Embarking on the Path

This, last week’s post and some yet to come are chapters of a text I am preparing in conjunction with a class I teach periodically here in Austin. I encourage any feedback about mistakes or omissions, and about typos. The text will be called something like Foundations of Early Buddhism: practice and understanding.

In the last chapter we introduced the Buddha’s gradual instruction (Figure 1). The gradual instruction falls into the following three parts, which I give names to here;

1. Common practice and understanding. Generosity – ethics – heaven – drawbacks, degradation and impurity of sensual passions – rewards of renunciation.

2. Transitional qualifications. “The mind is ready, softened, unbiased, elated and trusting.” These are a description of faith or trust, which we discuss in this chapter.

3. Higher instruction. Four Noble Truths – the Path.

The present chapter is concerned with transitional qualifications and, to a degree, with the first three of the four Noble Truths (truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering). The Path upon which we are embarking is actually the fourth Noble Truth (the way to the cessation of suffering).

It should be noted that no two Buddhist adherents develop in the same way. Buddhism does not expect uniformity of practice among its members, as most religions do. In fact, Buddhism cannot expect such uniformity because its standards are extraordinarily high: its benchmark is the rare attainment of complete awakening, which entails eventual perfect purity in action and thought, penetrating insight and imperturbable serenity. Individually we do what we can to reach that goal, or what we have the opportunity and inclination for, or what we are inspired to accomplish. Some of us jump off the diving board into the deep end and some of us are dog-paddlers. Many remain unclear about the Four Noble Truths and never embark on the Path, but lead, nonetheless, virtuous lives within the common understandings and practice. Many enter the Path rather tentatively, for instance, taking up meditation long before virtue is strong, while the mind is neither ready nor trusting, and with no understanding the importance of the Four Noble Truths. Still others have nearly perfect virtue, absolute trust in the sources of Buddhist wisdom, and an immediate grasp of the Four Noble Truths, then become firmly established on the Path.

We will see in this chapter how the transitional qualities are developed through refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, for these are the three sources of Buddhist wisdom, in all its profundity, to which we must open our hearts and minds until we have seen it for ourselves. Almost as essential are admirable friends, living people of wisdom who can inspire and instruct us on the Path. Finally, the early attainment of a certain kind of insight, called the Dharma eye and developed through appropriate attention, will fully establish one irrevocably and with absolute conviction on the Path. We will review all of these assets in this chapter. Furthermore, we will discuss the ways in which the monastic order provides a valuable resource for anyone dedicated to pursuing the Path, for ordination into its ranks provides the optimal context for development toward awakening.

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce a good friend, the stream enterer, the person fully possessed of all of the assets necessary not only for entering but for establishing oneself firmly on the Path, and an admirable friend who can guide us through the transition to embark on the Path. The stream enterer has made great progress in mastering the common practices and understanding, has an absolute conviction in the efficacy of the Path and, through the Dharma eye, has already reached the first level awakening. She is someone who has not only embarked on the Path, but knows where it leads, as if, upon reaching the trail head, thirty feet from which the Path makes a turn and disappears, hidden by trees and underbrush, she had been able to levitate to see the entire path from the air, to observe for herself whither it wends, and she had found its terminus to be even more beautiful than she had anticipated.

The Stream Enterer

Becoming fully established on the Path is stream entry (sotapatti), and the person who is fully established in the path is called a stream enterer (sotapanna). The stream (sota) is a synonym for the noble eightfold path itself.

[Buddha:] “Sāriputta, ‘The stream, the stream’: thus it is said. And what, Sāriputta, is the stream?”

“This noble eightfold path, lord, is the stream: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”

“Very good, Sāriputta! Very good! This noble eightfold path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration — is the stream.” (SN 55.5)

To get technical, stream entry is often described in two stages: path and fruit. The path of stream entry is the training that results in stream entry. It is generally described as guaranteeing the fruit of stream entry in this very life. The fruit of stream entry is stream entry per se, and that is what is described here unless stated otherwise.

The qualities developed in the stream enterer are described in various ways.

“And which are the four factors of stream-entry with which he is endowed?
“There is the case where the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with unwavering trust in the Awakened One… unwavering trust in the Dhamma… unwavering trust in the Saṅgha… He/she is endowed with virtues that are appealing to the noble ones: untorn, unbroken, unspotted, unsplattered, liberating, praised by the wise, untarnished, leading to concentration.” (AN 10.92)

Here we learn that a stream enterer is one possessed of virtue and trust: virtue may be developed through common practice and understanding, and faith is described in the basic transitional qualification for entering the Path, equivalent to refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma and the Saṅgha. Refuge is might well be listed as a common practice alongside generosity and ethics. But the stream enterer’s level of trust is exceptional, a result of the stream enterer’s aerial glimpse of the Path and where it leads.
With regard to common practice of generosity, or rather its opposite, stinginess, we find a rather definitive claim:

“Monks, there are these five forms of stinginess. Which five? Stinginess as to one’s monastery [lodgings], stinginess as to one’s family [of supporters], stinginess as to one’s gains, stinginess as to one’s status, and stinginess as to the Dhamma. These are the five forms of stinginess. And the meanest of these five is this: stinginess as to the Dhamma… [This occurs, for instance, when a Buddhist teacher will withhold teachings from another teacher, lest the latter attracts more students.]

“Without abandoning these five things, one is incapable of realizing the fruit of stream entry.” (AN 5.254, 5.257)

Elsewhere, additional attainments are attributed to the stream enterer. She is said to have eliminated three of ten fetters (samyojana). As a set the fetters are used to distinguish four levels of awakening as practice attainments, from the lowest to highest: stream enterer, once-returner, non-returner, arahant.

And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity view, doubt, grasping at habits and practices, sensual desire and ill will. These are the five lower fetters. And which are the five higher fetters? Passion for form, passion for what is formless, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. These are the five higher fetters. (AN 10.13)

“In this community of monks there are monks who, with the total ending of [the first] three fetters, are stream enterers, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening.” (MN 118)

Of the three fetters that are ended for the stream enterer, the first, identity view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi), is the most subtle: it is the view that we are a fixed self: the one who experiences, the one who has attributes and possessions, the one who craves. This tells us that the stream enterer possesses a significant degree of wisdom, in fact a significant insight. The second, doubt (vicikicchā) is the opposite of trust in the the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha, and so reinforces what was said in an earlier passage. The third fetter is attachment to rites and rituals (sīlab-bata-parāmāso), in which the regressive view is implicated that they are effective in producing karmic fruits; Buddhist karma does not work this way. Ending the first and third are therefore matters of wisdom, so we can consider them together. We learn also from this passage that the one firmly established on the path will not take a wrong turn or regress.

Practice on the path to stream Entry

How do we become a stream enterer? By one account,

Association with people of integrity is a factor for stream-entry. Listening to the true Dhamma is a factor for stream-entry. Appropriate attention is a factor for stream-entry. Practice in accordance with the Dhamma is a factor for stream-entry. (SN 55.5)

Association with people of integrity is critical to establishing oneself on the Path. Early Buddhism did not articulate the role of teachers, rather the nearest key concept was that of the admirable friend (kalyāṇa-mitta), one who can provide teaching, but also from whom one can learn by emulating their conduct and one who provides inspiration in the Dhamma overall. In general, those of higher attainment or spiritual progress are those from which we are likely to learn the most. The importance of the admiral friend is expressed in this curious but well-known passage:

As he was seated to one side, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: having admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Having admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.” (SN 45.2)

Listening to the true Dharma is also critical because both the gradual training and the Path involves interplay between understanding and practice. It is through the Dharma that we acquire common understandings to support common practice and it is through the Dharma, particularly through what we will describe in the next chapter as Right View, that we engage the practice of the Path. Of course in modern times we also read the Dharma, a privilege unavailable in the early days of Buddhism, and listening to the Dharma is often just a mouse click away.

Another account of the path to stream entry specifies some degree of insight into the Four Noble Truths:

“He attends appropriately, This is suffering… This is the origination of suffering… This is the cessation of suffering… This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: self-identity view, doubt, and grasping at rites and rituals.” – MN 2

This describes engagement with the Four Noble Truths as a way to insight, supplementing preparations for the abandoning of each of these fetters through common practices and understandings. The practice of ethics and the development of selfless virtue and renunciation have prepared for the abandoning of identity-view. The practice of refuge has prepared for the abandoning of doubt. The understanding of karma and its fruits as part of ethics has prepared for the abandoning the grasping of rights and rituals. Appropriate attention concerning the Four Noble Truths pushes us over the edge.

We encountered appropriate attention briefly in the last chapter. Appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra), is a hugely important factor in Buddhist practice, about which the Buddha stated,

Appropriate attention as a quality of a monk in training: nothing else does so much for attaining the superlative goal. A monk, striving appropriately, attains the ending of suffering. (Iti 1.16)

The Pali for appropriate attention is more literally translated as attending to the origin or foundation, refers to a skill for avoiding distraction through speculation or conceptual abstractions, and is in accord with the Buddha’s metaphysics of conditionality. Our example from a previous chapter recognizes poverty is a direct conditioning factor for crime, rather than criminals. It also recognizes birth as a direct conditioning factor for death, rather than ill health. It also recognizes craving as a direct conditioning factor for suffering, rather than irksome circumstances. Phenomena arise from conditions and appropriate attention traces those conditions in the most direct way. Generally the insight reported for the stream enterer is not so much about craving and suffering as it is about conditionality, which relates craving and suffering, but many other factors as well.

Insight prepared by appropriate attention penetrates to a level of understanding that supplants these three fetters once and for all. This insight is called the Dharma eye (dhamma-cakkhu).

There are a number of instances in which disciples discover the Dharma eye. Recall from chapter one the story of Sāriputta’s encounter with one of the Buddha’s first five disciples, in which, Assaji evoked the same realization in Sāriputta in reference to conditionality, and then Sāriputta in Mogallāna. Sāriputta claims to have seen the deathless (Nirvana), yet he was not yet an arahant. Here is another account:

To Upāli the householder, as he was sitting right there, there arose the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation. Then — having seen the Dhamma, having reached the Dhamma, known the Dhamma, gained a footing in the Dhamma, having crossed over and beyond doubt, having had no more questioning — Upāli the householder gained fearlessness and was independent of others with regard to the Teacher’s message. (MN 56)

The Dharma eye seems to provide this glimpse of Nirvana; after all seeing the conditioned nature of reality gets close to the idea of an unconditioned reality. As the monk Nārada describes it:

“My friend, although I have seen properly with right discernment, as it actually is present, that ‘The cessation of becoming is Nirvana,’ still I am not an arahant whose effluents are ended. It’s as if there were a well along a road in a desert, with neither rope nor water bucket. A man would come along overcome by heat, oppressed by the heat, exhausted, dehydrated, and thirsty. He would look into the well and would have knowledge of ‘water,’ but he would not dwell touching it with his body. In the same way, although I have seen properly with right discernment, as it actually is present, that ‘The cessation of becoming is Nirvana,’ still I am not an arahant whose effluents are ended.” (SN 12.68)

Elsewhere the related insight into impermanence is attributed to the stream enterer. This passage also gives us an idea of two tracks of development on the path to stream entry.

One who has trust and belief that these phenomena are this way [impermanent] is called a faith-follower: One who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry ghosts. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream entry.

One who, after pondering with a modicum of discernment, has accepted that these phenomena are this way is called a Dhamma-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry ghosts. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream entry.

One who knows and sees that these phenomena are this way is called a stream-enterer, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening. (SN 25.1-10, italics mine)

The faith-follower and the Dharma follower are both on the path to stream entry, but ultimately the fruit of stream entry ripens in discernment for both faith- and Dharma-follower. Faith is refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha. Dharma here is what one verifies oneself.


Before discussing the Refuges, we should pin down who the Saṅgha is, and note the special relationship that stream enterers have to the Saṅgha. Actually the word refers to either of two overlapping groups of people, known as the noble saṅgha the the monastic saṅgha.

Stream enterers themselves, or even those on the path of stream entry, qualify – along with once-returners, non-returners and arahants – as officially members of the noble saṅgha (ariya-saṅgha), and are thereby graduates from the ranks of mere worldlings (puthujjana) to noble ones.

This Doctrine and Discipline is the abode of such mighty beings as stream-winners and those practicing to realize the fruit of stream-entry; once-returners and those practicing to realize the fruit of once-returning; non-returners and those practicing to realize the fruit of non-returning; arahants and those practicing for arahantship… (Ud 5.5)

The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well… who have practiced straight-forwardly… who have practiced methodically… who have practiced masterfully — in other words, the four types when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types — they are the Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.” (AN 11.2)

Each of these passages refers to those on the path to stream entry as well as those enjoying the fruits. In the second, an oft repeated formula, the four types of noble disciples are just these stream enterers, once-returners, non-returners and arahants, those at any of the four stages of awakening. These four are then as pairs on the basis of path or fruit.

Ordained monks (bhikkhu) and nuns (bhikkhunī) belong to the monastic saṅgha (bhikkhu-saṅgha). A monastic may or may not be a noble one, and a noble one may or may not be a monastic, but both kinds of saṅgha are intimately intertwined. The monastic saṅgha is the natural home of the noble ones and the noble saṅgha is largely a product of the monastic saṅgha. A monastic of no attainment, if he is nonetheless sincere, would generally be expected at least be at least on the path to stream entry. Therefore, if monastics were all sincere, then monastics would all be noble ones. In fact the last passage above actually begins with a description of noble ones, then concludes with treating them like monastics, since offerings are conventionally made to monastics, not to laity. However, some lay people are noble ones but are not monastics; in fact this was very common indeed at the time of the Buddha.

The monastic saṅgha as a resource for the noble saṅgha. The monastic sangha is a multi-functional institution, defined in the Vinaya with a mission statement, a code of conduct, rules of governance, guidelines for handling grievances and many other features.i We noted one of its minor functions in the last chapter, as providing recipients for lay generosity, a kind of priming of the pump of the lifeblood of the Buddhist community.

The monastic saṅgha additionally provides a natural home for those of high spiritual aspirations, for those who wish to dedicate themselves fully to development along the Path to awakening. In fact, this can be regarded as a kind of right for members of the Buddhist community, much like primary education or even college education is a right in many modern counties for qualifying individuals. The monastic saṅgha provides an ideal context for Buddhist practice by defining the life most conducive to upholding Buddhist principles, a life so barren of any opportunity for personal advantage that a self can scarcely find root, except to the extent it continues uselessly to haunt the mind. Into life flow instead the wisdom and compassion that, liberated from the tyranny of personal neediness, burst here and there into various stages of awakening. As an ascetic renunciate community, monks and nuns depend completely on material support from the lay community. Not only does this afford the monastic the leisure of practice, study and accomplishing good, it insulates the monastic from the ups and downs of the contingencies and from the competitiveness of the common world. In this way the monastic saṅgha, as long as it follows the discipline scrupulously, produces relatively effectively noble ones of progressively higher attainment from among its ranks. The flourishing of the monastic saṅgha in this way ensures the flourishing of the noble saṅgha as well. The Buddha stated that,

“… if … the monks should live the life to perfection, the world would not lack for Arahants.” (DN 16)

The world will be even less lack for noble ones, many of whom are not yet arahants but nonetheless attained of lower levels of awakening. The monastic saṅgha is both training ground and dwelling place for the noble saṅgha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars.

It is not often enough stated that the founding of the monastic saṅgha was a truly monumental achievement. Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life,”ii that is, who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its teachings. It has also been pointed out that the Buddhist monastic saṅgha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence and not significantly altered. The Buddha took its development very seriously and most consistently called the body of his teachings not Dharma, not Sāsana, and certainly not Buddhism, but rather Dharma-Vinaya, the doctrine and discipline.

Moreover, the monastic saṅgha appears to have been planned as the ideal society writ small. Internally the Sangha as envisioned by the Buddha observes no class distinctions, provides an exemplary level of gender equality, is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise, is democratic and only minimally hierarchical. The nuns and monks are designated in the Vinaya as the full-time caretakers of the Dharma. The Buddha never attempted to organize the lay community except indirectly by putting the monastic community in their midst and letting them sort out what to do about it. The monastics have no coercive power whatever over the laity; there is, for instance, nothing like excommunication. Their authority derives entirely from the respect they receive as teachers and role models, that is, from the degree to which the monastic saṅgha represents the ideal of the noble saṅgha.

The benefits of the noble saṅgha for the Buddhist community. Noble ones ennoble the general Buddhist community. Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us, or those educated in the Humanities, it ennobles us to have saints and sages, adepts and arahants in our midst, the more the better. These noble ones, disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dharma and are an inspiration and a resource for us all, constitute an effective civilizing force. Where there are noble ones, trust will be inspired, for they display first-hand the peace and happiness, wisdom and compassion that result from complete immersion in the Buddhist life. The noble ones are close at hand, they teach, they inspire with their deportment, their good works and their knowledge. They inspire self-reflection concerning one’s own life, and tend to melt samsaric tendencies. They keep the flame of the Buddha’s teaching alive.

It is through these admirable friends that the meaning of the Buddha’s life and awakening is revealed and through these admirable friends that the highly sophisticated teachings of the Dharma are clarified step by step to lead the instructling toward and along the path. Keeping the flame of the Dharma burning bright is critical for the perpetuation of the teachings: because those teachings are so subtle and sophisticated they are easily misinterpreted if they are not put into practice and experienced by the noble ones among us.


Refuge is represented in the transitional qualifications as “the mind is ready, softened, unbiased, elated and trusting.” It is the kind of faith, trust or acceptance required to embark on the Path.

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. Trust or faith (saddhā) is that which bridges the gap between the little we actually know and the plenty we would need to know in order to make a decision of guaranteed outcome. Trust belongs to the nuts and bolts of human cognition. We may try to bring as much discernment as possible into our trust 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 fewer and fewer of us to our national leaders. Or we put our trust in alternatives to all of these. We have no choice whether to trust (we don’t know enough individually), only who or what to trust. Some of us fancy ourselves rationalists, but we are all most fundamentally creatures of faith in every aspect of life.

In fact, we grow up, before we know it, trusting a mass of tacit and unexamined assumptions instilled at such a young age that we later forget that they are tacit and unexamined, that they are products of trust. We trust whatever faith we are raised in, or we trust science. We trust free markets, or we trust the communist party. The Westerns and war movies we’ve watched may have taught us to trust the un-Buddhist proposition that “good” must often be expressed through the barrel of a gun because that is all that “bad” people understand. In this modern age we are mired in trust, but this trust is almost entirely implicit, unexamined and undiscerning; the marketing industry even manufactures trust in the craziest things.

For better or worse, 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 or of the deniers who cling fearfully to their certitude. 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. Establishing ourselves on the Path toward awakening will shake our life to the core and this will demand particularly courageous trust. Therefore, we should ensure that it is a discerning trust.

The Triple Gem. In Buddhism we place our trust in three sources of wisdom, which we trust to guide us in our spiritual development and how we conduct our lives. These three sources of wisdom are the Buddha and what he realized, the Dharma, what the Buddha taught, and the Saṅgha, the living noble Buddhist adepts who carry the Buddha’s realization and understanding forward in our own time. These three together are known as the Triple Gem (tiratana) and the trust we accord them is called refuge (saraṇa).

Trust in the Triple Gem is essential for bending our minds around Buddhism, because Buddhism includes understandings and practices difficult to internalize. Until we understand what it is the Buddha realized, what it is the Buddha taught and what it is the Saṅgha has upheld for one hundred generations, we cannot be certain where this way of life and the 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 Saṅgha. 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. Trust in the Triple Gem is what first turns our heads toward virtue, wisdom and peace. However, when we see and fully experience these things for ourselves, trust will no longer be necessary.

Moreover, there is some urgency in taking refuge. Keep in mind that we already trust in our lives many people and understandings, already placing undiscerning trust in a mass of tacit unexamined, and for the most part faulty, assumptions. Our trust in the Triple Gem must be great enough to override these, not to be hindered by them, if we are to bring ourselves in line with the Path. This is why, according to the transitional requirements, the mind must be ready (kalla-cittaṃ), softened (mudu-cittaṃ) and unbiased (vinīvaraṇa-cittaṃ). We do best to embark on the path from the perspective of the Buddha, not from that of Madison Avenue or Rupert Murdock. It is the alliance of trust and discernment that reaches furthest.
Those born into Buddhist cultures and families are commonly taught trust in the Triple Gem from infancy, before they possess the gift of discernment. Many of us 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. Bold at first, that trust will grow progressively more discerning and acquire more depth with experience.

There is great drama in the great decisions that will shape our lives. Initial urgency and fear turns to reflection, then then to commitment, then outcome. Where trust is ongoing, devotion or veneration might follow. The resort to trust in the midst of uncertainty is experienced as a sudden relief, carrying the taste of safety. The uncertainty that had given rise to fear and urgency may not yet be eliminated, but once urgency has turned to commitment, worry tends to disappear. The sense of ease is a refuge, a sense of entrusting oneself to something, much as we as children entrust our well-being to our parents. This is why we describe the mind in the transitional qualifications as elated (udagga-cittaṃ). The trusting mind (pasanna-cittaṃ) is that possessed of the same trust (saddhā) we’ve been talking about: pasanna and saddhā are near synonyms, pasanna also conveying a sense of calm.

The trust we place in the Triple Gem often arises from a sense of urgency which is called in Pali saṃvega, a kind of horror at the realization of the full nature and depth of the human condition (AN 5.77-80). It is said that the Buddha-to-be experienced saṃvega when he learned, to his dismay, of sickness, of old age and of death, and in response began his quest. Saṃvega arises when we lose our capacity for denial, which is a likely outcome when frivolity ceases. The Buddha-to-be then recognized, at 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 pasāda, the antidote to the distress of samvega.

Underlying the metaphors of both refuge and Gem is, in fact, 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.iii Gems, similarly, 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 or that 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 of those buried in rubble, entrusting oneself to a Path of practice toward Awakening provides a refuge from saṃvega.

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

Refuge in the Buddha. 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 qualities in his lifetime. We already tend to venerate people with remarkable qualities, for instance, our favorite geniuses like Einstein or Mozart.

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, beginning with the trust that such an awakened personality is even possible. With deep practice and study, with our own progress on the Path, we begin to see how his qualities of mind are gradually starting to emerge in us and our trust begins to be confirmed. As we have seen, the stream enterer has experienced at least a brief verifying insight. Still, trust is necessary in the beginning, until we see for ourselves.

Refuge in the Dharma. 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 enormous sophistication and its emphasis on the mind rather than on external forces (although in chapter 6 we will learn that this is not entirely true). 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 as problems that require human solutions. The Dharma 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, as skillfully articulated by the Buddha. It is on the basis of trust in the Triple Gem that we begin to study, practice, develop and gain insight through the teachings of the Buddha. As the Buddha states,

“… when someone going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha sees, with right insight, the four Noble Truths: suffering, the arising of suffering, the overcoming of suffering and the Eightfold Path leading to the ending of suffering, then this is the secure refuge; this is the supreme refuge. By going to such a refuge one is released from all suffering. – (Dpd 190-192, Fronsdal, 2005)

The Dharma also stands out in its empirical quality, “come and see” (ehipassiko). 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 cautious people in the West are inspired to trust in the Dharma in the first place upon learning of this refreshing see-for-yourself quality of the Dharma.

Some caution is, however, in order, lest one think this entails 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, much less interpret, our own experience. For this reason the Buddha, in the famous Kālāma Sutta, warns us not to base one’s understanding on one’s own thinking:

“Come Kālāmas, do not go by … logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, …”iv

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 creeks. 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 all 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. “Come” is trust, and “see” is verification in our own experience.

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 must ponder and try our darnedest to match up with observation. The most likely early outcome is to dismiss this proposition as simply mistaken. It seems pretty clear to us, for instance, that buying that snazzy shirt we so want, 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!

However, Refuge entails instead that we decide to trust the Buddha before our own premature cogitation about our own experiences. 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. We begin to notice that as soon as craving comes up the suffering is right behind it. As soon as we have to have that shirt there is stress and anxiety, unmistakably. We might discover we had been living in a world of incessant suffering, a world aflame, all along but not noticing it.

In brief, 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, naively misperceiving them for products of our own “free” thinking.

Refuge in the Saṅgha. As we have seen, the Saṅgha includes those of significant attainment on the Buddhist path, from stream enterers to fully awakened arahants on down, even those firmly on the path to stream entry. Alternatively, it includes all monastics, the more visible of the two saṅghas, and the one specifically charged by the Buddha with preserving the Dharma and in any case largely overlapping the first saṅgha. The Saṅgha serves as admirable friends for worldlings, for these are likely people advanced or even perfected in virtue and in understanding, potentially serene and wise. These tend to be the contemporary teachers and protectors of the Dharma. Members of the Saṅgha themselves are expected to seek out admiral friends ideally of even higher attainment.

The Practice of Refuge. To practice trust in the triple gem is to open our hearts and minds to the influence of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha. The point is not to put discernment aside; in fact we want with time to verify point by point for ourselves what these sources of wisdom have to teach us to the point that trust is no longer necessary. The point is to listen attentively to what these sources have to teach us, to consider them seriously and to integrate them into our own investigation. The main hindrance to this is our own hubris built on trust in tacit, unexamined assumptions, whose origins may be obscure to us.

One of the issues we encounter in western cultures is the sparseness of the monastic saṅgha. Nonetheless there are many highly qualified lay teachers. Although it is difficult to tell how qualified your teacher is, she could well be a noble one and count as Saṅgha on that account. After due discernment, it is appropriate to consider taking her as a refuge. Whether or not to offer alms or other support depends on whether she charges for her teachings.

The opening of heart and mind has an affective component – this is simply part of human psychology – that shows up as respect, veneration or worship. I will use the middle term, veneration, to encompass all three variants). The practice of veneration works closely with Refuge to open the heart to the influence of worthy teachers and teachings. One cannot learn from someone one does not first treat with regard. When we show proper forms of respect to the elderly, school teachers, professors, piano teachers and master cooks, we take seriously what they have to impart and so open our minds to learn more quickly from them. In a real sense, we become subject to their authority. Notice that, although veneration is prominent in religion, it is common in secular contexts as well, for instance, in saluting higher ranking officers in the military or addressing a judge as “Your Honor.” These practices serve to convey influence or authority – and this works psychologically – whether or not applied to benevolent causes.

We find veneration of the Buddha clearly expressed in the early sources 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 would enter 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 chastised a visitor for not showing proper respect. And this, in fact, began immediately after his awakening, with the Buddha’s re-encounter with the five ascetics to whom he delivered his first Dharma talk.v He understood that without that respect he was wasting his tie talking to an unreceptive audience. Likewise, veneration of the Dhamma for many years after the Buddha was naturally enacted in the effort to recite, remember and preserve his words.vi

Veneration of the Saṅgha is in a sense easier, because it applies to the only living Gem and therefore assumes a particularly personal quality. The veneration of the monastic component of the Saṅgha dovetails with the project of satisfying their material needs, the root lay practice of generosity, discussed in the previous chapter. Monastics were also recipients of many the same kinds of physical expressions of respect accorded to the Buddha during his life.

Veneration is a direct causal factor in attaining certain wholesome qualities of mind that we try to develop in Buddhism, including peace and humility. The deference to another that veneration generally entails, serves immediately to deflate the ego, to knock it out of its accustomed privileged position in the universe. (In fact this seems to me to be a basic function of the worship of God in most religions.) With the development of humility, the craving to be somebody and to distinguish oneself as that somebody, relaxes into a greater sense of ease. As the Buddha states with respect to a particular practice of veneration,

“When a noble disciple recollects the Tathāgata, on that occasion his mind is not obsessed by lust, hatred, or delusion; on that occasion his mind is simply straight. He has departed from greed, freed himself from it, emerged from it. … some beings here are purified in such a way.” (AN 6.25)

This passage is repeated in this sutta with each of Dhamma, Saṅgha, his [own] virtuous behavior, and his [own] generosity replacing Tathāgata.

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. We tend to be dismissive of veneration in modern, and certainly American, cultures, and yet veneration is recommended by the Buddha.vii The advice for moderns: Get over it.viii

Further Reading

Bhikkhu Ariyesako, 1999, The Bhikkhus’ Rules: a Guide for Laypeople, available AccesstoInsight.org, and occasional hardcopy distributions. This is an readable overview of the monastic rules laid out in the Vinaya.

Bhikkhu Cintita,, 2014, A Culture of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sasana, Lulu.com, down-loadable from bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com. This discusses Buddhist community, refuge and the relationship between laity and Sangha, largely from a historical perspective.

Ajahns Pasanno and Amaro, 2009, The Island: an Anthology of the Buddha’s Teaching on Nibbana, Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation. This has substantial discussion of stream entry.


i. These are surprisingly familiar in modern organizations, given that the monastic saṅgha has following all these years essentially the same regulations codified in the Vinaya (discipline) in the early Buddhist era.

ii. Gombrich (2006), p. 19.

iii. Thanissaro (1996), p. 1.

iv. AN 3.65. Note, I’ve omitted the external sources of evidence in this oft-quoted list.

v. Veneration of the Buddha was enhanced in virtually all of the later traditions, by treating symbols of the Buddha, for instance, pagodas and later statues, in the way we would have treated the Buddha. Some traditions accorded the Buddha a supernatural status unknown in early Buddhis, perhaps out of the same to veneration, mixed with a lot of imagination.

vi. Also respect for these texts is expressed in many later traditions through the care given to their physical manifestations, such as books, and though recitation.

vii. In fact, traditional Indian cultural expressions of veneration, such as anjali, have been carried with Buddhism to every land in which it has alighted.

viii. Zen master Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, discovered that many of his American students had a resistance to the traditional three full prostrations traditionally performed during morning service. Accordingly, he decided to modify the tradition for his American students: Instead they were required to perform nine full prostrations during morning service. They got over it, and maintain this practice over forty years after Suzuki’s death.

One Response to “Embarking on the Path”

  1. lamb-O Says:

    Is it being published in book, or e-book, format?


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