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Going for Refuge

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by Sangharakshita

... Refuge. You don't just accept the Three Refuges; you go for Refuge. This action is a total, unqualified reorientation of your life, your existence, your striving, in the direction of the Three Jewels or Refuges. When you say `I go for Refuge' you are not only acknowledging that the Three Jewels are the most supremely valuable things in existence; you are also acting upon that acknowledgement. You see that the Three Jewels provide a possibility of escape into a higher spiritual dimension, and so you go - you completely redirect and reorganize your life in the light of that realization. Bearing in mind the definition `turning around', if this is not conversion it would be difficult to say what is.

It is all very well, of course, to say: `Reorganize your life around the Three Jewels'; obviously this is something which is not easily done. We need to explore how it works out in concrete terms, and this we can do by looking at each of the Three Refuges in turn.

In practice, Going for Refuge to the Buddha means taking the Buddha (the historical Buddha Sakyamuni) as the living embodiment of the highest conceivable spiritual ideal. It means that after surveying and comparing all the great spiritual teachers, while fully appreciating each and every one of them, you nevertheless come to the conclusion that all their spiritual values and attainments are, as it were, summed up in the person of the Buddha. To your knowledge there is no attainment higher than his. If you regard any other being, any other teacher, as having gained a spiritual level or knowledge higher than that of the Buddha, then there is no Buddha Refuge for you. You may be an admirer of the Buddha, but you are not a Buddhist unless you see in the Buddha the highest embodiment of the highest spiritual ideal.

One might object, especially if one was universalistically inclined, that this is a rather narrow attitude. Why does one need to consider the Buddha to be supreme? Why not regard all great spiritual teachers as equal and have the same appreciation for them all - even go for refuge to them all? In fact, the Buddhist attitude is not narrow so much as pragmatic. We are concerned here not with matters of abstract theory, but with authentic, heartfelt, living spiritual practice. And in the spiritual life one of the most important elements, if not in a sense the most important element, is devotion. It is devotion which provides the driving power.

The intellect, we might say, is like a motor car: the machinery is all there, but without the fuel, without the igniting spark, it just won't move. We may know all the philosophies and systems of religion, we may even be able to write and speak about them, but if our knowledge is just cold, intellectual, and abstract, if that living spark of inspiration, devotion, and faith is not there, we shall never make any progress.

Devotion flows most easily towards a person, or at least towards a personified embodiment of the ideal we want to reach. Because it is directed in this way, it is by its very nature exclusive. We cannot be deeply devoted to a number of spiritual ideals simultaneously. If we are going to develop devotion to an intensity which is capable of propelling us along the spiritual path in the direction of the goal, it must be fixed on just one figure, the one which we consider to be the highest. The Sanskrit term for faith or devotion, sraddha, comes from a root which means `to place the heart'; devotion is necessarily to some degree exclusive because the heart can truly be placed only on one object.

At the same time, intolerance has no place in Buddhism. In regarding the Buddha as pre-eminent, as the supremely Enlightened One above all other religious teachers, Buddhism does not dismiss, much less still condemn, any other religious teacher. Indeed, whilst Buddhists honestly and straightforwardly regard the Buddha as the greatest of all spiritual teachers that have ever lived, they are at the same time quite prepared to respect and even admire other spiritual leaders. Many Chinese Buddhists, for instance, entertain deep admiration and respect for Confucius and Lao Tsu. It is one of the great beauties of Buddhism that while Buddhists have a faith which is exclusive in the sense of being concentrated - they direct their whole heart's devotion to the Buddha - this faith is not exclusive in the sense of being intolerant or fanatical.

The word dharma has many meanings; as the second Refuge, the Dharma, it has two principal ones. Firstly it refers to the teaching of the Buddha, the Buddhavacana or word of the Buddha; secondly it means the spiritual Law, Truth, or Ultimate Reality. These two meanings are obviously interconnected. The Buddha had a certain spiritual experience of Reality, and out of that experience he gave his teachings; so the formulated Dharma is the external expression, in terms of human thought, conceptions, and speech, of the Buddha's experience of the Dharma as Ultimate Reality.

On the intellectual plane, Going for Refuge to the Dharma means being convinced of the essential truth of the Buddha's teaching. One must be convinced that it exhibits clearly and unambiguously, above all other teachings, the way leading to Enlightenment. Obviously Going for Refuge to the Dharma in this sense involves knowledge of it, and in order to know the Dharma you have to study it. This, I am afraid, is where many of us fall down. However many Buddhist lectures we attend, however many books we read, if we cannot answer a simple factual question about the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path or the twelve nidanas, what has been the point? Without any lasting knowledge of the Dharma, we can hardly be said to be Going for Refuge to it.

I once attended a talk by Krishnamurti in Bombay. It was a beautiful talk, absolutely crystal clear; but at the end a woman got up, almost tearing her hair out in frustration, and said in a voice quivering with emotion (as people's voices tended to in Krishnamurti's meetings): `Sir, we have been following you and listening to you for forty years, but we do not seem to have got anywhere.' If as Buddhists we have not got anywhere, at least on the intellectual level, after forty years, or even after four years, even four months, it may well be because we have not got down to the study of Buddhism. If we were taking up engineering or medicine, or even pig-keeping, we would expect to have to study it; similarly, knowledge of Buddhism does not just come automatically when we say `dhammam saranam gacchami' (`To the Dharma for Refuge I go'). Even the most devout Buddhist cannot bypass an intellectual acquaintance with the Buddha's teaching.

In one of his essays T.S. Eliot makes a caustic little remark which goes right to the point: `People talk of transcending the intellect, but of course first one must have an intellect.' While we have to go beyond an intellectual understanding of the Dharma, we cannot afford to look down upon that understanding until we possess it. It is no good being `deep and mystical', and thinking that we can skip the hard intellectual study of Buddhism. Study has its limitations, of course - we have to bear in mind that we are studying the expression of spiritual truths which ultimately have to be realized - but it is important to know the basic doctrinal principles thoroughly and be convinced of their truth. So in order to go for Refuge to the Dharma, you have to read books about it, talk about it, hear lectures about it, and develop a clear intellectual understanding of it - without in the end being confined or limited by that understanding.

This clear understanding is necessary but not, of course, sufficient. Going for Refuge to the Dharma means not just understanding the doctrines but realizing for oneself the principle or Reality which the doctrinal formulations represent. To put it more simply, Going for Refuge to the Dharma means the actual practice of the Dharma, through observance of Buddhist ethics, through meditation, and through the cultivation of transcendental Wisdom.

Just as Going for Refuge to the Buddha does not preclude intelligent receptivity to teachers from other traditions, so Going for Refuge to the Dharma need not exclude appreciation of other spiritual teachings, whether Hindu, Christian, Taoist, Confucian or whatever. Indeed, after leaving behind some other religion and penetrating deeply into Buddhism, we may be surprised to discover that we now understand our former religion better. As we begin to make sense of Buddhism we begin to find that all the other religions also make sense. The Buddhist would say that this is because the part cannot really be understood apart from the whole. Buddhism, as well as being a sublime and noble teaching, is comprehensive, neither rejecting nor repudiating any truth however humble, any spiritual discovery wheresoever made, but weaving them all into one great system, as it were, in which they all find the appropriate place. It is not, of course, that Buddhists take all other religions on their own valuation - if they did that they could not be Buddhists - but from a Buddhist perspective many teachings make sense at a level even deeper than their own estimation, and what is imperfect in them finds its fulfilment, its culmination, in the Buddha's teaching.

While having this comprehensive approach, however, Buddhism is not simply prepared to embrace all so-called religious teachings willy-nilly, and there are many teachings which it explicitly rejects. For instance, as far as Buddhism is concerned, the idea of a supreme being, a personal God who created the universe, is a wrong view which hinders the attainment of Enlightenment. A belief in God may be widely believed to be practically synonymous with religious faith, but it completely contradicts Buddhism's vision of Reality. If one accepts a doctrine which Buddhism regards ...

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