what defines an organization? the case of the global sangha

(National Airport) What defines an “organization”? Normally, I would cite some kind of boundary around the people who belong to the group, plus some kind of system for making decisions that affect the whole. The boundaries can be temporary or permeable, and the decisions can be partial or occasional, but these seem to be definitive features.

It’s interesting to think about the global community of Buddhist monks, the sangha. According to the received story, The Buddha himself ordained the first monks and nuns and gave them the authority to ordain others. According to this account, today’s Buddhist monastics are descendants of a continuous series of ordinations that go back to the founding; this makes them the sangha. There are strict criteria for membership, and new monks and nuns take detailed vows. Even if the lineage of ordinations doesn’t really extend from each of today’s monastics all the way back to The Buddha, the lines extend a long way through history, and the story makes a plausible hypothetical.

The sangha is clearly a network, because the ties of ordination link everyone. Is it also an organization? It has a boundary (with monks/nuns on the inside and laypeople without). The ordination criteria and vows are tools for constraining the monastics’ behavior and influencing results. A monk can be expelled by his own abbot. Because there is no leader, steering committee, or electorate, it is hard to change the direction of the sangha as a whole (as opposed to the policies of any given monastery). But the practices of the whole sangha can evolve as a result of the members’ aggregate choices. Practices could shift quickly if a change that was compatible with the traditional vows spread fast. Is that enough to make the sangha an organization?

Incidentally, priests in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches all claim a lineage of ordinations all the way back to Jesus and St. Peter—the Apostolic Succession. So do some Lutherans, Methodists, and Moravians. If the global Buddhist sangha is an organization, then all of these churches also form one organization that just happens to be internally divided today. I think that is more or less the Anglican view of the situation, but not the Roman Catholic one; and the other denominations are mixed on the issue. This raises the question of whether someone can be a member of a given organization and yet deny it.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.