In theTipitika, the recorded Teachings of the Lord Buddha, one finds two main focusses for themeaning of Sangha: the third part of the Threefold Refuge (in the Buddha, Dhamma andSangha) and the third factor of the to-be -worshipped Triple Gem (The Buddha, Dhamma andSavaka Sangha). On odd occasions in the Tipitika, 'Sangha' is used to denote a 'herd' ofanimals (Patika Sutta, Digha Nikaya) or 'flock" of birds (Jataka Nidana), but groupsof lay disciples, both men and women, are always described as 'parisa', an assembly.
So what is the meaning of Sangha in the first maincontext, in the Threefold Refuge? Certainly, only an exceedingly eccentric Buddhist wouldtake as their third refuge a sangha of birds (only "one gone cuckoo", as theysay!). In fact, the Tipitika is precise in what is meant by the third refuge. In theCanon, on every occasion that an inspired person took the Threefold Refuge as anexpression of their faith, it was either in the Buddha, Dhamma and Bhikkhu Sangha, or inthe Buddha, Dhamma and Bhikkhuni Sangha. Thus, in original Buddhism, the meaning of Sanghain the context of the Threefold Refuge is unarguably the Monastic Sangha.
The Sangha as the third factor of the Triple Gem worshipped by Buddhists seems to have adifferent meaning. It is called the Savaka Sangha (or Ariya Sangha) and is defined asthose attained to any of the Eight Stages of Enlightenment (the 4 usual stages dividedinto Path and Fruit) who are "worthy of gifts, hospitality, offerings and reverentialsalutations, and who are the unsurpassed field of merit in the world". So, in theoriginal texts, who are the "unsurpassed field of merit and worthy of offerings andsalutations"?
In the Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta (Majjhima 142), the Buddhasaid that, "an offering made to the monastic Sangha is incalculable, immeasurable.And, I say, that in no way does a gift to a person individually ever have a greater fruitthan an offering made to the monastic Sangha". Consistency proves that the SavakaSangha, the unsurpassed field of merit in the world, must be a part, a subset of themonastic Sangha - there is no greater fruit than an offering to the monastic Sangha.
Furthermore, in the world of the Tipitika, offerings andreverential salutations would always be given by the laity to the monastic and never theother way around. Even the highly attained lay disciple Ugga Gahapati who was aNon-Returner is seen to be giving reverential salutations to ordinary bhikkhus and servingtheir needs with his own hands (Anguttara Nikaya, Eights, Suttas 21 & 22). Thus, those"worthy of gifts, hospitality, offerings and reverential salutations", theSavaka Sangha, are again shown to be a part of the monastic Sangha of both genders.
This proves that the meaning of 'Sangha' in the context ofthe to-be-worshipped Triple Gem is that part of the monastic Sangha who have attained to aStage of Enlightenment. This Savaka Sangha, or Ariya Sangha, is in no way outside of themonastic Sangha but within it, as a subset. To say otherwise is inconsistent with theSuttas.
I have carefully argued these points because today, manyyoung lay Buddhist groups in Australia, Europe and the Americas are calling themselvesSangha, going for refuge to themselves, even worshipping themselves, and presuming this isBuddhism! This is sad, misleading and produces no progress on the Path.
It is far better to go for refuge to the Monastic Sanghaand give respect to that Sangha, especially those within the monastic Sangha withattainment on the Path. Why? Because the monastic Sangha is also the physical expressionof the Lord Buddha's Middle Way, it is the only authoritative Buddhist teachingorganization and, thirdly, it is the flag of Buddhism capable of giving inspiration in thevillages and cities of our world.
That the monastic Sangha is the physical expression of theLord Buddha's Middle Way is easily demonstrated when one investigate the Suttas what theLord Buddha meant by the 'Middle Way'. In the Aranavibhanga Sutta (Majjhima 139), the LordBuddha clearly explained that the Middle Way is a celibate way, "Beyond the pursuitof the pleasures of the five senses". Monasticism is the physical expression ofcelibacy. Every Buddhist should know that sensuality is the first of the three cravings(Kama-tanha) mentioned in the Second Noble Truth as the direct cause of Dukkha. Also, thatsuch sensuality is the first of the attachments (Kama-upadana). So those who are earnestabout abandoning such craving and uprooting such attachment would naturally gravitate tothe monastic Sangha. Thus, the monks and nuns include all those who are serious enoughabout Enlightenment to do some serious letting go of their cravings and attachments.
That the authority on Buddhism lies with the monasticSangha is demonstrated when one considers that only someone who is practicing the Dhamma,and uprooting sensuality has the authority to teach others to do the same. A sexuallyactive lay Buddhist who enjoys good food and entertainment while amassing worldlypossessions, and who teaches others to let go of attachments is called a hypocrite; onewho doesn't practise what they preach to others. They have no authority. It is true thatsome monks also qualify as hypocrites here, but they are more easily shown up for whatthey are than the lay teacher with far fewer rules. In short, a monastic is more reliable.
That the monastic Sangha is the flag of Buddhism refers tothe appearance and lifestyle of the Buddhist monk or nun. The simple brown robe and shavenhead are symbols of renunciation and a rejection of fashion. They are a flag to the peoplethat the way to happiness is not through amassing wealth and showing it off to others. Thelifestyle of morality and restraint seen in the behaviour of a good monk or nun are asignpost to others that freedom lies within precepts, not beyond them. And the quietnessand happiness of a trained monastic indicates the goal of the Noble Eightfold Path whichis the end of suffering. Good monks and nuns stand out as no lay person could, inspiringeven non Buddhists as worthy sons and daughters of the Lord Buddha. Like a patriot feelsinspired and uplifted when they see the flag of their country, so a true Buddhist feelsthe same emotions on seeing the flag of the Sangha in a diligent monk or nun.