Original meaning of the word sangha and other related terms (looking for philological arguments)

I have come across an interesting video (the speaker is undoubtedly quite entertaining, and he is a professor at a good university) in which it is said that the word sangha originally referred to a professional guild (and that its organization mirrors that of a business). It says that a business leader was called a Promukha (I hope I understood it correctly) and that the Buddha was referred to also by that name.

Are there philological arguments for or against (I would imagine some people here will disagree with the professor) this understanding of sangha as a business?
As always, I am asking because I think that the best way to come to a true understanding of a subject is to give serious consideration to the different conflicting views, so I hope the discussion will be fruitful and will make us advance on our paths. If anybody is offended by this question (I saw in a comment to a video that people were offended when a famous monk was compared to a shrewd lawyer by someone) please do not blame me but blame the professor instead :wink:

I hope so too @irene.
Also because it is expecting discussion rather than an answer, that is a solution to a question, I’m moving it to the Discussion category. :slight_smile:


I look forward to this discussion & viewing the rest of the video (which includes at least some lovely “old Indian” art).
Happen to read this, which seems somewhat relevant, due to a link on SuttaCentral.net 's homepage:

A monk is not an elder because his head is gray. He is but ripe in age, and he is called one grown old in vain.

One in whom there is truthfulness, virtue, inoffensiveness, restraint and self-mastery, who is free from defilements and is wise—he is truly called an Elder.

Not by mere eloquence nor by beauty of form does a man become accomplished, if he is jealous, selfish and deceitful.

But he in whom these are wholly destroyed, uprooted and extinct, and who has cast out hatred—that wise man is truly accomplished.

Not by shaven head does a man who is indisciplined and untruthful become a monk. How can he who is full of desire and greed be a monk?

He who wholly subdues evil both small and great is called a monk, because he has overcome all evil.

He is not a monk just because he lives on others’ alms. Not by adopting outward form does one become a true monk.

Whoever here (in the Dispensation) lives a holy life, transcending both merit and demerit, and walks with understanding in this world—he is truly called a monk.

Tangential to original meaning(s) of “sangha” but reflects skillful contemporaneous adaption of the related EBT use of bhikkhu.


The word saṅgha literally just means a group or assemblage: sam (= “co-”) + gha (= “join, come together”).

In the Pali texts it is used, in addition to the familiar Buddhist senses, for herds of deer, flocks of birds, and groups of relatives or gods.

The normal word for a “guild” would be, rather, sabhā. They’re basically synonyms, so there’s no reason Sangha should not be used in that sense, but I am not aware of any such cases. Nor are such uses recorded in the Sanskrit dictionaries.

I doubt whether the word originally meant a professional guild. I’ve heard the argument before, but never seen any convincing evidence for it; if I am missing something, please let me know. But I think it was more likely it was a general term for a group, flock, or herd.

Regardless of this specific detail, the fact that the Buddha modelled his Sangha in part after the organizational practices of the Khattiya (semi-democratic) aristocracies is well known; in fact it is the opening argument of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, whose ultimate purpose is to set the course for the Sangha after the Buddha’s death.

Schopen has this way of saying “we …” then saying something that is entirely presumptuous about the “we”. When “we” see a Buddha image, he says, “we” wouldn’t imagine that he taught practical matters.

This isn’t even an argument, it’s a rhetorical sleight of hand. When I see a picture of Gregory Schopen, I don’t think, “Hmm, I wonder how he manages his tax returns.” When I see a picture of the White House, it wouldn’t occur to me to wonder, “Hmm, how do they go about modernizing the sewerage systems there?”

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Buddhism, or any spiritual path, knows full well that it is necessary to pay for land, buildings, and other costs. Since the Vinaya texts discuss all this in detail, what is it exactly that “we” do not know here? The whole thing is framed as if it is the revelation of a major insight, but it just isn’t. Buddhists live in the world, so we deal with worldly things. That the Buddha was an excellent manager who dealt skilfully with practical matters is exemplified throughout the Vinaya, which has always been a core canonical text of Buddhism. Of course it’s a worthy subject of study, but it is just ordinary basic Buddhism, not some secret.


This was an excellent read, ty.

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Schopen discusses the use of pamukha/pramukha in early Pali texts and later epigraphical sources in his paper “The Buddha as an Owner of Property and Permanent Resident in Medieval Indian Monasteries”, especially pp.189-191.


This is a very interesting article, thank you for posting. It’s giving me a lot of food for thought.

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On this subject, I have a question:

When there is a group of lay Buddhist practitioners who form a formal meeting group and call it a Sangha, is that proper if there are no ordained monks or nuns associated with the group?

I was under the impression that the term Sangha described ordained monks and nuns, perhaps anagarikas too.

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If my memory serves me, I read somewhere in a book by B Bodhi that sangha refers to lay people too; I think he discussed the meaning of the triple gem.

I’ve often thought that if we’re to take refuge in the Buddha, The Dhamma and the Sangha and my Sangha is lay people who aren’t well grounded in right view, would I be taking refuge in unwholesomeness?

Normally the term Sangha is used in the suttas and in Buddhist cultures for monastics.

If you call your lay group a Sangha, consider that by doing so, you are silently signalling to traditional Buddhists that this is not for them. Buddhists from traditional cultures hold the monastic Sangha in great reverence, and it is odd, if not uncomfortable, for them to call themselves “Sangha”.


There is also the “fourfold sangha” or the “four sanghas” which includes laymen and laywomen, so the term can be, on occasion, a little more ambiguous, or at least becomes more ambiguous with time. Buddhist groups of laypeople who call themselves “sanghas” are likely using it in the sense of 四眾.


Thank you for your insightful reply, Bhante!

So are you saying that in traditional Buddhist cultures it would not be appropriate to call a lay group a Sangha but in a Western Buddhist culture it would be fine?

Are there any references in the suttas of groups of lay people?

On the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, it indicates that this might be a translation of catasraḥ parṣadaḥ, which isn’t necessarily quite “four sanghas/communities?”

What is the Pāli for “fourfold sangha,” I wonder?

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Considering this, and other thread comments about unwholesomeness as ?characteristic? of lay life, I wonder now what are the four assemblies for “traditional” Buddhists. 4 types of monastics?

What did the Buddha say in the EBTs? What is the point of being a lay follower for life, simply merit making for future rebirth? No lay renunciates ?

herds of deer, flocks of birds, but not lay people? @sujato :face_with_raised_eyebrow: :worried:

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Monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen.

There probably isn’t a Fourfold Āryasangha, my guessing.

Also, when taking refuge, it is likely not in the foufold sangha, because why? “I take refuge in my unenlightened self and monks with realization but also monks without it and other people without it and maybe some laypeople with it.” Not a lot of point IMO.

Well, regarding taking refuge comments, this seems to suggest there is really no qualitative difference between

  • being a nonBuddhist and being a diligent lay Buddhist, or
  • being anyone who identifies as “Buddhist” perhaps due to nationality (no matter how unwholesome their actions) and being a dedicated lay practitioner developimg renunciation.

Which doesn’t seem a rational perspective. It seems to deny that effort has effect, yet assert rites & rituals do; yet both those views are not Right AFAIK.


You might be talking about:

yadidaṃ cattāri purisayugāni aṭṭha purisapuggalā
esa bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho
āhuneyyo pāhuneyyo dakkhiṇeyyo añjalikaraṇīyo anuttaraṃ puññakkhettaṃ lokassa
It consists of the four pairs, the eight individuals. This is the Saṅgha of the Buddha’s disciples.

Anccānupassī Sutta AN 7.16 suggests the sāvakasaṅgha explained in first qoute are seven types; another way of dividing them. Same can be found in AN 7.17 and AN 7.18.

Mendicants, these seven people are worthy of offerings dedicated to the gods…
First, take a person who meditates observing impermanence in all conditions. They perceive impermanence and experience impermanence. Constantly, continually, and without stopping, they apply the mind and fathom with wisdom. They’ve realized the undefiled freedom of heart and freedom by wisdom in this very life, and live having realized it with their own insight due to the ending of defilements…
and Anāgāmī;
With the ending of the five lower fetters they’re extinguished upon landing. …

According to explaination in Dasa āhuneyya sutta AN10.97 it is an Arahant who is Āhuneyya.

Mendicants, these nine people are worthy of offerings dedicated to the gods, worthy of hospitality, worthy of a religious donation, worthy of greeting with joined palms, and are the supreme field of merit for the world. What nine? The perfected one and the one practicing for perfection. The non-returner and the one practicing to realize the fruit of non-return. The once-returner and the one practicing to realize the fruit of once-return. The stream-enterer and the one practicing to realize the fruit of stream-entry. And a member of the spiritual family. These are the nine people who are worthy of offerings dedicated to the gods, worthy of hospitality, worthy of a religious donation, worthy of greeting with joined palms, and are the supreme field of merit for the world.”
AN 9.10

According to this one there maybe lay people considered sāvakasaṅgha.

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