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The History of My Going for Refuge

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by Sangharakshita

171: The History of My Going for Refuge

Reflections on the Occasion of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Western Buddhist Order Sangharakshita 1.Introduction 2.The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei Lang 3.U Thittila and Pansil 4.Going Forth 5.Sramanera Ordination 6.Bhikshu Ordination 7.`Taking Refuge in the Buddha' 8.A Survey of Buddhism 9.Dhardo Rimpoche and The Path of the Buddha 10.Ambedkar and the ex-Untouchables 11.More Light from Tibetan Buddhism 12.The Three Jewels and Other Writings 13.Bodhisattva Ordination 14.Light from Vatican II 15.`The Meaning of Conversion in Buddhism' 16.Founding the Western Buddhist Order 17.The Wider Context 18.Levels of Going for Refuge 19.Going for Refuge Old and New 20.Upasaka into Dharmachari 21.Ambedkar and Going for Refuge 22.Conclusion Notes Foreword A few years ago I had the good fortune to accompany Sangharakshita as he made a lecture tour of Central India. Our hosts in the thirty and more towns we visited were almost entirely `ex-Untouchable' Buddhist followers of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, drawn from India's poorest, most disadvantaged classes. The crowds of thousands who attended each talk were welcoming and attentive in the extreme, but the daily journeys demanded by our schedule were long and arduous, the travel and accommodation arrangements - often hastily arranged - very basic.

In Ahmedabad, Sangharakshita contracted a fever and to his obvious regret was obliged to brief an alternative speaker and dispatch his support party to the evening's venue. Suffering myself from a mild stomach disorder, I also remained behind.

The two of us spent most of the evening in our own rooms, reading our books and nursing our particular ailments. However, when I took Sangharakshita a bedtime drink, an easy conversation developed between us, during the course of which I urged him to talk a little about the time when he first `discovered' himself to be a Buddhist - the occasion evoked in the second section of this History.

Having read - having even written - a few of the short biographies that prefaced his early books, I was already familiar with the outlines of this experience, and with the by now `stock' formula: `At the age of 16 he discovered that he was a Buddhist - and that he had always been one,' which was generally, if enigmatically, used to convey its import. But as Sangharakshita calmly reminisced between sips of warm milk, I began to understand that the experience had been more powerful, more thoroughgoing and unfathomable, than I had yet realized. I was to be granted the further realization that Sangharakshita himself sometimes found the experience baffling. He almost chuckled as he talked of the proverbial flash in which a young lad, in pre-war England, had sustained a clear and exact vision of the metaphysical core of the Buddha's teaching. Without a shadow of doubt - for so it seemed - he had seen and felt in his own core exactly what the teachings of Buddhism were fundamentally about.

`But what is most surprising,' he continued, `Is that none of my subsequent spiritual practice, none of my work as a scholar or as a teacher, in fact none of my experience of Buddhism over the past forty years, has made me feel the need to revise or modify that original insight.' He cocked his head pensively as a new thought occurred to him: `I do realize that that is quite a claim to make!' To see, in a flash, to the Transcendental heart of Buddhism is one thing: to understand, unfold, and embody it quite another. This latter has been the task - the all consuming commitment - that has fully occupied Sangharakshita's life, and which will continue to engage him, I feel sure, for the rest of his days. For he has amply and unfailingly proved that his life has no other Refuge than the Three Jewels of Buddhism, no other purpose than the realization and communication to others of the resplendent ideals that the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha enshrine. That `claim' he made in Ahmedabad was no private boast shared between colluding friends: all are free to assess for themselves the effects of those insights on his life: the documentary `evidence' is freely available in the form inter alia of early memoirs, his writings and lectures on Buddhist doctrine and practice, and a new, flourishing, world-wide Buddhist movement. Perhaps there could be no greater testament to the assured radicalism of Sangharakshita's approach to Buddhism than that movement, which now flourishes among such culturally diverse people as Londoners, Finns, and ex-Untouchable Indians! And there is the man himself. That early experience, and the sense of inner certainty it bestowed, seems to have given Sangharakshita the confidence and determination, not only to keep going, but to go it alone if and whenever necessary. It is a confidence that has never waned. He has never been afraid to think his own thoughts or keep his own counsel, has never shirked from speaking out and challenging what he sees to be superficial or false.

In an age of cynical individualism some may wonder why such a gifted, independent spirit should have chosen to work within the Buddhist context at all, especially when - by his own admission - it took him so long to find kindred spirits within the Buddhist community. But such a line of thought would strike Sangharakshita as an absurd rejection of his experience. He has never for a moment doubted his allegiance to the Buddha, nor to the tradition that the Buddha founded. It was a Buddhist scripture that precipitated his initial vision; it was insight into the experience behind the Buddha's words that erupted so unaccountably into his life on that early occasion.

Such inner certainty as forms the bedrock of Sangharakshita's spiritual quest, far from closing his mind, has fuelled enquiry. Though granted a glimpse of what the Buddha saw, he has never stopped endeavouring to deepen his vision, and has always tried to understand and practise as wholeheartedly as he can - and to pass on to others - what the Buddha taught. For the Buddha was not just a visionary, he was a teacher, `a guide unsurpassed of men to be tamed.' Paradoxical though it may seem, his determination to examine the exact bearing that each of the Buddha's utterances and precepts might have on the spiritual life, viewed as a whole - and to adjust his own spiritual life accordingly - has brought at almost every stage a measure of controversy into Sangharakshita's career, - as has his unflagging determination to cut through the various cultural accretions that can obscure (or even be mistaken for) the Dharma itself in many `Buddhist countries'. Although ordained as a Theravada monk he has opened his heart to the influences and practices of the Mahayana and Vajrayana - and has not refrained from criticizing the modern Theravada for what he sees to be a lack of spiritual dynamism; from its very beginnings he has been energetically involved with the ex-Untouchable Buddhist movement in India, and with the highly `social' form of Buddhism its founder espoused; nowadays he wears his robes only on ceremonial occasions, has allowed his hair to grow, and - as the sharper-witted reader cannot fail to have noticed - is prepared to drink a cup of milk at bedtime. And he has founded a new Buddhist Order whose members are neither monks nor laymen, `but simply Buddhists'.

In April 1984, on the occasion of that Order's 16th anniversary, Sangharakshita delivered a paper entitled `The Ten Pillars of Buddhism'. On one level this was a detailed exposition of the Ten Precepts observed by members of his Order, a number of whom constituted his audience that day.

But on another level, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, when published in booklet form, was reborn as a shared meditation, an open invitation to the Buddhist world to join with him in affirming a fundamental and universally valid code of Buddhist ethical principles, unbounded by culture, uncluttered by the legalistic formalism of any one school or sect.

Now, in The History of My Going for Refuge, he is sharing a meditation of even richer and more profound significance, for in this paper he addresses himself to the most fundamental question a Buddhist can possibly ask: What is it that makes one a Buddhist? The meditation is ostensibly a personal one, for the reader is being offered a `History' of Sangharakshita's own thoughts and insights exactly as he chose to share them with members of the Western Buddhist Order in April 1988, at a celebration marking the Order's twentieth anniversary. For that reason, when Sangharakshita speaks of the `Order`, the reader is asked to remember that his original listeners would have understood him to mean the Western Buddhist Order, just as they would have known that Lokamitra, who is mentioned in section 20, is the Dharmachari who went to India in 1978 to found Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana (TBMSG), as the FWBO is known there. They would have known too that Sangharakshita had quite recently undergone a couple of operations for prostate trouble, which struck - almost fatally - while he was paying his first visit to `Guhyaloka', the FWBO's retreat centre in Spain.

Now that this paper too has been reborn in book form, Sangharakshita's views are once again being made available for the inspection and comment of a wider audience. The theme is clearly one which Sangharakshita considers to be crucial, and he has spared no effort in meticulously `spelling out' the stages of the path he has traversed on the way to his conclusions. I hope that readers the world over will now be prepared to follow imaginatively the route of his path, and test his conclusions in their own minds and hearts. If they are prepared to do that, then I am confident that they will find this paper as challenging and as galvanizing as its author intends it to be.

The world is changing very quickly. ...

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