Going for refuge

The _italics in the quote above are my own. I often use “attributions” like these to further my practice - in so far that the causes that bring about these results are not external, but internal - all conditioned responses of our own minds…

All the best on your journey :slight_smile:


From the perspective of my best understanding of the suttas, to perhaps be a little overly finicky, there is no advocation of taking refuge in the Theravada sangha, the Theravada sangha hadn’t been invented yet.

While I completely agree with you on the importance of being a bit cautious in reading the suttas and bearing in mind the “authenticity” question, a key test set for me is does a thing sound reasonable, does it resonate, does it have anything worthwhile to offer with respect to the problems of practice and life I’m confronted with.

In this context, I find the basic encouragement of the suttas reasonable and do give something worth turning over. With respect to the sangha, over and again, they say:

‘The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well… who have practiced straight-forwardly… who have practiced methodically… who have practiced masterfully—in other words, the four types (of noble disciples) when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types—they are the Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples: deserving of gifts, deserving of hospitality, deserving of offerings, deserving of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’

(AN11.12, Ven. Ṭhānissaro - SC is down at the time of writing)

The most central detail that sticks out to me is the emphasis on those who practice well. The institution hasn’t got a lot to do with it.

I think there can be a kind of easefulness, or safety that can be found in the company of truly (or highly) calmed people and there is great benefit to hanging out with people sincerely practicing to that end. There can be inspiration, encouragement, learning, example and all that kind of stuff taken from such people.

That said, the way I tend to relate to the notion of taking refuge in the sangha as more as a semi-abstract (grounded in real happening) notion: the Buddha’s path to awakening works for other people, it is the sure—verified—open possibility of awakening that is the refuge. The Buddha’s liberating insights apply more broadly than just to his experience, other’s have proven this to be so (if you permit their testimony). (Though I faithfully trust the skeptical reader will dismiss the report as a fabrication :grinning: …) I believe the reason why the devas go nuts with joy when Ven. Kondañña had vision of the dhamma in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is because it demonstrated anyone (who is well trained) can be freed. I certainly take this idea as a secure place to rest.

As it happens, I also feel all kinds of difficult, sorrowful tensions with respect to the institution of the sangha. I am still working out which are my own hangups and which are grounded reservations, but already now I don’t have many qualms about my feeling that no institution is able to offer secure refuge (they may offer many beneficial things, and despite various problems I think the institutional sagha is very much worth supporting), but my impression is that the sangha that can be taken as a refuge is a different thing.

I generally go by a principle of whatever works for a person.

The reason why I personally am a bit apprehensive about the “be your own refuge” thing, is actually the same reason I’m a bit apprehensive about reading the suttas uncritically: I am suspicious of unreliable witness statements. That is to say, I’m as much cautious of my own delusion as I am of others’ and engaging with those I estimate are committed to heading towards wholesomeness in a reasonably straight line is a good method of correcting for my blind spots.


I don’t think the paper of Shults has been mentioned yet: A Note on Refuge in Vedic and Pāli Texts. He shows how there was a blueprint for a triple refuge already in the Rgveda 6.46.9

O Indra, threefold refuge [tridhā́tu śaraṇáṃ], triple-secure, providing well-being – extend [such] protection to the benefactors and to me. Keep the arrow away from those

Indra continues to be taken refuge in, in the Brahmanas and the Chandogya Upanisad (2.22.3). Shults somewhat concludes:

one is tempted to suppose that for practitioners of vedic religion the meaning of śaraṇa was largely a matter of … “habitual rites of traditional piety.” This is because … one is struck by what one does not see in the vedic texts discussed above. [i.e.] … any suggestion that śaraṇa is something to which one goes in connection with a change of heart.

On the other hand the people in Vedic texts are already brahmins and people don’t convert into Brahmanism, in dramatic contrast to the suttas which portray a growing spiritual movement.


My reason for using myself as a lamp is because I put the refuge to the test when i was in a dire situation - and it worked amazingly well (as my teacher said it would if one really tried this), and later I have experienced that the refuge actually is for real and not just some goody goody buddha babbel for shiny eyed cosy rabbit like yogies … :thinking:


Putting one’s refuge in the Triple Gem may allow one to avoid putting refuge in identities (i “am” this class or race or profession or family or party or nationality or gender, these will protect me, define me, “are” me… But ultimately, all those cease, cannot get one to liberation. :slight_smile:


Yes, that’s what the chants emphasize with regard to the sangha, and that’s what I always tried to bear in mind during refuge-taking.

I agree about the beneficial vibe of being around peaceful people who are living a holy life. But now in my mind, that vibration is combined with other vibrations connected with my understanding of the whole monastic and religious scene, and the result is discordant.


I think the Sangha refers to the Arya Sangha - the 8 Noble people of stream entrants upwards. They are at the very least habitually keeping the five precepts while they may occasionally lapse in the minor rules the Buddha doesn’t consider them to have failed the holy life. We aren’t taking refuge in any monastic and it is fair to say, just like we take refuge in the Buddha despite him not being around, we can and should think of the likes of Ven Ānanda, Ven Maha Kassapa etc. the Arahanths of old, when we take refuge in the Sangha (the sangha here doesn’t mean Anariya sangha).

With metta


I used to think that this was the case, but recently I have found that in the suttas, when taking refuge they seem to often specify the ‘mendicant Sangha’ rather than the Arya Sangha. For example in SN7.22 we get:

We go for refuge to Master Gotama, to the teaching, and to the mendicant Saṅgha.

Ete mayaṃ bhavantaṃ gotamaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāma dhammañca bhikkhusaṅghañca.


To sanctify an institution rather than devoted individuals makes social-historical sense (see the catholic or orthodox churches). And why should I not take refuge in the outstanding lay teachers and practitioners as well? Instead people take refuge also in the one-month-monks in Thailand and Myanmar…

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Perhaps it’s based on the recollection of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, as in SN 11.3: SuttaCentral
Which is a popular chant:
Dhajagga Paritta | A Chanting Guide

Supaṭipanno bhagavato sāvaka-saṅgho,
The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well,

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It seems there is the type of taking refuge which comes from an inspiring teaching- those seem to refer to bhikkhu sangha, for example (SN7.22, SN42.1, SN3.53). There is the Mahanama sutta which talks about taking refuge yet not even keeping the precepts- so it can happen even prior to any true practice.

Then there are other situations where the Buddha is directly talking of Ariya sangha (either by referring how they will never enter hell realms, overflowing merit, very good virtues, or directly by those who are stream entrants themselves, or when defining the the stream entrant’s qualities by the Buddha, himself). Here the only the word Sangha is used, but qualified as the ‘8 individuals’ (stream entry - arahanth x magga + phala), as in AN3.75, SN55.1, AN4.52. This seems to be a higher level of refuge (closely related to faith-saddha) where it is confirmed faith, based on their own insight.

with metta


@stu I believe that the passage that you mentioned is unique to the Theravada school, or at least, is rarely used in other schools. SN 7.22’s parallels, SA 1180 and SA2 94 contain no such passage. Instead, SA 1180 just mentions that the brahmins are delight in the Buddha’s teachings and leave, while SA2 94 just says that the brahmins leave after the Buddha’s teachings are ended.

I checked two other Pali discourses that contain this passage with their parallels in Chinese (SN 12.18/SA 303, and SN 12.46/SA 300), and I found that those Chinese parallels also don’t contain this passage at all. SA 300 just says that the brahmin was happy with the teachings, and left.

*Edit: I’m sorry, now that I checked again, such passage does exist in the main four Chinese Agamas, but when it comes to taking refuge in the community, it just says “take refuge in the community” without any qualification of the community being that of the monks alone.

In my opinion, the community that is referred to in the Three Jewels means the noble disciples. In AN 3.70, the recollection of the community describes how it consists of the four pairs, and the eight individuals. But its full Chinese parallels, MA 202 and T 87, explicitly say that the community is comprised of the stream-enterer and the one practising to realise the fruit of stream-entry; the once-returner and the one practising to realise the fruit of once-return; the non-returner and the one practising to realise the fruit of non-return; and the perfected one, and the one practising for perfection. The same can also be said of SF 147, which is a Sanskrit parallel to SN 11.3.

For me personally, even if there are monastics and lay people who haven’t realised any state of noblehood yet, but if they practise the way that’s good, straightforward, methodical, and proper, then those people are among the community that is referred to in the Three Jewels.


Very good. Thank you.

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I came across this comment by Thanissaro Bhikkhu which is related to the refuges:

At Snp 3.4 we have this verse from the Buddha:

“If you say you’re a brahman
and I’m not a brahman,
I ask you the three lines of the Sāvitti
and its twenty-four syllables.”4

Thanissaro’s comment is (emphasis mine):

"This is apparently a reference to Ṛgveda iii, 62, 10, an invocation addressed to
Sāvitrī, or the Sun:

tat savitur vareṇ(i)yaṁ
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo nah pracodayāt

“Let us meditate on the glory
of the excellent deva Sāvitrī,
that he may inspire our thoughts.”

This verse, in the Gāvitrī meter, is recited during the upanayana ceremony, when a
young brahman is invested with the sacred thread that initiates him into the status of
a “twice-born” brahman and he begins his study of the Vedas.
SnA also asserts that the Buddhist equivalent to the Sāvitti—three lines, 24 syllables—is the expression of homage to the Triple Gem: Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi, Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ
gacchāmi, Saṅghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi.

So according to the commentary of the Sutta Nipata, the homage to the Triple Gem was modelled on the Savitti verses - both being a sort of initiation in a tradition… (e.g. see SN 55.37 as highlighted by @Aminah in the OP where the Blessed One defines a lay follower as somone who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha).

It sure looks like a pretty hypothesis, and the Blessed One did indeed re-use many Brahmanical motifs in his teachings (often by redefining them)… But how likely is that explanation from SnA? Is it widely believed to be so or rather controversial?

(now… this makes me want to chant the triple refuge using the Gayatri mantra tune! I’m not sure this is very orthodox :sweat_smile:)


Thanks so much for this, Yasoj!

I find this a really splendid pulling together of things; and also a helpful reminder that at some point I wanted to check out the A Note on Refuge in Vedic and Pāli Texts article Polarbear kindly linked to in post #6 and Gabriel also highlighted (time! :sob:).

Peculiarly enough, for me, I think one of the vedic lines you quoted aptly sums up the practical significance of the whole refuge thing:

that [it] may inspire our thoughts

I think practising/dwelling on these things—if a person is that way inclined—may by used in such a way as to generate some kind of positively charged emotion, or energy to invest in the practice (my reading thus far is that the faith spiritual faculty is as much to be actively cultivated as any of the others - in fact, I’m starting to wonder if it’s one of only two of the five that a person can directly work on with any great, direct results).

At the same time, it’s so good to have the likely historical context of going for refuge set out. At least in my mind it amplifies the point that it is a pragmatically adopted, practical tool.


I don’t think too many people have dwelled on this, but I’m afraid I have to disagree a bit with Thanissaro Bh. on this one.

What is certainly correct is that when brahmins initiated a new student (a brahmacarya) in the upanayana ritual they used the Sāvitrī mantra.

What is special about the upanayana is that Brahmins and Kṣatriyas were initiated differently - brahmin students were taught the Sāvitrī in the Gāyatrī meter, and Kṣatriyas in the Tṛṣṭubh.

Since this was supposedly secred/sacred knowledge only a true brahmin could know the Sāvitrī in the Gāyatrī meter - and this is what the Buddha refers to, he shows to the brahmin that he was on the same formal footing as brahmins are, that he has knowledge of the highest form of initiation.

SnA’s & Thanissaro’s argument can still make sense in that the Gāyatrī meter was considered the most prestigious one, so that it makes sense to model a buddhist upanayana verse after it.

What makes it a bit doubtful is that by doing that the anyway haughty brahmins would have been acknowledged to be the superior class within the Sangha, which leaves open two possibilities in my mind: either the Gāyatrī meter was generally accepted as the best one (not specifically connected with brahmins), or it was brahmin bhikkhus that started spreading this theory that the ‘saranam…’ was modeled after a brahmin structure.

The latter wouldn’t surprise me much as we have hints that even within the Sangha the former brahmins thought of themselves to be better, and many of the verses in the suttas might go back to a brahmin buddhust composition anyway - so that the form in which dhamma was spread could have well been molded in brahmin words and structures.


No doubts the form in which dhamma was spread could have well been molded in brahmin words and structures.

The way bhikkhus in Sri Lanka chant suttas is very close to the way the texts are memorised, recited in Vedic oral tradition until nowadays!


Dear Aminah,

May I just say that this has been a most inspiring thread to read. And I want to applaud all the initial work you layed out as part of the OP!!! :clap:

I just wanted to add something that I don’t think has been mentioned…

Specifically it’s in regard to the taking of refuge in Sangha.

First, as I understand it, in the EBTs, the word Sangha refers to the community of monastics. Laity were referred to by another term…I think it might have been Parisa (?)

While I agree that the Recollection of the Sangha encourages a deeper refuge in the Ariya Sangha, I also believe a refuge in the actual living community of monastics is relevant for the following reasons:

Primarily: it is a life of utmost Renunciation. I view the entire 8FP as an act of Renunciation and even the final ending as an act of Renunciation. Let alone, the fact that Renunciation is the first facet of Right Intention.

I don’t know any other form of existence where you give up money, control, ego and the world of the 5 senses, to the degree that a monastic has to.

I can’t think of any other form of Livelihood that goes beyond the basic definition of Right Livelihood, and actually pro-actively cutlivates all aspects of the 8FP in an intensive, gentle and thorough manner.

I have been fortunate to have witnessed and lived with such Sanghas. So I know it can be done. But only, only, if the laity supports it. Without the lay support, there can be no deep, world renouncing Renunciation.

As I understand it, in the Suttas, when Enlightened lay people go for refuge, they go for refuge to either the Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni Sangha - even if it’s members are not Enlightened themselves. Because, their Awakened minds, realise the importance and presence of a deep, true, “lived” Renunciation in the world.

Symbolically: The Sangha being made up of ordinary folk is sometimes an idea or ideal that represents what the Path can be. They become a source of inspiration.

Literally: They also become a source of the teachings. First, by teaching us from their experience of living a truly Renunciate life. Secondly, by being intimately concerned with the preservation of the Teachings; they are still being chanted today and monastics like Ven Analayo, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ajahn Brahm, Ayya Vimala, Ajahn Brahmali and Bhante Sujato have made it a major part of their monastic life to preserve these teachings. To this work they bring their unique perspective born of utter Renunciation and a life that gives you the time to devote your every waking moment to your Practise. If it wasn’t for the Sangha of chanters, writers and translators, we wouldn’t even have D&D or Sutta Central available for us to peruse at our leisure.

Finally, and also literally, they create a community that we can join ourselves and live that life of Renunciation too.

Anyway…here’s my two cents :slight_smile:

Thanks so much for this thread…it’s been a pleasure to peruse. :slight_smile:


Very well said. I live in an area in the United States where there are several Buddhist communities made up mostly of Westerners who have come to practice Buddhism. While I would certainly have an easier time communicating with the people in these communities, I have chosen instead to attend a Thai Wat where there are monks in residence. Despite the language barrier, or perhaps because of it, I spend much of my time silently observing the monks in their daily routines. I think it is too late in my life to choose that way of life, but it inspires me to be observe the Sangha and take refuge in what they teach.


Dear Kay,

Over on one of those other threads you offered the very excellent advice to make much out of the moments of everyday metta. You’d better believe I’m wringing every drop of jolliness out of your kindness here! Much thanks to you! :anjal:

In yet another thread you beautifully advocated permitting happy, easeful, loving disagreement, so here I’m well aware I have the great gift of plenty of room to comfortably disagree. The only trouble is, I don’t!

You’ve drawn out such incredibly valuable details that I certainly don’t have any will to counter. In my own terms, the points you’ve set out are worth a whole lot of reflection (not least—coming from the pragmatic view point I’m ever fond of—as they are all excellent means, if a person is willing, to help cultivate the joy I believe is foundational to go further with the practice).

I have a very keen sense of all three key points you mention, and, as an aside (so long as you don’t tell anyone because in a way it’s a bit embarrassing), funnily enough when I first came to Buddhism and first had to puzzle over this “Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha” thing and how on earth I could relate to it, between the Buddha and the Sangha I actually found it much easier to generate meaningful, joyful feelings around the Sangha (I never had to do any work to recognise the brilliance of the Dhamma).

This was because of exactly that ‘carrier of the teachings’ point you mentioned (I’m a “go to the source” kinda gal, so very quickly headed over to the suttas and immediately feel in love with them—almost a little bewilderingly so—and then started thinking about the technical feat of preserving them through the ages and the diligence and care it required and naught but gleeful gratitude to the Sangha resulted).

The reason, however, I wanted to make clear how very much I do not disagree at the start (not merely for the sake of politeness, but—again, with that practical interest—for recognising and wanting to emphases the great value of the perspective you’ve contributed) is to stress that when I make the following note, I put it forward as companion rather than contradicting thought.

When thinking of taking refuge in the triple gem as a practice of sorts, for me personally, I feel the need to “keep the bar high”, so to speak. I should probably have to mention that in terms of sensing places of true ease in this world, I’m pretty resolutely untrusting (with all sorts of qualifications) and this psychological background undoubtedly heavily influences the way in which I orient the notion of refuge.

To me, when I consider the act of taking refuge in the Buddha, my feeling is that the Buddha’s accomplishment is perfect. Likewise, I feel that the Dhamma is perfect. Both of these things offer perfect security.

However, when I consider the conventional Sangha (the worldly Sangha governed by rules bound to and concerned with a deeply imperfect, delusion-led world and further that is pretty much guaranteed to breakdown and completely fall apart at one—hopefully, very distant—point or another), I find that it is the very best of the best supports, but it is imperfect, it is corruptible (witnessable from the Buddha’s day to this), it does not meet the same standard as the other two aspects of the triple gem.

I’m not quite convinced that the Buddha would invite me to take refuge in that which is unstable. By my reading of the suttas, very, very clearly, the Buddha encourages seeing the extraordinary benefit of supporting the worldly Sangha (which in turn naturally entails reflecting on its immense value); but I hesitate over the idea that the Buddha would promote seeking ultimate security in that which is inherently insecure.

The timeless Ariya Sangha does offer a perfect security, on par with that offered by the Buddha and the Dhamma. It is an unshakably reliable refuge. I’d be entirely willing to concede that mine may be an excessively quirky reading, but at least one aspect I feel is present in the security offered by the Ariya Sangha isn’t only that there are these brilliant people in the world to help inspire and carry the teaching forward, but it is just for the demonstration of the idea that people really can, have and do realise this path. To put it in a yet more quirky way, one can dwell completely safe in the notion that, “as it has done for others, the possibility of freedom applies to me, too.”