Last night’s discussion centered on the reflection on sangha. It is a meditative practice in which we reflect on qualities that are worthy of respect in the community.

This Pali term, sangha, literally means gathering or community. Historically the term sangha has been used to refer to the ordained community of monks and nuns. Contemporary western Buddhist groups often use the term sangha to refer to their local meditation group, people at a retreat center, or gatherings of friends who practice together. References in the suttas to the fourfold sangha that is composed of male monastics, female monastics, male lay followers, and female lay followers, support the validity of using the term sangha to refer to practitioners, whether or not they wear monastic robes.

As a refuge, the term sangha might specifically refer to the enlightened community—those individuals (past, present, and future) who have realized a genuine attainment and at least some degree of awakening.

When reflecting on sangha, I am very reluctant to think about institutional formations, whether they are marked by monastic ordination or lay gatherings. Marred by politics and cultural expectations, institutions are simply not reliable. When I consider what might be a reliable refuge, what might be a profound shelter from suffering, what reflection might brighten my mind with delight and joy in the wholesome, I think about the stream of awakened beings who came before me, exist in the world that I currently inhabit, and will awaken in the future.

I enjoy refreshing my mind with thoughts of awakened beings who practice well, live with integrity, and are resolved upon truth. It is inspiring to think of myself and our communities as tiny components of this vast web of dhamma practitioners who are committed to virtue and truth, and who are purifying the mind.

Thinking about sangha reminds me to manifest noble qualities in my life. As an active practice, the recollection on the sangha is far from a fantasy about joining a social clique, or adoration of long dead disciples. It is a practice that delights in the act of respecting wise friends, teachers, and practitioners. It is a training that focuses on human qualities that are worthy of respect.