by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Across Buddhist traditions the Three Refuges (P., tritratna) is the initial step for all on the Noble Path. In the Chinese Ch’an tradition reciting the Three Refuges (also known as the Three Treasures or Three Jewels of Buddhism) is how a person “becomes” a Buddhist, it is known as Taking Refuge (P., sarana). It is a recognition that at any time, when needed a Buddhist can return to, or find sanctuary in the Three Refuges. It is not an act of conversion. It is a choice. We can choose approach the Noble Path with the knowledge that Siddhartha was a human being like ourselves, one whose example we can follow. We can approach the Noble Path with the realization that the dharma is a dynamic reality. We can approach the Noble Path alongside others who have similar goals and are searching for similar experiences.
The precise meanings of each of jewels, their interconnectedness, and how to honor each differs between traditions, while the intent remains steadfast. The intent being that once on the Noble Path the practitioner can return to the ideals of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha whenever needed to reinforce and strengthen practice.
In the Buddhavagga Sutra is found these verses about refuge:
They go to many a refuge, to mountains and forests,
to park and tree shrines: people threatened with danger.
That’s not the secure refuge, not the supreme refuge,
that’s not the refuge, having gone to which,
you gain release from all suffering & stress.
But when, having gone to the Buddha, Dhamma,
& Sangha for refuge, you see with right discernment
the four noble truths — stress,the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress, & the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress: that’s the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge, that is the refuge,
having gone to which, you gain release from all suffering & stress.
In Engaged Dharma the Three Refuges are recited before any session, individual or sangha.
THE THREE REFUGES
I go for refuge to the Buddha, the teacher.
I go for refuge to the Dhamma, the teaching.
I go for refuge to the Sangha, the taught.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dhamma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
I have taken refuge in the Buddha.
I have taken refuge in the Dhamma.
I have taken refuge in the Sangha.
Sutta Pitaka, Khuddaka Nikaya, Saranagamana Sutta
The three repetitions follow the traditional Ch’an ritual of intent. The first recitation is to remind us that we made the choice to walk the Noble Path by going to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for shelter. The second, that we accept the Refuges as moment-to-moment ideals that must be engaged in the reality of the world we live in. The third, that we realize that refuge, serenity and equanimity can always be returned to. Once the recitation ceremony is completed then the intent of the Three Refuges becomes part of our consciousness. It is a simple ceremony of deep listening, intentional recitation, and solemn vow. Listening, recitation and vow, a ritual done with the intent to transform how we are.
At times in life we may become disillusioned or be assailed by doubt that one human being can have an appreciable effect on the unsatisfactoriness and suffering we recognize around, and within us. We can feel ourselves stepping back from our commitment.
Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha lived and died as a human being. He encountered the same experiences as any other person of his place and time. He was simply a man who wanted to find a way to relieve unsatisfactoriness and suffering and committed himself to finding a way. He is the personal, human component in Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Siddhartha didn’t come to realize a path out of unsatisfactoriness and suffering by hiding out in a cave or sequestering himself in a monastery. He sat under a bodhi tree in full view of anyone walking by and meditated until he awakened with the realization of the Four Ennobling Truths. Then came Siddhartha’s moment of doubt . . . was this realization too much for others to understand? . . . do I have the skills necessary to get the message to others? . . . he ultimately decided that it would be selfish to keep this knowledge to himself because with the knowledge came the responsibility to tell others.
Each of us have moments of doubt. Can we do it . . . whatever it is? We can look to Siddhartha as our example, and go on to be an example to others. Then we take refuge in the Buddha.
Traditionally the dharma (P., dhamma) in Buddhist philosophy has three manifestations. The Dharma recorded as the words of the Buddha in the Nikayan texts are scriptural dharma. Realized Dharma arises when the practitioner puts information into practice and comprehends its positive transformational effects. Third is the dharma that is the reality of the world we live in. It is the realities of causality, the not-self, and of impermanence. We take refuge in all the manifestations of dharma. Through the Dharma the Buddha presented us with ways to live in harmony with the world around us, ways to live in harmony with the people around us, and to live in harmony with ourselves.
To take refuge in the Dharma has other interpretations as well. It can mean to take refuge in the truths that have been revealed by our everyday experiences, the laws of nature, or the principles that govern our individual and communal lives. Beth Ross, Tricycle Magazine Website, Family Dharma: Taking Refuge (On the Wings of Angels)
As Ms. Ross writes, we have to look to everyday, moment-to-moment experiences and learn from them. We have to learn to be aware and accept the causal process of the Universe and take action within it to create and maintain human flourishing. While we have individual lives we must realize they are never separated from the communal living that goes on around us, what we do has its effect.
When faced with situations we can take refuge in the Dharma to direct us toward positive transformation.
In the Mahayana tradition there is less of a distinction between the monastic and the lay people; all are considered the sangha. The sangha is important because Buddhist philosophy and practice isn’t meant to be only an individual pursuit, it is meant to have a strong socially engaged aspect. From the earliest incarnations of the Noble Path the Buddha made it clear to his disciples that they must travel around and spread the Dharma through example.
The EDIG sangha is a support network that offers friendship and the shared experiences of members. A sangha provides a fertilizer to help each practitioner grow into a socially engaged, socially relevant Buddhist. All sanghas allow the brain to think on a more encompassing scale as connections between members reveal that each are representative of the whole sangha. As a representative each practitioner becomes more than themselves, they realize themselves as a piece of everyone. This does not mean a loss of personal identity, only that there is no duality between individual and member.
It is through interactions and personal connections developed within the sangha that social selves arise. We discuss relevant issues and the effect of applying the teachings of the Buddha to them. Through social consensus decisions are made on the value of actions we have taken, and how we can better react to situations that didn’t turn out so well.
The sangha is a place we must be able to “air our views” without fear of judgement. We grow to trust the members of the sangha and this trust is a refuge.
Engaging the Three Refuges
Buddhist practice is all about re-wiring the bodymind, strengthening the positive practices we already engage in, and discarding or altering the negative ones. This isn’t mind control or brain washing. No one, deity or otherwise is coercing you or can force you to change; it is up to you to choose your path.
Reciting the Three Refuges is a reminder that no matter what situations we face there are places of sanctuary. We can go to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha to refresh our awareness that we must accept the world as it is, and that we can take actions necessary to make it better on a personal and societal level.