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The Three Refuges: Part I, The Buddha

by Ruben Habito

Editor’s Note: This is the first out of three articles on The Three Refuges. Read the Dharma Refuge (part two) and Sangha Refuge (part three) here.

Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami

Part I–The Buddha Refuge

BuddhaRefugeMKZCMy task in the next three talks is to articulate what happens when we chant the three refuges, that we may be able to realize this and be able to embody it in our being. Incidentally, we also chant the four vows of the bodhisattva, and the fourth goes thus: “The enlightened way is unsurpassable. I vow to embody it.”

What we are hoping to realize here is precisely the intent and content of this fourth vow–to embody the enlightened way in our daily lives.

This chant of the threefold refuge has been chanted from time immemorial in communities that have received the teaching of Gautama Shakyamuni. The literal meaning is: I go (Gacchami) for refuge (Saranam) to the awakened one (Buddham). Buddham is the accusative form, and the nominative form goes without the final m. So what does going to the Buddha for refuge involve? This first talk will address this first part of the chant. The second will address the question of going to the Dharma (or Dhamma in Pali) for refuge, and the third, the Sangha.

Buddha means “awakened one.” Historically speaking, around the fifth century before the Western era, there was a man who was born in the northern part of India in a place which is now under the national territory of the kingdom of Nepal, in a castle named Lumbini. At birth he was given the name Gautama Siddhartha. Gautama’s father was a maharaja (“great ruler”) of this land.

The newborn infant was given a prophecy by one of the sages of that time, saying that this boy was meant to become either a great ruler or great sage. The father of course wanted him to become a great ruler who would expand his own kingdom.. As this boy became of age, he was betrothed in marriage to a young woman of high status, and they were married and had a son.

It was soon after this that he began to be plagued by very basic questions about life. Many Buddhist scriptures were written after the Buddha’s time speculating on the nature of those struggles and questions. One of these is a biographical account called the Buddhacarita, or the Acts of the Buddha. It offers a very good dramatization of how the young man Gautama struggled with the question of suffering. He left his kingdom, family and property, to become a wandering ascetic.

For six years, he went from teacher to teacher in search for answers to his questions. He tried all sorts of yogic practices that were taught at that time. Not finding any satisfaction with what was offered, he went off on his own, and continued in meditative practice. It was at this point that he experienced what is known as the Great Enlightenment.

According to the Buddhacarita, this happened as he sat under a banyan tree, later called the Bodhi tree. As he sat all night on the 7th of December, the following morning of the 8th, his eyes fell upon the morning star. At that instant, it dawned on him, literally, and he was awakened. This experience gave him deep peace and such deep joy that he simply wanted to continue sitting there, relishing it to the full. He could have just stayed there all his life, enjoying the fruits of enlightenment all by himself, but Brahma, one of the divinities in Hindu tradition, appeared and convinced him, so the story goes, that it would be a great loss to humanity if he did not go out and teach others what he realized. So he arose and began to prepare himself to share his enlightenment with the rest of the world.

Thus started his life of teaching the dharma to all those who sought it. His first preaching of the dharma was at a place in Sarnath, known as Deer Park. This preaching is encapsulated in what is known as the Four Noble Truths. His teachings, all arising from his experience of enlightenment, come down to us in written form through sutras, literally, “threads,” that is, threads of wisdom from the Awakened One.

I have just presented a brief outline of the life of the man Gautama, who upon his experience of awakening was called Buddha by those around him. He was about in his mid-thirties at that time and he lived from that point on until his passing at the age of 80. His is what we can look at as a model of the awakened life. What we have are records of what he gave in response to questions to those around him and this has been enshrined in Buddhist scriptures. What comes down to us in written form gives us some picture of what an awakened life is. Let us look at the basic structure of that awakened life as embodied by the first Buddha in history, Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni, the wise one of the Shakya clan.

What are the basic characteristics of the life of an awakened one? One of the earliest collections of sutras that scholars say contain elements of those earlier preachings of the awakened one is called the Sutta Nipata, and among these is one called the Metta Sutta, or the Sutra on Lovingkindness. The word metta literally means oneness, kinship, intimacy. It gives us a picture of the structure of the awakened life that is easily understandable. Let us look at excerpts from this sutra, this thread of wisdom, as one gateway into that world of enlightenment.

“Those who have attained that calm state live thus.
Able, upright, of noble speech, gentle and humble,
contended, easily supported, with few duties, of right livelihood discreet, and not greedily attached to families.
They do not pursue the slightest thing for which otherwise people might censure them.
May all beings be happy and secure. May their hearts be wholesome.
Whatever living beings there be, people are strong, tall, stout or medium, short, small or large without exception, seen or unseen,those dwelling far or near….
May all beings be happy….
Just as a mother would protect her only child over her own life, even so, let them cultivate a boundless heart toward all beings. Let their thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world above, below and across without any obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity, whether they stand, walk, sit, lie, as long as they are awake, they should develop this mindfulness. This they say is the noblest living here.
Not falling into wrong views, being virtuous and endowed with insight by discarding attachment to sense desires, never again are they reborn (into this cycle of birth and death) as they are now in that perfect state of peace.”

There are many details that one might get lost in, but based on the above, I would like to point out three basic elements in that life of the awakened one.

First, it is described as a “calm state”—nirvana. This refers to a state of perfect inner peace. An awakened one has attained perfect peace with oneself, with one’s fellow sentient beings, with the whole universe. It is that peace that the world cannot give, that we are able to realize, in becoming awakened. Second, it is accompanied by a sense of humility, realizing one’s bond with all sentient beings, with the whole universe. “Able, upright, of noble speech, gentle and humble.”

That peace is something that one is deeply grateful for, and it also makes one truly humble. And coming out from that peace and humility is the third element, a heart of compassion. “Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so let one cultivate a boundless heart toward all beings.” This image of a mother toward her only child is significant. There is no separation here. The mother is ready to give all that she is and all that she has that the child may live the fullness of life that it is meant to live. We are invited to realize in ourselves this heart of a mother toward all sentient beings.

In other words, we are invited to have that boundless heart of lovingkindness toward each one we meet in life…to be as a mother toward each one that we meet. It is an invitation to break through those barriers we have placed between ourselves and others, and simply offer our being as a mother would be there for her only child, ready and able to give all that she is.

But it is not to be considered simply an ethical “ought.” This is an expression of the reality that we are all already steeped in right from the moment of our birth. Having come into this world, we are “kin” with all sentient beings. It is kinship, this kin-dom that one awakens to in the experience of enlightenment.

Realizing that we are kin to one another becomes the basis for that natural outflow of that heart of compassion. It It’s not something that we have to conjure or try to attain, is simply uncovered as something already there at the core of who we are.

We may have actually experienced this reality in certain brief moments of our day to day life. For example, we may be walking in a park looking at children playing, and all of a sudden, a child trips or gets hurts. Our first impulse is to go and try to help the child even though we may not know who that child is. That impulse, that power that drives us on to want to help that child is the most natural thing in the world to feel such a circumstance. But then a second thought comes.”Oh, but I don’t know this child. Or worse, people might think that I am the one who did it.” So we step back, and again, put in that wall of separation between ourselves and the child. So, it is that kind of second or third level of reflection, our ego-based consciousness, that prevents us from embodying that heart of compassion of the mother toward her only child. This is what we are invited to see through, and allow it to be more fully manifest in the way we relate to one another in this earthly life together.

To summarize, peace, humility and compassion are the three marks of an awakened life. These are not things that we need to seek after as if they were something outside of us, but are elements that are already lying deep in our being. They may have been covered with anxieties or extraneous concerns or ego-centered delusions of ours, and so we are prevented from fully partaking in their power, from cherishing their presence as already there at the core of our being.

What happens then as we continue to deepen in this practice of sitting in silence, breathing in and breathing out in the way that Gautama, the awakened one, simply sat in silence, is that these elements that lie deep at the core of our being can become more fully manifest and truly empower us in our daily lives, to become who we truly are. So what we are hoping is that we sit in silence, the treasure that is in us right from the start may be more fully manifest, and that whatever is blocking our view of it may be cast aside, just like letting debris on top of a lake float away so that the water may be clear and enable us to see the treasures at the bottom of the lake.

To live the life of an awakened one is not to strive for something outside of ourselves, to try to attain something that we are not yet. No, enlightenment is not something to be “attained.” It is fundamentally an “uncovering” of that which is already there, enabling ourselves to be who we are already are. So, as we sit here, breathing in and breathing out, we are enabling ourselves to be more fully transparent from the depths of our being, letting that which is preventing it from its full manifestation to be set aside. In other words, we are letting the power of the dharma, the power of “what is,” to be more fully realized in our day to day lives.

If we take our practice in that way, then what we are up to here is not so much a “doing” (of meditation, etc.), but more properly it is an “undoing”–that is, a disentangling of those obstacles that prevent us from being fully who we are. And who are we? We are beings called to realize that perfect peace, deep humility, and compassion, throughout our entire lives.

So, when we say “Buddham saranam gacchami,”or I go for refuge to the awakened one, we are expressing our deepest hope that these aspects of the reality that we are, peace, humility and compassion, may be made fully manifest in the way we live. Let us have that heart when we chant, buddham saranam gacchami. That reality will be truly felt and will become the characteristic of our way of life. Without our being conscious of them, they will simply outflow the way that water flows from a higher place to a lower place or just as an acorn, for example, given the proper conditions, will sprout and come up as a young sapling then grow into a tall oak tree. We are simply cultivating the conditions for that seed of awakening to grow in us and to become that oak that will protect all beings and that will be there to offer itself to the whole community of sentient beings in the way it is meant to be.

Let us continue our practice not as an attempt at any kind of attainment or endeavor at winning something, but simply as our cooperative effort to create the conditions for that which we already are to become fully manifest. The life of the awakened is what we are invited to embody right there in our cushions, right here as we sit, as we walk, as we go to our meals, as we do our daily chores.

These ordinary events of our daily life are the field in which that awakening is meant to manifest itself. Buddham saranam gacchami.