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Going for Refuge

by Viveka

Going for Refuge

by Viveka

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM775
Talk given at San Francisco Buddhist Center, 2006
Okay, so this year at San Francisco Buddhist Centre we are exploring the theme of Going for
Refuge throughout the year. It’s a very broad topic, so in some ways you could just continue to
do the meditation, Dharma study, we normally do and it would all fit under the umbrella of Going
for Refuge in some way. But we are going to try to emphasize this theme along the way because
it’s a very, very important aspect of the Buddhist teaching and tradition. And the founder of our
tradition, Sangharakshita, has especially emphasized the act of Going for Refuge or the teachings
on Going for Refuge and they are actually acknowledged by all of the main Buddhist traditions.
So if you go to a Tibetan temple and you say something about Going for Refuge they will very
much know what you mean, and if you go to a Mahayana temple, like a Zen or Chinese Pure Land
place, they will very much know what you mean, and if you show up at a Theravadin place, maybe
Thai Forest tradition and talked about Going for Refuge, they would very much know what you
meant. Very much like I said when we chant the Refuges and Precepts, its something that all
Buddhists would recognize.

Tonight I’m going to talk a little bit about what it is and I especially wanted to go back to some
things that Sangharakshita had to say about it because I think it is one of the areas in which he has
contributed a lot to the Buddhist world by lifting up this Teaching and saying, “It’s actually quite
important.” In some ways it’s just considered a first basic thing in many other traditions and
Sangharakshita said, “Actually it’s a teaching we should spend much more time with, and rather
than thinking that’s its something we do at the beginning, actually to think of it as something that
we do continuously if we are interested in deepening a Buddhist practice and that would help us to
think of it as something we can deepen.”

So I was quite inspired to go back to some of his teachings and I will let you know when they are
his words, because I certainly don’t want to take credit for them.

The Buddha’s Pursuit of the Spiritual Life Out of Dissatisfaction

So this act of Going for Refuge, which I’ll say a little about what it is as we go along, but it goes
back to the stories of the Buddha’s life. So the Buddha is the founder of this tradition and he was
a human being that experienced quite a lot of dissatisfaction as a young man although he was
raised in a very privileged environment. He had everything he could materially want, he was in a
wealthy family, and he left home like many other spiritual seekers were doing at the time. I think
if you think about the 60s when at the time there was really an alternative movement we can think
about the time of the Buddha as a similar thing going on. [laughter] Actually, traditional culture
was in a lot of upheaval and there were a lot of people just hitting the road. It’s kind of wild to
imagine this: people were hitting the road just being spiritual seekers, just setting out looking for
the truth of things. Existential, you know, big questions. So he joined that kind of movement and
was seeking and did eventually study with some very well known teachers of the time and then felt
still there was something missing. And through his meditation practice, and building on what he
had been taught, broke through that last bit that he felt no one else had been able to help him break
through. So that he felt he was, at that point he was Fully Enlightened. [Laughing] I think that
word ‘fully’ emphasizes that last little bit he felt was significant to break through. And then he
continued to wander and teach. He did not really have much time in solitude. He was really
constantly teaching to all sorts of people.

Early Taking of Refuge in the Buddha

So in stories from his life, in what is now India and Nepal, some 2,500 years ago, after his
Enlightenment experience, he was described as having a very particular kind of presence and
people kind of noticed him. He maybe didn’t look like some of the downtrodden people that were
stressed out from their job kind of wandering around in a daze; he had a slightly different quality
than that. And the name Buddha that was given to him just means ‘Awake’. He just looked like
someone who was Awake, alive, present – that was the most striking quality. There was a glow
or a kind of energy to him. I think maybe we know some people that are relatively more Awake
than others, that kind of have that quality, so we can kind of imagine that, I think. Someone that
actually had something intriguing going on there that you might want to know more about. So
sometimes along the road he might come across someone else who had hit the road looking for
truth or maybe a merchant that was traveling from one town to the next. And they would be struck
by his presence and maybe there would be a very short dialogue there that would ensue and in
many cases these people would spontaneously say, “I Go for Refuge to you”. There are very
specific stories of this. Other times rather than passing someone on the road he might actually be
sitting under a tree, you know it’s pretty hot in India, having some kind of very detailed debate
with some of the more philosophical types. And debates are recorded which I can’t really
understand which hairs they’re trying to split exactly. And after a long debate with a skeptic or
even a critic, well sometimes they laughed and said, "Well you’re full of ... " whatever, and did not
Go for Refuge to him [laugh] but sometimes other people did feel that he was able to explain
something – those key existential questions that they were seeking. And again, sometimes to the
point when they would say you know. “You’ve answered all my questions, I Go for Refuge to

There’s one story I like where there are sixteen different Brahmins. So these are very educated
religious people of the time, who one by one ask the Buddha all these very deep questions and
they are all recorded, these are the conversations that I find hard to follow, and one by one he
answers them and they are at the Rock Temple in Magda, so they are sitting under these rocks,
these cold rocks, and this dialogue is going on. The way it was described afterwards by someone
who was there, they say:

‘The Buddha answered the questions with the exactness of truth just as things are. The Brahmins
were pleased to hear the words of this wise man and so filled with pleasure by the clear-sighted
vision of this kinsman of the sun they settled down to a life of purity and goodness spent in the
shelter of the precious wisdom of the Buddha.’

So again, this idea of the shelter of his wisdom. This act of Going for Refuge happened with
wealthy kings and queens and merchants; it happened with the Dalits who were at the time
incredibly badly discriminated against and still are considered untouchables by the Hindu caste
system; and also with these people he talked to them about the nature of human condition. And
you can imagine for them how having someone actually say to them that by following certain
practices and by cultivating themselves that they could become like him, fully Enlightened. You
know that must have had a huge impact on people that had been told they were quite literally
spiritually garbage. So it’s not that hard to imagine in this situation how these people were very
drawn to following his tradition. There was also a vicious murderer who went for Refuge to the
Buddha but only after he had tried to kill him very seriously. [laughter] So it goes on and on these
stories, right?

What is Going for Refuge to the Buddha?

So what is this? We don’t really have the phrase Going for Refuge in our time. So what is it that
these people are doing? So, in Going for Refuge to the Buddha, these individuals would be
meeting something in his person – I think it would take some imagination so what would it be like
in these stories, these encounters. What would it be that they would be meeting? And he must
have embodied and realized a degree of development that, upon meeting it, they felt they too
wanted to be a Buddha basically. You know it’s like when someone has a really good haircut and
you think, “Hey who’s your hairdresser?” [audience laughs] Imagine how much more so, right?
They are looking pretty much free from suffering and totally compassionate and aware. So maybe
its, “Hey, being fully Awake – maybe I can be fully Awake, maybe I want to be fully Awake”. So
I think that’s the heart of the matter. Part of the experience must have been seeing someone ...

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