But before I get to the source of my surprise, what is the Pāli canon? It's the oldest extant collection of the Buddha's teachings, transmitted by oral tradition by the monks who were his disciples to later generations, eventually recorded in written form. As is the case with many religious traditions, the texts used by the adherents of Buddhism were not written until later and were written based on the oral tradition of the early Buddhist community.
The early Buddhist community was probably not a unified whole in which every member of the Sangha agreed on every point with every other member of the Sangha, but the first documented splitting of the community into different schools occurred between the time of the second Buddhist council and the third Buddhist council. The Pāli canon was probably the work of this early Buddhist community in much the same way that the New Testament writings were the work of the early Christian community (though the Pāli canon is older than any of the the New Testament canons by several hundred years).
When I refer to the Sangha above, I mean the assembly of Buddhist monks and nuns, though there are understandings of the Sangha which are broader in scope. It was these monks and nuns who preserved the Buddha's teachings, a process we might think of as dharma transmission, the passing on of the truths the Buddha revealed to us about morality, the cosmic order, and transcendence. Without the Sangha, we would not have any writings to refer to when we sought refuge in the Buddha and his teachings.
And even more importantly, without the Sangha there is no lived experience of Buddhism to be handed on to those who want to become Buddhists. As Joanna Piacenza has pointed out, many people who are interested in Buddhism in the West don't have any contact with this lived experience of Buddhism and simply engage in a reductive sort of mindfulness meditation without the benefit of the Sangha's ability to transmit to them the full experience of Buddhism.
This leads them to be what she calls "buddhist Meditators" because they meditate regularly but have no authentic connection to Buddhism proper. As someone who used to be a buddhist Meditator, I can attest that her description of this phenomenon is quite accurate. Fortunately, I was able to move past that point and study Buddhism more deeply. This was largely thanks to the work of the Sangha, and I am grateful for their help.
The Buddha himself does not mince words when describing the importance of the Sangha, but let's begin with the words of his student who learned a valuable lesson and was grateful for it:
"Magnificent, venerable sir! Magnificent, venerable sir! The Blessed One has made the Dhamma clear in many ways, as if he were turning upright what had been overthrown, revealing what was hidden, showing the way to one who was lost, or holding up a lamp in the darkness so those with good eyesight can see forms. We now go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. Let the Blessed One accept us as lay followers who have gone for refuge from today until life's end."
Kālāmas, who is learning from the Buddha how to avoid unreliable means of gaining knowledge, presents us with a pretty standard line about going to the Buddha for refuge, because for many the Buddha's teachings are a place where we are free of the dangers of the false views which are ubiquitous in the world. He goes to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha for refuge from these false views. This is a set of three that I've seen many times in the Pāli canon, reminiscent of the triple munera of Christianity.
The beginning is the Buddha himself, whose friendship is invaluable. The teaching of the Buddha is the timeless Dhamma, which leads to our liberation if we follow it diligently. The Sangha is the preserver and protector of the Dhamma, ensuring that the path of liberation is available to all who seek it. The common denominator here is the Dhamma which liberates; the Buddha is the expounder of the Dhamma and the Sangha safeguards the Dhamma from false views which might overtake it.
This is why the Buddha warns Ānanda, a venerable disciple of the Buddha who features in the discourses of the Pāli canon with some regularity, against anything which damages the integrity of the Sangha.
"There are, Ānanda, these six roots of disputes. What six? Here, Ānanda, a monk is angry and resentful. Such a monk dwells without deference toward the Teacher, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and he does not fulfill the training. A monk who dwells without deference toward the Teacher, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and who does not fulfill the training, creates a dispute in the Sangha, which would be for the harm and unhappiness of many, for the loss, harm, and suffering of devas and humans."
The Buddha repeats this same point six times with regard to six different types of destructive behavior to the Sangha, the community of the Buddha's disciples, which causes such grave harm to and unhappiness for many people and devas. The Buddha takes pains to point out over and over that there are very serious consequences for both individuals and the world if the Sangha is allowed to disintegrate.
Because the Buddha understands the importance of the continuation of the Sangha, he gives them instructions for ensuring that the community of those who follow the Buddha can thrive:
Soon after Vassakāra had gone, the Blessed One said: "Ānanda, go to whatever monks there are living around Rājagaha, and summon them to the assembly hall."
"Yes, venerable sir," said Ānanda, and he did so. Then he came to the Blessed One, saluted him, stood to one side, and said: "Venerable sir, the Sangha of monks is assembled. Now is the the time for the Blessed One to do as he sees fit." The the Blessed One rose from his seat, went to the assembly hall, sat down on the prepared seat, and said: "Monks, I will teach you seven things that are conducive to welfare. Listen, pay careful attention, and I will speak."
"Yes, venerable sir," said the monks, and the Blessed One said: "As long as the monks hold regular and frequent assemblies, they may be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as they meet in harmony, break up in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony, they may be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as they do not authorize what has not been authorized already, and do not abolish what has been authorized, but proceed according to what has been authorized by the rules of training...; as long as they honor, respect, revere, and salute the elders of long standing who are long ordained, fathers and leaders of the order...; as long as they do not fall prey to the craving that arises in them and leads to rebirth...; as long as they are devoted to forest-lodgings...; as long as they preserve their mindfulness regarding the body, so that in future the good among their companions will come to them, and those who have already come will feel at ease with them...; as long as the monks hold to these seven things and are seen to do so, they may be expected to prosper and not decline."
The Buddha understood that human beings are notoriously prone to allowing themselves to lapse in their routine practices (such as an ascetic lifestyle marked by simple lodgings and almsrounds) which support them on the path to liberation, which leads to a lapse in right conduct (such as communal harmony, respect for those who have gone before, and mindfulness of the body), which then leads to allowing themselves to wander from the path entirely by authorizing behaviors the Buddha prohibited for their good, knowing that if they allowed themselves to engage in those behaviors that cause craving to arise and lead them to yet another rebirth and death in the cosmos of suffering.
After all, the duty of the Sangha is to preserve and protect the Dhamma so that the path to liberation might be available to all beings. This is an extremely important duty; the Sangha acts as a bulwark against the seemingly inevitable onslaught of the endless cycle of death and rebirth. The Sangha must remain faithful to the Dhamma the Buddha has expounded, a brake on the all too human tendency to water down the difficult truths about the effort and discipline required to walk the path to liberation and reach its end.
So how highly does the Buddha place the importance of the Sangha?
The Buddha said to Anathapindika: "In the past, householder, there was a Brahmin named Velama. He gave such a great alms offering as this: 84,000 bowls of gold filled with silver; 84,000 bowls of silver filled with gold; 84,000 bronze bowls filled with bullion; 84,000 elephants, chariots, milch cows, maidens, and couches, many millions of fine cloths, and indescribable amounts of food, drink, ointment, and bedding. As great as was the alms offering that Velama gave, it would be even more fruitful if one were to feed even a single person possessed of right view. ...it would be even more fruitful if one would feed the Sangha of monks headed by the Buddha and build a monastery for the sake of the Sangha of the four quarters...it would be even more fruitful if, with a trusting mind, one would go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and would undertake the five precepts: abstaining from the destruction of life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from the use of intoxicants. As great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful if one would develop a mind of loving-kindness even for the time it takes to pull a cow's udder. And as great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful still if one would develop the perception of impermanence just for the time it takes to snap one's fingers."
In the Buddha's peerless vision, the most important thing he sees is walking the path to liberation by abstaining from immoral behavior, by developing a capacity for boundless loving-kindness, and by cultivating the liberating insight into the impermanence of all things which so indelibly marks the Dhamma as the Buddha expounded it. The second most important thing he lists is the feeding of the monks of the Sangha and building a monastery for them.
This is, of course, not because the Buddha wanted to enrich himself or his followers with fine foods and luxurious living. His ascetic practices, to which he instructed his monks to hold firm, thoroughly reject the excesses of the acquisition of personal wealth and ease. But the community does have a treasury of the greatest wealth to honor with all the honors which can be given in this world, and this wealth is the Dhamma which they are bound to preserve and protect so that all can find refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.
The Buddha teaches us that aside from walking the path to liberation for yourself, the best thing one can do is to support the Sangha in its mission to preserve and protect the Dhamma, ensuring that all beings will continue to be able to find the path to the final enlightenment which the Buddha explained so eloquently. By upholding the Sangha which holds fast to the Dhamma, we pass on to those who come after us a compass which points us unerringly in the right direction on the path to liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.
The ornate temples and meditation rooms in the monasteries, standing in stark contrast to the simple garb, self-denial, and poverty of the monks, point the seekers after liberation towards the path the Buddha showed us. They show us that the path to liberation is worth every worldly honor, that its cost is like that of building the finest temples, and that those who walk the path must give up the pursuit of wealth and pleasure to reach its end.
In the end, the Sangha is the repository of the Dhamma of the Buddha which he left in the world for us; the Sangha is the Buddha's boat, the ship of the Sakyan son in which we can take refuge as we cross to the other shore surely by following always the light of the Buddha himself, he who is the lighthouse.
By Unknown - http://www2.odl.ox.ac.uk/gsdl/cgi-bin/library?e=d-000-00---0orient01--00-0-0-0prompt-10---4------0-1l--1-en-50---20-about---00001-001-1-1isoZz-8859Zz-1-0&a=d&cl=CL1&d=orient001-aaf.14, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41190754
Note: For those who are interested, you can find more information about the anthology I'm using on my Sources page.