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The Meaning of Conversion in Buddhism
Lecture 9: Going for Refuge - Edited Version What Is Conversion? For many of us in the West, the word immediately conjures up the image of a missionary going forth armed with a Bible and a bottle of medicine to convert the heathen in the depths of some Eastern jungle. This is, of course, very much a stereotype, although one does come across rather alarming examples of it from time to time. I remember that when I was living in the Himalayan town of Kalimpong some forty years ago, someone showed me a copy of a Christmas card which was being sent out by a four-year-old girl, the daughter of a couple of missionaries who lived in Ghoom. This remarkable child was asking her little friends back in England to pray for the conversion of the `heathen' - the heathen being, of course, all the Buddhists and Hindus in Ghoom and the surrounding area. In particular she asked the recipients of her cards to pray to Jesus that these heathens should stop doing their pujas. And for the benefit of those who might have been unfamiliar with this term for devotional practice, she added (in brackets) `devil worship'.
This is obviously a very primitive conception of conversion; to be fair, Christian conversion is often misunderstood. It may popularly be thought to be the turning of the heathen from their heathenish ways to the light of the `true faith' but it also has a much higher and more valuable meaning. The general meaning of the word conversion is clear enough; any dictionary will tell us that it means simply `turning around'. And when one turns around, this involves a double movement: a movement away from something and also a movement towards something. So what is one turning away from, and what is one turning towards? For many people, both Christians and adherents of other faiths, `conversion' means a turning from a lower to a higher way of life, from a worldly to a spiritual life. Conversion in this sense is often spoken of as a change of heart - a change of heart which leads you to stop running after the transitory things of this world and direct your attention and energy to the sublime, everlasting things of the spirit.
Put in this way, conversion is common to all religions in one form or another. The classic case is that of St Paul on the road to Damascus, but such sudden and dramatic conversions also occur in the Buddhist scriptures. One of the most notable examples is the case of the robber Angulimala, who changed in the course of a few days, perhaps even a few hours, into an emancipated being, if not an Enlightened one.<$FThis story can be found in The Collection of the Middle Length Sayings (Majjhima-nikaya), vol.II, no.86, trans. I.B. Horner, Pali Text Society, London 1959.> Indeed, conversion can happen even faster than that, according to an epitaph written in the sixteenth century by William Camden `for a man killed by falling from his horse'. The epitaph goes: Betwixt the stirrup and the ground Mercy I asked, mercy I found.
This would suggest that, even for someone whose friends might have thought him spiritually speaking a no-hoper, conversion can come at the very last minute - `betwixt the stirrup and the ground'. More conventionally, of course, it occurs as what we call a `death-bed conversion'. But while some people have these apparently genuinely instantaneous experiences, conversion can come about in a much more gradual way. There may be a `moment of conversion', the experience may be sudden, even catastrophic, but then it dawns on you that actually your whole life, your whole being, has been building up to that moment over many years.
But however it comes to us, over a period of years or in a matter of seconds, the experience of conversion is of the greatest possible importance, because it marks the beginning of our spiritual life. The meaning of conversion therefore deserves our closest attention. However, although there have been many studies of the nature of conversion in Christianity,<$FSee, for example, William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1985.> there has as far as I know been no systematic study of Buddhist conversion. Perhaps, indeed, one might consider the meaning of conversion in Buddhism to be a simple matter, hardly worth studying. People tend to think: `Once upon a time I was a Christian. Then I read a book about Buddhism, and I changed my faith. Now I'm a Buddhist and that's that.' But it is not really that simple. If we look at what the phenomenon of conversion means in Buddhism, we find that it occurs on several different levels and presents several different aspects.
In this book, four of these aspects are explored: Going for Refuge (or the transition from the Wheel of Life to the Spiral Path), Stream Entry, the arising of the will to Enlightenment, and what the Lankavatara Sutra calls the `turning about' (the term is paravritti, which can be translated quite literally as `conversion'). This list, which includes some of the most fundamental of Buddhist terms, is by no means exhaustive, but it is sufficient to illustrate, or at least throw some light upon, what conversion means, not just to the aspiring Buddhist but to practising Buddhists at all levels of spiritual attainment, right up to Buddhahood itself.
GOING FOR REFUGE IN A SENSE, GOING FOR REFUGE is the simplest, almost the most elementary, aspect of conversion in Buddhism; but in a wider, more comprehensive sense, it includes and informs all the other types and levels of conversion. So first, what is Going for Refuge? Although the term is so widely used in Buddhism, it can be rather mystifying when you first come across it. What does one mean by `Refuge'? And who or what does one `go for Refuge' to? The short answer is that as a practising Buddhist one goes for Refuge to the Buddha, the Enlightened teacher, to the Dharma, or his teaching of the way or path leading to Enlightenment, and to the Sangha, the community or Order of those progressing along that path in the direction of Enlightenment. These three Refuges are also commonly known as the Three Jewels.
In many traditional Buddhist cultures, Going for Refuge has become - it has to be said - little more than a formality. Just as if you want to be formally admitted into a Christian church you have to undergo the rite of baptism, in the same way, if you wish formally to signalize the fact that you consider yourself to be a Buddhist, you receive the Refuges and Precepts from an accredited representative of the Buddhist tradition, a bhikshu, and by doing this you formally join the Buddhist community. Some people therefore consider that Going for Refuge is just a matter of recitation. By saying `To the Buddha for Refuge I go, to the Dharma for Refuge I go, to the Sangha for Refuge I go,' in Pali or Sanskrit, and repeating it three times, one is considered to have gone for Refuge. Sometimes people even speak of `taking Refuge', although the Pali word gacchami means `I go', not `I take'. In many parts of the Buddhist world, Going for Refuge is understood in no deeper sense than this verbal repetition of a formula. People go along to the temple, or to a Buddhist meeting, recite these sentences, then go home and forget all about it. So far as they are concerned, they have gone for Refuge, conversion has taken place. They see no need to ponder the meaning deeply or try to explore its significance, much less still put it into practice.
This degeneration of Going for Refuge into a formality is a very unfortunate development. Nothing in the Buddha's teaching is meant to be practised mechanically or as a matter of mere tradition, without an understanding of its inner meaning and its relevance to one's own life. It behoves us, therefore, to take a closer look at the phrase `Going for Refuge' and try to see what its significance really is. To begin with, what is meant by `Refuge'? Refuge from what? The traditional explanations are quite clear on this point: the Three Jewels are a refuge from suffering. It is the existence of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha that makes it possible for us to escape from the unsatisfactoriness, the transitoriness, the conditionedness, the `unreality' of the world as we experience it. In a well-known passage in the Udana, one of the earliest Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha tells the monks that there exists an unborn, unmade, unoriginated, uncompounded Reality, and that it is this which makes it possible to escape from the born, the made, the put-together - in other words, from the world as we experience it.<$FSee The Udana - Inspired Utterances of the Buddha, 8.3, trans. John D. Ireland, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka 1990.> The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are called the Three Jewels because they represent the world of the highest spiritual values. Just as in the ordinary world jewels are the most precious of all material things, so in the spiritual world - in fact in the whole of existence - the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are those values which are the most sought after, which are ultimately the most desired and the most worthwhile, and from which all other values derive by way of direct or indirect reflection. When we call the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha the Three Jewels, we are considering them in the abstract, as it were.
We are considering their value - their ultimate or supreme value - as compared with all other things. When we speak of them as the Three Refuges, however, we are considering the practical implications of that evaluation. The fact that those values exist gives us the possibility of development, evolution, and progress far beyond our present comparatively low level. Considered as refuges, the Three Jewels represent the possibility of complete liberation from suffering.
It is no linguistic accident that we speak of Going for Refuge. ...