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Meditation Workshop at Wat Mongkolratanaram, Tampa,FL


Becoming a Buddhist

The first step one takes in becoming a Buddhist is the taking of refuge.  The act of taking refuge goes back to the very earliest period of the Buddhist community.  The first record of this in fact comes from the weeks following the Buddha’s Enlightenment when we are told that two merchants who were passing through the place where he attained Enlightenment took refuge in the Buddha and Dharma.  At that stage it was a two-fold refuge as at that time the Sangha was not yet formed.   Following upon this we find references to the taking of the three-fold refuge.   This was shortly after the Buddha began his teaching career at Sarnath.  We have the conversion of Yasha, the son of a wealthy family of Benares.  After Yasa’s conversion, we have the conversion of Yasha’s family, and according to tradition, Yasa’s family were the first lay followers to take the three-fold refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

The taking of refuge is extremely important within the Buddhist community both as a mark of entry into the Buddhist community for the laity, and also as a part of the ordination ceremony for monks and nuns.  We know, for instance, that for a long time before the more elaborate ordination ceremony came into fashion, monks were admitted into the Buddhist monastic community with a relatively simple ceremony.  The most important element of that ceremony was the recitation of the three-fold refuge formula thrice.  From that time until the present, the taking of refuge has become a very important part of becoming a Buddhist.  That is why the taking of refuge is the first formal step one takes in becoming a Buddhist.

What are the motivations for taking refuge?  Traditionally there are three – fear, faith and compassion.  The three motivations correspond to three types of individuals.  The individual who takes refuge out of fear represents the least developed type of individual.  The individual who takes refuge out of faith represents the individual of medium development.  And the individual who takes refuge out of compassion represents the individual of greatest development.

Fear is a universal and well known motivation for all kinds of action.   Particularly in the religious context, it is the basic motivation for most of the religious activities, indeed for the birth of religion itself.  It is a fact that some of the earliest manifestations of religious behavior, for example, sacrifices, magical rites and so forth were performed out of fear.  Believing that they were surrounded by forces that they could not control, men reacted with fear and tried to do something about it.  In the context of refuge, it is the fear of rebirth and suffering.

Faith is a more positive motivation than fear because one is not simply driven in a negative way.  One is instead drawn in a positive way because one sees special qualities in the Triple Gem and has faith in those qualities.  Faith in the Buddhist context is not blind faith.  It is not reliance upon grace or the power of another.  It is simply that positive attitude of the mind which believes that success is possible.  In other words, we will not succeed in whatever we undertake with a negative attitude.

The highest of the motivations extends one’s interest beyond one’s concern for oneself to the concern for all living beings.  This person goes to refuge out of compassion, to help all living beings from their suffering.

We can illustrate the working of these three motivations by means of a very simple example.  Suppose you are walking down the street and you are suddenly caught in a very heavy downpour.  Your first reaction will be one of fear, and you will look for shelter.  Once you have been impressed with the necessity to find a shelter, you will look around for a shelter.  In that situation, you will need to have faith in the shelter.  You will not have much faith if it is just a temporary canopy because they may collapse or you may be electrocuted.  But if you see a solid apartment block you will have faith in its ability to protect you.  You will go into that building for refuge.  This is analogous to taking refuge out of faith.   Once you have decided to seek refuge in the building, you will want to call to other passers-by to take refuge in the same building.  This is analogous to taking refuge out of compassion.  This illustrates the different levels of motivation in taking refuge, from a very narrow and negative motivation to a positive one and finally to a universal motivation.

The three objects of refuge are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.   The Buddha is called the supreme Teacher of gods and men, the Enlightened One, the Arhat and so forth.  These qualities of the Buddha make him a worthy object of refuge.

Similarly, the Dharma also has many qualities that make it an object worthy of refuge.  The Dharma is taught without any selfish motivation.  It is taught simply to benefit all living beings.  The Dharma is intrinsically pure.   It is like a light which dispels darkness.  Specifically, the Dharma can be divided into two aspects — the Dharma which one becomes familiar with through indirect means like reading and listening, and the Dharma which one becomes familiar with through direct, personal realization through one’s own meditative and living experience.

As regards the Sangha, some believe that it refers only to the community of monks, while others believe that it refers to the whole Buddhist community.   While both interpretations are correct, in the context of the three-fold refuge, the Sangha refers to the Noble Community.  This refers to either the four noble types of persons — Stream-winner, Once-Returner, Non-Returner and Arhat, or the community of irreversible Bodhisattvas.

One relates to the objects of refuge in particular ways.  One relates to the Buddha as one’s guide, the Dharma as one’s path, and the Sangha as one’s travelling companions.  In this context, one can think of achieving Enlightenment as taking a journey to a distant place.  In order to do so successfully, one would need a guide, a path and travelling companion to cheer one up when one is lonely or depressed.   The Buddha is the ideal guide because he has traveled the path before.  He can lead others to the goal as he has achieved the goal himself.

The Dharma is the ideal path laid down by the Buddha because it has been designed to overcome obstacles of various kinds.  Just as one might build a bridge to cross a chasm, the Dharma supplies teaching regarding good conduct to get over unwholesome actions.  Just as the path might provide handrails to keep us from being blown off by the wind, the Dharma provides us the techniques to overcome the distractions to meditation.  And just as the path might provide street lamps to light the way, the teaching on wisdom lights the way so that we do not go astray from the path.

The Sangha are the ideal travelling companions because they share our general orientation, and because they have achieved certain mastery of the path, especially the Noble Sangha.  They are in a position to help us along.  Even the ordinary worldly Buddhist community can be a support because we tend to be discouraged and tired if we undertake to do anything alone.

The taking of refuge has traditionally been formalized in the form of a ceremony or ritual.  This dates back to the very earliest period of the Buddhist community and has continued to function in that form till today.  The taking of refuge has two functions.  Firstly, it marks one’s first and formal entry into the Buddhist community.  After that we continue to take refuge daily as an indication of our commitment as Buddhists towards achieving Enlightenment by following the path.   This act of taking refuge is usually performed before a monk, a master, or an image of the Buddha.  It is an indication that we are following a continuous living tradition handed down from the time of the Buddha.  The refuge formula is repeated thrice because the number three is the smallest plural number which symbolically stands for innumerable recitations.

Secondly, the taking of refuge brings about many benefits.  As the first step on the path, it opens the door to all the practices in the Buddhist tradition.   It gives one a definite positive direction in which to move.  In this way, it creates the conditions for the realization of countless benefits.  In as much as the taking of refuge is the first step on one’s path to Enlightenment, all the benefits of Enlightenment result directly or indirectly from the taking of refuge.  It also gives one safety from rebirth in the lower realms.

But the taking of refuge also requires some commitments, just as when you become a member of a club you have to observe certain rules and regulations, or when you become a citizen of a country, you have to follow the rules of the country.  The rules and regulations of refuge are the five precepts.  They embody the respect for life, property, personal relationship, truth and mental health.

The five precepts are ideals to strive for.  They are not absolute.  Just as a happy marriage or a good job is an ideal to strive for though we know that we may never achieve the ideal, similarly the five precepts serve as a guideline to good conduct which Buddhists are encouraged to strive for.

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