The Third Refuge

All Buddhists know the Three Refuges, which are…  (All Together!), “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” These are said to be the elements of Faith (saddha) in Buddhism.

Many Western Buddhists do not like the word “Faith” when applied to Buddhism, because they think of blind faith, the requirement that you believe a bunch of stuff for irrational or unscientific reasons, and prefer the word “Confidence.” Myself, I prefer “Faith” because “Confidence” seems far too rational for what is meant. One way I like to think of Faith is as follows: There is always a gap between what we know and what we need to know. We know really very little, but we function in a very complex world in which we must make constant decisions often of critical importance, and therefore we need to know a lot. Faith is that which bridges the gap between what we know and what we need to know. Faith is not entirely rational, otherwise it would be in the domain of what we know. Yet it would be irrational to be without it, otherwise we would be frozen in a state of inactivity. But in Buddhism Faith is never meant to be blind, the Buddhist is always encouraged to investigate the basis of Faith, to move it toward Confidence, toward the rational or the known.

Another way to look at Faith is as a home, a place of calm abiding, where you are not engaged in constant struggle with the elements, where you can let down your guard. This is the same Faith, but with emphasis on the mental quality of Faith, the peace that comes with decisiveness, of letting go of nagging uncertainty. The word “Refuge” captures this aspect of Faith. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “I have arrived, I am home.” The Pali word for Faith, “saddha,” actually comes from a verbal root that means, “put the heart on.”

So, the three elements of Faith in Buddhism are, the Buddha, the enlightened teacher; the Dharma, what the Buddha taught, or the Truth that became clear to the Buddha; and the Sangha. The Sangha is the most misunderstood of these in the West, and I have to say I have come to understand it much differently in Asia. In fact here I get to BE the Third Refuge. It is quite remarkable experience to be right at the heart of the Faith of others, to experience it from the inside.

The misunderstanding of the Refuge of Sangha in the West begins with the notion that Sangha is the or a community of undifferentiated Buddhists, for instance, that the members of Austin Zen Center or the Dharma Punx are a Sangha. The Sangha is in fact the community of monks and nuns as distinguished from lay people. This is how the Buddha most consistently used the term. It also makes sense in terms of the Refuges, since the Buddha, before his death, refused to appoint a successor, did not want Buddhism to have a Pope, but rather made the community of monks and nuns the caretakers of the Dharma. This community is more than a group of people who live according to certain standards, it is a group organized by a system of governance, a concensus democracy. Its responsibilities are laid out in the Vinaya. It is said that as long as the Sangha lives and practices in harmony the Dharma will flourish. So, the Buddha gave the Sangha the central role in preserving and propagating Buddhism.

(As an amateur historian, I’ve been trying to track down at what point the word “Sangha” took on its more inclusive meaning. I thought, maybe in the Mahayana rather that the Theravada, maybe in China, maybe in Japan, which until recently has been the primary source of Western Buddhism, or maybe someone just made it up in the West. It seems the last is the case. In China, for instance, the Sangha is understood to mean the community of monastics. I wrote Prof. John McRae, a Buddhist scholar now living in Japan whether the Japanese use “Sangha” in an inclusive way. He said, No, they don’t use the word except to refer to monks and nuns., and concluded, “… the western usage of ‘sangha’ to include ordained and lay practitioners/believers is unusual, or idiosyncratic.” If anyone has any idea of where the more inclusive usage originated, please let me know. Its use in the West is understandable: The virtual absence of a monastic community in Western Buddhism has made the term an orphan looking for a referent. Unfortunately assigning it one has led to a possibly perpetual misunderstanding of the very important Third Refuge.)

Now great abiding Faith lends itself to physical expression, to bodily enactment, perhaps most commonly as caring for or relating to, in various ways, the objects of faith. This is a mysterious quirk of human psychology. Of the Three Refuges, the Sangha is the one that is most physically present. In Myanmar, wherever you go, you can see it walking around, often with alms bowl, often on some other errand.  The Buddha died years ago, so the best we can do is show reverence either to relics of the Buddha, or more often perhaps, purported relics of the Buddha, or to an image of the Buddha. These objects of reverence receive much care, and are often provided with flowers and even food offerings. But although this provides means of enacting one’s Faith physically, it is still pretend; the Buddha statue is just stone or plaster; the Buddha is not actually there, and people know that.  The Dharma is more difficult, though the faithful try. Traditionally Buddhist texts are treated with reverence in the various branches of Buddhism. In Zen or Theravada, for instance, one should not place a chant book or other scripture directly on the floor, or throw it in the garbage when it is worn out. Nichirin Buddhism actually makes a a particular scripture the primary object of reverence, the Lotus Sutra. It is interesting to observe that in early Buddhism there were no depictions of the Buddha for many centuries, nor were there physical Buddhist texts since these were memorized. Yet the bodily expression is a means of strengthening Faith, the Buddha recognized as powerfully nourishing for his disciples. The Sangha, on the other hand,  has been continually physically present throughout the history of Buddhism in every land in Asia to which Buddhism has spread.

I’ve never been in a country as thoroughly religious as Burma, and sure enough, every means of physical expression of Faith in the Three Refuges is utilized.  Buddha statues are ubiquitous, and every Buddhist home has an rather elaborate altar, generally part of the architecture of the building, to which offerings are made daily. Reverence to Dharma, the Second Refuge, remains the most difficult to enact physically, though many short texts are memorized by many laypeople in Pali, here thought to be the original language of the Buddha. And in me personally, as well as in each of 499,999 other monks, people see a object available for expressing reverence in the Third Refuge, the Sangha.

The Third Refuge is enacted in bows, sometimes placing palm to palm as a monk walks by, or should one spot a sufficiently stationary monk, performing a full bow with forehead to the floor or ground. It is enacted by feeding monks, giving them alms on their daily rounds, or attending to other needs they might have, whether it is a glass of water or a new robe. It is enacted by sitting on the floor at the feet of monks. It is enacted simply by gravitating toward monks, by trying to be in the presence of monks. It is enacted by the language used when talking with monks, not only vocative forms of respect, but even a specialized vocabulary for referring to the acts of eating and drinking by a monk. I’ve described my experience of my treatment as a monk variously in this blog, as being like that of a movie star or of an animal in the zoo, the latter since so much ado is made about feeding monks and watching them eat. Of course monks individually can be like the Buddha statue, mere stone or plaster. There is something pretend about the behavior of monks. No one really thinks, except in some very rare cases, that these are being of superhuman qualities. Everyone has a nephew or an uncle who is a monk and so knows better. Many lay men have been monks in their younger days. In fact another way that a woman can care for a monk is not to sit or stand too close, acknowledging the fragility with which the monk maintains his vows. So, it’s pretend, but it is still as meaningful or more so to the laity as making offerings to a plaster Buddha.

The experience of being the object of reverence can go in different directions. I imagine that for some it goes to the monk’s head, makes them feel like they personal are someone special. But that is hopefully offset by the practice of living as a monk, which is to live with almost no personal footprint, to enact throughout one’s day the state of being a no-Self. Perhaps the respect shown monks is even a lifeline to monks who would otherwise float away into Emptiness. Besides, Burmese are such a humble people, it is hard for this to be an issue here. The other direction comes with the realization that it is the Sangha, not the individual monk, that is the object of Refuge. This Sangha has existed continuously since the days of the Buddha, has carried Buddhism into new lands, has memorized the scriptures, studied and and practiced and taught the Dharma and preserved the integrity of Buddhism  century after century, and occasionally even gave rise to an Enlightened being. That is as an individual a lot to live up to.

What is most moving about being the Third Refuge is it places me right inside the enormous Faith of the Buddhist laity. Ever wonder what it would feel like to be a Buddha statue? It feels like being in a bowl of split pea soup. I can feel the calm abiding in the Third Refuge. People sit at the feet of monks, or give them a tube of toothpaste. Even though it’s pretend,  they are utterly at peace. It is quite a joy for them, which makes it quite a joy for me.

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, Myanmar

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