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Levels of Going for Refuge

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 137: Levels of Going for Refuge

Delivered to an audience of Order Members at the Order Convention in 1978 Urgyen Sangharakshita Upasikas and Upasakas, When you first heard the title of this lecture, or when perhaps you first read it in your copy of the April Shabda, you might have wondered why - I almost said why on earth - I'd happened to choose this particular subject on which to speak tonight - Going for Refuge. It isn't of course that the subject isn't appropriate; the subject is very appropriate indeed. One might even say, at a Convention of Order members, what subject could there be more appropriate than Going for Refuge? because, after all, it's because we've gone for Refuge, it's because we do go for Refuge, shall go for Refuge, that we're here on this occasion at all.

But we have heard quite a lot about this subject before, and the human mind is such that it delights in variety and change. Variety, we are told, is the spice of life, and no doubt it's the spice of Conventions too. You might have thought that you know already very well what Going for Refuge means. After all you know about it not just from books, not just from hearsay; you know about it, to some extent at least, from your own practical experience. So the thought might have crossed your minds that it wasn't really necessary for Bhante to go over this same old ground again! You might even have thought that perhaps he was stuck for a lecture![Laughter] and was producing an old one to fill the gap! Now, it's true that there's no need to go over the same old ground again, even though reminders are always useful, especially reminders about so important a subject as Going for Refuge. However, let me assure you, I'm not going over the same old ground tonight, however justified I might have been in so doing. I'm going to speak tonight about an aspect of Going for Refuge about which I've more recently been thinking quite a lot, turning over in my mind quite a lot, but about which I've so far not communicated, so far as I recollect, anything to anybody. I've certainly not mentioned this particular aspect in the course of any lecture, not even in the course of any book review.

And the title of the talk should really be not so much just Going for Refuge in a more general sort of way; it should really be something more like `Levels of Going for Refuge', because it's about the levels of Going for Refuge that I'm going to talk. In fact it's going to be a talk rather than a lecture, and it may be quite short.

I shall also have something to say, in connection with the third of the different levels of Going for Refuge, I shall also have something to say about the three so-called esoteric refuges. But first, by way of sort of winding into the main body of the talk, let me indulge in a few personal reminiscences; reminiscences of one kind or another of my own experience of Going for Refuge, that is to say my own experience of Going for Refuge in the more formal sense, that is to say in the sense of reciting the words of the Three Refuges and the five or ten precepts in Pali - either reciting them after somebody and myself taking them or myself reciting them and somebody repeating them after me and therefore myself giving them.

So my first reminiscence. This goes back quite a long way, and I must confess that the reminiscence isn't very clear, it's distinctly hazy, as one's reminiscences sometimes are. Just a few things, just a few points, almost like a few points of colour, stand out. And in this reminiscence I'm in England, and it's before I went out to India, and I'm in Central London, and I'm in a hotel in the - I'm not quite sure, it might be the Victoria area, might be the Bloomsbury area, but one of those two - in a room, a fairly large room, not quite as large as this, in a hotel. And the year is 1943 or 1944 - I haven't been able quite to work it out, but it's definitely either one of those years. And in my reminiscence I see in this room in the hotel, a short, fat, dark little man with rather thick horn-rimmed spectacles, and he's wearing orange robes.

There this part of the reminiscence stops. I can't get any further. I'm not sure what he's doing, I'm not sure what he's saying, but I have another recollection. I have a recollection that as I entered this room in the hotel, as we entered the room, we were handed little cards, little white cards which were called `pansil cards', in other words panca sila cards, because on these little cards there were printed the Refuges and the precepts in Pali. And I've a reminiscence that on this occasion we recited the Refuges and the precepts reading from these little cards. I can't remember how many of us there were. I'm very hazy about the occasion. It was probably a Wesak celebration. I can't really account for the fact that it all made so little impression on me, in a way. [Laughter] But one thing I do remember, one thing stood out quite sharply, and I still remember this. That was I was looking at this card and I was seeing the Pali words which we pronounce as Dutiyampi, Tatiyampi, and as I read them, not knowing anything of Pali, Lecture 186: Levels of Going for Refuge Page 1 it didn't seem that they sounded at all like that - it was more like `Dut e yam pee' or `Tat e yam pee' or something like that, and I heard them pronounce Dutiyampi, Tatiyampi, and this really struck me.

[Laughter] I suppose it's my literary turn of mind. [Laughter] So that I remember. This all part of this same reminiscence.

So we recited the Refuges and we recited the precepts. But I remember that there was no attempt on this occasion to explain the meaning of what we did. There was this short, fat, plump little man in the orange robes; there were all these people and we had our pansil cards and we were repeating, reciting, refuges, precepts with perfect Pali pronunciation apparently, but there was no attempt on anybody's part to explain what we were doing and what it all meant and what it all signified. Apparently holding little pansil cards and reciting from them in this way were just something that Buddhists did! And, looking back at that particular experience, entertaining this particular reminiscence, it strikes me now as rather odd that at that time it didn't, as far as I remember, really occur to me to wonder why it was that so little - in fact hardly anything - was explained; certainly not the meaning of what we were doing when we chanted those Pali words and took, as I suppose one can say, the Refuges and precepts. So that's my first reminiscence, rather vague and rather unsatisfactory from a strict Buddhist point of view, you must admit.

And then, second reminiscence. Well, this time we're in India. It's some years later. The scene of the reminiscence is a vihara, a little vihara, sort of monastery cum temple, in a place called Kusinara in North Eastern India. In other words it's the place where, centuries upon centuries earlier, the Buddha had attained what Buddhists call Parinirvana. And of course I'm there. I'm crouched in a sort of squatting position in front of a very old monk, with my elbows on my knees and my hands together like this, and I'm repeating the Refuges and the ten sramanera precepts after this old monk, and I'm being ordained as a sramanera. I'm wearing real orange robes, and the old monk is very insistent about my getting the correct pronunciation of the Refuges. At this ordination ceremony, one has to repeat them both according to the Pali and according to the Sanskrit pronunciation - I won't go into the reason for all that now. So I was finding it quite difficult. I was having great difficulty with my aspirated consonants, I remember.

I couldn't Buddham as I can now. I was saying `Buddung' and I was saying `Dummung', and the old monk was saying, no it's Dhammam, it's Dhammam. [Laughter] So he was coaching me and I was just wanting to get ordained as a sramanera and here I was having a lesson in Pali and Sanskrit phonetics in the course of the ceremony! And he was saying it's Saranam, it's not saranam, it's saranam. [Laughter] So I was having great difficulty, but anyway he coached me and eventually I got it absolutely correct, every sound, every aspirated consonant, every nasalization, every nasal `n', absolutely correct, and he was satisfied and I was ordained. But there was no explanation on that occasion of what Going for Refuge really meant! I had this thorough, not to say wonderful, lesson in Pali and Sanskrit phonetics, but the significance, the import of what I was actually doing, the importance of the step I was taking, basically, from a spiritual point of view, was not explained. I must admit, in justice, the precepts were explained - what it meant to abstain from violence, what it meant not to take the not given - this was all explained - but the real significance of the Going for Refuge was not explained at all on this occasion when I became a sramanera. I just had a vague, though still quite strong, sense that I'd arrived, that I'd joined the Buddhist community, that I was now, as it were, a member of it. So that's my second reminiscence.

So, third reminiscence. Another vihara, a very small one, somewhere in Nepal, some weeks later. I'm sitting in this vihara near the shrine, near the image, and around me, kneeling on the floor, are several dozen Nepalese, that is to say Newar, Buddhists, mostly women; and they've come to the vihara for a special purpose - they ask to be `given', as it's called, the Refuges and the precepts. But being a very new sramanera I've never had the opportunity of `giving' anybody the Refuges and the precepts before, and I didn't know what to do, so I had to ask them. I had to learn how to do it - that I recited it and then they recited it after me ...

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