After the Buddha had attained Enlightenment, his first action was to seek out people with whom he could share what he had found - after all, if you had discovered a way to eliminate suffering for ever, you wouldn't want to keep it to yourself, would you? In a way, there was nothing else that he could have done - in the Enlightened Mind, wisdom in respect of the illusory nature of the self is conjoined with compassion in the face of the suffering that beings have to endure as a result of the harmful actions they commit out of ignorance. So the Buddha sought out people - and the scriptures record his elation at the moment when one of his followers, Kondañña, finally grasped the truth and attained Enlightenment for himself. The remaining members of the group of five in turn became Enlightened and formed the first ever Sangha, or community of Buddhist practitioners. The scriptures record that, in the course of the Buddha's long life as a teacher, many people were so impressed by him that they spontaneously "went for Refuge" to him - committing themselves to practising the Dharma either as lay followers or in the context of ordination as monks and nuns. Many of them achieved deep spiritual realisation, even full Enlightenment.

People continue to commit to the Buddhist path to this day, responding with the same kind of faith and recognition of the truth as the personal followers of the historical Buddha. This doesn't of course necessarily involve taking monastic ordination: the Buddha taught for people in all walks of life, and this is reflected in the fact that people in the Triratna community practise in a wide range of different situations - in the context of family life, in full-time residential Buddhist communities, in retreat centres, and even, at least for a while, as full-time meditators and hermits! But, whatever your individual context, having a community to practise in is well-nigh essential: anyone who has tried to practise the Dharma will be able to testify that nothing beats having other like-minded people to keep you company on the Buddhist path!

This community of practitioners makes up the Sangha in the sense of fellow travellers on the path and students of the Dharma. But Sangha as the third of the Three Jewels - the most precious values for Buddhists - is something rather different. If we are to Go for Refuge to something, we need to be sure that it will never let us down; as marvellous, committed and well-intentioned as they are, members of the Sangha in the sense outlined above are unlikely to be fully or even partially Enlightened beings and may therefore commit unskilful acts, fall away from the path and let us down - and we them. But happily for us, history is full of practitioners of the Dharma who have attained higher states of realisation and whose progress to full and perfect Enlightenment is assured - and these people, collectively known as the "Arya Sangha" (the word "Arya", which unfortunately comes with rather negative connotations for modern Westerners, actually has a range of meanings including "noble, kind, honourable, dear, favourable, polite") are those on whom we really can rely, to whom we can Go for Refuge, who can inspire us and whose example we can follow. And, what is more, our teacher Sangharakshita says that, with a few decades (!) of consistent practice, each and every practitioner can attain sufficient realisation for their eventual Enlightenment to be assured. In other words, each of us can become a member of the Arya Sangha in our own right. Food for thought, don't you think?