You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This concludes the chapter on Refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
There has been some additional discussion over at Dhammawheel.org here.
Refuge in the Dharma
“Well expounded is the teaching of the Buddha,
Directly visible, with immediate fruit,
Inviting investigation, leading onwards,
To be realized by the wise each for himself.”1
Most religions have some form of doctrine or belief system, generally providing a metaphysics, an account of the origin of the world, of mankind or of a particular tribe and so on. The Dharma stands out in its sophistication and its emphasis on the mind rather than on external forces. It deals with the human dilemma, existential crisis, anguish, suffering and dissatisfaction, delusion, harmfulness, meaninglessness and the rest, as human problems with human causes that arise in human minds, and require human solutions. It provides a program whereby the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of virtue, serenity and wisdom. The Dharma itself is among the greatest products of the human mind, skillfully articulated by the Buddha. On the basis of trust in the Triple Gem we begin to study, practice, develop and gain insight through the teachings of the Buddha. As the Buddha states,
“He who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Teaching and his Order, penetrates with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths — suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering.”2
The Dharma also stands out in its empirical quality, “inviting investigation.” This phrase translates Pali ehipassiko, which is an adjective formed from “come” and “see.” The Dharma points almost entirely to what can be verified in our direct experience, or instructs us in ways to move the mind into certain experiences. Many in the West are inspired to trust in the Dharma in the first place upon learning of this refreshing quality of the Dharma.
Some caution is, however, in order lest one think this means that we should trust our own experience above all. In fact, for the Buddha the typical “uninstructed worldling” is actually astonishingly deluded and the Dharma quite “against the stream” from his perspective. We get hopelessly confused in trying to see or interpret our own experience. For this reason the Buddha in the famous but often misquoted Kalama Sutta warns us not to base one’s understanding on one’s own thinking:
“… don’t go … by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability …”3
In fact, when the Buddha says “Come” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the mountaintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford rivers. When the Buddha says “See” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Buddha sees with great clarity of vision. In order to be willing to do any of this we have to establish from the beginning great trust that the Buddha knew what he was talking about. This is Refuge. What else would induce us to make the difficult climb up the mountain? Investigation and personal verification are necessary parts of following the Dharmic Path but they take time and effort before we can say, “I have come and now I see.” Until then trust is essential.
For instance, the Buddha taught that craving is the origin of suffering (the Second Noble Truth). At first this may seem at least to some an abstract proposition which we ponder and try our darnedest to match up with observation. The most likely early outcome is to dismiss this proposition as faulty. It seems pretty clear to us, for instance, that buying that snazzy shirt would make us exceedingly dashing and that that would lead to improved prospects for romance and other forms of social and perhaps even business success. Therefore, we conclude, craving clearly leads not to suffering but to happiness! Refuge entails instead that we decide to trust the Buddha before our own premature views about what we think we are experiencing. Eventually through years of examination on and off the cushion we might discover that the Second Noble Truth is not an abstraction at all; it is something that bites us on the nose over and over all day every day. As soon as the craving comes up the suffering is right there with it. As soon as we have to have that shirt there is stress and anxiety, unmistakenly. We would discover we had been living in a world of incessant suffering, a world aflame, all along and not noticing it!
Without Refuge in the Dharma we would never have scrambled to the mountaintop. We’ve already taken refuge implicitly in many faulty non-Buddhist ideas and habits taught to us from a young age or absorbed through too much TV, and we are bound to cling to those until we take Refuge in the Dharma, mistaking them for products of our own “free” thinking. As the contemplation at the beginning of this subchapter states, it is the wise who realize for themselves. The Japanese Zen master Shohaku Okumura in a similar vein once said of Zen meditation, “It takes a lot of faith to do zazen. Otherwise nobody would do something so stupid.”
Although the Buddha’s quite empirical methods seem generally to turn away from what we tend to think of as religiosity – the Buddha quite clearly had no sympathy for blind faith – I should in all fairness point out that his teachings are not entirely empirical. The ultimate criterion for Dharmic truth is not verification, but benefit! This again is made clear in the Kalama Sutta:
“Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”4
The Buddha goes on to argue how belief in rebirth, for instance, apparently as controversial in Buddha’s day as it is today, fits this criterion, as a working assumption for the unconvinced if need be. He does not argue for rebirth on the basis of objective verification but of ethics. This brings myth, or what many will interpret as myth, within the Buddha’s purview, even while it is rare that it is found in a core role. We will follow up on this in the next chapter.
Refuge in the Sangha
Of good conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Of upright conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Of wise conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Of dutiful conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Namely the four pairs of persons and the eight kinds of individuals,
Worthy of offerings, worthy of hospitality,
Worthy of gifts, worthy of reverential salutation,
An incomparable field of merits in the world.5
Living, breathing role models are found in every religious tradition, but in Buddhism these become primary objects of veneration and faith. This makes perfect sense since living breathing persons have the most immediate influence on our lives and are most likely to have brought us to Refuge in the Triple Gem in the first place. Unfortunately sometimes we accord this privilege unknowingly to ruffians and scoundrels rather than to admirable friends. For the Buddha the Noble Sangha is most worthy.
The line in the verse above, “Namely the four pairs of persons and the eight kinds of individuals,” refers to the four stages of Awakening, beginning with Stream Entry, and subdividing each of these by “path” and “fruit,” that define the Noble Sangha in terms of spiritual attainment. The subsequent lines refer to the practice of giving alms and veneration to monks and nuns, the Monastic Sangha. The idea is that the Sangha brings great benefit to the world but that their attainment and presence are enabled by those who sustain them and thereby share in bringing benefit to the world, often compared to sowing a fertile field. The generosity of alms is thereby the primary means of expressing veneration to the Third Gem. Both practices, veneration itself and generosity as a specific expression, are important elements of Buddhist religiosity in cultivating wholesome mental factors for the actor, which is what merit really is.
I’ve written a bit about the relationship of the Noble and Monastic Sanghas, the soil and the roots, in the last chapter, and will examine this in detail in the next chapter. Suffice it here to say here that there is an ambiguity between the two. Recall that the former are individuals of great attainment, the Noble Ones, and the latter the members of the monastic order, who individually may or may not be so Noble. Generally when we extol the virtues of the Sangha, as in the contemplation above we speak of the Noble Ones, yet the most common formula for first taking Refuge in the early discourses usually in the Buddha’s presence, explicitly refers to the Monastic Sangha. This gets confusing but the confusion seems to be deliberate. If we think of the Monastic Sangha as a school that trains people to become Noble Ones but actually includes some monks and nuns of little attainment, for instance, the newly ordained, we realize that offering alms to the Monastic Sangha is a necessary function for ensuring that there are Noble Ones in the world.
Moreover, the monks and nuns play an important ritual role as objects of veneration for it is they who are readily recognized as a Sangha through their (especially now atrociously) distinctive attire. As such the Monastic Sangha not only substantially includes the Noble Sangha, but nuns and monks collectively or individually symbolize it, even if sometimes much as a piece of plaster sitting on a modern altar might count as the Buddha, or in play a stick might count as a horse, or in battle the loss of the flag might count as defeat. Monks and nuns are particularly opportune ritual objects since they live and breathe (unlike Buddha statues), accept alms and actually eat them, and have a good shot at spiritual attainment.
In fact, the Vinaya requires that monks and nuns not offer teachings if their audience shows disrespect for them.6 It helps if the practice of giving alms is thought of not as the practice of giving to a particular Noble One or a particular nun or monk, but to the Sangha as a whole, undifferentiated, on behalf of which a particular nun or monk receives the alms. Accordingly the Buddha said,
“An offering made to the monastic Sangha is incalculable, immeasurable. And, I say, that in no way does a gift to a person individually ever have a greater fruit than an offering made to the Sangha.”7
Although the Buddha included himself in the Sangha it is remarkable that the “person individually” referred to was specifically himself in the context of the discourse, the Noble One of the Noble Ones. For the Buddha the Refuge in the Sangha was huge.
Buddhism without Refuge?
The tyke born of a devout Buddhist family is likely to live out his life centered in religiosity; he will live in the roots and leaves, not in the stem. The little seedling will have been brought into the presence of Buddha altars, and of monks, nuns and Noble Ones, and will have been taught the forms of veneration. He will have learned to recite the Refuges. He begins to absorb a few Dharmic aphorisms and learns to recite five Precepts. With growing conviction he becomes increasingly involved in the community life, developing merit in taking care of the temple and the needs of the monastics, in chanting with gusto. He will someday become aware of the stem and may consider broadening his world to include the Path upward, perhaps ordain. A full encounter with saṃvega would likely bring him to that decision. Regardless, he will be inclined support generously the aspirations of those who do make that choice, for he will understand the civilizing force of the Noble Ones.
Living in a devout Buddhist community seems in itself capable of inducing remarkable results. I see this in many Asian Buddhists I’ve known. I also see it in other religious traditions with similar forms of religiosity, which one way or another seem to produce some people of some attainment, even without a Noble Eightfold Path or anything resembling it! It has a remarkable capacity for generating confidence, zip and many wholesome mental factors in its adherents, and can produce centered, selfless, composed, kind and insightful people. One can thrive in the grass on the basis of devotional practice.
A totally different profile would be someone who has not grown up with a foundation in Buddhist religiosity. He might be reluctant to commit to the Refuges or Precepts, has not lived in a Buddhist community, knows nothing aboutNoble Ones, does not know what function nuns and monks could possibly serve or why they don’t go out to get jobs. He might have begun by reading about Buddhism, inspired perhaps bya vague sense that Buddhism is a good thing, maybe having seen the Dalai Lama on TV or inspired by Buddhism’s reputation as “peaceful,” or by reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.
In any case he has been moved to take up Buddhist practice, particularly meditation, much as he had when taking up working out in a gym the year before. Just as the gym membership had made his body stronger, he hopes that joining a “sangha” will make his mind stronger. He likes the idea of Awakening and might even expect to if he meditates ardently for a couple of years, but has no perspective beyond improving this one short life.
This chap lives in the world of the stem, as shown in the next illustration. Without deep veneration nor involvement in a Buddhist community he is nourished only by the experience of practice itself. He lives more accurately in something like mistletoe hanging off the stem which has grown from a seed (his initial intention) that had been deposited in a bird dropping. Mistletoe is a parasite that develops enough of a root to absorb water and minerals from the host plant. It has no sense of where this nourishment comes from nor responsibility for preserving it for future generations. It is unaware of the Sasana, the living flower. Accordingly it gazes down upon the grass with disdain, little comprehending the roots and soil and the spiritual growth that is happening down there. I know this profile well; it used to be mine. His practice is likely to be precarious for a time, but he might eventually gain some strength if he manages grow deep religious roots.
My sense is that people who grow up steeped in (perhaps Jewish or Catholic) religiosity have an easier time. They are like a graft rather than mistletoe. Much of the growth of the roots and leaves has already been experienced and is, probably with mixed degrees of success, translated into Buddhist religiosity.
6The Vinaya rules of etiquette (Pali, Sekhiyā) specify that a monk will not teach to one who is not sick yet carries an umbrella, club or weapon; wears sandals or shoes; is in a vehicle or on a bed; sits clasping the knees; wears a turban or other head covering; sits on a higher seat, sits while the monk is standing; walks preceding the monk or on a pathway while the monk walks off the path. These would have been disrespectful in the Buddha’s culture.