Sangha, the Third Jewel
All sentient beings, if they seek the Unsurpassed, Proper and Equal, right Enlightenment and the happiness of Nirvana, must take refuge with the Triple Jewel.
People who believe in the Buddha’s teachings should formally take refuge with the Triple Jewel. The Triple Jewel is the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The third of the three jewels, the Sangha, literally means “harmoniously united assembly.” In the Six Paramitas Sutra the Buddha noted three kinds of Sangha.
The first is the Sangha of the Primary Meaning, consisting of the Sagely Sangha of Buddhas who abide by the Dharma. The second is the Sangha of the Sages. The third is the ‘field of blessings Sangha’, comprised of the Bhikshus and Bhikshunis who receive and uphold the moral precepts.
The Sangha of the Buddhas consists of all the infinite numbers of Buddhas in the world-systems of the universe. In the Buddhist world, however, the word Sangha generally refers to the Bhikshu and Bhikshuni Sangha – the lowest of the three types mentioned by the Buddha. The use of the word “sangha” to refer to the common lay community is misleading and a departure from the traditional usage and meaning of the word, as will be explained later in this chapter.
The Sangha of Bhikshus and Bhikshunis
The “field of blessings Sangha” consists of Bhikshus and Bhikshunis‘’ men and women who have left the householder’s life and completed traditional ordination procedures in which they take vows to strictly adhere to the monastic code laid down by the Buddha. The core of this code of self-discipline (the Vinaya) is celibacy, not taking life, not stealing, and total honesty. The code also includes renunciation of wealth and shunning worldly entertainment. Members of the Bhikshu and Bhikshuni Sangha shave their heads (a symbol of casting off the mundane for the spiritual life) and wear traditional monastic robes that vary somewhat in color and design according to the climate and customs of their respective countries. Their clothing is simple and unadorned – its primary purpose to protect the wearer from the elements. It bears a distinctive cut, however, so as to clearly distinguish monks (Bhikshus) and nuns (Bhikshunis) from the laity, and thereby notify and remind the laity to treat the Sangha in a manner appropriate to their celibate way of life.
The importance of the Sangha is demonstrated in the life of the Buddha. As a young prince the Buddha experienced what are known as the “four signs”. The first three signs of an old person, a sick person and a dead person were already described in Chapter One. What was the fourth sigh? A Bhikshu.At that time a god from the Pure Abodes,
Transfigured as a Bhikshu,
And appeared before the prince.
The prince respectfully stood and welcomed him.
He asked, “Who are you?”
The monk replied, “A Shramana (another term for a Bhikshu). Loathing old age, sickness and death, I have left the life of a householder to seek liberation. Old age, sickness, and death bring change and decay to living beings without a moment’s rest. Therefore, I seek eternal happiness, which neither ceases nor begins. My mind looks equally upon enemy and friend, I care not for wealth and sex. I dwell in the mountain forests, in the quiet wilderness, without managing any affairs. My worldly thoughts have faded away. Alone I abide at ease in quietude. I do not choose between the fine and coarse. I beg to support my body.” Then right before the prince’s eyes, the monk deftly leapt into the sky and disappeared. The prince was delighted, and marveled at how the Buddhas of the past discovered and passed on this majestic way of life.
After seeing this Bhikshu, the prince Siddhartha followed the same way of life. He renounced the life of a householder in quest of the solution to the problem of birth and death. When he made this resolve, his father, the king, as well as the king’s ministers, tried to stop the young man by commanding his concubines to arouse the young prince’s worldly passions.
There were those who held or hugged him, or arranged his pillow and bed, or lay next to him, saying sweet words, or teased him in a common worldly way, or spoke of many sexual activities, or tempted him with all manner of sexual acts to entice him from his resolve.
The Bodhisattva’s mind was pure, solid and difficult to move. As he heard the harem women speak, he felt neither sadness nor joy, but grew in his feeling of disgust. He sighed, “This is really strange. Now I know all these women’s hearts are heavy with desire in this way, but don’t they realize that their young and robust forms will soon be ravaged by death and old age? How pitiful their great confusion. Delusion envelops their minds. They should be mindful of old age and death and day and night diligently urge themselves on. It is as if a sharp knife were poised at one’s neck. How can one casually laugh? Seeing others grow old, turn sick and die, and not think to look at oneself is to be like a clay or wooden statue. How senseless!
The concubines could not dent the Prince’s resolve. He renounced his royal position, wealth, and all things worldly for the drab garments and shorn head of a mendicant. With a light heart and iron resolve he set out on the ultimate spiritual journey: perfect enlightenment and deliverance from the “prison of the world.”
After the Buddha’s Enlightenment, some who heard his teaching wished to devote their entire lives to practicing it. Following the Buddha’s example, they too renounced the householder’s life, shaved their heads, and took up the monastic life under the Buddha.
The Buddha said, “Men are bound by their wives (and women by their husbands), children, and homes to such an extent that it is worse than being in prison. The time comes when you are released from prison, but there is never a moment when you think of leaving your wife and children. Don’t you fear the control that emotion, love, and sex have over you? Although you are in a tiger’s mouth, you are blissfully oblivious to it. Those who throw themselves in the mud and drown are known as ordinary people. By passing through this door and transcending defiling objects, you become a Sage.”
As to love and desire: no desire is as deep-rooted as sex. There is nothing stronger than the desire for sex. Fortunately, it is one of a kind. If there were something else like it, no one in the entire world would be able to cultivate the spiritual path.
Be careful not to trust your own mind; your own mind cannot be trusted. Be careful not to get involved in sex; involvement with sex leads to disaster. Once you have become a Sage (Arhat) then you can trust your own mind.
Bhikshus who have left the householder’s life, turn back desire, give up love, and recognize the source of the mind. They penetrate the Buddha’s profound principles, and awaken to the Unconditioned. They seek nothing outside; cling to nothing within.
The Sangha is a field of blessings. The Bhikshus and Bhikshunis who receive and uphold the moral prohibitions are learned and wise. Like the trees created by the gods, they are able to protect living beings. To encounter the Sangha is like being drenched in a downpour of heavenly sweet rain when one is parched and thirsty in a barren desert. The rain is both timely and satisfying. Moreover, it is like the vast ocean – the source of manifold treasures.
The Sangha Jewel, as a field of blessings, is also like this. It can bestow peace and bliss upon all sentient beings. Moreover, this Sangha Jewel is pure and undefiled. It is able to dispel the darkness of living being’s greed, hatred and stupidity, like the bright light of the full moon that all beings gaze at with awe in the evening. It is also like a precious mani pearl that can fulfill all the good wishes of sentient beings.
In the Sutra of Changes to Come the Buddha taught that the Dharma will disappear from the world simultaneously with the disappearance of the Sangha of Bhikshus and Bhikshunis, since the Dharma relies on the Sangha for its existence in the world.
The Sangha of the Sages
Above the Sangha of Bhikshus and Bhikshunis is yet a higher Sangha: the Sangha of the Sages. This includes those who have realized the Arhat or Bodhisattva levels of enlightenment. The “Stream-enterer”, lowest of the four stages of Arhats, is fundamentally different from ordinary people. The minds of common people continuously seek for pleasurable experiences outside through the sense organs. The Stream-enterer has turned his mind around, tending inwards, away from sense objects. This is natural result of the unfolding of wisdom that has forever eliminated the “view of a self”. That is, the Stream-enterer profoundly sees that there is nothing in Samsara that can be taken to be “I, mine, or myself”. The Stream-enterer’s position is irreversible: he can never be like a common person again, nor fall into the three lower realms of existence (animals, ghosts and beings in the hells). He is incapable of transgressing the Five Precepts. Within, at most, seven lives, he will become a fourth stage Arhat. For all of these reasons, he said to have entered the stream of the Sages.
Making an offering of food to 10,000 people who hold the Five Precepts does not equal offering food to a single Stream-enterer.
The fruit of the Stream-enterer surpasses kingship over the whole earth. It is preferable to rebirth in the heavens, and better than supreme rulership over all worlds.
The Sage’s experience of the world is difficult for common people to fathom. They acquire psychic abilities that coincide with their developed concentration and wisdom. They do not seek these abilities, sometimes called “spiritual penetrations”, for even seeking spiritual power is contrary to the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings. At the point of seeking nothing whatsoever, paradoxically, “one arrives,” i.e., enlightenment occurs and one’s innate wisdom and compassion come forth. This is the purport of the Buddha’s method and instruction. So, while not an end in themselves, nonetheless spiritual penetrations can enable one to more effectively help other beings.
Fourth stage Arhats have ended birth and death in the three realms of existence. They possess the Five Eyes and the Six Spiritual Penetrations – highly developed psychic powers and extrasensory discernment.
The Five Eyes:
1. With the Heavenly Eye one can survey the different heavens and hells; one can see what the gods in the heavens are doing just as if watching a movie, and events thousands of miles away can be witnessed without impediment.
2. The Flesh Eye does not refer to the flesh eyes of ordinary people. Rather, it is a “spiritual eye” with which one can see spirits and ghosts.
3. With the Dharma Eye one observes relative truth. This eye enables one to understand all the affairs of worldly existence. It is said that with this eye one can see Buddhist Sutras in every atomic particle.
4. The Wisdom Eye is the functioning of world-transcending wisdom (prajna). One comprehends the true nature of all phenomena as empty, i.e., without an intrinsic nature of their own, because all phenomena are relative and exist in dependence on other causes and conditions. Therefore, they have no inherent, real, or lasting independent existence.
5. With the Buddha Eye, the most powerful of the five spiritual eyes, analogous to a blazing sun, one can see billions of worlds system without end.
The Six Spiritual Penetrations:
1. The Heavenly Eye. The same as the first of the Five Eyes above.
2. The Heavenly Ear can hear the speech and sounds of the gods in the heavens.
3. The Knowledge of Others’ Thoughts. One knows the thoughts in others’ minds before these thoughts are verbalized.
4. The Knowledge of Past Lives. One can know one’s own and others’ previous existences.
5. The Cessation of Outflows. One has extinguished greed, hatred, and stupidity forever, thereby transcending birth and death.
6. Spiritual Accomplishments. This refers to a host of minor spiritual powers.
People who are not Sages can acquire the Five Eyes and five of the Six Spiritual Penetrations. They cannot however, obtain the penetration of the Cessation of Outflows. Only fourth stage Arhats gain that spiritual penetrations. These “eyes” and penetrations come in many degrees and levels depending on the cultivated skill and karma of the individual. For example, a fourth stage Arhat can see the past lives of living beings as far back as 80,000 great kalpas – over a hundred quadrillion years, whereas a common person with the penetration of past lives may only be able to see back a few hundred years.
Moreover, even though the fourth and highest stage Arhats have ended birth and death in the three realms of existence of Samsara their enlightenment is not ultimate. A great achievement, nonetheless it is limited in scope, as it is only personal enlightenment.
The Bodhisattvas enlighten themselves and also enlighten other sentient beings. Their state of accomplishment is thus more difficult and more profound than the Arhats. The lowest level of Bodhisattva in the Sangha of the Sages is the “First Dwelling”, called “One Who Has Brought Forth the Bodhi-Mind”. The Ten Dwellings, Chapter 15 of the Flower Adornment Sutra, states that when a Bodhisattva attains this position, although he has not yet fully perfected the Ten Powers of a Buddha, he enjoys ten kinds of wisdom which closely correspond to them. In Entering the Dharma Realm, Chapter 39 of the Flower Adornment Sutra, the pure youth Good Wealth visits a Bodhisattva on this level of Enlightenment. This Bodhisattva displays magnificent spiritual powers that enable him to visit Buddhas in millions of other worlds throughout the universe.
Indeed, in this chapter of the Flower Adornment Sutra, Good Wealth visits 55 Bodhisattvas, each of whom represents a successive level of Enlightenment. Some are human beings, some are gods, some are spirits. They appear in many shapes and forms as need to help sentient beings. Their state, with its powers, compassion, and resourcefulness, is inconceivable. Therefore, the Sangha of the Sages can indeed appear as members of the laity. However, the common laity can by no means be considered to be members of the Sangha.
The realm of the Sangha of the Sages is very profound. One cannot claim such a level of attainment without certification by someone who is truly enlightened. Further, genuine Sages do not tell others that they are enlightened. They seek anonymity, not fame like common people. A person who tells people he is enlightened is actually very deluded. Thus, the Buddha forewarned that individuals openly proclaiming their “enlightenment” are merely deceiving themselves and deceiving others.
How can people who make such claims, other than at the end of their lives, and then only to those who inherit the teaching, be doing anything but deluding and confusing living beings and indulging in gross false claims?
Good and Wise Teachers
Members of the Sangha who are truly experienced cultivators of the Dharma, and those of the Sagely Sangha, are our good and wise teachers. For one practicing the Dharma it is absolutely essential, in order to make genuine progress, to secure the guidance of a good and wise teacher. Just as a child needs parents to protect, guide, and teach him while growing up, so too, in world-transcending matters, it is vital as a “child” in things spiritual to have a teacher to protect, guide and give instruction.
For example, as we progress in our Dharma practice and develop skill in meditation, we may experience some unusual states. These are all quite normal and often a sign of progress, although to the novice they may seem unusual and disconcerting. A good and wise teacher is familiar with these states and can interpret them, thus allaying any fears or equally deflating any pretensions of a beginner. Without mature and wise guidance, it is very easy to go down a wrong road. The closing volume of the Shurangama Sutra describes fifty states in particular which cultivators may experience and should be aware of.
Some inexperienced (and even experienced) meditators encounter these states and mistakenly think they have become enlightened. It is easy to see how a person without proper guidance could make this kind of critical error in judgment. The following is the first of the fifty states the Buddha describes in the Shurangama Sutra.
Ananda, be aware that as you sit in the Bodhimanda (a place, such as a monastery, where the Dharma is practiced), you are doing away with all thoughts. When those thoughts come to an end, you are free of all thinking. You enter a state of unadulterated clarity. Your mind no longer shifts between movement and stillness, and remembering and forgetting become one and the same.
When you dwell in this place and enter Samadhi, you are like a person with clear vision who lives in utter darkness. The wonderfully pure mind that is your pristine nature does not yet emit light. This is called the region of the form skandha.
If the person’s eyes become clear, then he experiences the ten directions as an open expanse and the darkness is gone. This is called, “the end of the form skandha.” This person transcends the kalpa turbidity and can now contemplate its cause. This person can see that false notions of firmness and solidity form the basis of the form skandha.
Ananda, at this point, when you are intently investigating that wondrous clarity, the four elements are no longer united, and soon the body can transcend obstructions. This is called “your essential light merging into the environment.” It is a temporary state in the course of cultivation and does not indicate you are a Sage. If you do not think you have become a Sage, this could be a good state. But if you think you have become a Sage, you will make yourself vulnerable to the demons’ influence.
If we mistake any one of these states for an Enlightened state, we will certainly run spiritually aground. If, further, we then try to teach others, even if our intentions are pure, we will end up only confusing them as well and creating serious bad karma for ourselves. The importance of a genuine good and wise teacher becomes obvious when one studies the Sutras. His extensive personal experience and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings has spelled, and will continue to spell, the difference between success and failure for students of the Dharma.
Good man, if you wish to accomplish All-wisdom, you must find a true, good and wise teacher. Good man, never tire of seeking for him, and upon encountering him, never grow weary of him. You must follow all of his teachings. And you must not find fault with his skill-in-means.
Taking refuge with the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha is the first step on the road to enlightenment and solving the problem of existence. “Why do I exist?” and “Who am I really?” These are questions all of us must grapple with and decide. They certainly deserve our very careful consideration. The unexamined life is a life lived in vain.