Growing the Dharma: Refuge

Refuge in the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) is where Buddhist practice begins. Sometimes it is said that it is what makes a Buddhist. Notice its prominent role given to it last week as the nutrients that feed the flower of Sasana. Refuge is the locus of trust, faith, confidence, whatever you want to call it.

One way to underscore the importance of Refuge for the Western Buddhist convert is to acknowledge that we grow up with many tacit presuppositions, many unstated assumptions, values, conceptualizations, biases that we often don’t even know we have. When we attempt to understand Buddhism we generally start with our tacit presuppositions and then try to reconcile what we learn with them every step of the way. This is an almost impossible task. Refuge allows us to abandon those presuppositions, to start our exploration from the Buddha’s perspective, not our own.

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This chapter on Refuge will conclude next week, in which we will look at Dharma and Sangha.

Chapter 3. Refuge

The flood waters were rising and some of the huts at the river’s edge were beginning to be swept away. Villagers began to panic as they came face to face with the foolishness of having built their village against a sheer cliff at water’s edge. Many of them began running frantically back and then forth along the river bank, beside themselves with indecision, some of these overloaded with small children and belongings. Others backed away from the rushing waters up to the cliffs, looking helpless and forlorn. Still others went about their normal business as if this day had brought nothing new.

The chief, ever courageous, emerged from his hut, assessed the situation by scanning the length of the river with discerning eyes, grabbed up his youngest daughter in one hand and his exquisitely embellished staff of authority in the other, and shouted,

“Follow me, villagers!”

He had picked a point along the shore at which he plunged boldly and confidently into the water at a right angle headed directly for the opposite shore. He waded deeper and deeper as the water reached his waist, then his chest, but his determination remained unaltered. Many others followed immediately behind, holding belongings and frightened children over their heads, leading horses and dog-paddling beleashed dogs.

However, the more timid waited at the shore and watched the chief’s progress, while others, the more panic stricken, continued to run up and down the shore and others, the flood deniers, went about their normal business oblivious to the chief’s actions. Gradually the chief and his closest followers, having nearly disappeared below the waves, began to ascend as they approached the opposite river bank. But by this time the waters had risen even further, many of the trailing timid were tragically swept away in the raging waters for having hesitated, followed soon by the panicked and by the deniers. The chief had saved half of the villagers.


We live in a relentlessly uncertain world yet need to make decisions in that world. It is the rare decision indeed that comes with absolute certitude. Trust1 is that which bridges the gap between the little we actually know and the heap we would need to know in order to make a decision of predictable outcome. Trust belongs to the nuts and bolts of human cognition. We may try to bring as much discernment as possible into the decision but in the end we necessarily make a jump, big or little, into the unknown,

“[Gulp] Well, here goes!”

In this way we have entrusted ourselves for better or worse to our baby sitters, to our teachers, to our accountant, to TV pundits, to our dentist, to the authority of science, and for some of us to our national leaders.

We grow up trusting a mass of tacit and unexamined assumptions instilled at such a young age that we are scarcely aware of them and have no memory of when we started trusting them. Moreover, in this modern age of mass media and mass marketing values have become cheap, manufactured at will and instilled into us through the mass media, planted and cultivated by the marketers one year then overturned the next to grow something new. We worship celebrities for no good reason other than that they are celebrities, we celebrate greed, we obsess over hair and clothes, our cars and personal entertainment centers are shrines, we are taught from the youngest age that “good” is inevitably expressed through the barrel of a gun because that is all that “bad” understands. This implicit trust is unexamined and undiscerning.

Trust in the Triple Gem must be great enough to overcome our tacit and unexamined trust. We do best to start our practice of exploration from the perspective of the Buddha, not from that of Madison Avenue, John Wayne or Rupert Murdock. We do best to replace unsavory influences with savory. Since trust is unavoidable, replacing unexamined trust with discerning trust seems like a good idea. Trust in the Triple Gem is essential for bending our minds around Buddhism, not always an easy set of ideas and practices to internalize. Until we understand what it is the Buddha realized, what it is the Buddha taught and what it is the Sangha has upheld for one hundred generations, we cannot be certain where this way of life and Path of practice will lead us. Until we have experienced deeply this way of life and traveled far on this Path of practice we will not understand what the Buddha understood, taught and entrusted to the Sangha. Therefore, until we have experienced this way of life and traveled far on this path we require trust, ardent trust in the Triple Gem, to nourish our Buddhist aspirations and practice just as sun, water and soil nourish a flower. This is what first turns our heads toward virtue, wisdom and peace.

Many people trust in a rational mind that can keep their options open until certitude is realized. That is timidity. There is no more discernment in timidity than there is in denial, for in timidity we invariably fall back on our tacit unexamined assumptions. Timidity or denial is each a are both decisions based in misplaced trust to forgo making a more deliberate, informed and bolder decision. There is no getting around trust in an uncertain world. Life-altering decisions generally arise from a sense of urgency that demand big acts of trust and therefore enormous courage; they are way beyond the reach of the timid who cling fearfully to certitude and baby steps. This is the courage of the great explorers, of the hippies of yore on quest in India with nothing but a backpack, and more commonly of the betrothed or of the career bound, stirred by deep longing or by desperation. The Buddhist Path fully embraced by the one resolved to ascend the stem toward Nirvana will shake one’s life to the core and this will demand a particularly courageous trust.

Those born into Buddhist cultures and families learn that trust from infancy, others acquire it through sometimes accidental means. Sariputta, who would one day become the Buddha’s leading disciple in wisdom, gained it first simply by observing the deportment of one of the early Noble Ones on alms rounds. Many in the West who are not born Buddhists gain the initial trust through encounters with Buddhists, who often exhibit profound peace and kindness, or through the profundity that shines through the Buddha’s teachings even before we grasp more than a hint of their import. That trust will grow the deeper we progress.

There is great drama in these great decisions, initially urgency and fear, then reflection, then resolution, then outcome. Where trust is ongoing, devotion or reverence might follow. The resolution to trust is experienced as a sudden relief, almost as if it were already safety. The uncertainty behind the initial fear may not yet be eliminated but the urgency has been addressed and worry has been given over to fortune. The sense of ease is a refuge, a sense of entrusting oneself, much as we as children entrust our well-being to our parents.

The trust we place in the Triple Gem often arises from a sense of urgency as great as that of the villagers in the story above. This is called in Pali savega, a kind of horror at the realization of the full nature and depth of the human condition.2 It is said that the Buddha-to-be experienced savega when as a somewhat frivolous Nepalese playboy he learned to his dismay of sickness, of old age and of death, and thus began his quest to India. Savega arises when we lose our capacity for denial, which is likely to happen when frivolity ceases. The Buddha-to-be then recognized in the sight of a wandering ascetic an option that gave rise to the bold resolution to address his despair. It is said that he then experienced a sense of calm relief that in Pali is called pasada, the antidote to the distress of savega.

Underlying the metaphors of both Refuge and Gem is the property of protection or safety. A refuge at the Buddha’s time was understood as the protection provided by a mentor, patron or benefactor in return for a vow of allegiance.3 Gems were generally believed to have special protective properties. Refuge in the Triple Gem represents, particularly for those not born Buddhist, a bold decision to entrust oneself to a way of life, understanding and practice that will at first have all the uncertainty and mystery that virgin territory has to the explorer, a deep and dark cave has to the spelunker. Just as a plan of action is a refuge to relieve the panic of the castaway or the buried in rubble, entrusting oneself to a Path of practice toward Awakening provides refuge from savega.

But is it a trust that arises out of wise reflection and discernment?

Refuge in the Buddha

“Such indeed is the fortunate one, the worthy one, the supremely awakened one,
Endowed with knowledge and virtue, well-gone, knower of Worlds,
Peerless tamer and driver of the hearts of men, master of gods and men,
The awakened one, the exalted one.”4

Most religions worship some personality. Buddhism is striking in that the role of veneration is occupied primarily by a (now deceased) human being rather than a deity or supernatural being, albeit a person who attained some remarkable attributes. We already tend to venerate people with remarkable qualities, for instance, our favorite geniuses like Einstein or Mozart. The Buddha was a three-fold genius!

First, the Buddha became a supremely awakened one, a Buddha, worthy, exalted, with no one to light the Path for him. He thereby attained perfect mastery of the mind, achieving perfect wisdom, virtue and equanimity. This was his first form of genius.

Second, he was able to teach what he had attained, to lay out the Dharma, the proper understanding of reality and the means to tame, drive and master humans and whoever else wanted to travel the Path. This was his second form of genius.

Third, he organized the Buddhist Community, in particular the institution of the Sangha, to support, propagate and perpetuate the understanding and practice of his teachings. His third form of genius is rarely mentioned as such, but the reader should appreciate the immensity of this accomplishment in a couple of chapters. In short, the Buddha’s three-fold genius is directly tied to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

When we take Refuge in the Buddha we see in this towering personality the highest qualities we might choose to emulate. Refuge in the Buddha is nonetheless an act of trust, trust that such a personality is even possible. It is only with deep practice and study, with our own progress on the Path that we begin to see how his qualities of mind might actually start to begin to commence starting to emerge gradually. Trust is necessary in the beginning until we see for ourselves: Veneration encourages trust, it opens up the heart and mind to the influence of the Buddha.

Veneration as a part of Refuge is a good place to begin our study of religiosity in Buddhism because it is clearly an affective, that is, emotional, quality of mind deliberately cultivated as a part of Buddhist practice. It is clearly recommended by the Buddha in the earliest teachings. Its expressions from the earliest times were clearly culturally conditioned, yet remained largely unembellished by any metaphysical or supernatural quality. Finally, its simple roots would grow with time into sometimes wildly embellished forms in some of the later traditions.

Let’s begin with the opportunities and expressions of veneration in early Buddhism. The living Buddha was venerated and he expected to be venerated according to the customs of the culture in which he lived. These included a number of physical expressions, most significantly anjali (in Sanskrit), produced by bringing the palms together before the chest or face. Anjali is a quite ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in its land of origin. Buddhism would carry this originally culturally-conditioned form from India to every land I am aware of in which Buddhism has taken root regardless of how dissimilar the culture. We could theoretically replace anjali with waving, saluting or pulling one’s ear and perhaps retain the authentic function of veneration, but we don’t.

Veneration to the Buddha was also expressed early on through full prostrations sometimes touching the Buddha’s feet, by circumambulation while keeping the Buddha on one’s right, by covering one’s otherwise bare shoulder with one’s robe, by sitting on a lower seat than the Buddha, by standing when the Buddha entered the room, by walking behind the Buddha or not turning one’s back to the Buddha and by proper forms of address. In the early scriptures the Buddha occasionally actively chastised a visitor for not showing proper respect. And this in fact began with the Buddha’s re-encounter after his Awakening with the five ascetics to whom he delivered his first Dharma talk.5

Bowing belongs to ritual conduct, as does shaking hands or wearing a tux to a formal dinner party. Robert Sharf writes, “Ritual habituation inscribes the self with a set of perceptual orientations, affective dispositions, automatic responses that are precognitive.” It begins by enacting these as if in play within an implicit frame of reference that one does not have to believe in or acquiesce to any more than one believes in the grammar of one’s mother tongue. To bow to the Buddha is to enact veneration for the Buddha, to enact veneration of the Buddha is to feel veneration for the Buddha, to feel veneration for the Buddha is to put aside one’s preconceptions and open one’s heart to the teachings of the Buddha. To do this is to align with the Buddha’s path.6

There is however little indication that the Buddha intended to become the center of a personality cult. He discouraged some of the more extreme forms of reverence he received, once telling an awe-struck follower (in the most literal sense of follower),

“Why do you want to see this foul body? If you see the Dhamma you see me.”7

The early practice of veneration to the Buddha applied of course to a living being. Nearing his parinibbana he anticipated that his relics, the remains after his cremation, would become objects of veneration and accordingly specified, as described in the famous Parinibbana Sutta8 that they be divvied up and distributed to specified clans of lay devotees, so that they might build stupas over them. This became the primary physical symbol of the Buddha for purposes of veneration. The Buddha also recommended contemplations about himself for recitation such as the one that began this subchapter, alongside contemplations of the Dharma and Sangha.

The Buddha also specified four significant places from his life as destinations for pilgrimage after he would be gone.

“There are four places, Ananda, that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. What are the four? Here the Tathagata was born! This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. Here the Tathagata became fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment! … Here the Tathagata set rolling the unexcelled Wheel of the Dhamma! … Here the Tathagata passed away into the state of Nibbana in which no element of clinging remains! This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence.”9

The way the Buddha set himself up, albeit in a modest way for the times, as an object of veneration had nothing to do with an “ego trip”; that would contradict all we know about the personality of the Buddha, about the doctrine and practices he espoused which were directed unambiguously toward selflessness, and with the trajectory of development dedicated disciples of the Buddha have experienced throughout history. Rather it must have had a functional basis related to Buddhist practice and understanding. Let’s turn to that. We Westerners tend to find scorn more natural than veneration, so this requires some examination.

First, veneration will spring forth of itself one way or another in most areas of human discourse. To try to strip it away is only to create something sterile, like trying to strip away hugging from procreation. This is not to say we are smart about who we venerate any more than we are smart about who we hug. Consider that the most common objects of veneration in our culture are celebrities, such as bad actors and robber barons, and consumer goods, such as iPods and whiter-than-white laundry detergent. We attribute to our celebrities fantastic wealth, sparkling charm and voluptuous sexuality much as the people of Buddha’s India attributed divinity to the great ascetics, brahmins and cows, and we attribute to our recent purchases the capacity to conjure up such wondrous attributes. Veneration, like trust, is unavoidable, but can be either discerning or stupid. We might choose, or be taught by our parents, to venerate genius and remarkable achievements: Mozart, Einstein or Gandhi. Or the Buddha. We tend toward becoming what we venerate.

Second, physical expressions of veneration are direct causal factors in attaining certain wholesome qualities of mind that we try to develop on the Path. In particular they powerfully and immediately generate personal humility, they deflate the ego, knock it out of its privileged position in the universe by deferring to another. This seems to be a function of veneration or worship in all religions I am aware of, and I presume an essential function of God as an object of veneration in most. Veneration is certainly similarly abused for social control – for instance, requisite veneration of superior officers, judges or the police – but again the watchword, as it always is in Buddhism, is discernment.

The astonishing power of veneration for cutting through the competitiveness that comes natural to us humans and through the need to compare oneself to others can only be experienced through entering this practice completely.10 In Buddhist terms humility, weakening of the craving for being somebody, relaxes suffering, and thereby creates an immediate sense of ease. As the Buddha states,

“When a noble disciple contemplates upon the Enlightened One, at that time his mind is not enwrapped in lust, nor in hatred, nor in delusion. … By cultivating this contemplation, many beings become purified.”11

Third, veneration opens the heart to the influence of worthy teachers and teachings, just as expressions of veneration open the heart to veneration. One cannot learn from someone one does not first hold in high regard. When we show proper respect to the elderly, school teachers, professors, piano teachers and good cooks, we take seriously what they have to impart and so learn more quickly. When someone exhibits real talent we are sometimes awe-struck and when we are awe-struck we are moved to make that person’s qualities our own.

In short, veneration when brought together with discernment is a powerful support for what we seek on the Buddhist Path. Although its expressions are inevitably culturally determined, its indispensable function in Buddhist life and practice has been a bedrock of Buddhism throughout time and space. It also lends to Buddhism much of its religiosity, its devotional part, and is the focal point of sometimes extensive embellishment in the later traditions. Whether this embellishment has been helpful or even healthy will be a major theme in this book.

1The Pali word that is meant here is saddha, alternately translated as “faith” or “confidence.” I have come to find ‘faith’ as most, uh, faithful to the Pali term. However it also carries misleading connotations when used in a religious context, often equated with “blind faith,” although that is something authentic Buddhism never asks of us.

2See AN 5.77, 5.78, 5.79 and 5.80.

3Thanissaro (1996), p. 1.

4AN 10.92.

5Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, SN 56.11.

6See Sharf (2005).

7Vakkali Sutta, SN 22.87.

8Final Nirvana Sutta, DN 16.

9DN 16, Mahaparinibbana Sutta.

10Suzuki Roshi, shortly after arriving in San Francisco, was surprised to discover how much resistance his American students had to bows, particularly the three full prostrations that he asked of them in the early morning. He accordingly adapted this practice to the West: He required of his American students nine full prostrations, a custom that has now endured for nearly half a century at the San Francisco Zen Center and its affiliates.

11AN 6.25.

2 Responses to “Growing the Dharma: Refuge”

  1. John Tohkubbi Says:

    Great chapter on Refuge and the topic of trust. Like the illustration of the flooding village I think the problems inherent with samsara are wake up calls themselves! Trust in Buddhism isn’t blind faith though it might be at first for the Westerner completely new to Buddhism or meditation practice. To me trust can grow though as you proceed at least with just enough trust to make the next step for example. Once you experience and see for yourself the potencies of the dharma to awaken and transform then this can grow to involve unshakable faith and even conviction. Refuge is indeed a defining start on the Buddhist path. Without Refuge the practice is as a shamanism or yoga. Refuge and trust makes the mind receptive to guidance and is essential to progress in any human endeavor. For Buddhists, trust with discernment is essential, as you mention.


  2. Luke Says:

    I agree. As Bhante once told me in a conversation, to try and accept that there are others that might know more than you, at least right now. It’s some what refreshing to know that if we are aimed at the same goal, there are others who have tread this path before and they can act as lamps to help light the way. Which is where veneration comes in, as John Tohkubbi said above, “Once you experience and see for yourself the potencies of the dharma to awaken and transform then this can grow to involve unshakable faith and even conviction.”

    Also Bhante, in reference to the Sutta,

    “There are four places, Ananda, that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. What are the four? Here the Tathagata was born! This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. Here the Tathagata became fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment! … Here the Tathagata set rolling the unexcelled Wheel of the Dhamma! … Here the Tathagata passed away into the state of Nibbana in which no element of clinging remains! This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence.”

    I’ve heard before that in certain Sutta’s/Sutra’s when the Buddha uses the term, “Here” he is speaking of the absolute here and now. Which means, where ever we are is the place the person should look upon the Tathagata with feelings of reverence, because that, “Here” is always here and now and not just a certain place in India. I know that is a more non literal way of looking at it, but is kinda interesting when you think about it.


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