Refuge (S. śaraṇa; P. saraṇa; T. skyabs; C. guiyi; J. kie; K. kwiŭi 歸依) conveys the meaning of a “place of refuge,” “shelter,” or “haven”. It indicates a a safe place to be, or a safe situation.
In Buddhism, the term refuge is used in the context of taking refuge or going for refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). A traditional analogy states that one takes refuge in the Three Jewels in a similar way that one takes refuge under a shelter during the rain. The refuge conveys a sense of protection against obstacles on the spiritual path.
Peter Harvey writes:
- The notion of a ‘refuge’, here, is not that of a place to hide, but of something the thought of which purifies, uplifts and strengthens the heart. Orientation towards these three guides to a better way of living is experienced as a joyful haven of calm, a firm ‘island amidst a flood’, in contrast to the troubles of life. The ‘refuges’ remind the Buddhist of calm, wise, spiritual people and states of mind, and so help engender these states. The value of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sagha is denoted by the fact that they are also known as the Tiratana (Skt Triratna) or ‘three jewels’: spiritual treasures of supreme worth.
Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is considered the starting point on the Buddhist path. Traditionally, it is said that taking refuge is:
- the door or entrance way into the teaching of the Buddha
- what separates the Buddhist from non-Buddhists
- Buddhists generally use the phrase “go for refuge” or “take refuge” because refuge is an active process. It is a fundamental step where we commit ourselves to the Buddhist path. But why would we do this? When we understand human nature – that all of us are looking for happiness and satisfaction, and none of us want suffering – we should look for something that will help us. And so in Buddhism, we turn for refuge to the Three Jewels.
Taking refuge can be done informally, as an internal commitment, or as part of a formal ceremony.
The commitments when taking refuge vary among the different traditions. Some basic commitments are:
- Having taken refuge in the Buddha, a Buddhist should not go for refuge to other deities.
- Having taken refuge in the Dharma, a Buddhist should do no harm to other sentient beings.
- Having taken refuge in the Sangha, a Buddhist should not rely on heretics.
When taking refuge in a formal cermony, it is common for the refuge prayers to be suplimented by a set of precepts. Lay persons typically take the Five Precepts:
- To refrain from harming living beings (killing).
- To refrain from taking that which is not given (stealing).
- To refrain from sexual misconduct.
- To refrain from false speech.
- To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.
Monastics typically take additional precepts.
There are many different refuge prayers within the Buddhist traditions. The simplest formula for a refuge prayer is:
- In Sanskrit:
- Buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
- Dharmaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
- Sanghaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
- In English:
- I take refuge in the Buddha.
- I take refuge in the Dharma.
- I take refuge in the Sangha.
Levels of refuge according to Atisha
The Indian scholar Atisha identified several levels of taking refuge in his 11th century commentary Lamp for the Path:
- Worldly scope is taking refuge to improve this life
- Initial scope is taking refuge to gain higher rebirth as a human or god, and to avoid the lower realms such as animal, hungry spirit, or hell being.
- Intermediate scope is taking refuge to achieve liberation or Nirvana.
- Great scope is taking refuge to achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings.
- Highest scope is also sometimes included, which is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood in this life (using Tantric Buddhism techniques).
Benefits of refuge according to The Dhammapada
From the Dhammapada:
- Driven only by fear, do men go for refuge to many places — to hills, woods, groves, trees and shrines.
- Such, indeed, is no safe refuge; such is not the refuge supreme. Not by resorting to such a refuge is one released from all suffering.
- He who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Teaching and his Order, penetrates with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths — suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering.
- This indeed is the safe refuge, this the refuge supreme. Having gone to such a refuge, one is released from all suffering.
- — Dhammapada 188-192
- Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: 2014), s.v. śaraṇa
- Harvey & tbd, p. 244-245.
- What Is Refuge?, StudyBuddhism
- Gampopa Sonam Rinchen; Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen (translator) (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-092-1. p.143
- What Is Refuge?, StudyBuddhism
- Refuge: A Safe and Meaningful Direction in Life, StudyBuddhism
- Going for Refuge and Taking the Precepts (Bhikkhu Bodhi), Access to Insight
- Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha (Thanissaro Bhikkhu), Access to Insight
- The Threefold Refuge (tisarana), Access to Insight
- Five Precepts (pañca-sila), Access to Insight
- Taking Refuge
- Ceremony for Taking Refuge and Precepts by Ven. Thubten Chodron
- Vajrayana refuge prayer audio
- Going for Refuge (View on Buddhism)
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