Against The Stream ~ TAKING REFUGEE

SOME OF THE BUDDHA’S last advice, before He passed away, was: "Be an island unto yourselves; be lamps unto yourselves; be a refuge unto yourselves. With the Dharma as your Refuge, go to no external refuge".

A Refuge means a place or state of safety, and the Buddhist state of safety lies nowhere except in the depths of our own hearts, in the Study, Application and Realization of the Dharma.

A Buddhist learns about Natural Law and begins to see that all things— from the smallest to the greatest— come from causes, like plants come from seeds. He sees that all things come and go, arise and perish. And when he sees this, he realizes it is useless to look for lasting peace and happiness outside himself, and that the only true peace and happiness can be found in the heart that has grown wide and deep, calm and clear. He sees how useless it is to blame other people and things for the situation he finds himself in, and that he himself is not totally responsible for it. He may not understand it or want it, but he sees that it must have arisen because of causes, most of which are beyond his control. He therefore assesses it to see what he may learn from it and how it may be turned around. If it is still not to his liking, he knows it will not last, but will change and become something else.

The practice of ‘Taking Refuge’ must have existed in India before Buddhism began. It was probably common for people to say: "I Take Refuge in you and your teachings" when they were satisfied with what they heard a teacher say and wished to take him as their teacher; it would come from themselves. We cannot imagine the Buddha saying: "Repeat after me: ‘Buddham Saranam Gacchami .… Dharmam Saranam Gacchami ….Sangham Saranam Gacchami’ "!

The first people to Take Refuge as Buddhists were two merchants who came upon the Buddha sitting in the forest shortly after His Enlightenment. According to the legend, they were the first people to meet Him after that most momentous event. So impressed were they by His appearance that they greeted Him respectfully and offered Him some food. Now, there is no record of what He said to them in what should rightly be considered His First Sermon,1 but whatever it was so convinced them that they spontaneously Took Refuge in Him and His Teachings by saying: "Buddham Saranam Gacchami, Dharmam Saranam Gacchami". Since the Buddha had not yet any disciples, and there were no monks, they did not say "Sangham Saranam Gacchami". They Took Refuge only in the Buddha and the Dharma; there was not yet a Sangha2 so they could not say: "I Take Refuge in the Sangha".

Nowadays, many people recite the Triple-Refuge formula without really understanding its meaning, as something they have learned by heart. Actually, it is meaningless unless and until we are convinced that the Buddhist Way, and no other, is the Way we want to follow; it is a matter of expressing one’s confidence in the Way. We can do this only when and if we have investigated other Ways and found them unsuitable. We must know why we choose Buddhism over other Ways.

A Buddhist Takes Refuge in the Triple Gem or Three Jewels: The Buddha, as the Teacher; the Dharma, as the Teachings, or— more— as the Law; and the Sangha, as all those who have attained some fruit of the Way by following the Dharma. From the Buddha’s last advice, however, we understand that the Ultimate Refuge— the Dharma— is not outside of ourselves.

Taking Refuge means deciding to follow the Buddha’s Way to the best of our ability, for the purpose of self-development, of becoming better people, or reaching enlightenment. A Buddhist must have faith in the Three Jewels, but it is not blind faith or mere belief; it is faith based upon knowledge and perception of the truth and validity of the Buddha’s Teachings, faith sprung from experience. When a person has such faith, he may Take Refuge, as he is convinced that it is the right way for him. It is a solemn and serious undertaking and does not mean just reciting an ancient formula; as an important step, it should not be taken lightly. It is different from the baptism of other religions, whereby babies are baptized into the religion, because a person becomes a Buddhist by his own choice, when he is old enough to understand and choose for himself. A little baby cannot be considered a Buddhist, as it cannot think for itself and understands nothing.

1It is taught, and generally believed, that He gave His First Sermon to the Five Ascetics in the Deer Park near Benares, some weeks after His Enlight-enment.
2The word Sangha simply means ‘community’, but in this context, it means ‘a spiritual community’. Later on, it came to mean the Order of Monks founded by the Buddha. If we are referring to this Sangha, we should be specific, and say Bhikkhu-Sangha. In another sense, it means the whole Buddhist community, comprising monks, nuns, laywomen and laymen. The Sangha that we Take Refuge in when we say “Sangham Saranam Gacchami”, however, refers to the Ariya (Noble) Sangha—that is, those who have attained some degree of supramundane awakening or enlightenment, and that may mean anyone, not just ordained people like monks or nuns.

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