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«by Nyanaponika Thera Buddhist Publication Society Kandy• Sri Lanka The Wheel Publication No. 76 Paper read at the ’Servants of the Buddha,’ ...»

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The Threefold Refuge


Nyanaponika Thera

Buddhist Publication Society

Kandy• Sri Lanka

The Wheel Publication No. 76

Paper read at the ’Servants of the Buddha,’ Colombo, on 20 March 1948;

first published by the ’Servants of the Buddha,’ 1949.

Copyright © 1983 Buddhist Publication Society.

BPS Online Edition © (2008)

Digital Transcription Source: BPS Transcription Project

For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis, and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such.

Contents Buddhaghosa’s Exposition

The Threefold Refuge

Ṭīkā to the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta

2 Buddhaghosa’s Exposition Translated from the Commentary to the “Middle Collection” (MN 4: Bhayabherava-sutta) After listening to the Buddha’s Discourse called “Fear and Dread,” the Brahman Jānussoni becomes a lay follower of the Buddha, by taking the Threefold Refuge. The words used by him differ slightly from the usual formula in so far as in the latter the words “the Lord Gotama” are

replaced by “the Buddha.” Buddhaghosa’s comment, here slightly abridged, runs as follows:

“I go for refuge to the Lord Gotama” (Bhavantaṃ Gotamaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi). This means: The Lord Gotama is my refuge and my guiding ideal. 1 I am going for refuge to the Lord Gotama. I resort to him, follow and honor him, in the sense of his being the Destroyer of Affliction and the Provider of Weal. Or: I know and understand him to be of such a nature.

This last explanation is based upon the fact that in the Pali language, the verbal roots denoting “going” (gati) may also have the meaning of “knowing” (buddhi). Therefore the words “I go for refuge to the Buddha” may also be taken to express the idea: “I know and understand him to be the refuge.” “I go for refuge to the Dhamma.” The word dhamma, i.e., the Doctrine or the Law, is derived from the verb dhareti, to keep or to bear. In accordance with that derivation, the Dhamma may be regarded as refuge, because it keeps, upholds, and supports the beings by way of preventing their fall into the states of woe 2 by way of enabling a life according to instruction (as given by the Dhamma), by way of attainment of the Path, and by realization of the extinction (of suffering). Accordingly, the Dhamma (meant in the formula of refuge) is the (supramundane) Noble Path as well as Nibbāna. Besides, it is the attainment of the noble fruitions (of the streamenterer, the once-returner, the non-returner, and the saint), and also the Dhamma of Learning (laid down in the Scriptures: pariyatti-dhamma).

“I go for refuge to the Sangha.” The Sangha is (here) the community of (holy) monks which is united by the communion of right view and virtue (diṭṭhi-sīla-saṅghāṭena saṃhato’ ti saṅgho).

That is to say: the Sangha (meant in the formula of refuge) is the group of the eight noble beings (ariya-puggala: those in possession of 1) the path of stream-entry, 2) the fruition thereof, etc.).

In order to gain proficiency with regard to this subject of “refuge,” one should be acquainted with the following method of exposition, dealing with 1) the word saraṇa; 2) the going for refuge (saraṇāgamana); 3) Who is going for refuge?; 4) the divisions; 5) the results; 6) the defilements; 7) the breach.

1. As to the meaning of the word saraṇa, the commentator relates it, not in the sense of a linguistic derivation, but for the purpose of exposition, to the verb sarati, “to crush,” having the same meaning as hiṃsati, “to kill.” The refuge is explained in that way, because, for those who are taking that refuge, it kills and destroys danger and fear, suffering, and the defilements leading to evil destiny. The refuge is a name of the Triple Gem. Another explanation: The Buddha destroys fear in beings by promoting their happiness and by removing harm from them. The Dhamma does it by making the beings cross the wilderness of existence and by giving them solace. The Sangha does it by (enabling devotees) to obtain rich results even from small religious acts (like homage, offerings etc.) 1 See note 6.

2 I.e., rebirth as animal, ghost, Titan, or in hell.


2. The going for (or taking) refuge is a state of mind in which defilements are destroyed owing to the faith in and veneration for, the Triple Gem; a state of mind which, without relying on others (apara-paccayo)3, proceeds by way of taking the Triple Gem as its guiding ideal (parāyaṇa).

3. Who is going for refuge? It is a being endowed with a state of mind as described above.

4. The going for refuge has two main divisions: it may be mundane or supramundane.

The supramundane refuge is taken by those who have a (true) vision of the Noble Truth (diṭṭhasacca; i.e., by the eight noble beings). In the path-moment (of stream-entry, where any trace of the fetter of doubt has been removed), the supramundane refuge succeeds in exterminating any blemish that may still attach to the going for refuge. It has Nibbāna as its object, and in its function it comprises the entire Triple Gem (in that object of Nibbāna).

The mundane refuge is taken by worldlings (puthujjanas; i.e., all those, monks or laymen, who are still outside of the four stages of sanctity). It succeeds in effecting a temporary repression of the blemishes attaching to their going for refuge. Its objects are the noble qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. It consists in the acquisition of faith (saddhā) in these three objects. It is this faith in the Triple Gem that is referred to when, among the ten meritorious acts (puññakiriyavatthu), the “straightening of views” (diṭṭhujjukamma) is defined as Right Understanding rooted in faith (saddhāmūlika-sammā-diṭṭhi).

This mundane refuge is of four kinds: (a) the surrender of self (atta-sanniyyātana); (b) acceptance (of the Triple Gem) as one’s guiding ideal (tapparāyaṇatā); (c) acceptance of discipleship (sissabhāvūpāgamana); (d) homage by prostration (paṇipāta).4

a. The surrender of self5 is expressed as follows:

“From today onward I surrender myself to the Buddha... to the Dhamma... to the Sangha.” Ajja ādiṃ katvā ahaṃ attānaṃ Buddhassa niyyādemi Dhammassa Saṅghassā ’ti.

This is the giving over of one’s self to the Triple Gem. It may also be done in this way:

“To the Exalted One I am giving my self, to the Dhamma I am giving my self, to the Sangha I am giving my self. I am giving them my life! Given is my self, given my life! Until my life ends, I am taking refuge in the Buddha! The Buddha is my refuge, my shelter and my protection.” Bhagavato attānaṃ pariccajāmi. Dhammassa Saṅghassa attānaṃ pariccajāmi, jīvitañca pariccajāmi.

Pariccatto yeva me attā, pariccattaṃ yeva me jīvitaṃ. Jīvita-pariyantikaṃ Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi. Buddho me saraṇaṃ leṇaṃ tānan’ti.

b. The acceptance of the guiding ideal.6 “From today onward the Buddha is my Guiding Ideal, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Thus may you know me!” Ajja ādiṃ katvā ahaṃ Buddhaparāyaṇo Dhammaparāyaṇo Saṅghaparāyaṇo. Iti maṃ dhāretha.

3 Addition in the Paramatthajotika, the commentary to Khuddakapāṭha.

4 In the following passage the sequence of the text has been partly changed.

5 “Performed, e.g., by those devoting themselves to a subject of meditation” (addition in Paramatthajotika).

6 Parāyaṇa is, in ordinary usage, a synonym of saraṇa, having the meaning of resort, support, etc. Here when denoting a particularly distinguished way of taking refuge, it is probably intended to be taken in a strict sense, as often used in religious literature, Pali as well as Sanskrit: the going to the highest, the way to the beyond, the chief or best aim; the essence. We have therefore ventured upon the above free rendering by “guiding ideal.” 4

It is illustrated by the following verse spoken by Āḷavaka:

“From village to village, from town to town I’ll wend my way, lauding the Enlightened One and the perfection of His Law.” Sn 1.10 (verse 192) Thus the acceptance of the guiding ideal by Āḷavaka and others has to be understood as equaling their going for refuge.

c. The acceptance of discipleship:

“From today onward I am the Disciple of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Thus may you know me!” Ajja ādiṃ katvā ahaṃ Buddhassa antevāsiko Dhammassa Saṅghassa. Iti maṃ dhāretha.

This is illustrated by the following passage expressing Kassapa’s acceptance of discipleship that

has to be understood as equaling his going for refuge:

“Fain would I see the Master, The Exalted One, him I would wish to see! Fain would I see the Blessed One! The Exalted One, him would I wish to see! Fain would I see the Enlightened One! The Exalted One, him I would wish to see!

“Then I prostrated myself before the Exalted One and addressed him thus: The Exalted One, O Lord, is my Master, and I am his disciple!”

d. Homage by prostration:

“From today onward I shall give respectful greeting, devoted attendance, the añjalisalutation (by folding the palms and raising the hands) and homage only to those three: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Thus may you know me!” Ajja ādiṃ katvā ahaṃ abhivādana-paccuṭṭhāna-añjalikamma-sāmīcikammaṃ Buddhādīnaṃ yeva tiṇṇaṃ vatthūnaṃ karomi. Itī maṃ dhāretha.

This way of going for refuge consists in showing deep humility towards the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha. (It is illustrated by the Brahman Brahmāyu’s homage after his being deeply stirred by a stanza spoken by the Buddha. See the Discourse “Brahmāyu,” MN 91.) Homage by prostration may be of four kinds: being paid towards (senior) relatives, out of fear, towards one’s teacher, and towards those deserving highest veneration. Only the latter case—i.e., the prostration before those worthy of highest veneration—is to be regarded as “going for refuge”; the three other cases do not count as such. Only if referring to the highest (in one’s scale of values), refuge is taken or broken, respectively.

Therefore if a member of the Sakya or Koliya clan worships the Buddha, thinking: “He is our relative,” no refuge is taken in that case. Or, one may think: “The recluse Gotama is honored by kings and has great influence. If he is not worshipped, he might do me harm.” If, thinking thus, one worships out of fear, no refuge is taken in that case. Furthermore, a person remembers to have learned something from the Blessed One while he was a Bodhisatta, an aspirant to Buddhahood; or, after his attaining Buddhahood, one has received from the Master advice relating to worldly knowledge. If for these reasons, one regards the Buddha as one’s teacher and worships him, no refuge is taken, in that case too. But if one pays worship to the Buddha in the conviction “This is the most venerable being in the world,” only by such a one is refuge taken.

On the other hand, the going for refuge remains unbroken in the following situations. A male or female lay devotee who has taken refuge in the Triple Gem, worships a (senior) relative, thinking: “He is my kinsman.” Even if that relative is a recluse of another faith, the refuge in the 5 Triple Gem is unbroken; still less can it be said to be broken if it is not a recluse or a priest.

When prostrating before a king, out of fear: “If he who is honored by the whole country is not worshipped, he will do me harm!”—in that case too the refuge is unbroken. If one has learned any science, art, or craft even from a non-Buddhist, and one worships him in his capacity as one’s teacher, in that case too the refuge remains unbroken.

1. Results. The fruit of the supramundane refuge, in the sense of being its karmic result (vipāka-phala), is the four fruitions of monkhood (sāmañña-phala), viz. the fruition of streamentry, etc. The fruit in the sense of advantage or blessing (ānisaṃsa-phala) is the destruction

of suffering; further, the blessings mentioned in the following scriptural passage:

“It is impossible, O monks, that a person endowed with insight (diṭṭhi-sampanno—i.e., stream-enterer, etc.) should regard any conditioned thing as permanent, enjoyable, or an ego; that he should take the life of his mother, his father, or a saint; that, with a thought of hate, he should shed the blood of the Blessed One; that he should cause a split in the community of monks; that he should choose another teacher. There is no possibility of that.” But the fruit of the mundane refuge is only the attainment of favorable rebirth, and the attainment of property and enjoyment.

2. Defilements. In three cases the mundane refuge is defiled and without great brightness and radiating influence: if connected with ignorance, doubt, and wrong views. The supramundane refuge is free from any defilements.

3. A breach of the mundane refuge might be blameable or blameless. It is blameable when occurring as a going for refuge by self-surrender, etc., to other religious masters: in that case the breach will have undesirable results. The breach is blameless at the time of death, as it will not cause any karmic result. The supramundane refuge is without breach. Even in another existence a holy disciple will not turn to another master.

6 The Threefold Refuge In all Buddhist lands the followers of the Buddha profess their allegiance to him and his liberating doctrine by the ancient, simple, and yet so touching formula of going for refuge to the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.

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