What’s the structure of Theravada societies?

According to the traditional account, shortly after the Buddha’s awakening, he gave his first sermon—an explanation of the four noble truths—to five ascetics with whom he had practiced before his enlightenment. They became his first disciples and members of what came to be known as the sangha, meaning “assembly” or “company.” The sangha grew exponentially over the course of the Buddha’s lifetime. 

The sangha is one of the three jewels (or three gems) of Buddhism, alongside the Buddha and the dharma, or teaching. Spiritual relationships between earnest dharma students, the Buddha said, were paramount to following his path of practice. In the Uppadha Sutta, he calls these relationships “the whole of the holy life.” The community is often referred to as the “four-fold sangha” because it consists of nuns, monks, laywomen, and laymen. In the early days, the Buddha ordained only men, but it wasn’t long before his stepmother, Mahapajapati, together with five hundred companions and his attendant Ananda, convinced him to ordain women too, thus launching the order of Buddhist nuns.

The relationship between the monastic sangha and the laity has always been indispensable to the preservation and dissemination of the teachings in Theravada countries. As in the Buddha’s time, traditional Theravadin monastics offer the teachings and uphold the Buddha’s lifestyle as an example, and the laity in turn provide for the material needs of the monks and nuns.

To this day, in countries like Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka with large Theravada Buddhist populations, the reciprocal relationship of the monastic sangha and the laity remains intact. That dynamic has been exported to the Western countries where Theravadin communities and monastic centers have taken root, especially in places where many Southeast Asians live. You can see monks walking on alms rounds in cities as far-flung as Los Angeles, Toronto, Berlin, and Sydney. While there is some support for monks and nuns and their monasteries from Westerners, the practice has not been ingrained as a cultural habit in Western societies. As a result, most monasteries in the West have to rely largely on their Asian congregants for support, or make adjustments to the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct, which prohibits any income other than donations, in order to support themselves. 


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