator sport, with laypeople being fans supporting their favorite team—and thereby supporting Enlightenment in this world, even though they themselves do not feel completely ready for it.
Yet this approach, designed by an enlightened being (who was probably a genius besides) is vehemently opposed by the current attitude of Western culture in general. It's too radical, demanding, and damned inconvenient at one end, and too humble at the other. So nowadays in America Theravada Buddhism is little more than a tiny fringe movement, with an ordained Western resident Sangha of possibly no more than a hundred people, supported mainly by Asian immigrants, very loosely affiliated with a rather larger, yet still small movement which has mutated so extensively as scarcely to merit the name "Doctrine of the Elders," yet which is disproportionately vocal with regard to what Theravada should and should not be like—and then there's the Goenka people. Among many lay communities, "sangha" has become an English word no longer bearing a Pali meaning. In view of all this, it seems to me that, in order for Theravadin Dhamma with some kind of renunciant Sangha maintaining it to prosper in the West, as something more than just a tiny fringe movement, it will probably have to be endorsed and supported by some relatively radical countercultural movement which, apparently, does not yet exist. On the other hand, Dhamma may survive and prosper, in a way, by mutation into some form of Dharma with an "r" which is very different from the design of Theravada—yet which still requires a radical counterculture of some sort, since any really inspired spiritual system automatically generates that. The mainstream simply does not lead to Enlightenment.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with a mutation of Theravada into something very different in the West, a kind of Doctrine of the Newcomers which is no longer Theravada. It is a plain fact that Theravada was designed for ancient India, which was in many ways extremely different from the modern Western world. However, any new form of authentic Dhamma or Dharma will still require a SANGHA dedicated to waking up in this very life, "in the present way of being." Those who give top priority to anything else—money, family, reputation, security, whatever—will still not make the cut.
the true Sangha (←an attempt at humor)