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Levels of Going for Refuge

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by Sangharakshita

... me and I gave a blessing at the end and the little `sermon' I suppose I have to call it, a little discourse - I had to learn all this, and I did it, and these good people, these good ladies mostly, used to come along every morning, all the time that I was there in that little vihara and they'd `take' the Refuges and precepts, and this made them very very happy. Because in a way they knew the meaning of it, that `Buddham Saranam Gacchami' meant `to the Buddha for Refuge I go', they knew so much. That `Dhammam Saranam Gacchami' meant `to the Dharma for Refuge I go' - they knew this. They knew what the meaning of the words was, but they clearly didn't think about it too much. They didn't understand, or they didn't want to understand, the real significance - what it really meant to go for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. They were perfectly happy just to recite the holy words after me and leave it at that. The recitation showed that they were Buddhists; that they belonged to the Buddhist community; that they were Newars; that they were tradespeople; that they belonged to a Buddhist social group; that they were not Hindus or Muslims or anything like that - they were Buddhists.

So this is my third reminiscence.

Lecture 186: Levels of Going for Refuge Page 2 Now my fourth reminiscence is, I must confess, a sort of non-reminiscence. I suppose I ought to remember reciting the Refuges and precepts, but especially the Refuges at the time of my ordination as a bhikshu which came about two years later in 1950, but I must confess I've no such recollection whatever! [Laughter] I suppose I did recite the Refuges on the occasion of my bhikshu ordination, but they must have made no impression at all on me, and that means that they could not have been considered, at the time, very important; and this is a very significant fact, as we shall see later on. So my fourth reminiscence, I'm sorry to say, is a non-reminiscence.

All right, reminiscence number five. Reminiscence number five is not just one reminiscence - it's a whole group of reminiscences extending over a period of several years, and embracing all sorts of places in many different parts of India. And especially this reminiscence embraces hundreds upon hundreds of meetings - public meetings, Buddhist meetings - many of them with thousands of people present. And most of these meetings were held, rather reluctantly so far as I was concerned, quite late at night, and they were held mostly in the open air, sometimes with a cold wind cutting through the place. And at these meetings, these late night, open air meetings, I was called upon, sometimes at one o'clock, sometimes at two o'clock in the morning - after I'd had a cup of tea to keep myself awake - called upon to `give' the Refuges and precepts to thousands of ex-untouchable - I was going to say Buddhists, but no, they just became Buddhists at that moment - ex-untouchable Mahars, mostly, of Maharashtra. And in this way they were converted, so to speak, to Buddhism. By this time, of course - here we've come to, say, the late 50s, early 60s - by this time I had some idea of my own as to what Going for Refuge really meant. But nobody had ever told me. I'd worked it out for myself, more or less, with some help from some at least of the ancient Buddhist texts. And in the course of the talk - which I used to give in these big, late at night, open air meetings where all these ex-untouchables were converted to Buddhism; where they were given the Refuges and precepts - in the course of my talk I used to try to explain to these new Buddhists what the Going for Refuge really meant, what it meant to be a Buddhist. And usually, though it was late and though they were tired, `though they'd been working hard all day, they used to listen quite patiently, and to try to understand. But one could see that quite a lot of them were not really interested in understanding what Going for Refuge really meant in the deeper and more fundamental sense. So far as they were concerned, Going for Refuge or conversion to Buddhism meant simply, at least to begin with, getting out of the clutches of orthodox Hinduism. It meant escape from the iniquities, one might say, of the Hindu caste system, at the very bottom of which, of course, they were, oppressed by everybody else.

And I must say after having had quite a bit of contact with these people, having seen the way in which they used to live, they way in which they were treated by the orthodox Hindus, the caste Hindus, I can't blame them at all for wanting to use Buddhism in this way, and even seeing conversion to Buddhism in this way. But clearly that wasn't enough.

All right, sixth and last reminiscence. We're moving on rather rapidly, you notice. I'm back in London now, after twenty years in India, and it's 1964, and, believe it or not, it's Wesak Day, not very long after my return. And the scene is a scene with which some of you might be familiar - it's the Caxton Hall, Westminster, and there is Bhante on the platform with Mr Christmas Humphreys and other British Buddhist dignitaries whose names I've forgotten. [Laughter] And at a certain stage of the proceedings - and Wesak celebrations of that sort in those days used to last exactly an hour, not a minute longer! - at a certain stage in the proceedings I was asked to recite pansil, that is to say the Refuges and precepts, and when I say recite I mean recite. I was not asked to lead it, I was asked to recite it. The idea being that we should all recite it together - that nobody should give it to anybody else - and I gather that at the bottom of this rather strange practice there was some sort of pseudo-democratic or pseudo-egalitarian idea. So I raised some feeble objection [Laughter] and I pointed out that this wasn't the custom in Buddhist countries. In Buddhist countries the bhikkhu or whoever else officiated led in the recitation of the precepts and others repeated after him, and this produced a rather pleasant antiphonal kind of effect.

[Laughter] But this didn't go down at all well. My objections were brushed aside and Mr. Christmas Humphreys said `we've done it this way for forty years and we're not going to change now!'. So I just recited, I just recited and the people present - there must have been up to a hundred people - they tried to recite with me. They came straggling along in fact rather in the rear. Very few of them actually knew the Refuges and precepts by heart and on this occasion - I don't know why - there were no pansil cards.

So the results were not very good. The results were rather ragged to say the least. In fact, to tell the truth, the results were quite appalling. [Laughter] And I realised, if I hadn't realised it before, having been by that time some months in England, that something was seriously wrong with British Buddhism.

Well, these are just some of my experiences of Going for Refuge, at least before the WBO was founded.

Some of my experiences. Not all. There are others - some of them of a more positive and inspiring nature. But you will have noticed at least one thing about the experiences which are the subject of my reminiscences tonight. You will have appreciated that real appreciation of the significance of the Going for Refuge is rather lacking nowadays. At least that should have been pretty obvious. Appreciation of Lecture 186: Levels of Going for Refuge Page 3 the real significance of the Going for Refuge is certainly lacking in Buddhist circles in the East, and lacking, even, in some of the corresponding circles in the West. Both in the East and in the West, more often than not, the Refuges are simply something that you recite, usually in Pali, at least in South-east Asia. The Refuges are something that show, or the recitation of the Refuges is something that shows, in some way, that you are a Buddhist, that you belong to the Buddhist community in a social sense. One might even say that the Refuges and the precepts, in these circles, in these areas of the Buddhist world, are just a sort of flag that you wave on important occasions. You go to the temple on Wesak Day - you recite the Refuges. If there's a wedding, somebody gets married - you recite the Refuges. A baby is born and when it's a few days old it's given a name - you recite the Refuges. The grandfather dies, there's an after death ceremony - you recite the Refuges. There's a public meeting, say ratepayers association, but they're all Buddhists, so - they recite the Refuges. And this reciting of the Refuges shows that you're a decent, respectable, law-abiding, person. This is the sort of significance it has nowadays, usually in the East.

Now there's nothing wrong with reciting. Reciting is a wonderful thing. We ourselves enjoy it very much. Let's recite the Refuges, let's chant the Refuges every day, every morning, every evening. Let's recite them three times a day. Let's recite them every hour. That would be fine if we could do that. Let's go on reciting them all day, chanting them all day. Far from there being anything wrong with that - that's highly desirable. I can think of a lot worse things for us to do in the course of the day![Laughter] But the trouble is, nowadays in the East, that though they recite, which is a good thing, people generally do nothing but recite the Refuges. They don't think about the meaning. In my own personal experience, it's only the Tibetans, only the Tibetan Buddhists, who have some appreciation, sometimes a very deep appreciation, of what Going for Refuge really means, what it really implies in spiritual terms, deeply and fundamentally. It's only the Tibetans who've got some realisation of the tremendous importance of the Going for Refuge, indeed of its central and basic importance in and for the Buddhist life. But elsewhere in the Buddhist world, whether it's Ceylon ...

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