Sangha, or community, is one of the three jewels of Buddhism (the others being buddha and dharma). Traditionally, the sangha is dividied into four categories, known as the fourfold sangha:
- Monks (bhikkhu)
- Nuns (bhikkhuni)
- Laymen (upasaka)
- Laywomen (upasika)
How important are these four kinds of Buddhist practitioners? In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha asserted he would not enter nirvana until he had followers from all four categories who were “accomplished, trained, learned knowers of the dharma.” Only then would his work be complete.
Unfortunately, Buddhism has not historically valued these four sanghas equally. For centuries, “sangha” referred primarily to just one category: monks. This is changing in the modern world. In both Asia and the West, there has been a revival in recent decades of full ordination for nuns, and laymen and laywomen are taking stronger roles in their communities.
The importance of the fourfold sangha is also reflected in the increasing role of lay teachers, as it tasks all Buddhists equally with understanding, practicing, and sharing the teachings. The true fourfold sangha excludes no one while holding the highest expectations for everyone.