Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Going for Refuge? (Sarana)

The Awakened One (Buddha), Path to Awakening (Dharma), the Awakened (Sangha)

"Going for Refuge?"
Henry Steel Olcott

QUESTION: What are the "Three Guides" (Note) a Buddhist goes to?

ANSWER: They are disclosed in a formula called Ti-saraṇa* (the "Three Guides"), which is, in fact, "Buddhism" (the Buddha-Dharma):
  1. I follow the Buddha as my Guide (Buddham saranam gacchami).
  2. I follow the Dharma as my Guide (Dhammam saranam gacchami).
  3. I follow the Sangha as my Guide (Sangham saranam gacchami).

*Sâranam. Wijesinha Mudaliyar writes me: "This word [sarana] has been hitherto very inappropriately and erroneously rendered Refuge, by European Pâlî scholars, and thoughtlessly so accepted by native Pâlî scholars.

Neither Pâlî etymology nor Buddhistic philosophy justifies the translation. Refuge, in the sense of a fleeing back or a place of shelter, is quite foreign to true Buddhism, which insists on every man working out his own emancipation. The root Sṛ in Sanskrit (Sara in Pâlî) means to move, to go; so that Saranam would denote a moving, or he or that which goes, before or with another — a Guide or Helper.

I construe the passage thus:

  • Gacchāmi, I go,
  • Buddham, to Buddha,
  • Sâranam, as my Guide.

The translation of the Tisaraṇa as the "Three Refuges," has given rise to much misapprehension, and has been made by anti-Buddhists a fertile pretext for taunting Buddhists with the absurdity of taking refuge in nonentities and believing in unrealities.

The term Refuge is more applicable to Nirvâṇa, of which Sâranam is a synonym.

The [Elder] Sumangala also calls my attention to the fact that the Pâlî root Sara has the secondary meaning of killing, or that which destroys. Buddham sâranam gacchâmi might thus be rendered:

"I go to Buddha, the [Dharma], and the Order, as the destroyers of my fears —
  1. the first by his preaching
  2. the second by its axiomatic truth
  3. the third by their various examples and precepts."

Q: What does [a Buddhist] mean when repeating this formula?

A: He means that he regards the Buddha as his all-wise Teacher, Friend, and Exemplar; the [Dharma], or Doctrine, as containing the essential and immutable principles of Justice and Truth and the path that leads to the realization of perfect peace of mind on earth; and the Order [Sangha] as the teachers and exemplars of that excellent [Dharma] taught by Buddha.

Q: But are not some of the members of this "Order" men intellectually and morally inferior?

A: Yes; but we are taught by the Buddha that only those who diligently attend to the Precepts, discipline their minds, and strive to attain or have attained one of the eight stages of holiness and perfection [Four Stages of Enlightenment divided into paths and fruits, which is explained in the Path of Purification commentarial system as only a thought-moment apart from one another; alternatively, there is sutra evidence that the eight refers to those on the path (to stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, and arhatship) and those who have consummated their meditative attainment)], constitute his "Order."

It is expressly stated that the Order [Sangha] referred to in the "Tisaraṇa" refers to the "Attha Ariya Puggala" — the Noble Ones who have attained one of the eight stages of perfection. The mere wearing of yellow robes, or even ordination, does not of itself make a man pure, wise, or entitled to reverence.

Q: Then it is not such unworthy bhikkhus (Buddhist monks, ascetics, recluses) as they, whom the true Buddhist would take as his guides?

A: Certainly not.