Going for refuge


For AO1 you need to know:

  • Going for refuge
  • The chanting practice of going refuge three times
  • The meanings of each refuge for heritage and convert Buddhists
  • The three refuges in the context of other possible refuges in the modern world: materialism, relationships, secular values and political beliefs

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • The relevance of going for refuge in the modern world
  • The relative value of each of the three refuges

Going for refuge

Taking refuge in the Buddha jewel involves a return from our avidya (ignorance) to reliance on an awakened and understanding mind. The Buddha was a human and a role model valued for his wisdom. The Buddha himself was once on the Buddhist path just like other Buddhists currently are. Refuge in the Buddha jewel thus involves both the story of his life containing vital teachings (middle way between luxry and asceticism, four sights & four noble truths including 8 fold path, mindfulness & meditation.) but also important inspiration to Buddhists that they too can succeed on the Buddhist path just like the Buddha did.

Taking refuge in the Sangha jewel. The Sangha is the Buddhist community in the widest sense. The purpose as a refuge is for training, as a group or a formal setting. The aim of the Sangha is to follow the path the Buddha taught and to gain and provide help from others to that end. It is a human community purposed towards individual and collective progression on the Buddhist path. Recieving and giving help is important in Buddhism (Dana and punya) and it is a refuge. It is a place of optimistic, positive and spiritually beneficial colaboration where people can work together.

Taking refuge in the Dharma jewel involves teaching of the Buddha, later to become the Pali cannon – Tripitaka. However, Mhayana Buddhists will include Mahayana sutras. It involves a return from incorrect views to proper views and understanding of life and reality. The Dharma jewel is the infinite innate knowledge and wisdom of nature, also called Prajna wisdom. It corrects our inaccurate beliefs, speech and behaviour. We cannot immediately recover our innate Prajna wisdom however and so following teachings such as the Sutras functions as guidance. If our thinking aligns with it, we are correct. If our perception of what is good or bad deviates from the teachings of the Buddha, our thinking must be affected by avidya (ignorance).

The chanting practice of going refuge three times

This involves a Buddhist chanting three times that they go to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for refuge. It is a self-declaration of commitment to the Buddhist path. It is part of a Buddhist’s psychological habit for maintaining medatitive practice.

Repetition in Buddhism is crucial. Repetition is about creating a habit which then has the power to alter mental states and some believe it can even change the physical world. Repeating the refuge chant strengthens their mental state

Taking refuge refers to mentally finding shelter and assistance for a Buddhist in their path of cultivation of virtue. There are three refuges/jewels: The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

The meanings of each refuge for heritage and convert Buddhists

Heritage Buddhists and western converts have the same religious commitments – however there is a difference. The villege monks differ when doing the alms round to the western monks. Dharma talks take place in a monsestary in Buddhist countries, but in Western countries Buddhists might meet in a generic building because there aren’t many monestaries.

The fact that heritage Buddhists meet in the monestry means that the significance of the refuges is more immediate and conspicuous. However this doesn’t necessarily translate into greater spiritual benefit.

Arguably Buddhism has no heritage, it simply adapts to whatever cultural environment it finds itself in. It’s goal is to reduce suffering which exists in all cultures and therefore it can find a place anywhere.

The three refuges in the context of other possible refuges in the modern world: materialism, relationships, secular values and political beliefs

In the modern world, secular values and political beliefs are seen as refuges because they are seen as the way to enable happiness and human rights.

However, Buddhism would say that while those are valuable, they are spiritually incomplete because they don’t offer any actual spiritual guidance on how to live your life or become happy. Secular society grants people freedom – but unfortunately too many people just become slaves to capitalism – arguably because of the lack of spiritual guidance.

In the modern world, wealth and materialism is seen as a refuge because it is the life goal for many people in western capitalist societies.

However, Buddhism would say materialism leads to craving (tanha) and the fire/poison of greed. Donations can have a corrupting influence on monestaries.

In the modern world, relationships are a refuge because people seek relationships – most of secular youth culture is focused on relationships. Most songs are about them, most entertainment shows are about them.

However, Buddhists would say that relationships can cause suffering due to attachment.

For Buddhists, the three refuges of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are superior as they are consistent and spiritually reliable and secure. The refuges of modern society on the other hand are more a reflection of craving and greed, which the Buddhist path is about avoiding.

The relevance of going for refuge in the modern world

Relevant for all traditions in Buddhism, despite different interpretations/applications of the three refuges. Triratna interprets them in a western context – but still finds going for refuge important. They will always be relevant in the contemporary world no matter what kind of Buddhism a person follows
However, the modern world makes ancient tradition less relevant because spirituality is less important as people are more scientific.

They may focus more or less on certain jewels, for example the Sangha for living a wholesome life.
However, modern society has such good mental health care and the internet – such wide access to information – that people don’t need guidance or help in living a wholesome life from the sangha or any of the refuges.
However, many in western countries feel spiritually empty and many of them accept alternative new age spiritualities, so Buddhism is still relevant. Many western people travel to the east in search of real meaning because they need refuge – so they are still relevant.

The Sangha can support contemporary Buddhists through modern issues e.g. materialism, politics, relationships and secular issues.
However, Buddhism just recommends detachment – which is not relevant for actually solving political or secular issues.
However, socially engaged Buddhism does aim to actively address such issues so a Sangha focused on social engagement would be relevant to modern times.

The relative value of each of the three refuges

Buddha most important – founder of Buddhism, most recognised symbol of Buddhism, center of every temple and Budhist home. Without the Buddha, the dharma and sangha are meaningless as he discovered and founded them both
However, even though they wouldn’t exist without the Buddha, the dharma and sangha are enough to guide people to enlightenment which is the whole point of Buddhism. The Buddha might be the most important, but the sangha and dharma are the most valuable for helping Buddhists on the path.

Dharma – most important – what the buddhist left behind – his teachings which actually guide Buddhists to enlightenment which is the ultimate goal.

Sangha – most important – strengthens Buddhism, preserves the teachings and is the vehicle by which they are shared. Chanting.
However, teachings can be lost in translation or manipulated or misinterpreted. The modern understandings of the teachings may be wrong. The Buddha – his inspirational life story – is the most important refuge.

Sangha – all inclusive, includes Buddha and Dharma and also how they should be viewed, understood and practiced. Arguably they are interdepdent – none can be more important, all are equally vital. We need the Buddha to inspire the path, the sangha to cultivate and teach the path and the dharma to reveal the path. These are all equally important for the Buddhist path.