Identity and community

The majority of adherents of most religions are not so because they have from some (impossible) neutral starting point debated the key ideas intellectually and decided to agree, but because they were born into a particular family and community. Buddhist children will learn about the tradition from their family, and in many Buddhist-majority countries, at school. Even those who ‘convert’ as adults may do so more from personal experience, or encounters with a group of people whose way of life they find attractive, than from philosophical conviction alone. ‘Religion’ is not only about ideas or beliefs, or even values and behaviour, but also a sense of identity.

Identifying as a Buddhist is often expressed, especially in Theravada, by taking the ‘three refuges’ – repeating ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha’ – aligning yourself with a teacher, a teaching accepted as the truth and a community. The term ‘sangha’ or community, which may be used to refer to the whole Buddhist community, is often used just to refer to the monastic community, whose identity is usually marked out by their shaved heads and distinctive robes – not only the different shades of orange found in Sri Lanka and Thailand, but elsewhere dark red, yellow, ochre, black, brown, white or the burgundy and yellow of Tibetan monastics. Novices usually wear white robes. The various categories of not-quite-nuns may also wear white, or burgundy and yellow (like the monks) in Tibetan Buddhism, dark brown in the Thai forest monastery tradition, and in Myanmar they wear pink. There are some Buddhist traditions where the clergy do marry, or where leadership is lay, but even where there is a strict separation of lay and monastic life, the two parts of the community are mutually interdependent, the monastics needing the lay people for food and other material requirements, and the lay community needing the monastics for teaching, spiritual, moral and practical advice and ceremonies.

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