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Dimensions of Going for Refuge

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by Sangharakshita

... and participate in its activities; (2) To keep up a daily meditation practice; (3) To maintain contact with the Order Members or Dharmacharis and Dharmacharinis who conduct all the centre activities and develop Kalyana Mitrata or `spiritual Lecture 152: Dimensions of Going for Refuge Page 2 fellowship' with them, and (4) To help the centre, and the Movement generally, in any practical way he or she can.

Thus we have Friends, Mitras and what we call Order Members or Dharmacharis and Dharmacharinis, about whom I shall be saying something in a minute. As a Mitra you will probably find yourself becoming increasingly involved with the movement and increasingly attracted to the beauty of the Buddhist spiritual Ideal - the Ideal of Human Enlightenment. You may find that your experience of meditation is becoming deeper, that your communication with other people is expanding and that psychological conditionings are being removed. Eventually, you may find that the centre of gravity of your whole existence has been subtly shifted, and that you now want to give up your old interests and activities and commit yourself wholly to Buddhism, to the Dharma, to the spiritual life. When that point is reached you start thinking in terms of `joining the Order', or to put it more traditionally, in terms of Going for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. If the existing Order Members are convinced that your aspiration is genuine, and that you really are able to Go for Refuge - by no means an easy thing to do - then your `application', inverted commas, is accepted and in due course the very beautiful ordination ceremony is held. You become a Dharmachari or Dharmacharini, one who Goes for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha and who, in addition, takes upon himself or herself the `Ten Silas' or moral precepts by means of which body, speech and mind are progressively and systematically purified.

By this time you may be wondering where this `Going for Refuge' has its origin, and why it seems to represent the culmination of one*s involvement not only with our new Buddhist movement but even with Buddhism itself. After all, one first becomes a Friend, then a Mitra, and finally a Dharmachari or Dharmacharini as I have just explained. The tradition of Going for Refuge is however, a very ancient one. In order to understand where it had its origin and why it is of such tremendous importance we shall, therefore, have to go back a very long way to the Buddha*s own lifetime and to certain incidents in his career.

As you know, after his Enlightenment the Buddha spent a great deal of time wandering from place to place making known the Dharma or Truth he had discovered, and the Way leading to its realisation.

Much of what he said is preserved in the Pali scriptures, but although we have, in some cases, what may well be the Buddha's actual words, we probably do not appreciate how powerful was the effect of those words on the listener when spoken by the Enlightened One himself. What we usually find happening is that in the course of his wanderings the Buddha meets someone, whether a wealthy Brahmin, a fellow wanderer, or a young prince, and the two of them get into conversation. As the conversation deepens, the Buddha begins to speak from the depths of his spiritual experience. In other words, the Buddha expounds the Dharma: the Dharma emerges.

Sometimes, when reading the Buddhist scriptures, we get the impression that the Dharma is a matter of lists, the five of this and the six of that and so on - and that it is an excessively schematised and tabulated thing. But it certainly wasn't like that at the beginning. It was all fresh, all original, all creative. The Buddha would speak from the depths of his spiritual experience. He would expound the Truth. He would show the Way leading to Enlightenment, and the person to whom he was speaking would be absolutely astounded, absolutely overwhelmed. In some cases he might not be able to speak or to do more than stammer a few incoherent words. Something had been revealed to him. Something had burst upon him that was above and beyond his ordinary understanding. For an instant, at least, he had glimpsed the Truth, and the experience had staggered him. Time and again, on occasions of this sort, the scriptures tell us that the person concerned exclaimed, `Excellent, lord, excellent! As if one should set up again that which had been overthrown or reveal that which had been hidden, or should disclose the road to someone that was astray, or should carry a lamp into darkness, saying, "They that have eyes will see!" even so hath the Truth been manifested by the Exalted One in many ways.' In this manner would he express himself. Then, out of the depth of his gratitude, such a person would fervently exclaim, `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!' We can now see not only where the Going for Refuge had its origin but also something of its tremendous spiritual significance. The Going for Refuge represents your positive emotional reaction - in fact your total reaction, your total response - to the spiritual ideal when that ideal is revealed to your spiritual vision. Such is its appeal that you cannot but give yourself to it. As Tennyson says, `We needs must love the Highest when we see it.' Going for Refuge is a bit like that. You've seen the `Highest'. The `Highest' has been shown to you - therefore you needs must love it, needs must give Lecture 152: Dimensions of Going for Refuge Page 3 yourself to it, needs must commit yourself to it. That commitment of yourself to the `Highest' is the Going for Refuge.

Now the object of Refuge is threefold, i.e. the Triple Gem or Three Jewels. One goes for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. What then do these three things mean? We can understand in a general way what the Going for Refuge means, can understand what this feeling of committing oneself to the Highest means, but what does is it mean to Go for Refuge to the Buddha specifically? Or to the Dharma, or the Sangha specifically? The Buddha is an Enlightened human being. He is not God nor an Avatara or messenger of God. He's a human being who, by his own efforts, has reached the summit of human perfection. He has gained the ineffable state which we designate Enlightenment, Nirvana, or Buddhahood. He is, indeed, not only a Buddha but a samyak sambuddha, a Fully and Perfectly Enlightened One. When we go for Refuge to the Buddha, we go for Refuge to the Buddha in this sense. Not that we just admire him from a distance. We admire him indeed, and certainly he is very distant at present, but great as the gap between the Buddha and ourselves may be, that gap can be closed. We can close it by following the path, by practising the Dharma. We too can become as the Buddha. We too can become Enlightened.

That is the great message of Buddhism. Each and every human being who makes the effort, who follows the Eightfold Aryan Path to Enlightenment, can become even as the Buddha became. When, therefore, we go for Refuge to the Buddha, we go for Refuge to him as the living embodiment of a spiritual ideal which is a spiritual ideal for us, i.e. a spiritual ideal that we can actually real. When you go for Refuge to the Buddha it is as though we say, `That is what I want to be. That is what I want to attain. I want to be Enlightened. I want to develop the fullness of Wisdom, the fullness of Compassion.' Going for Refuge to the Buddha means taking the Buddha - taking Buddhahood - as our personal spiritual ideal, or as something we ourselves can achieve.

The Dharma is the Path or Way. It is the path of what I have sometimes called the Higher Evolution of Man, a stage of purely spiritual development above and beyond ordinary biological evolution. As a Path, the Dharma exists in a number of different formulations. We speak of the Threefold Path: of morality (sila), meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna), as well as the path of the Six Perfections (paramitas): of giving (dana), morality (sila), patience and forbearance (kshanti), vigour (virya), higher consciousness (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna) - the Path of the Bodhisattva.

Thus there are many different formulations, but although the formulations are many, the basic principle of the path is one and the same. The path is essentially the Path of the Higher Evolution. It is whatever helps us to develop. The Dharma, or the Path, is not to be identified with this or that particular teaching. According to the Buddha's own express declaration, the Dharma is whatever contributes to the spiritual development of the individual. When his maternal aunt and foster mother, Mahaprajapati the Gotamid, asked him for a criterion by means of which she could distinguish between what was his Dharma-Vinaya, and what was not, he replied, Of whatsoever teachings, Gotamid, thou canst assure thyself thus: `These doctrines conduce to passions, not to dispassion; to bondage, not to detachment; to increase of (worldly) gains, not to decrease of them; to covetousness, not to frugality; to discontent, and not content; to company, not solitude; to sluggishness, not energy; to delight in evil, not delight in good': of such teachings thou mayest with certainty affirm, Gotamid, `This is not the Dharma. This is not the Vinaya. This is not the Master's Message.' But of whatsoever teachings thou canst assure thyself (that they are the opposite of those things I have told you), of such teachings thou mayest with certainty affirm: `This is the Dharma. This is the Vinaya. This is the Master's Message.' Such is the criterion. When we go for ...

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