Taking refuge: vows, commitments, belief and faith

Since I took refuge, I find myself explaining what that means to me to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Because, after all, I did not suddenly become less of a skeptic. There are aspects of the Buddhism I’m being taught that I don’t relate to much at all. The main example is, always, the enormous amounts of rituals in Tibetan Buddhism.

A practicing Buddhist friend of mine said yesterday that he hadn’t taken refuge. His reason? How could he take refuge in a Sangha consisting of some obvious fools? I told him: it’s not about promising to believe everything every monk comes up with. It’s about respect for those who practice Buddhism as a path. It’s about realizing that you don’t know which Buddhist fool is realized and which isn’t, so that respect is there as a precaution against disrespect towards an enlightened being.

Respect is a bit difficult for us Westerners, especially for Dutch people like myself. I was raised, as was my whole generation, on children’s books glorifying disrespect. I think the most famous example world wide is Pippi Longstocking(*). But let me tell you: compared to other characters in Dutch children’s books – Pippi is a veritable gold mine of good manners. Come to think of it, since my grandmother collected children’s books, I read stories from all over the world. Still, nothing beats the Dutch Annie M.G. Schmidt I think: not a bit of respect for adults in there to be found.

I’m in the mood for stories I guess. One story our Geshela (Sonam Gyaltsen) has already told several times in my hearing is about the famous Indian scholar-monk Atisha. He had studied and mastered all the Buddhist teachings available to him in India. Pondering how to gain enlightenment he walked around a stupa and had a vision of the characters in the decorations around the stupa talking to each other: ‘how can one gain enlightenment quickly? You need Bodhicitta!’. So he went to Sumatra, a perilous sea journey at the time, to study with the monk famous for that realization:  Dharmarakshita. Atisha studied with Dharmarakshita for 12 years.

The point? Well, Atisha had already realized the emptiness as taught by Nagarjuna and Dharmarakshita was a Chittamatrin of the Mind Only School. So the two differed in their opinion on one of the most basic philosophical points in Buddhism. Still, Atisha was a devoted student of Dharmarakshita.

This is a very relevant story for us Westerners, because we come to Buddhism with a mind full of Western knowledge. Do we have to leave that behind to take refuge? Absolutely not. Refuge is saying: “The Buddha became enlightened by a path I trust. I trust no other spiritual path as much, so I take refuge in the Buddha, his teachings and the spiritual community he founded. I want to travel along that path as best I am able in this life”.

There are implications to the Refuge vows though and I do think some belief is necessary before taking refuge:

  • You have to believe in karma and rebirth to be a Buddhist
  • You have to believe that Buddha really existed
  • You have to believe the dharma he taught can lead to enlightenment. However you can choose whichever Buddhist tradition you want to get there, from devotional Nichiren to meditational Zen, traditional Theravada or contemplative Gelugpa. In practice your beliefs and practices will probably be a mix.
  • You have to respect the sangha of ordained monks and nuns, knowing that while individually they’re simply people just like you, collectively they are necessary to preserve the teachings. Individually monks and nuns have to be respected for taking that step of renunciation from the world: that commitment in itself is worthy of respect, even in the case of monastics who can’t manage to live up to the ideals they’re trying to embody.
What becoming a Buddhist does NOT imply:
  • Believing that the earth is flat, that there is a mount Meru at the center with 4 continents around it, us living in the Southern continent. The Dalai Lama has made it very clear that whatever there is in Buddhist mythology that flatly contradicts the outcome (not the speculations) of Western science should be discarded. This is an obvious example.
  • Believing everything in the Buddhist sutras literally: Buddhist scholars past and present have realized that the dharma Buddha taught was not always clear, nor was it always internally consistent. The conclusion was: Buddha taught what was necessary for a particular audience. Since these texts were written down a few centuries after the Buddha passed away, it’s very likely that not all of the sutras contain the words as Gautama Buddha spoke them. Notwithstanding the quality of memory of the brahmin-born monks in his retinue. Of course there is even less certainty about the Mahayana Sutras.
Personally I believe there is real wisdom in the Buddhist teachings as they come down to us after more than 2000 years. It’s obvious that the cultures of Tibet, China, Japan and even Sri Lanka influences the Buddhism as it gets taught to us today. Similarly Western culture has been influencing Buddhist practice and doctrine for over a century. This is to be expected. In fact it’s to be cherished. However, each of us gets to decide which aspects of the Buddhist traditions we are taught will work in our lives and which won’t. We get to pick and choose as long as we don’t lose sight of the essentials.
Devotion is more central than most people in the West are comfortable with. I mention devotion without mentioning what one is devoted TO. The Buddha, as a perfected being full of loving kindness to humanity, is obviously the most ideal object of devotion one can think of. You would not be reading this if you thought Christ was more ideal – if you do, do become a Christian. That devotion is the essence of taking refuge.
Wikipedia, which after all represents the average voice of humanity on a topic, has this to say about the objects of refuge (checked Feb 2012):

The Three Jewels general signification is:

  • the Buddha;
  • the Dharma, the teachings;
  • the Sangha, the community of (at least partially) enlightened beings, often approximated to community of monks and nuns (Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis).

(*) I do not mean to imply that Pippi Longstocking is Dutch. She was conceived by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren who also wrote other great books I liked a whole lot better as a child. Ronia the Robber’s Daughter comes to mind.

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Katinka Hesselink

Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

One thought on “Taking refuge: vows, commitments, belief and faith”

  1. It is also my understanding, as a new Buddhist, that much of the ceremonial goobldegop is simply a reverence for the only path that speaks to my intellect! I am of the Gelug school, and because I seek the happiness that I see in my guru, I will happily take suggestions from him as to how to practice.

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