By Kaushalya Premachandra
(Courtesy: Ven. Kumbalgama Sri Sangharakkhitha Thera of Peellakanda Arya Sila Foundation)
One seeks refuge when one is utterly distressed for the fear of safety and security of one’s life. The refugee crisis today clearly shows the physical and emotional distress of man without a proper or permanent solution to his problems.
When the world is on an eternal search to find means to satisfy its population, Buddhism shows a clear path to eternal bliss and peacefulness to bring all suffering to an end. Hence, it urges one to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha meaningfully.
The Threefold Refuge
The threefold refuge is termed as tisarana in Pali. The Pali version of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha is as follows:
- Buddhan saranan gacchami (I take refuge in the Buddha)
- Dhamman saranan gacchami (I take refuge in the Dhamma)
- Sanghan saranan gacchami (I take refuge in the Sangha)
- Dutiyampi Buddhan saranan gacchami (For a second time, I take refuge in the Buddha)
- Dutiyampi Dhamman saranan gacchami (For a second time, I take refuge in the Dhamma)
- Dutiyampi Sanghan saranan gacchami (For a second time, I take refuge in the Sangha)
- Tatiyampi Buddhan saranan gacchami (For a third time, I take refuge in the Buddha)
- Tatiyampi Dhamman saranan gacchami (For a third time, I take refuge in the Dhamma)
- Tatiyampi Sanghan saranan gacchami (For a third time, I take refuge in the Sangha)
Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha during Lord Buddha’s time meant that one became a disciple of Buddha after listening to his teachings and understanding them thoroughly. With time it has become a ritual among the Buddhist followers who are Buddhists by birth but not Buddhists by reason or choice for understanding its noble teachings, to take on the threefold refuge prior to observing the Buddhist practices, such as observing sila, performing any other rites or rituals and chanting suttas, even though, without pondering on their meaning or significance.
However, if one looks deep into its meaning one would understand that taking on the threefold refuge is a matter of commitment and acceptance, both at the same time, to understand the essence of the Buddhist philosophy and practice it meaningfully to free oneself from all suffering. The threefold refuge guides a wise follower into the noble path to achieve the ultimate goal of nirvana. Therefore, understanding its meaning and significance to achieving nirvana is of paramount importance before we take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
I take refuge in the Buddha
In order to find out how one should meaningfully take refuge in the Buddha, one should examine the meaning behind the term ‘the Buddha’. The predominant understanding of this term is directed at the ‘Lord Buddha’ who attained enlightenment over two thousand five hundred years ago and disclosed the Dhamma (the four noble truths) to his disciples. Although this understanding is flawless to the common follower, he could, nevertheless, be misled by deeply attaching to a “personhood” which is not embraced in Buddhism.
On the other hand, Buddhism does not preach of an almighty God who will take one’s prayers and bring him happiness. Nonetheless, it shows the path to end the suffering that is endured throughout the sansaric journey (the cycle of death and rebirth to which the life in the material world is bound). Noble peacefulness is achieved through wisdom which is the intellectual perfection of the four noble truths. The four noble truths refer to suffering (dukka), the cause of suffering (samudaya), the cessation of suffering (nirodha) and the path to the cessation of suffering (magga) which can be fully comprehended alone and without a teacher only by a Lord Buddha. While the noble duty of a Lord Buddha is to unfold these noble truths to the world to guide the wise man from darkness to light, no one can expect the Lord Buddha to take care of his problems and bring him peace solely by taking refuge in the Buddha. The Lord Buddha guides, one has to follow and achieve enlightenment.
As the meaning of the phrase ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’, the noble Buddhist teachings refer to the acceptance of ‘Buddhahood’ as the potential and ability of the human being to comprehend the noble truths through wisdom and to the commitment of achieving the state of enlightenment. Buddhahood is the state of enlightenment. By accepting Buddhahood, one accepts the Dhamma, the noble truths and the Sangha, the Noble Eightfold Path. By accepting Buddhahood one inculcates oneself in Arya sila and sees the trilankshana (anitta, dukka, anatta) in every phenomenon (mental objects/ factors).
The noble Arahath who is fully awakened or enlightened to the four noble truths is the one who is permanently sheltered or blissfully protected from all suffering, danger, insecurity and the threat posed by dissatisfaction in sensual (worldly) pleasures within oneself. Strong attachment and endless greed of all living beings in sensual pleasures put them in more danger than bringing them comfort. All living beings suffer the consequences of their lust (raga), anger/hatred (dwesha) and ignorance (moha) throughout their sansaric journey.
By taking refuge in the Buddha the wise follower gives up his attachment to worldly security which has no solid basis according to Buddhism. Hence, the wise refugee is not bound by the need for a peaceful home or ground but by a supreme security in the state of enlightenment which brings all suffering to an end. Those who are below the level of a noble Arahath will practice the Dhamma and the noble path experiencing the state of Buddhahood as they comprehend the noble truths and the “origin and cessation” of the passing phenomena (things that appear to and are constructed by mind as distinguished from a thing in itself).
Thus, one should take refuge in the Buddha with the firm belief of the capability to achieve nirvana and with the dedication to practice towards its fulfillment.
I take refuge in the Dhamma
Taking refuge in the Dhamma, if we construe in a likely manner, means more than having mere faith and paying homage on the Dhamma. To take refuge in the Dhamma more meaningfully one should commit his strong faith to see the Dhamma in order to direct himself in the noble path in pursuit of nirvana. The Dhamma is the four noble truths that unravel the suffering, the cause for suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering, to the world which is blindly bound by the pancha kama and klesa kama (craving for sensual gratification by the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body which cloud the mind to manifest in unwholesome actions).
As the Lord Buddha preached in the Dammachakka pawattana sutta unfolding the noble truths to his disciples for the very first time, clinging (attaching/ upādāna) to pancha skanda as something real or existing in the material form is referred to as dukka (suffering). The pancha upādānaskanda refer to the five clinging aggregates which constitute of rupa – material form, vedana – feelings, sanna – perception, sankara – volition or mental formations and vinnana – sensory consciousness.
All these elements are mere mental constructions without a solid base. They aggregate in the mind spontaneously as they occur as soon as a sensation is taken in by one of the six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind) in order to materialize the sensation to us along with the worldly things related to it as things really existing in the outside world. We take these phenomena (things constructed by the mind) as real “things” (noumenon) that exist (material) and react to them foolishly as we do not delve on the depth of this reality. The first noble truth is that we cling to dukka (suffering) by clinging (upādāna or attaching) to panchaskanda as something real in existence.
The reason for us to live clung to pancha upādānaskanda without construing its realistic nature is our blind craving for the sensations taken in by the six senses. This great indulgence or desire (termed as tanha in Pali) for sensual gratifications and for the pancha upādānaskanda as a whole is the second noble truth referred to as dukka samudaya (the cause for suffering) in the Dhamma. (In a detailed discussion tanha can be discussed in its threefold version as kama tanha, bhava tanha and vibhawa tanha).
The Lord Buddha after diagnosing the problem (suffering) and finding its cause (desire/tanha) shows a cure (dukka nirodha) for suffering which is the third noble truth in the Dhamma. The cure (dukka nirodha) is the realization of the pancha upādānaskanda, its origin, cause and cessation. At this stage one sees the link between the cause and effect in relation to the pancha upādānaskanda. The aggregation of the eyes, a visual object and the consciousness pertaining to vision form the “cause” to see that visual object, which is however seen by the mind as the “effect”.
For example, we see a tree when our eyes touch the object that is the “tree” and our consciousness pertaining to vision. These causes aggregate and give birth to the pancha upādānaskanda to enable the resultant consciousness to perceive the tree. We think the tree is real as we do not see that it is only a mental construction/ mental reading of the object by the pancha upādānaskanda. This is the reason why the dead body without a consciousness cannot see a tree though it has eyes and probably even a tree right in front of the eyes to see it. The consciousness (vinnana) is the magician (maya) of our mind which shows us the magic show or the illusion of existence of the whole world.
As it is the cause that generates the effect, without a cause there cannot be an effect. When there is more than one cause involved in to bring out an effect, one less cause will not make it effectual. For instance, the moment we take our eyes away from the tree we will stop seeing a tree as the other two causes alone cannot bring out the effect. Therefore, the realization of the aggregation of these causes to bring out an effect into being is very important to realize the origin and cessation of the pancha upādānaskanda.
This whole scenario underlines the three characteristics universal to both cause and effect. This is called trilakshana in Pali language. The universal characteristics of all existence are the impermanence (anitta), suffering (dukka) and non-self (anatta). Not only the eyes, the tree and our consciousness pertaining to vision but also the pancha upādānaskanda as a whole, are subjected to anitta, dukka and anatta. One starts seeing this noble truth as he is awakened in sammā ditti (noble vision or the right view) which is the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path (dukka nirodha gamini patipada/ magga).
The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth noble truth and the path that takes one towards nirvana.
I take refuge in the Sangha
The ‘Sangha’ as explained in Buddhism constitute of those who follow the path of the Buddha and therefore, worthy of gifts, hospitality, offerings and reverential salutations. The ‘Sangha’ symbolizes the physical expression of the Noble Eightfold Path as the noble disciples are the ones who practice the path (magga). Hence, one who meaningfully commits oneself to seeing the Dhamma with the dedication to practice and partake in the noble path of the Sangha, take refuge in the Sangha more meaningfully than those who pay their daily homage to the Sangha as a ritual reciting ‘Sanghan saranan gacchami’.
The Noble Eightfold Path (dukka nirodha gamini patipada/magga) starts with sammā ditti, the right/wise vision of the four noble truths/ the Dhamma. The one who is awakened in the Dhamma is awakened to walk along the direction of enlightenment and he completes the noble path without doubt or fears of failure.
In the next element, sammā sankappa (the right intention/ thought) the noble follower gives up and lets go of thoughts that are desirous, evil and harmful. The noble element of Sammā sankappa is therefore, threefold: the intention of renunciation/ abandonment (nekkamma sankappa), the intention of good will (awyapada sankappa) and the intention of harmlessness (avihinsa sankappa). The essence of these noble elements lies in the ability to let go of thoughts that cloud the mind to manifest in unwholesome actions.
In sammā vaca (the right speech) the noble follower refrains from the biggest lie which is the acknowledgement of the illusion of ‘I’, ‘Mine’ and ‘Myself’ as truth. All other lies, slander, abusive, haughty speech and idle talks are subordinate to this biggest lie we live with, which is the cause of origin of them all. The noble disciple who abstains from all these speeches by rejecting the illusion of ‘self’ inculcate himself in noble silence, a silence with reason and knowledge.
In sammā kammanta (the right action) the wise follower contemplates on the ceasing (anta) of actions (kamma) which literally includes killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. However, these commitments go beyond refraining from killing other living beings, stealing what is not given and sexual misconduct to include the noble commitments to refrain from killing one’s own self by attaining nirvana and ceasing the cycle of rebirth; to refrain from stealing thoughts that cannot be owned; and to refrain from craving for sensations brought in by the six senses which do not belong to us as they are only mental constructions.
In sammā ajiva (the right livelihood) the noble follower contemplates on the present moment and lives wisely comprehending the noble truths in the passing phenomena that always strike the mind. Literally it is said that he refrains from evil means of livelihood or improper occupations (micca ajiva) and engages only in the good (samma ajiva). The improper occupations have been listed as trading in arms, drugs, and intoxicants to name but a few. However, the correlation between sammā ajiva and enlightenment shows that one naturally stays away from all sorts of improper occupations in the mind by properly occupying his mind to contemplate on the anitta, dukka and anatta and to comprehend the noble truths of the present moment’s thoughts.
In sammā vayama (the right effort) the noble follower takes the effort to enhance his wisdom already awakened and to achieve wisdom not yet awakened as it is only through wisdom he could fully comprehend the noble truths and attain enlightenment.
In sammā sati (the right mindfulness) the noble follower inculcates himself in the fourfold mindfulness which includes the mindfulness of the body (kaya), feelings (vedana), consciousness (vinnana) and mental objects/factors (dhamma). The noble follower is mindful about his breathing, postures of body and reflects on the repulsiveness of the body, material elements, nine cemetery elements and mindful with clear comprehension of the body. In brief, he is mindful about the origin and cessation of the body which is a creation of the four elements: earth (patawi), water (apo), fire (thejo) and air (wayo).
By being mindful of the feelings he is mindful of the good (suka), bad (dukka) and neutral (upekka) feelings of his mind. He contemplates on the origin and cessation of the feelings. By doing so, feelings for him exist to the extent of knowledge and mindfulness and he lives detached without clinging to the feelings of his mind.
By being mindful of the consciousness he is mindful of the state or nature of his consciousness. He is aware that his consciousness is one of lust or without lust, one of hate or without hate, one of ignorance or without ignorance, one of shrunken or detracted, one of developed or undeveloped, one of superior or inferior, one of concentrated or one that is not, one of freed or one that is not and so on. He concentrates on the origin and cessation of the consciousness. For him consciousness exists to the extent of knowledge and mindfulness and he lives detached without clinging to the consciousness.
By being mindful of the mental objects/factors he is mindful of the five hindrances (kamaccanda, wyapada, thinamidda, uddacca kukkucca, wicikicca), the five clinging aggregates (the pancha upādānaskanda), the six internal and external sense bases (eyes – vision, ears – sound, – nose – smell, tongue – taste, body – touch, mind – thoughts), the seven factors of enlightenment (saptha bojjanga dharma) and the four noble truths (dukka, samudaya, nirodha, magga). He concentrates on the origin and cessation of the mental objects and lives detached without clinging to them.
Finally, in sammā samadi (the right concentration) the noble follower achieves the perfection of wisdom through concentration in wholesome state of mind. After achieving the state of noble ‘Arahath’ one is freed from all worries, concerns, defilements and distortions of random thoughts which are full of lust (raga), anger/hatred (dwesha) and ignorance/delusion (moha).
Hence, one who commits his spiritual efforts to enter and step forward in the noble path in the direction of nirvana takes refuge in the Sangha meaningfully.
Find the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha within You
At the end of this discussion one should realize that one takes refuge in one’s own self by meaningfully taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. No one can free another from this distasteful, unsatisfactory and distressful sansaric journey unless one takes the commitment to free oneself by replacing one’s valuable jewels with the three noble jewels; the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. These three jewels once embedded to one’s life will not only protect him from worldly evil but also will protect him with eternal bliss and peacefulness. Thus, to achieve enlightenment one should find the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha within oneself.
“One is one’s own saviour, thus one has to help one’s own self” – Lord Buddha