Taking Refuge in Dharma

Taking Refuge in DharmaThe ceremony of Ti Samana Gamana (Pali), or “taking the three refuges,” is believed to have been established by the Buddha himself. According to the Pali Tipitika, the Buddha asked that this ceremony be used to ordain new nuns and monks into the monastic sangha. In most schools of Buddhism, taking the refuges and receiving the Precepts mark the formal commitment to walking the Buddhist path.

In its most basic form, the refuges ceremony consists of reciting these three lines:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

All of these three objects of refuge together make one refuge. Although this article will focus on taking refuge in dharma, it’s important to look at all of the refuges together to fully appreciate their significance.

Read More: Taking Refuge in Buddha

About the Dharma

The word dharma (or dhamma in Pali) is used in Buddhism to mean many things. Most often it is used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha.

However, it can also refer to the natural law that binds the universe together. Or, it might refer to manifestations of reality. Or, it might signify teaching, practice and enlightenment together.

Monk and scholar Walpola Rahula wrote,

“There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma. It includes not only the conditioned things and states, but also the non-conditioned, the Absolute Nirvana. There is nothing in the universe or outside, good or bad, conditioned or non-conditioned, relative or absolute, which is not included in this term.” [What the Buddha Taught (Grove Press, 1974), p. 58]

Read More: What Is Dharma in Buddhism?

The five disciples who attended the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Dharma as Refuge

If dharma includes everything in the universe, good and bad, how can it be a refuge? A refuge is supposed to be a place of safety, is it not?

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada monk and scholar, explained that dhamma as refuge refers to two things. At an elementary or mundane level, the dharma refuge is the Buddha’s teaching — “the conceptually formulated, verbally expressed set of doctrines taught by or deriving from the historical figure Gotama.” This teaching serves as our guide to the deeper level of dharma, which the Bhikkhu described as “a state of wisdom-consciousness that arises when all the requisite conditions for realization are fully matured.”

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the dharma refuge is found in our experience and our practice:

“Dharma books and tapes are valuable, but the true Dharma is revealed through our life and our practice. Whenever the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are practiced, the living Dharma is there. There are 84,000 Dharma doors. Sitting meditation is one door, and walking meditation is another. To take refuge in the Dharma is to choose the doors that are most appropriate for us. Dharma is great compassion,understanding, and love.” [The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax Press, 1989), p. 153]

In her book Start Where You Are, Pema Chodron compared Buddha, dharma and sangha to the doctor, the medicine, and the nurse, and of course we are the patient. To take refuge in the dharma is to take refuge in the teachings that encourage us and nourish our inborn ability to let go of whatever is binding us to suffering.

Faith as Trust, Not Belief

Taking refuge in the dharma, then, begins with getting to know what the Buddha taught. This requires faith, but faith in the Buddhist sense means trust, not belief. Indeed, Buddhist doctrines don’t always make immediate sense; their wisdom is revealed as you practice them and observe them at work in your own life. To simply accept a doctrine as true without understanding it or testing it is not faith in the Buddhist sense.

Bikkhu Bodhi said, “As a factor of the Buddhist path, faith (saddha) does not mean blind belief but a willingness to accept on trust certain propositions that we cannot, at our present stage of development, personally verify for ourselves.”

This is a faith that leads to understanding. We may normally not want to accept something until we understand it. Buddhism asks that we consider doctrines provisionally until we realize the truth of them for ourselves. Nagarjuna said,

“One associates with the Dharma out of faith, but one knows truly out of understanding; understanding is the chief of the two, but faith precedes.”

As our personal, intimate understanding of dharma grows, the dharma becomes our true refuge.

Read More: The Faith of Buddhism

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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