2021-04-13 Refuge (2 of 5) Refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
2:56PM Apr 13, 2021
Continuing on this topic of refuge – the most well known aspect of refuge in Buddhism is the idea of going for refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The word for going, "gacchāmi" in Pali, literally means "to walk", "to go." I think it is a perfectly good translation. I like "walking", because it implies that when we walk, we bring all of ourselves along. The idea of going for refuge is to bring all of ourselves into the refuge.
It is something that is deeply personal and very individual. It involves real commitment, real dedication, to step forward, to step into something. It is something personal, the "I" – there is something involving a certain intentionality, commitment or sense of purpose: going. And then, going to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
I think it is useful to consider that there are two versions of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. There are the external ones and the internal ones. External are what most people think about as the literal meaning of these words, " Buddha, Dharma, Sangha." The internal has to do with how we find the reference point for them, or somehow recognize them in ourselves.
The external Buddha is the historical Buddha. Probably one of the most important functions of the Buddha, for practitioners, is that he is an exemplar. He is an example of what is possible – that it is possible to become free. I i's possible to shed – thoroughly, completely, fully – all the different forces of agitation, attachment, fear, hostility, and ill will that live within us. The Buddha represents that – he is an exemplar of that.
That is inspiring, because, unless we have exemplars of what the Dharma is about, then we have no proof that it is possible. I think of this a little bit like in the 1950s, when there was the first person who broke the four minute mile running. It was said before that, that couldn't be done. It wasn't humanly possible to run a mile faster than four minutes. But once someone broke that barrier, that line, then many other people followed. Once the Buddha showed it was possible, attained what is possible, many people have followed his example, and have attained the same degree of liberation as he had.
To have him as an example – to be inspired and guided by that – to have a sense, "Oh, this is possible" does not involve blind faith or allegiance to the Buddha. The Buddha becomes a mirror for ourselves to engage in the practice: "This is possible for me as well."
The external Dharma is his teachings – the truths, the practices, what flowed out of him as a way of pointing us to our own potential. They are a remarkable set of teachings, the teachings of the Buddha. There is a vast corpus of texts that claim to represent the records of his teachings.
It is a fascinating body of texts. It is a little bit hard to get into. But it is so multi-dimensional and rich in the care with which it addresses the issues of practice, philosophy, views, and self – all these things that we want to shine light on in order to understand and find our own freedom. A lot of what he has to teach is meant to be practically applicable. In fact in one place, he says that when someone teaches the Dharma, it should be practical.
The Sangha are the community of witnesses. Those who have witnessed what he teaches. Who have obtained a similar form of liberation as the Buddha. To know that there are these people. The Buddha is not the only example. There are lots of examples down through time.
Even in our time, there are many, many people who have really tasted some of the fruit of what the Buddha was pointing to. They are here to guide, support and teach us in our own idiom and cultural form. Maybe adapting the teachings according to what is appropriate in different environments, countries and cultures. That's the external.
The internal Buddha is when we see in ourselves the qualities of inner freedom, and the qualities of compassion, care or love, that the Buddha had. Dharma is to recognize that some of the values and practices that come out of that freedom, or lead to that freedom, also are found in us.
One of the primary characteristics of the Dharma is non-harming. To recognize in ourselves that there is a force, a reference point, for not wanting to harm any living being at all. A reference point is the feeling or sense that where there is integrity, where there is wholeness is: not to lie, not to harm, not to steal. Not because it is the ethical thing to do in the sense of abstract ethics or morality, but because something lives in us.
Feeling, a sense of integrity that is the Dharma living in us. The Dharma that is internal is the Dharma of practicing, of saying "Yes," and bringing mindfulness, showing up and being settled.
Keep coming back to these qualities of practice that begin feeling like, "This is a valuable and important way of being. This is where home is. To not be here feels like a loss, a diminishment of my life – to be caught in agitation, desires, expectations, frustrations, disappointments, resentments, envy, jealousy, wanting to acquire." We can feel how we come out of harmony, are out of kilter, when we end up in these unnecessary and agitated states. To begin to recognize subtle, wholesome, nourishing, peaceful states within is to recognize the Dharma.
To recognize the inner Sangha is to recognize how we, in our personal way, live in relationship to other people. We live in relationship to others – not necessarily Buddhists, but certainly Buddhists are included – who share some of these values, who resonate with us with those values, who guide, support or encourage us to live by these values, this intention, this unagitated place of peace, wholeness, liberation the Dharma points to.
We live in a relationship to this with others. In that relationship, there are certain relational motivations and qualities that are part of refuge in the Sangha: generosity, friendliness, goodwill, compassion, honesty – and which have to do with our intimate relationship with each other. This is to take refuge in the inner Sangha.
Both the external and the inner Sangha are valuable. Some people will orient to one more than the other at different times. Ultimately, the idea is to have something within that we recognize: "Oh that's what the Buddha is." Not that we have all the full qualities of a Buddha, for sure, but we see, "Oh this is what the Buddha was talking about. This is what the Dharma is. This is where the Sangha is found or awakened, connected to." We are talking about an inner transformation that happens in practice.
At some point, as people practice, there is a recognition of a way of being that is valuable, a way of being that is more valuable than almost anything else. For some people they would say it is the most important thing for them. Not, as I said yesterday, because other things that are important have become less important. But rather, the people in our lives, the purposes we have, that we live our lives from, remain just as important as they always have been.
Sometimes the Dharma, the practice, the refuges become the most important, because they are the very thing that feeds into a healthy, beneficial way of relating to all the other things that are important as well. It is the common denominator, the source from which flows out a way of being that brings benefit to what we love, to the people we love, and to what's important for us.
To take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha is not a passive thing. It involves understanding, knowing something for oneself. When practice deepens, we learn to appreciate what we are getting to know. What we're knowing and recognizing, we let that live as a big, "Yes, this is important. This is inspiring."
It is an orientation, "This is the direction I want to go." An intentionality and orientation. Refuges are a guide: "Oh, yes, this is the way."
They are an inspiration, something that can be very heartfelt. For some people, it's quite emotional, a very deep emotional connection. It is something intellectual, something intentional, and something emotional. It is very rich, going for refuge.
Finally, I'd like to say that in some places in Buddhism – maybe in some of our own Buddhist circles – what gets emphasized is the goals of liberation, freedom and awakening. Certainly, that is important, but for many people, a comparable magnitude of impact and transformation is a turning point in life, which is as valuable almost as liberation itself, is a clear change inside that is represented by refuge.
It's a big, "Yes, this is what I'm dedicated to. This is important. This is where my faith is." This refuge can be, for some, a very important decision, a turning point of, "This is important."
It is said that when this happens for people, it gives their life a sense of purpose, meaning, order, and understanding for all of how we live our lives. With that, it can give us a lot of peace and reassurance that we have found a way to be in this difficult world.
Thank you all very much, and we'll continue on this topic tomorrow.