The Sanskrit term, sangha, refers to an “assembly” of individuals united by a common goal, vision or purpose. More specifically, it refers to the community of those who have received (and been transformed by) the Dharma. The sangha is one of the ‘Three Jewels‘ in which persons of Dharma are counseled to seek refuge (i.e. Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).
It is not uncommon, however, to hear the term sangha defined as ‘the community of monastics’, or, if pressed, to hear that the sangha is divided into a ‘high’ sangha consisting of monastics, and a ‘low’ sangha consisting of the laity.
In its description of the ‘Main Characteristics of Pure Land,’ the Van Hien Study Group states:
[Pure Land] is a democratic method that empowers its adherents freeing them from arcane metaphysics as well as dependence on teachers, gurus, roshis and other mediating authority figures.
Jodo Shinshu, because of its reliance on Other-Power, is safe and sane enough for use by householders (i.e. lay practitioners) without the need for intense, immediate and constant supervision by ‘mediating authority figures.’ Nevertheless, we do not advise using this as an excuse not to test the quality of ones approach and engagement against that standard set up by Śākyamuni and the Mahayana and Jodo Shinshu Patriarchs.
Master Nan Huai-Chin states:
all those whose minds [are] set on the realm of Buddhahood though their bodies might abide in the world of dusts, those who [adopt] the Buddhist way of thinking and conduct in detaching from the dusts of sensory experience and the conventional world, and those who [make] the great vow to work for the salvation of sentient beings, unlimited by time or space—no matter whether they are house-holders or home-leavers, no matter whether they are male or female, or young or old—all such people [are] called Great Vehicle Bodhisattvas.
We are all receptacles and upholders of the Dharma and there should be a genuine feeling of mutual respect between the monastic and lay elements of the sangha. Householders should not disturb the harmony of the sangha by reviling or undermining home-leavers, just as monastics should not denigrate or slight the laity.
Lastly, I would humbly suggest that—except in rare cases—monasticism (i.e. home-leaving) should be the exception and not the rule. Home-leaving serves as a temporary refuge for the very young from the damage which can stem from socialization into an overwhelmingly materialistic and self-willed culture. It serves as a refuge for the very old as a means to cast off the burden of worldly possessions and to sever attachment to the notion of a discrete, personal self in preparation for death. It also serves as a refuge for those (of whatever age) who may need some time away from the world. Monasticism is abused when it is used as a means of retreating from the world, or as a means of using religion for self-glorification and self-righteousness.