Monday, February 27, 2017

The meaning of Arya Sangha in Jodo Shinshu

When you say the Three Refuges and take refuge in the Sangha, do you take refuge in ordinary unenlightened people or in the Arya Sangha, like other Buddhist schools do?

In Mahayana Buddhism, the term Arya[1] Sangha represents the sangha at the ideal level, that is, all of the Buddha’s followers, lay or ordained, who have at least attained the first level of the ten bodhisattva stages (ten bhumis)[2]. This is to separate it from the sangha in its conventional level which means all Buddhist monks and nuns.

However, if we read the first of the ten bhumis, we see it is none other than the Stage of Joy (Very Joyous) or the stage of non-retrogression about which Bodhisattva Nagarjuna stated in his Discourse on the Ten Stages - Dasabhumikavibhasa that it can be attained either by the path of difficult practice or by the path of easy practice, i.e. faith in Amida Buddha. The difference is that on the path of difficult practice one attains it by personal power while on the path of easy practice it is attained through the Power of Amida Buddha (Other Power). This has always been the teaching of Jodo Shinshu, and Shinran Shonin especially stressed the importance of entering the stage of non-retrogression (also called the stage of those assured of Nirvana, the definitelly assured state, etc) through faith in Amida Buddha.

Those who enter this stage by personal power earned the merits by their own effort, while those who enter it through the Power of Amida, avail themselves of His infinite merits which are transferred to them in the first moment of the awakening of faith (shinjin). Both categories are worthy of respect, because both will never retrogress from the path to final Liberation or Nirvana. But, as Jodo Shinshu followers and Amida devotees, when we take refuge in the Sangha as part of the Three Treasures we do this only in the Arya Sangha of those who have faith in Amida's Primal Vow which is, for us, the highest principle and the true reason for Shakyamuni's coming to this world. Thus, for us, Arya Sangha means the Sangha in its aspect of shinjin (faith). 

Also in our case, Sangha in its conventional level represents all members, lay or ordained, who may not yet be established in faith, but took refuge in the Three Treasures and are determined to listen deeply to Amida Dharma in order to receive faith. 

Amida Dharma is the teaching we chose from the various Dharma gates that Shakyamuni Buddha taught during His lifetime, so it is normal to take refuge in those who follow this method. Other Buddhists are also our brothers and sisters in the general sangha, because we are all Shakyamuni's disciples, but we take refuge only in those who walk the same Path as us. We do not take refuge in self-power practitioners, no matter how advanced they are, but only in those who rely completely on the Power of Amida Buddha, no matter how low and ordinary[3] they are.

 related article:

[1] Arya (Sanskrit, also ārya; Pāli: ariya) is a term frequently used in Buddhism that can be translated as "noble", "not ordinary", "valuable", "precious", etc. (wiki)
I do not recall a pasage where Shinran or Rennyo used this term. However, I decided to explain it here to the person who asked this question, and to use it myself, so that people can better understand the meaning of Sangha as object of refuge in a Jodo Shinshu context.  In our school we also recite the Three Refuges when we receice kikyoshiki (confirmation ceremony) from Go Monshu sama or kieshiki (refuge ceremony) from the local priest, so it is important to have a good understanding of what we are doing. Please also refer to the article, The Three Refuges in Jodo Shinshu.
[2] The ten bhumis are the ten stages on the Mahayana bodhisattva's path to Buddhahood. The Avatamsaka Sutra refers to the following ten bhūmis: 1) the Very Joyous. (Skt. pramuditā), 2) the Stainless. (Skt. vimalā), 3) the Light-Maker. (Skt. prabhākarī), 4) the Radiant Intellect. (Skt. arciṣmatī), 5) the Difficult to Master. (Skt. sudurjayā), 6)  the Manifest. (Skt. abhimukhī), 7) the Gone Afar. (Skt. dūraṃgamā), 8) the Immovable. (Skt. acalā), 9) the Good Intelligence. (Skt. sādhumatī), 10) the Cloud of Doctrine. (Skt. dharmameghā).
(Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada (1998). The Seeker's Glossary of Buddhism, Taipei: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation/Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc., 2nd ed. pp.759-760) 
[3] Of course, not only ordinary people may have faith in Amida Buddha, but even superior beings very close to Enlightenment. Thus, if we carefully read the Larger Sutra, we see that many higly advanced bodhisattvas are part of the Arya Sangha of those who entrust to Amida, and so they come to be born in the Pure Land from various worlds and universes. However, personal achievements are not important on the Dharma Gate of the Primal Vow, so the element of faith (shinjin) is all that matter to us.