Who Do You Take Refuge In?

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Taking refuge in the Buddha, may I be with the awakened
Taking refuge in the Dharma, may I be on the path to awakening
Taking refuge in the Sangha, may I be with those on the path to awakening

– Stonepeace

A Dharma friend was rationalising for her refuge master’s legal allegations, who was put on trial for possible fraud. I think it is natural to receive the Threefold Refuge in the Triple Gem through a master whom one respects or admires greatly… at least enough so for one to want him or her to represent the Sangha on the whole. It is thus also natural to be somewhat defensive over one’s refuge master when his or her integrity seems challenged. However, we have to be clear that since we cannot read the mind of one’s refuge master, one cannot be absolutely sure that he or she is blameless in all aspects of conduct. If so, it would be irrational to jump to endlessly defend who might turn out to be guilty. Since the monk was put on trial, why not just let the law sort matters out? It is always good that the guilty be found so, so that he or she learns a good lesson, while serving as a warning to other monastics not to make the same mistakes.

There’s no need for her to feel disheartened that she had taken ‘refuge’ in the wrong person – because that monk only represented the Sangha. In short, one didn’t take refuge in him specifically (unless we’re talking about the ‘extra’ refuge in one’s guru, as according to the Vajrayana tradition). Also, true refuge is in the Arya Sangha – the noble spiritual community of ones who are at least stream-winners steadily on the path to enlightenment. Once again, that monk only ‘stood in’ for the Arya Sangha during the refuge ceremony, even if he gets charged in court.

If one really feels disturbed over having taken refuge through a monastic who doesn’t seem so worthy anymore, one can re-take refuge through a better respected master. However, this is still no guarantee that there will be absolutely no disappointment in time to come. For me, I didn’t know the master I took refuge under very well – not before or after the ceremony. Neither did he know me well. But all this is inconsequential to me – because I sincerely wished to take refuge in the Triple Gem, and knew that the monk only represented a means for me to do so formally. From ‘The Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra’ 《六祖坛经》is a powerful teaching on the essence of taking refuge:


Good Knowing Advisors, take refuge with the enlightened, the honored, the doubly complete [in merits and wisdom]. Take refuge with the right, the honored that is apart from desire [or rather, craving]. Take refuge with the pure, the honored among the multitudes. From this day forward, we call enlightenment our master and will never again take refuge with deviant demons or outside religions. We constantly enlighten ourselves by means of the Triple Jewel of our own self-nature [Buddha-nature].


Good Knowing Advisors, I [Sixth Patriarch Master Huineng] exhort you all to take refuge with the Triple Jewel of your own [Buddha-]nature: the Buddha, which is enlightenment, the Dharma, which is right, and the Sangha, which is pure. When your mind takes refuge with enlightenment, deviant confusion does not arise. Desire decreases, so that you know contentment and are able to keep away from wealth [or rather, craving for wealth] and from the opposite sex [or rather, sexual desire]. That is called the honored, the doubly complete. When your own mind takes refuge with what is right, there are no deviant views in any of your thoughts. Because there are no deviant views, there is no self, other, arrogance, greed, [selfish] love, or attachment. That is called the honored that is apart from desire. When your own mind takes refuge with the pure, your self-nature is not stained by attachment to any state of defilement, desire or love. That is called the honored among the multitudes.


If you cultivate this practice, you take refuge with yourself. Common people do not understand that, and so, from morning to night, they take the triple-refuge precepts. They say they take refuge with the Buddha, but where is the Buddha? If they cannot see the Buddha, how can they return to him? Their talk is absurd. Good Knowing Advisors, each of you examine yourselves. Do not make wrong use of the mind. The Avatamsaka Sutra clearly states that you should take refuge with your own Buddha, not with some other Buddha. If you do not take refuge with the Buddha in yourself, there is no one you can rely on. Now that you are self-awakened, you should each take refuge with the Triple Jewel of your own mind. Within yourself, regulate your mind and nature; outside yourself, respect others. That is to take refuge with yourself.

Chinese text: http://www.quanxue.cn/ct_fojia/LiuZu/LiuZu07.html
English text: http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/Platform%20Sutra.pdf

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