Seeking Refuge in the 21st Century

Speaker: Venerable Hui Cheng

Fo Guang Shan Monastery

I. Introduction

Auspicious blessings and welcome to the Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services Channel. My name is Hui Cheng from Fo Guang Shan Monastery. This session is centered on arriving at an understanding of the core objects of faith in Buddhism, the Triple Gem–Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, why refuge is necessary and what it takes to become Buddhist in the 21st century.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun explains that the Triple Gems are a spiritual wealth that transcends all worldly wealth, as they collectively lead us out of the vices of suffering. Whereby worldly wealth may buy us all the luxuries of the world, they are unable to bring us eternal joy, for they themselves are impermanent. The Triple Gems are different. They guide us on a path towards freedom from suffering as well as peace and joy. Sakyamuni Buddha is the founder of Buddhism, Dharma is the universal truth of reality realized by the Buddha, and Sangha, the Buddhist community of monks and nuns, are the teachers. Parables in the sutras refer to the Buddha as a good doctor, the Dharma as the wondrous cure, and Sangha as the nurses or carers. Only by having all three can a patient be healed. Likewise, in life, only by relying on the power of the Triple Gem can one be protected from danger and suffering and obtain happiness. Only then can one be at perfect ease and find liberation.

Furthermore, only when we acknowledge our potential to perfect one’s own character and internalize the Triple Gem, do we truly find refuge. Then, there is also the need to acknowledge the universality of the Triple Gem. In one of Sakyamuni Buddha’s past lives, while he was Sadāparibhūta Bodhisattva, he had a heart full of reverence and humility towards fellow Buddhists and all beings, and never looked down on anyone. Whenever he crossed paths with people, he’d express his prediction that they would one day become a Buddha. Even when met with hostility, he’d respond, “I do not despise you. You are not despised, for you all perform bodhisattva practice and you are to become buddhas.” When we see the Buddha-potential in all beings, there is solidarity, and when there is solidarity, there is strength and hope.

II. The Need for Taking Refuge in the Triple Gems

Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem, or Triratna in Sanskrit, is the first step in entering the gateway of the Buddha’s teachings. Here, the word “refuge” may raise many questions. Refuge denotes a need for protection from danger. However, for most individuals in the 21st century, there is no immediate threat to one’s well-being. Therefore, when all is smooth sailing, one may dismiss the need for refuge and consider going for refuge as superfluous. To understand the need for refuge one must first understand one’s position. As far as the human condition is concerned, an unenlightened person only sees the tip of the iceberg and fails to comprehend the entirety of human existence. Owing to one’s delusion, one fails to see all the causes and conditions that operate behind the scenes to create what we conventionally understand as human life. Just like a frog slowly cooking in warm water not realizing the imminent danger it is in, we too fail to notice the perilous situation we are in. From the Buddhist perspective, the way we view the world is distorted by subconscious tendencies, based on an erroneous understanding of self, or I. Viewing the self as more substantial than it really is, we tend to base our decisions on what we think is fit for this sense of “self”. When our jobs, families, and social lives are stable, we tend to believe that all is well. We become complacent, oblivious to the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and suffering. We fail to realize that everything in life is impermanent. Natural disasters, crime, accidents and illness may take everything that we have away in an instant. Politics, social unrest and violence may cause us pain in ways never imagined. We only need to watch the news to be reminded of the uncertainty of life. If we stop for a moment and reflect on life, there is never a time when our lives are perfect. Something is always going on, and suffering is ongoing. It is only because we become desensitized to such suffering that we forget its presence. On a more global perspective, the imminence of birth, age, sickness and death awaits us all. These dangers relate to our everyday existence.

Then there is the factor of subjective world experience. Our subjective worlds are the culmination of physical, verbal and mental processes, experiences, and habituations, as well as the underlying erroneous understanding of ego which conditions our current worldview. Faced with the uncertainty of life, we react with anxiety and fear, albeit less for those who align their minds and actions to the path of morality, meditation, and wisdom, and who understand the causes of such anxiety. The suffering that one experiences should be seen not as the fundamental problem itself, but a symptom of a greater issue inherent in sentient beings. Our underlying erroneous understanding of ego causes us to view the world based on false claims of ownership and authority over phenomena that ultimately is not in our direct control. We live on a set of preconceptions, expectations, and values conveniently aligned with one’s interests that demand the world to conform to one’s wishes. Whenever these expectations are not met, we give rise to afflictions. In some situations where we can tentatively change the way things are, those things are subject to change, and when situations change, we are further afflicted by the loss of what we had wished for. Our actions and reactions to external phenomena make up our subjective experience, and only with refuge in the mind of equanimity, or in more specific terms, the mind of enlightenment, are we able to find true peace and freedom from suffering. Such suffering caused by our subjective experiences does not end at death. According to the Buddhist worldview, sentient beings are trapped in saṃsāra, or cyclic existence put in motion by the karma that we create. There are two main types of karma, wholesome and unwholesome. Wholesome karma entails deeds of kindness, compassion, generosity, morality and so on, and the sustained upholding of such virtues lead to higher rebirths, particularly in the human and deva realm. Unwholesome karma entails actions inspired by greed, anger, ignorance, pride, doubt and so on, and leads to rebirth in the lower realms of suffering, that of hell, animal, hungry ghost, and asura (demi-gods). Just like this, due to the karma we heedlessly accumulate, we cycle through the different planes of existence indefinitely. Lost in saṃsāra, we seldom can distinguish wholesome from unwholesome, right from wrong. Without the guidance of the Triple Gem, it is difficult for us to align our actions of body, speech and mind with that which is wholesome. Without the wisdom of the Dharma, it is difficult to see things as they really are. Trapped in the darkness of delusion, we perpetuate suffering by grasping onto our egos and the preconceptions we hold so dearly. As such, it is important that we seek refuge in that which protects us from the delusions of our own minds

III. Objects of Refuge

To be considered a worthy object of refuge, the refuge itself needs to be eternally beyond and devoid of the sufferings of human existence, and capable of leading others out of suffering. Moreover, the object of refuge must be accessible to the multitude equally, without discrimination. In other words, this sense of protection and safety from the dangers of saṃsāric existence must be reachable for it to be considered a worthy refuge. The Buddha was born a human being, lived as a human being and became enlightened as a human being. After enlightenment, the Buddha was truly free of suffering. Prior to parinirvāṇa, or the final relinquishment of residual karma leading to the death of the physical body once and for all, the Buddha was still subject to the physical ailments of human existence. However, his mind had long transcended the delusions and afflictions pestering the unenlightened. He was beyond mental suffering, and nothing moved his mind, for he had already clearly seen the truth of reality. Note here that suffering is different from physical pain. One can be in pain, but not suffer. Suffering is nothing but a mental response triggered by our self-perpetuating ego. This very human side of the Buddha inspires in us faith in the potentiality to become Buddhas ourselves.

The universal truth of reality that the Buddha awakened to is referred to as Dharma. The importance of the Dharma lies in the fact that it is the realization and complete practice of the Dharma that gives birth to Buddhas, and that the Dharma is the cornerstone of the Sangha. The Buddhist path consists of many Dharma teachings, though holistic Buddhist practice consists of three parts, the training in morality, the training in meditation, and the training in wisdom. Examples of Dharma include teachings on the Truth, such as the Three Dharma Seals, Four Noble Truths, and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination as well as teachings on the practices of remorse, gratitude, appreciation, building affinities, generosity, equality, loving-kindness, compassion, and so on. The practice of the Dharma leads to benefits in the present life and protects us from the dangers pertinent to this world and beyond. The Dharma is relevant to all regardless of ethnicity, social-standing and intellect. It is the truth of reality that is universal, inevitable, eternal, original, equal, transcendental, and realizable.

The Sangha refers originally to the very first few disciples of the Buddha, however, the term came to encompass the entire monastic community. When we speak of the Sangha, we do not refer to a particular individual, rather, we refer to the community in harmony. This harmony, which is a central notion in the formation of the community, is maintained by the collective upholding of moral guidelines set by the Buddha called the Vinaya, which is based on the spirit of mutual respect, non-violation, and purity of body, speech and mind. The Sangha are the manifestations of the Dharma, those who uphold the pure precepts and serve as teachers and role models for all. As for the reason why the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are referred to as Gems, while worldly treasures make life more comfortable, the Triple Gem is a spiritual treasure that brings peace, happiness, liberation, and ease in this life and beyond. The Buddha, the omniscient great doctor diagnoses the ills of humanity, prescribing the Dharma, the vast array of medicines to treat the sufferings of human existence, while the Sangha, the carers help administer the medicine to treat the sick. As such, the Triple Gem collectively provide protection from the dangers pertinent to human existence and beyond and are a reliable object of refuge.

IV. The Act of Taking Refuge

As for the process of going for refuge, take the analogy of registering for courses at the tertiary level. Taking refuge is just like gaining admission into college as a freshman. Once formally registered as a student at college, one may begin enrolling into 1st year courses, and upon successful completion of 1st year courses, slowly transition into the 2nd year of college, and so on. Approaching the Dharma without taking refuge is like auditing individual courses without enrolling in them. Even though one may audit a course for an entire semester, one is unable to receive credits for the course.  As simple as this act of refuge may seem, it is based upon this initial act that true and sustained faith towards the path to liberation is established, and subsequent accomplishments on the path made possible.

The act of taking refuge is not merely a matter of ceremony, or the recitation of a stock formula. It is more importantly an internal process whereby one chooses to solidify one’s commitment and faith in the Triple Gem. As such, it is important that one takes refuge with the right mindset. The act of refuge involves three aspects of our minds: cognition, will, and emotion. The mental factor of cognition points to knowing the need and benefits of taking refuge. One understands that the innate search for freedom from suffering is the purpose of refuge, and understands that the Triple Gem is the guide that leads us to our goal. We understand the dissatisfactory nature of human existence and that the fundamental cause of suffering in life is the lack of insight into the true nature of reality. Not understanding this reality, we cling to self and things, and grow our ego. We however know that by aligning our actions of body, speech, and mind with the Buddhist path that leads to freedom from delusions and clear vision, we can transcend suffering. With such knowledge, one takes refuge with the right motivation and understanding.

As for the mental factor of will, the act of taking refuge turns one’s movement of mind inward, away from the attachments to worldly offerings which cause much dissatisfaction. Before refuge, one continually expands one’s ego outwards trying to claim ownership and control over things and people. When we take refuge in the Dharma, we understand that craving and attachments to fleeting phenomena only results in frustration, grievance and despair.  Letting go of such attachments, we develop a content mind and inner peace. We also understand that true liberation occurs when this egocentric movement of mind halts and delusion of self is severed at its core.

The third mental factor of taking refuge is emotion. According to the Caṅkī sutta, refuge is motivated by the emotions of Confidence (pasada), Reverence (gaurava), and religious sentiment (pema). Confidence is a sense of trust in the protective powers of the Triple Gem conjured by the clear understanding of the qualities and function of the Triple Gem. This confidence leads to the development of reverence as one begins to appreciate the awe-inspiring sublime nature of the Triple Gem. Reverence leads to the development of religious sentiment, adding vitality and warmth to the religious life. It ignites the flame of devotion that inspires one to extend this protective power of the Triple Gem to others.

After one initially takes refuge by participating in a formal ceremony, it is important to continue repeating the process of taking refuge on a daily basis. The act of taking refuge itself is part of Buddhist cultivation, as it plants the seeds of inner development and guides us on our spiritual journey. As we repeatedly call to mind the Triple Gem, we are embracing the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, which in turn serves as a timely reminder of our sublime goal as a Buddhist practitioner. Ideally, one takes refuge twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, or whenever it is convenient to do so.

Nowadays, it is common for Mahayana Buddhists to use a refuge formula based on the Avataṃsaka Sūtra as part of their daily routine, which involves extending the blessings of the Triple Gem to all beings. In essence, this is the altruistic spirit of taking refuge. One not only seeks refuge and protection for oneself, but also for the welfare of fellow beings.

The verse is as follows:

I take refuge in the Buddha,
Wishing that all sentient beings,
Understand the Dharma
And make the supreme vow.

I take refuge in the Dharma,
Wishing that all sentient beings,
Study the sutras diligently
And obtain an ocean of wisdom.

I take refuge in the Sangha,
Wishing that all sentient beings,
Lead the masses in harmony
Without obstructions.

V. The Ultimate Meaning of Taking Refuge

So far, we have talked about Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem in its most conventional form. We may be reminded that the Buddha himself encouraged his disciples to understand the deeper meaning of the Triple Gem with the famous utterances upon his awakening:

“Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.”

This tells us that the intrinsic nature of each individual is already perfectly endowed with the immeasurable merit of the Triple Gems, and that all beings inherently possess the potential to become a Buddha. Everyone also possesses the Dharma nature that is equanimous, and everyone possesses a character that reflects purity and harmony. Venerable Master Hsing Yun reminds that Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem is an act of respecting ourselves and affirming our own intrinsic Triple Gem nature. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem represents our faith in the universal potentiality and democracy in achieving Buddhahood. Most of all, taking refuge in the Triple Gem is taking refuge in our own hopes of fulfilling the potential of our wonderful human life.

However, are we game enough to acknowledge the Buddha within?

Once, a devotee asked a Chan Master, “What is a buddha?”

The Chan Master replied, “You will not believe it even if I tell you!”

“Master!” said the devotee. “How can I not believe your words?” 

“All right, since you are willing to believe me, I will tell you: you are a buddha!”

Astonished, the devotee asked, “I am a buddha? Why didn’t I know it?”

“Because you do not dare to bear the responsibility!” replied the Chan Master.

Likewise, many Buddhists dare not admit that they are buddhas. Having faith in one’s intrinsic Triple Gem nature, one is empowered to take responsibility for one’s actions and do justice to one’s potentiality of Buddhahood. The sacredness of taking refuge in our intrinsic Triple Gem is exemplified by the saying, “I am a Buddha.” Master Hsing Yun explains that once we see ourselves as Buddhas, we naturally tend to avoid doing things and saying things that are un-Buddha-like, while engaging in deeds fitting for a Buddha. “Do buddhas drink beer and smoke cigarettes? “Should buddhas be kind and compassionate to all?” The same is true for intrinsic our Dharma nature. Knowing that we are endowed with the wisdom of the Dharma, we are inspired not to allow delusions to sway us. Knowing that we have the innate purity of the Sangha, we are inspired to hold true to that which is ethical and moral.

VII. Conclusion

To wrap up, Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem provides safety and protection from the dangers pertinent to the 21st century. It is truly the realization of democracy, in the sense that we are acknowledging the equal innate Buddha-potential common to all sentient beings. It is through the acknowledgement that we are innately connected that we may find solidarity, especially in the trying times of our era.

I hope that you have found this session to be of help to your spiritual journey. Please stay tuned for next week’s session of wisdom and encouragement. In the meantime, please take care, stay safe, and unleash the Buddha within. May the Triple Gem bless you all. Omitofo