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In general, the term "sangha" refers to a community of Buddhistss or disciples of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha. The term is the same in Pali or Sanskrit.

The term sangha is used in two distinct senses. Fisrtly there is the Aryan, or Noble, Sangha - the community of those who have realised the goal of Buddhist practice. It is to this Aryan Sangha that one goes for refuge to in the traditional Buddhist ceremony of Going for Refuge to the Three_Jewels. The term Sangha is also used for the community of Buddhist practitioners, who in traditional societies have often been monks and nuns.

Buddhism has traditionally made a distinction between lay society and the Sangha. In many cases, members of the Sangha are expected to be in monastic living conditions, however some Buddhists in current societies consider themselves part of the Sangha based on their practicing Buddhism rather than monastic living conditions.

The Sangha is traditionally considered to provide an environment most conducive to advancing toward Enlightenment, and is responsible for maintaining, translating, advancing, and teaching the Buddhadharma (teachings of Buddhism).

More recently Reginald Ray has pointed out in his book Buddhist Saints in India, that earlier Buddhist traditions mainted a three tier social structure of Forest Renucnciants, Settled Monastics, and lay supporters. As the Buddha repeated says in the scriptures the most conducive environment for meditation, and progress on the spiritual path is solitude. The forest renunciant was dedicated to practice in this solitary manner - they provided the spiritual cutting for the Buddhist society. Settled monastics, what we now think of as the norm for full-time Buddhists, emerged only well after the death of the Buddha, and played a different role. Settles monastics were the keepers of tradition, initially orally, but later in writing. They were committed to preserving the teachings and providing a orthodox context which the forest renunciants could refer back to. The lay community supported by forest renunicants and settled monastics with gifts of food, clothing, and shelter.

Monastic tradition

The key feature of Buddhist monasticism is the adherence to the Vinaya which contains an elaborate set of rules of conduct including complete chastity, only one meal per day. Transgression of rules carries penalties ranging from confession to permanent expulsion from the Sangha.

Traditionally Buddhist monastics eschew ordinary clothes and wear robes. Originally the robes were sewn together from rags and stained with earth. The idea that robes were dyed with saffron seems unlikely to be true since it was and still is a very expensive commodity, and monks were poor. The color of modern robes varies from community to community (orange is characteristic of southeast Asian Theravada groups, maroon of Tibet, gray of Korea, etc.)

The word which is usually translated as monk is bhikkhu in Pali or bhikshu in Sanskrit. The feminine is bhikkhuni/bhikshuni. It literally means beggar, and it is traditional for bhikkhu to beg their food. In most places this has become an elaborate ritual, where lay people feed monastics in order to obtain merit which will ensure them a fortunate rebirth. Although monastics traditionally did not work this changed when Buddhism more to the far east, so that it is now de rigoour for Zen monks to work for part of their day.

Monks and nuns may own only the barest minimum of possessions (ideally, three robes, a begging [alms] bowl, cloth belt, needle and thread, razor [for shaving the head], and water filter [for drinking water]). In practice they often have a few personal possessions.

Although all Buddhism regards vegetarianism as an ideal, some areas (such as most areas of China) expect the Sangha to strictly practice vegatarianism while other areas (such as Japan) do not. In some areas, Sangha members are enjoined to eat whatever food is donated to them by laypeople, except that they may not eat meat if they know or suspect the animal was killed expressly to feed them.

Within Chinese society for instance, members of the Sangha were expected to renounce familial connections and become a member of the family of the Sangha. The Chinese term for becoming a monk or nun is to "leave the family" and the Chinese term for renouncing ones membership in the Sangha is to "return the books."

The lay community is responsible for the production of societal goods and services, and for the production and raising of children. The Buddha always maintained that lay persons were capable of great wisdom in the Buddhadharma and of reaching Enlightenment, and the Buddhist scriptures contain many examples.

Women's role in the Sangha

Although always maintaining that women were fully as capable of attaining Enlightenment as men, Buddha originally neither permitted women to join the sangha of monks nor to form an independent sangha of nuns. After considerable entreaty from his aunt and foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who wished to ordain, and from from his cousin and aide Ananada, who supported her cause, the Buddha relented and permitted the formation of a female Sangha. (Some have speculated that Buddha's reluctance to permit their ordination was due to fears that a community of women might not be safe in his contemporary society. )

Despite the fact that the Buddha eventually did ordain women, the strongly conservative monastic sangha has not been enthusiastic about female Buddhists. Woman are traditionally enjoined with additonal precepts and where women's lineages have died out, men have actively campaigned against the restablishment. This is beginning to change with the advent of Buddhism in the west, where feminism has been a strong influence. Not withstanding the antagonism of Buddhism to women there have been many remarkable Buddhist women: two modern women of note are Pema_Chodron, and Ayya_Khema.

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