What is a Sangha?
Sangha is a word with multiple meanings. It most often refers to the monastic orders and the institutional bodies of Buddhism. However, it is also often used in a way similar to how some western Christians use "church." A sangha can be a particular group of Buddhists, lay or monastic, who practice together. Or, it can mean all Buddhists everywhere.
The importance of sangha cannot be overestimated. Trying to achieve enlightenment by yourself and only for yourself is like trying to walk uphill during a mudslide. Opening yourself to others, supporting and being supported, is critical to loosening the fetters of ego and selfishness.
Thich Nhat Hanh has stressed the importance of sangha building as the key to creating a stable foundation for our practice. He wrote in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching "Dharma books and tapes are valuable, but the true Dharma is revealed through our life and our practice... There are said to be 84,000 Dharma doors... To take refuge in the Dharma is to choose the doors that are most appropriate for us. Dharma is great compassion, understanding, and love. To realize these qualities, we need a sangha... When a sangha shines its light on our personal views, we see more clearly. In the sangha, we won’t fall into negative habit patterns."
The late Chogyam Trungpa said of taking refuge in the Sangha, "The sangha is the community of people who have the perfect right to cut through your trips and feed you with their wisdom, as well as the perfect right to demonstrate their own neurosis and be seen through by you. The companionship within the sangha is a kind of clean friendship--- without expectation, without demand, but at the same time, fulfilling."
The Buddha emphasized the importance of sangha on the spiritual path. Buddhist practice must include all aspects of one’s life. Trying to separate one’s spiritual life from one’s material needs is likely to result in serious self-alienation, and misses the whole purpose of the Buddhist path. In this way the sangha must be part of our everyday life.
A short story from the sutras shows the importance Buddha placed on sangha.
Ananda, Buddha's long-time personal attendant and monk-disciple, asks Buddha -- "Is it true what has been said, that good spiritual friends are fully half of the holy life?" The Master replied, "No, Ananda, good spiritual friends are the whole of the holy life. Find refuge in the sangha community."
By taking refuge in the Sangha, we become the refuge. This is the path of the Buddhas.