BuddhaSasana Home Page English Section

Refuges on the Path

Bhikkhu Bodhi

The following talk was given by Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi during the days following the Temple Opening at Amaravati.

The topic that I have chosen to talk about this afternoon is a rather basic one, but I think it is always important for us to go back to the beginning and review our first steps as a follower of the Buddhist path. While we should keep our eyes focused on the stages of the path that we have not yet traversed, we should never forget the initial steps that give us a sense of purpose and direction. If we don't keep these basic steps constantly in mind, we are likely to become either too easily discouraged or overly optimistic, and thus lose our bearings along the path.

My topic is the Going for Refuge to the Triple Gem, an act that is taken to define one's status as a Buddhist. When somebody wants to become a Buddhist, they are initiated into the Dhamma by the formula of Going for Refuge, and thereafter they may repeat this formula every day. Moreover, every Buddhist ceremony begins with the act of Going for Refuge. Often, however, this recitation tends to turn into a mechanical and unthinking ritual, the meaning of which is barely understood. To prevent this from happening, to fix our mind firmly on our original resolution to follow the Dhamma, it is useful for us to repeatedly review this act in its diverse aspects.

At the start, what should immediately arrest our attention is the fact that one enters the Buddhist path by seeking refuge. The word 'refuge' means something that gives protection from danger, and this raises the question: 'What are the dangers facing us that make the quest for a refuge necessary?' In the Suttas the Buddha describes the normal human condition as an extremely precarious one. He compares human life to a man being swept down a river towards the ocean. The man tries to rescue himself by grasping the grasses and branches growing along the river bank, but each time the grasses break off and he is finally swept away to his death.

We might consider three basic levels of dangers we face from which we need protection. The first is the danger that confronts us in everyday life, namely, the danger of continually oscillating between extremes - extremes of clinging to desirable things and of trying to avoid things we regard as undesirable. Thus we seek pleasure, and are averse to pain; we seek success, and are averse to failure; we seek praise, and are averse to blame; we seek fame, and are averse to a bad reputation. If we cannot protect ourselves from being spun around by these pairs of opposites, when we fail to get what we want we reap disappointment. And when we succeed, we become attached to our success and thus prepare the ground for future misery.

Even if we manage to live comfortably through the greater part of our lives, without any major catastrophes, we still have to undergo old age. Occasionally we will be assailed by illness, and even if we manage to preserve good health all our lives, inevitably we have to die. If we don't have any protection for the mind, when we are afflicted with old age, we may become dejected. If we fall ill we will be helpless in dealing with our illness, and when we lie on our deathbeds we will be overwhelmed by fear, terror, and despair. But if our minds have been trained and disciplined, we can face all these calamities without being shaken by them. Thus the first reason for seeking refuge is to tread the path of mental training that will enable us to ride the ups and downs of daily life without being tossed around by the pairs of opposites, without being plunged into misery and despair by the inevitable slide towards old age, illness, and death.

A second type of danger from which we need protection is that associated with rebirth. The Buddha constantly teaches that this present life, which begins with birth and ends with death, is only one single link in a beginningless chain of existences, a series of rebirths. The mode of existence that we take in our next birth is determined by the actions we perform here and now. These actions are called kamma. Kamma is volitional action, deeds of body, speech, and mind springing from intention. Below the threshold of awareness, all such volitional deeds leave subtle deposits in the onward flow of our consciousness, in our mental continuum. We can think of these kammic deposits as seeds, seeds that lie dormant until they meet the right conditions. Then they ripen and bring forth results, their fruits.

Of the many seeds that we deposit in our minds through our volitional actions, one that is especially prominent and powerful will take on the role of generating the new existence, that is, it will produce rebirth. When we hear about rebirth, we might imagine that we are to be reborn in celestial realms of bliss or as kings, queens, and millionaires. Such thoughts, however, are usually just wishful fantasies. The Buddha teaches that there are many planes of existence into which rebirth can take place, and most rebirths occur below the human plane. The early texts describe five main spheres of rebirth. Three are realms of misery: the hells, realms of intense suffering; the animal realm; and the sphere of the pretas or hungry spirits, beings afflicted with extreme pangs of hunger and thirst which they can never satisfy. Then there are the fortunate realms: the human realm and the celestial planes. These last two are considered fortunate realms because within them happiness is more prevalent than suffering and because they offer the opportunity for spiritual progress in line with the Dhamma. In the realms of misery no such progress is possible.

Now there are distinct courses of kamma that lead to rebirth into these different realms. However, if we have to rely on our own resources - on our ordinary, unenlightened minds - we will have no idea what these are. Thus it is imperative for us to rely on a perfectly qualified guide, on someone who can teach us - precisely, exactly, and thoroughly - what courses of action we must abandon if we are to escape the danger of rebirth into a bad realm, and what courses of action we have to cultivate to assure ourselves of a fortunate rebirth. This is the second reason for going for refuge: to find protection from the danger of a bad rebirth and to assure ourselves of a pleasant rebirth congenial to our quest for the noble Dhamma.

However, even if we can secure a happy rebirth for ourselves, we still face a third danger, one rooted in the very nature of sentient existence. The Buddha teaches that existence in every realm, in every mode, is impermanent, bound to come to an end. Because all forms of conditioned existence are impermanent, they are also unsatisfactory, insecure, and vulnerable to suffering. Birth leads to old age and death, death is followed by new birth, and even the most felicitous type of birth must again end in death and in the misery inseparable from conditioned existence. This is the suffering of samsara, the danger of samsara. The ultimate purpose for the appearance of a Buddha is to find the way out from the suffering of samsara and to make that way known to the world. Therefore the ultimate goal for a follower of the Buddhist path is to break free entirely from this cycle of becoming, to attain that state which is not subject to birth, change, and death, to attain Nibbana, the Unconditioned, the Deathless. Now in order to attain the Deathless, to win deliverance from the round of birth and death, we have to understand what keeps us in bondage and what factors we must cultivate to eliminate the causes of bondage. Thus we have to rely on a fully qualified guide, to take refuge in one who has fully understood all this and can teach it with impeccable precision. The only one who meets this criterion is the Perfectly Enlightened One, and the one body of teachings that provides the necessary security is his Dhamma.

Now when we go for Refuge we look to Three Refuges: we go for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. These Three Refuges hang together inseparably and indivisibly. Of the three, the Buddha is the Supreme Teacher, the one who points out the path. The Dhamma is the Teaching itself: the map of the path, the way to liberation, and the final goal. And the Sangha is the community of noble disciples who embody the ideal, the models to emulate, our advisors and helpers in travelling along the path to liberation.

In Going for Refuge with depth of conviction it is important to understand clearly the meaning of these Three Refuges, both individually and collectively. The first is the Buddha.

It is quite significant that structurally the Three Refuges begin with a person rather than with some abstract ideal like the Dhamma. Though the Dhamma is the actual means to salvation, the Buddha comes first, for when we are lost in the jungle of confusion we first look for a person who knows the way. We need somebody who has reached the goal himself and who represents or manifests that final goal in his own person.

So the Three Refuges begin with the Buddha as the supreme personal refuge, as the unsurpassed teacher.

But we do not simply Go for Refuge to one particular historical individual. The word 'Buddha' is an epithet meaning the Enlightened One. This epithet has been given to a lineage of individuals who discovered the Dhamma at a time when the precious Teaching had completely disappeared from the world. Thus when we take refuge in the Buddha, we are taking refuge in the collection of qualities that define this person as a Buddha, as one of the line of Perfectly Enlightened Ones.

These qualities can be summed up very concisely as the abandonment of all faults and the achievement of all virtues. The faults are the defilements together with their vasanas, or residual impressions, all of which the Buddha has eliminated totally, permanently, and irreversibly. Therefore his purity is complete and unparalleled. The incalculable, inconceivable positive virtues that the Buddha has acquired are headed by two supreme qualities. One is perfect wisdom, the wisdom that understands all phenomena in all their modes and relationships. The wisdom that knows the path to enlightenment and liberation in all its details. The wisdom that understands the dispositions of living beings. The wisdom that knows how to teach people in the precise way needed to lead them on to the path of awakening and to bring their faculties to maturity.

The other sterling quality of the Buddha is his great compassion. The Buddha did not achieve Enlightenment just for himself, but to confer the blessings of the Dhamma upon the world. The Buddhist tradition speaks of the Buddha as having undergone countless previous lives as a Bodhisatta. Moved by great compassion he underwent inconceivable hardships pursuing the goal of supreme Buddhahood in order to make the Dhamma - the way to liberation from suffering - available when it was no longer known and preserved in the world. That great compassion of the Buddha continues to operate through the centuries after his demise, as embodied and preserved in his Dhamma.

As a refuge, the function of a Buddha is to point to the Dhamma as the Teaching, the Path, and the Goal. The Dhamma as the Teaching is the verbal teaching of the Buddha preserved in the Tipitaka (the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka). As a teaching, the Dhamma is essentially a map of the way to be followed to arrive at the goal to which the Buddha points. It is a very precise and detailed set of guidelines to understanding and practice, one that we have to apply in our daily life.

We can explain the Path in many different ways, but its highest and fullest expression is the Noble Eightfold Path. The Path is a course of practice along which one walks, and when one walks that Path one eventually comes to the Goal. The Goal is also included in the Dhamma as Refuge. The Goal is the ultimate Dhamma, the unconditioned element, Nibbana. Although the Noble Eightfold Path is the most perfect path, it is still not the final Dhamma, not the final Refuge. It is a means for reaching the final Refuge, and thus its value is instrumental, not intrinsic. The final Refuge can only be that which is not desirable as an end to something beyond itself, and that means it must be something unconditioned. This is the Deathless, Nibbana. So, when one says, 'I go for Refuge to the Dhamma', one directs one's mind to Nibbana as the final deliverance from suffering.

The third Refuge is the Sangha. Here we have to make an important distinction between two kinds of Sangha. One is the Ariyan Sangha. This is the community of Noble Ones, those who have reached certain high planes of realisation from which ultimate liberation is ensured. The texts speak of four levels of realisation: the levels of the stream enterer, the once-returner, the non-returner, and the arahant. Those who have reached any of these four levels of awakening, or who are definitely on the paths culminating in these four levels, make up the Ariyan Sangha, the Noble Community. As I understand it, the Ariyan Sangha is not an exclusively monastic order, but includes anyone who reaches one of these levels of awakening. The function of the Sangha as Refuge is to serve as guides in the practice of the Path. The most reliable guides we can turn to will naturally be those who have themselves attained the paths and experienced the fruits, and thus can teach the way from their own direct experience.

But the Buddha, in his wisdom, did not confine Sangha only to those who have reached the highest levels of realisation. He also established a monastic community, consisting of people keen to dedicate themselves fully to the practice of his Teaching, who wish to tread the path to liberation without being distracted by the concerns and obligations of secular life. So the Buddha deliberately established a monastic Sangha to carry on his message and to fulfil his practice. When one goes for refuge to the Sangha, in the higher sense one goes for refuge to the Ariyan Sangha. At the same time, however, one also expresses a commitment to accept the monastic Sangha as one's guide in treading the Path. The monks and nuns are one's kalyanamittas, one's noble friends, and even those who have not reached any stages of awakening, if they are virtuous, knowledgeable, and trustworthy, can still provide great help and support. Even those who merely accept alms silently, if they use their time wisely, become an excellent field of merit for others, and the offerings given to them become fruitful seeds of great meritorious potency.

Usually we think of Going for Refuge as the first step of Buddhist practice, a formula that one recites at the beginning of one's life as a Buddhist but which afterwards drops away into the background. However, the act of Going for Refuge can be used as a vehicle of practice, a method of self-cultivation, because when one Goes for Refuge what one is actually doing is giving a particular direction to the mind. If it is done mindfully, slowly, and deliberately, the Going for Refuge activates certain factors of the mind. We will consider one way this happens in terms of five spiritual faculties (indriya).

The five faculties are faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. By Going for Refuge consciously, one is actually arousing, strengthening, and reinforcing these five mental qualities to the point where they become guiding factors of spiritual development. The Going for Refuge is first of all an act of faith (saddha). When one Goes for Refuge one makes a definite commitment to a particular ideal and to a particular person who represents that ideal. One places the heart upon the Buddha as one's supreme guide; one surrenders one's own will to the Buddha as one's master. One reflects that one is following his path, not as an exercise in self-will, but as a way of relinquishing self-will in its entirety. It is not that one surrenders one's own intelligence and right to critical inquiry, for the Buddha never demands this of his disciples. But when one awakens faith one does put away the egocentric point of view that takes one's own views and opinions as the yardstick for judging everyone else. Instead one accepts the Buddha as someone who is infinitely wiser than oneself. This is done as an act of faith, an act of trust, because one doesn't yet know the Dhamma for oneself; one doesn't fully understand it. However, by recognising the wisdom of the Buddha's teaching one suspends all one's doubts and reservations. In trust one commits oneself to the Buddha as the supreme master and decides to follow his Dhamma and to respect his Sangha. In short, one looks upon the Three Refuges as one's own refuges. In this way the Going for Refuge becomes an act of faith.

The Going for Refuge should be done with understanding. If it is done solely through exuberant faith and devotion, it will not be very fruitful. To be truly fruitful, faith has to be wedded with paa - with wisdom or understanding. At the outset this is not the profound wisdom which sees into the real nature of things; it is still a kind of reflective understanding arisen from deep consideration of the nature of life. But it is wisdom all the same, and thus the Going for Refuge brings the faculty of wisdom into play. This wisdom then develops and matures through continual practice of the Path, especially through deep contemplation and meditation, until it becomes direct experiential insight.

Both faith and wisdom have to be activated, which means they require energy or vigour (viriya). But to prevent vigour from getting out of hand and leading to excessive enthusiasm, we have to balance it by concentration, by mental composure. This is the faculty of samadhi or concentration. When energy and concentration are balanced, the Going for Refuge can become a passageway to states of deep meditation.

In many Suttas the Buddha teaches contemplation of the Buddha, contemplation of the Dhamma, and contemplation of the Sangha as means to develop samadhi. In the Anguttara Nikaya (Book of Ones) there is even a series of Suttas in which he says: 'There is one thing that leads to supreme peace, to direct knowledge, to Enlightenment, to Nibbana. What is that one thing? Recollection of the Buddha is that one thing.' And in the next two suttas the same is said about recollection of the Dhamma and recollection of the Sangha. Thus one can use the Three Refuges as objects of contemplation for deep concentration. If this concentration is then conjoined with wisdom by the practice of insight meditation, it becomes part of the way to Enlightenment and Nibbana.

For these four faculties - faith and wisdom, energy and concentration - to function properly, they all have to be held in proper balance. The balance is achieved by the disciplining influence of another faculty, the central one, sati or mindfulness. Mindfulness ensures that neither faith nor wisdom, neither energy nor concentration, exceeds the other. It enables all the other faculties to make their appropriate contributions in exactly the right measure. Thereby, when one Goes for Refuge, one does so mindfully, and one uses this mindfulness to bring the other faculties into balance. In this way, within the context of the Going for Refuge, all five faculties will function in unison to bring realisation of the final goal. And with that the Going for Refuge reaches its consummation.


Source: Forest Sangha Newsletter, October  1999, U.K., http://www.fsnewsletter.net

[Back to English Index]
last updated: