Monday, July 9, 2012

Buddhism by Numbers: 3 Refuges

When becoming a Buddhist, or reaffirming one’s commitment to the Buddhist path, it is in the Three Refuges* (Tisarana in Pali) that one places one’s trust. These are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, or the Awakened One, his teachings, and his community of monks and enlightened disciples. The essential formula chanted by Buddhists the world over is:

Buddham saranam gacchami   (I go to the Buddha for refuge) 
Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dharma for refuge)
Sangham saranam gacchami    (I go to the Sangha for refuge)

Ajahn Sumedho has explained the meaning of the Three Refuges with both clarity and wisdom:

“The word ‘Buddha’ is a lovely word – it means ‘The one who knows’ – and the first refuge is in Buddha as the personification of wisdom. Un-personified wisdom remains too abstract for us: we can’t conceive a bodiless, soul-less wisdom, and so as wisdom always seems to have a personal quality to it, using Buddha as its symbol is very useful.”
(Ajahn Sumedho, Now is the Knowing, p.5)

So, when taking refuge in the Buddha, we’re not worshipping him as a god, and we’re not praying to him for some kind of assistance (not in forest Buddhism, at any rate!). We are simply recognizing wisdom as the origin and aim of Buddhist practice, using the person of the Awakened One as an ideal to aspire to. Ajahn Sumedho has also said:

“A refuge is a place of safety, and so when superstitious people would come to my teacher Ajahn Chah, wanting charmed medallions or little talismans to protect them from bullets and knives, ghosts and so on, he would say, ‘Why do you want things like that? The only real protection is taking refuge in the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Buddha is enough.’ But their faith in Buddha wasn’t quite as much as their faith in those silly little medallions. They wanted something made out of bronze and clay, taking refuge in that which is truly unsafe and cannot really help us.”
(Ibid. p.7)

On the second refuge, the Buddhist teachings, Ajahn Sumedho has taught the following:

“Taking refuge in Dhamma is taking another safe refuge. It is not taking refuge in philosophy or intellectual concepts, in theories, in ideas, in doctrines or beliefs of any sort. It is not taking refuge in a belief in Dhamma, or a belief in God or in some kind of force in outer space or something beyond or something separate, something that we have to find later. The descriptions of the Dhamma keep us in the present, in the here-and-now, unbound by time.”
(Ibid. p.11)

The true Dharma (Dhamma in the Pali language) is found here in our own hearts, and is revealed in the world around us, it is a living experience of the way things are in this moment, not a belief in the way we would like things to be. Neither is it a mere acceptance of Buddhist teachings as a set of dogmas to cling to, for Buddhism is about the letting go of our attachments, not creating more objects of desire. 

Ajahn Sumedho has described the refuge of the Sangha succinctly as well:

“The third refuge is Sangha, which means a group. ‘Sangha’ may be the Bhikkhu-Sangha (the order of monks) – or the Ariya-Sangha, the group of the Noble Beings, all those who live virtuously, doing good and refraining from evil with bodily action and speech. Here, taking refuge in the Sangha with ‘Sangham saranam gacchami’ means we take refuge in virtue, in that which is good, virtuous, kind, compassionate and generous.”
(Ibid. p.13)

Both ordained monks that inspire us with their commitment to the Path, and those noble ones that have reached nirvana, the ending of greed, hatred, and delusion, are to respected and looked upon as role models. In using such worthy ones as examples of how to live wisely and honorably, we can improve ourselves beyond recognition, becoming members of the Ariya-Sangha as we progress along the Buddhist path. Ajahn Sumedho sums up his approach to the Three Refuges with the following wise words, based on the contemplative tradition that started with the Buddha over two millennia ago and continues in the forest monasteries of Northeast Thailand and the rest of the world: 

“So may you reflect on this and really see Buddha Dhamma Sangha as a refuge. Look on them as opportunities for reflection and consideration. It is not a matter of believing in Buddha Dhamma Sangha – not a faith in concepts – but a using of symbols for mindfulness, for awakening the mind here-and-now, being here-and-now.”
(Ibid. p.17)
*Footnote: Another name for the Three Refuges is the Triple Gem (Tiratana), so called because they are considered by Buddhists to be more valuable than all the precious stones to be found in the world.

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