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Going for Refuge

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by Sangharakshita

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... as untrue then obviously one is no longer Going for Refuge to the Dharma. Here, as elsewhere, Buddhism follows a middle path, neither indiscriminately accepting all the teachings of other faiths, nor rejecting them wholesale. Like the pioneer in search of gold, Buddhism sifts and sorts out, rotating the pan so that all the dirt and water falls out, to reveal whatever grains of shining gold are there.

In all the cultures to which Buddhism has spread it has never totally rejected the existing religious traditions, but at the same time it has always gone beyond them, and jettisoned elements in those traditions which are incompatible with its own vision. That is why we find Buddhism having a purifying and refining influence on Hinduism in India, on Taoism in China, and on Shinto in Japan. Even in the West there are many Christians whose conception of Christianity has been elevated by their acquaintance with Buddhism, even though they have not chosen actually to become Buddhists.

In the West we tend to put up barricades and station ourselves either on one side or the other, as if to say `Either take a religion or leave it. Either you are of it or you are not of it.' But Buddhism does not see things quite like that. It is more objective, more balanced. It does not hesitate to discard doctrines it considers to be immature, false, or untrue, even if they are sanctified by the name of religion. A teaching may be time-honoured, it may have been believed by millions of people for thousands of years, but this does not matter. If it is untrue, Buddhism rejects it. At the same time, if there is Reality, if there is beauty, in any other tradition, Buddhism is ready, willing, and even eager to accept and make use of it. This is what we find it doing in all ages and in all countries, and there is every reason to hope that the same process will continue in the West.

In the context of Going for Refuge, the third Jewel, the Sangha, is to be understood in three principal ways.

Firstly, it means the transcendental hierarchy of Enlightened and partly-Enlightened persons existing on a purely spiritual plane. Things get rather complicated here, because this is not to say that these beings do not exist simultaneously here on earth. They are not necessarily organized into one spiritual community on a worldly level, however, because the unity of these beings is on a transcendental level. In Buddhist terminology, they are the Buddhas, Arhats, Bodhisattvas, and other great Enlightened and partly-Enlightened beings who have reached a level far above that of ordinary mundane life and consciousness. Secondly, Sangha means all those who have been ordained as Buddhists - traditionally this refers to the monastic Order of bhikshus or monks and of bhikshunis or nuns. And thirdly, there is the Mahasangha. Maha is Sanskrit for `great', so this is the whole Buddhist community - all those who, to whatever degree, go for Refuge to the Three Jewels.<$FIn the Western Buddhist Order, founded in 1968, ordination is neither monastic nor lay, but is based on effective Going for Refuge. This in a sense combines aspects of the second and third meanings of Sangha described here, and avoids the lay-monastic split which has been in many ways a hindrance to the spiritual vitality of Buddhism in the East.> We can go for Refuge to the Sangha in all these three senses. We go for Refuge to the Sangha as the spiritual or transcendental hierarchy when by our own spiritual attainments we become members of that hierarchy. We go for Refuge to the Sangha in the second sense either by being ordained into a Buddhist order or by supporting the order and relying on its members for spiritual advice and instruction. And we go for Refuge to the Mahasangha, the whole Buddhist community, simply by our fellowship with that community on whatever level, even simply on the ordinary social plane.<$FThese three senses of the Sangha Refuge overlap to some extent with the different levels of Going for Refuge - provisional, effective, real, and absolute - outlined in Sangharakshita, Going for Refuge, Windhorse, Glasgow 1983.> Of course, the Sangha Refuge cannot really be understood in isolation from the context of the Three Jewels as a whole. Those who go for Refuge to the Sangha also necessarily go for Refuge to the Buddha and the Dharma. In other words, before you can effectively go for Refuge to the Sangha, you and all the people who form that Sangha need to have a common spiritual teacher or ideal and a common spiritual teaching or principle. It is this which makes it possible for people to come together into the spiritual community or Sangha. The fact that they go for Refuge to the Buddha and the Dharma naturally draws people together.

But is this all? What do we mean by `together'? It does not mean just physical proximity. Coming together to sit in a kind of congregation is not enough to form a Sangha. We may all quite sincerely take the Buddha for our spiritual teacher, and we may all be sincerely trying to practise, follow, and realize the Dharma.

We may all agree on doctrinal questions, and even have the same meditation experiences. But these things do not in themselves mean that we constitute a Sangha. Going for Refuge to the Sangha is rather more subtle than that. It is essentially a matter of communication. When there is communication among those who go for Refuge to the Buddha and the Dharma, then there is Going for Refuge to the Sangha.

The communication which characterizes the Sangha is not merely an exchange of ideas and information.

If I say to someone `Last week I was in Norwich,' they will no doubt understand that statement perfectly - a successful exchange of ideas will have taken place - but there has not necessarily been any communication. If we find our contacts with others, even our friendships, frustrating and disappointing, if we find the exchanges we have with people at work or at parties a bit meaningless, it is because we are not using them as a medium for communication. So what is communication? It isn't very easy to say. For the purpose of exploring the Sangha Refuge, a working definition might be: `a vital mutual responsiveness on the basis of a common ideal and a common principle'. This is communication in the context of Going for Refuge: a shared exploration of the spiritual world between people who are in a relationship of complete honesty and harmony. The communication is the exploration and the exploration is the communication; in this way spiritual progress takes place. It may not be clear exactly how it happens, but happen it certainly does.

The most common, or the most generally accepted, mode of this kind of communication is the relationship between spiritual teacher and disciple. When in this relationship there is a mutual responsiveness on the basis of a common allegiance to the Buddha and the Dharma, there is also a common refuge in the Sangha.

Such depth of communication is however not limited to that between teacher and disciple. It may also take place between those who are simply friends, or kalyana mitras - `good friends' in the spiritual sense - to each other. Going for Refuge to the Sangha takes place when, on the basis of a common devotion to the Buddha and the Dharma, people explore together a spiritual dimension which neither could have explored on their own. Of course, beyond a certain point there is no question really of any sort of mutual relationship at all. In the process of communication and Going for Refuge to the Sangha, a dimension is eventually reached in which distinctions between the people involved no longer have any meaning - such distinctions have been transcended.

From all this we can begin to understand what Going for Refuge means, and in what sense it constitutes conversion. It is clearly not just a question of conversion from, say, Christianity to Buddhism, or of exchanging one set of ideas for another, even wrong ideas for right ones. It is infinitely more profound than that. Fundamentally it is a question of conversion from an ordinary mundane way of life to a spiritual, even a transcendental, way of life. More specifically, it consists of three distinct processes of turning around: firstly from limited ideals to an absolute, transcendental ideal; secondly from what Tennyson calls our `little systems' that `have their day' to a path based on unchanging spiritual principles and truths; and thirdly from meaningless worldly contact to meaningful communication. All these things are involved when we say: Buddham saranam gacchami, Dhammam saranam gacchami, Sangham saranam gacchami - `To the Buddha for Refuge I go, to the Dharma for Refuge I go, to the Sangha for Refuge I go.'

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