In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sangha

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Assimilation, Conquest, and Conversion
  • Discipline (Vinaya)
  • Education
  • Gender
  • Interreligious and International Interactions
  • Lay Buddhists
  • Modernity and Changing Roles
  • Monasteries and Monasticism
  • Monks and Novices
  • Nuns
  • Ordination
  • Organization and Economics
  • Politics
  • War and Violence

Buddhism Sangha
Thomas Borchert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0006


The Sangha is the Buddhist community; it is the men, women and children who follow the teachings of the Buddha. The term, which in Sanskrit and Pāli means “collection” or “assemblage,” a group of people living together for a certain purpose, has come to have two different referents. First, and most commonly, “Sangha” refers to those who have “left home” and “gone into homelessness,” that is, monks and nuns. Under this meaning, the Sangha is the “Third Jewel” in which a follower of the Buddha might take refuge, along with the Buddha and the Dharma. When scholars and practitioners refer to the Sangha, they are likely to be referring specifically to this community. However, the Sangha can have a more expansive referent as well. Pāli texts refer to the “fourfold” Sangha, which included bhikkhus (monks), bhikkhunīs (nuns), upāsaka (laymen) and upāsikā (laywomen). In other words, the term refers to the men, women, and children who follow the teachings of the Buddha. There are two aspects worth highlighting when thinking about what counts as the Sangha. First, if we consider the Sangha to be Buddhists in this second more expansive sense, there can still be real difficulties in deciding who count as lay Buddhists, because Buddhists have often also been involved in other religious systems (such as Daoism in China or Shinto in Japan). Second, while monks and nuns, and perhaps laymen and laywomen, are the basic form of the Sangha, positions within the Sangha are not limited to these groups. Some other examples include novices (monastics who have taken the “lower” ordination, in which they agree to follow ten precepts); lay postulants (laity who have agreed to be formal followers of a specific teacher or to take on one or more of the panca sila, the five precepts); and in contemporary Southeast Asia, where the bhikkhunī order died out long ago, some women have become eight- or ten-precept renunciants, living in monastic settings, wearing white, and shaving their heads.

General Overviews

While the Buddhist community is clearly a central part of Buddhism, there is and has been significant diversity within this community across time and space. Perhaps as a consequence, scholars writing holistically about Buddhism have either written about Buddhist philosophies, or they have written about the early Buddhist Sangha in general terms. Or perhaps it might be better to say that almost everything written about Buddhism deals with the Sangha either directly or indirectly, and so scholars have not tended to be as interested in writing overviews of Buddhist monks and nuns. Despite this, there have been several good books about Buddhism as a whole with significant portions dedicated to the Sangha, such as Bechert and Gombrich 1984. Trainor 2004 brings in significant visual culture to its discussions of aspects of Buddhism, while Berkwitz 2006 is dedicated to explicating the contemporary conditions of Buddhist communities in the current moment.

  • Bechert, Heinz, and Richard H. Gombrich. The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1984.

    NNNA collection of essays which seeks to read Buddhist history primarily through the experiences and institutions of monks and nuns.

  • Berkwitz, Stephen C., ed. Buddhism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    NNNA collection of essays focused on contemporary Asian Buddhisms, with an emphasis on institutional shifts and the changing meaning of practices.

  • Trainor, Kevin, ed. Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    NNNA broad overview of the history of Buddhism, with good essays on Buddhist institutions and fine use of pictures from around the Buddhist world.

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