Posted inOther Teachings

Spiritual Practice for a Global Sangha, by Ruben Habito, Part 1

December 3, 2016

Sangha refers to those who hear and accept the Buddha’s teaching and live in accordance with it.


Sangha in Historical Context

The term sangha, a word that means “assembly” or “gathering,” has now become part of English parlance, together with other terms from the Buddhist tradition, such as nirvana, dharma, and of course, Buddha. Buddhists throughout the world chant in the Pali language,

Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami

…which means “I go to the Buddha for refuge, I go to the Dharma for refuge, I go to the Sangha for refuge.”

What is the sangha in this context, when it is invoked as a “refuge,” along with Buddha and Dharma?

Historically speaking, “Buddha,” a term meaning “Awakened One,” was used to refer to a man who was born, lived, and died around the sixth or fifth century before the Christian era in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent. He was named at birth Siddhartha (literally, “one who accomplishes one’s purpose”), with Gautama as his family name. He was the designated heir of a wealthy local ruler, but at the age of 29 he renounced his privileges and went off to become a wandering ascetic. Six years later he is said to have arrived at a profound spiritual experience while sitting silently meditating under a tree. Emerging from his silence, he began to teach those who asked him for advice about their life problems and their own spiritual search. He was now referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha, the Awakened One, Sage of the Shakya clan. A band of followers, who also renounced home and family ties, gathered around him to form a community of seekers of the path under his guidance.

After his demise, his followers gathered together to recall the words he spoke to them during his teaching career. These they compiled, first orally, in verse forms that could be readily memorized and then later in written forms. Their numbers increased greatly and spread from northeastern India to the rest of the country, and to neighboring and farther regions of Asia, and in the 19 th and 20 th centuries, to the Western hemisphere as well.

The truth realized by the Buddha in his initial spiritual experience (called the Great Enlightenment), and the teachings he expounded to those around him based on this experience, handed down through the centuries and further developed and elaborated upon through different epochs and cultures, are collectively referred to as the Dharma…

Sangha refers to those who hear and accept the Buddha’s teaching and live in accordance with it.

It refers first of all to those men and women throughout the ages who renounced social status and family life in order to devote themselves entirely to spiritual practice following the path forged by the Awakened One, living either as forest dwellers or as monastic followers in community. Sangha also includes those countless persons throughout history who, while maintaining their lay or householder status and continuing their different occupations in society, provided support for these monastic communities.

From this socio-historical context, to recite…

I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma,
I take refuge in the Sangha

is to declare allegiance and indebtedness to the Sage of the Shakya clan (Buddha), who imparted teachings of wisdom (Dharma), to countless people who sought to cultivate this wisdom and live in the light of these teachings (Sangha)

Click to read Part 2.


Written by Ruben L.F. Habito and originally published on the Maria Kannon Zen Center website, as Spiritual Practice for a Global Sangha.

Ruben L. F. Habito served as a Jesuit missionary in Japan from 1970 to 1989 and taught at Sophia University for many years. He now serves as Teacher (Roshi) at Maria Kannon Zen Center (Dallas), and is on the Faculty at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. His books include Experiencing Buddhism: Ways of Wisdom and Compassion (Orbis, 2005), and Living Zen, Loving God (Wisdom, 2004).

Image: May 2016 NASZ sesshin, by Cherie Manifest.

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