Thanks so much for your beautiful post, Viveka!
I remember when I first came to Buddhism and started to frequently bump into this idea of taking refuge in the triple gem. In certain respects I’m quite reserved by nature, and can be extremely apprehensive about adopting ideas, or practises, or whatever before having a very sturdy sense of their meaningfulness to me.
It’s not so much that I reject the relevance of whatever it might be in general terms—I’m very happy for people to do whatever floats their boat (so long as it is not manifestly harmful)—it’s just that I can’t accept their relevance for me until I’ve interrogated and found some genuine connection with its value.
As I picked up the triple gem idea, I definitely had a massive heap of raised-eyebrow about the idea of the Buddha as a refuge and it would take a fair bit of examination before I did eventually enjoy the meaningfulness on that front. The Dhamma bit was really easy; so easy I didn’t have to think about it and it escaped scrutiny (my route into Buddhism was through falling in love with the suttas, because the analysis of the life predicament they contain was to me quite obviously awesome). The Sangha bit was, for me, especially fascinating. It was the easiest entry point into what, as I’ve explained above, I was quite deeply reserved about.
I took as my point of focus, the Sangha as the carrier of the discourses (that which I knew I already had huge reverence for). As someone who’s always had a bit of an interest in the mundane, as I imaginatively explored the Sangha through this lens, it really didn’t take long before I was overwhelmed with delight and gratitude for the sheer technical feat that had been performed out of love and dedication to these teachings: the individual people doing what we might (if, in my world, we were to misapprehend things) call exceptionally tedious work, day in day out, century in century out.
It blew my mind to think about just the accomplishments of organization, the negotiation of available technologies (yes! a leaf can be a technology!), the negotiation of all the myriad human ineptitudes, frailties, and of course, delusions enough to make sure that from one generation to the next, this precious Dhamma was handed on. And yes, of course, it’s possible to reflect in this way about the carriage of all kinds of other sacred texts; but none of them have spoken so movingly, and more to the point, so precisely about the way in which I suffer. It is only the Sangha that has carried something that actually had something beneficial to say, that I could use, from the ancient world right to my heart.
This was just my starting point whatever number of years ago when I first picked up the curiosity of venerating the triple gem; my view has, most naturally evolved since then. However, in many ways, my interest in valuing the mundane persists. I’m not inclined to make any firm assumptions about how ‘proper Buddhists’ () are meant to revere the Sangha, or more to the point Sangha members, but sometimes I get a sense of some sort of belief (or expectation) in their supernormal nature. Well, if we’re talking about the Ariya Sangha that’s one thing, but the Sangha is surely a whole lot bigger than that and, in my eyes, it is the whole Sangha that is a blessing.
The other day, I came across this really charming little sutta that in a way exactly reflected the respect-worthiness of what I’m calling ‘the mundane’ (well, in fact, I’d sooner call it ‘the spectacular mundane’). In it the Buddha says:
The lay followers may, if they wish, make a proclamation of confidence in a mendicant who has eight qualities. What eight? They don’t try to prevent the lay people from getting material possessions. They don’t try to harm lay people. They don’t insult and abuse lay people. They don’t divide lay people against each other. They don’t criticize the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha. They’re not seen at an inappropriate place for collecting alms. The lay followers may, if they wish, make a proclamation of confidence in a mendicant who has these eight qualities. (AN 8.88)
In a certain sense, these are pretty basic qualities. Nevertheless, for me, just a sincere commitment to some basic qualities, and simply trying to live by them through the humdrum of the everyday is already a great beacon in the world.
In short, I too, would like to add a note of gratitude and appreciation for the Sangha. Further, I’d like to extend the expression of my gratitude and appreciation to the other half of the fourfold assembly whose support of the Sangha allows its existence to be possible in this very day.