Buddhist Votive Stela of the Yan Family

What Is the Sangha?

“Sangha” is a Sanskrit word meaning “community”; more specifically, it refers to the community of Buddhist monks and nuns. In our increasingly globalized world the religion has changed, and Buddhists have started to include laypeople – that is, those who are not ordained – within its meaning too.

The sangha is one of the Three Jewels within the Buddhist profession of faith. The first two are the Buddha and his teachings (the dharma). The sangha, the community of monks and nuns, is the third authority in which Buddhists take refuge. 

The Buddhist sangha is not an institution in the way a church is. It consists of countless communities of monks and nuns that can be loosely associated – or not at all. The sangha has no hierarchy, so no single person or council oversees all Buddhists. There are no bishops, much less a “Buddhist pope”.

In this story, find out how one becomes a Buddhist, what the duties of the sangha members are, and what it means in Buddhism to “take refuge”.

Monks and novices in conversation, Ruins of the ancient Buddhist monastery at Shravasti, India.

The first sangha was made up of the Buddha’s first followers.

Nowadays there are many different schools of Buddhism, and each has its own way of interpreting the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni. They vary in the rituals they perform and the type of meditation they practise.

The local monastic communities of these schools form the sangha.

Empress Jito, from the series “Parody of the Ogura Version of ‘One Hundred Poets, One Hundred Poems’ ”

Duties of the Sangha

Communities of monks and nuns are responsible for preserving and spreading the Buddha’s teachings, both orally and in writing.

In addition, they perform rituals for lay Buddhists such as conducting funerals or presiding at weddings.

Standing Monk with Hands Folded

How Does a Person Become a Buddhist?

If a person wants to become a Buddhist, they are said to want to take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma (teachings), and the sangha (community).

This usually happens in a spoken ceremony associated with a particular school. In simple terms, the aspiring Buddhist recites an admission formula.

Anyone who so chooses can recite the admission formula without having to renounce any existing religious affiliation.

Standing Monk with Hands Folded

Taking Refuge

Three times during the ceremony, candidates recite the following formula as a profession of faith: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the sangha.”

By taking refuge, candidates signal their intention to rely on these three “pillars” in their personal conduct.

In addition, anyone seeking to become a Buddhist declares their intention to observe five moral rules: do not kill, do not steal, do not engage in sexual misconduct, do not lie, and do not use intoxicants.

Bust of a Luohan


For ordained Buddhists as well as novices, there is a code of conduct, called "vinaya" in Sanskrit, containing hundreds of rules.

These rules specify exactly how monks or nuns should behave in the monastery as well as in public. They dictate how to eat, how to talk, how to move, and what monks and nuns may or may not do.

Bust of a Luohan

How monastic rules are interpreted and followed can vary greatly from one school to another.

The rules may require monks and nuns to respect their elders, to take a vow of poverty, to abstain from work, or to beg for alms. They also relate to issues of equality and purity.

In addition, the vinaya includes rules about rituals as well as about clothing, housing, and essential items for monks and nuns.

Those who break the rules risk expulsion from their order.

Monks receiving alms, Phou That temple, Laos

Supporting Monastic Communities

Lay Buddhists provide for the livelihood of the monks and nuns by making donations of food or money directly to monasteries and temples.

Most Buddhists living in monasteries have no other way to support themselves, and depend completely on the gifts of the lay community.

Monks receiving alms, Phou That temple, Laos

In many Buddhist countries, the giving and receiving of donations is a ritual. Early in the day, monks and nuns leave their monastery to collect food. Lay Buddhists bearing gifts of food await them at their front doors.

The act of giving is a good deed, and through this act the donor accumulates merit. This in turn produces positive karma, and at best promises a favourable rebirth.

Monks in the Sakya monastery, Tibet

Many Asian monasteries operate businesses. Some, for example, own and administer land they have received from lay Buddhists. Not infrequently, monasteries possess great wealth.

Before China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, monasteries in Tibet were centres of political and economic power. In this period the Dalai Lama was both the spiritual and political leader of his nation.

Goso said: A buffalo passes through a window. His head, his horns, and his four legs all go through – but why not his tail, too?

What Is the Sangha?