Questions about Buddhadasa's Teachings

Hello everybody! I recently read Seeing with the Eye of Dhamma: The Comprehensive Teaching of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. It left me with some questions I was hoping someone familiar with the book or the teachings of Buddhadasa could help answer for me.

I’m confused about the difference between the three levels of refuge mentioned in the book, especially the second one, termed superstitious refuge. I assume this is were most converts and adult Buddhists start at out.

Talking about this level the book says:

  • “Those who don’t know how to actually escape dukkha will just follow what others tell them, which is to take refuge in credulous belief—that is, superstitious refuge. This might be fine, when the advice is good. It might be better than not doing anything. If the belief leads to cultivating mind, it’s moving in the right direction. Although still under the umbrella of superstitious belief, people can begin to develop mind in the way of sīla, samādhi, and paññā, if they are told to do that, even if they don’t understand why or how”

  • “The lowest is that based on custom and tradition, which children and people with childlike understanding first meet. Then comes the superstitious level, which involves dependence on something outside of us, which is treated as supreme, a most sacred thing. This will help us, if we surrender to it. This superstitious refuge is based more or less in credulous faith, at least at first. If we believe sufficiently, we will practice accordingly and eventually arrive at the true refuge.”

He also says Buddhism, like most religions, is a gradual path and we start out at a lower level and slowly move towards more realization. He also says “true refuge” is when we clearly recognize the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, which is when he reach stream entry.

  • “If less developed, you have the refuge of customs and beliefs that is fairly superstitious. It’s this way in all religions, no matter what their basis. People can’t immediately realize the pinnacle of their religion. They all must make their way gradually, usually depending on others for a while. To reach the highest understanding of their particular system, they have to gradually come to it in this stepwise manner.”

However, at a later section he says:

  • “When we take refuge in superstition, we turn the Buddha into a sacred wonder worker and the Sangha into people who take care of us. There’s no self-help in that, no practicing of Dhamma to help ourselves. Such refuge is deviant, a superstitious refuge.”

Doesnt that last quote contradict all of the other ones? How is it deviant when the earlier section says its good and that if we practice we will arrive at true refuge? He also said it’s a gradual path, and that we can’t just jump straight to stream entry and true refuge, so again, how is it deviant? Isn’t this a blatant contradiction?

I’m just really confused about what Buddhadasa is saying, so any info would be appreciated!


There are plenty of contradictions in Venerable’s writings. His idea of momentariness of ignorance is plain absurd, ignorance while impermanent is quite stable, so one cannot be a puthujjana, then for some time ariya, and again fall into avijja.

7 posts were split to a new topic: Momentariness of Mind and/or dhammas

This thread seems to be going wildly astray, with eight replies that have nothing to do with the question. To get back to Buddhadāsa…

I don’t think so. I’m not quite sure if the ajahn’s claim is the modest one that the first two kinds of refuge-going are somewhat flawed but that even a somewhat flawed refuge-going is better than no refuge-going at all, or the bolder one, that the first two kinds are entirely flawed, yet nonetheless of some value inasmuch as they may eventually lead to the third kind. Whichever it is, it seems to me an unproblematic thing to say.

Though Buddhadāsa would have been unlikely to appeal to the Abhidhamma in support of his view, had he wished to he might have cited the Book of Conditional Relations in support of the bolder claim. The nikkhepavāra to this text states regarding upanissaya-paccaya that on account of this type of paccaya previous kusala may be a condition for the arising of subsequent akusala, while previous akusala may be a condition for the arising of subsequent kusala.

Purimā purimā kusalā dhammā pacchimānaṁ pacchimānaṁ akusalānaṁ dhammānaṁ kesañci upanissayapaccayena paccayo.
Purimā purimā akusalā dhammā pacchimānaṁ pacchimānaṁ kusalānaṁ dhammānaṁ kesañci upanissayapaccayena paccayo.

Earlier wholesome dhammas are a condition for certain later unwholesome dhammas by way of strong-dependence condition.

Earlier unwholesome dhammas are a condition for certain later wholesome dhammas by way of strong-dependence condition.

Examples of the former would be, say, compassion for an acutely sick pet leading one to an act of mercy killing, compassion for the poor leading one to carry out Robin Hood-style thievery, or learning the Dhamma but then falling into conceit or to a fondness for disputation on account of one’s learning.

As for the latter, two examples can be seen in the Bhikkhunīsutta, AN4.159, where the unwholesome dhammas of craving and conceit lead to the abandoning of craving and conceit.

The examples given in the Patthāna itself are of two kinds. The first are like the ones in the Bhikkhunīsutta:

An unwholesome dhamma is related to a wholesome dhamma by by way of strong-dependence condition.

Natural strong-dependence: By the strong-dependence of lust, one gives a gift, undertakes the precepts, fulfils the Uposatha observance, develops jhāna, develops insight, develops path, develops superknowledge, develops attainment.

(Repeat for) … hate … delusion … conceit … wrong views … wishing.

Lust, hate, delusion, conceit, wrong views, wishing are related to faith, precepts, learning, generosity, wisdom by strong-dependence condition.

Then the others are where one deliberately undertakes kusala activities for the sake of counteracting the past akusala one has done:

After having killed, one gives a gift, undertakes the precepts … etc. in order to counteract it.

(Repeat for) … after having stolen … lied … slandered … used rude speech … babbled foolishly … broken into a house … plundered the property of others … left behind only one house … stood at the junction of highways … gone to other men‘s wives … plundered villages … plundered market-towns … committed matricide … committed patricide … killed an arahat … drawn blood from the body of a Buddha with evil intent … caused schism in the saṅgha … one gives a gift … etc. to counteract it.


What’s confusing me is that he earlier seems to be saying that superstitious refuge is a good step forward, and that if we continue practicing we will eventually reach true refuge. But in the last quote he says a superstitious refuge is deviant. Even according to Buddhadasa the dhamma is a gradual path, we can’t all immediately acheive stream entry and jump to “true refuge”, so how is it deviant if its something most people have to do? I hope that makes sense!

Yes, it’s “deviant” in the sense of being sīlabbataparāmāsa, which is a form of wrong view. Being deviant makes it devoid of intrinsic value. But considered retrospectively (i.e., after a person has arrived at the third kind of refuge-going) the two earlier kinds were stepping stones to this and to this extent were not devoid of extrinsic value.

To quote the Patthāna again:

Lust, hate, delusion, conceit, wrong views, wishing are related to faith, precepts, learning, generosity, wisdom by strong-dependence condition.

Dear Bhante

I have some considerable doubts about that classification. Puthujana refuge in the Lord Buddha and Dhamma may be unstable and so it is not perfect. But is it sīlabbataparāmāsa? I agree that sīlabbataparāmāsa can be described as a kind of wrong view, but it is so, because it doesn’t work, one think it is good for him, while it isn’t, on the end sīlabbataparāmāsa leads to disappointment. And generally it is unwise attitude.

But taking refuge in the Lord Buddha on the first place is quite realistic and wise decision since this is precisely what puthujjana needs in his situation. So I tend to classify such refuge rather on the side of right view affected by taints.

At least as for now this is how it seems to me. As I said I don’t consider Venerable Buddhadasa trustworthy on much more important things, I comment here just clarify for myself certain aspect of Dhamma, so I would gladly read what you think about it.

I wasn’t saying that a worldling’s going for refuge necessarily entails sīlabbataparāmāsa. Only that Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s second type does.

I agree with the rest of your post.

It’s giving different advice to different people at different stages.

To a person in kindergarten, we would advice, good go get good grades, get into high school one day, it’s part of the way to university.

To a person who’s in high school and keep on failing the grades, repeat the grades, just to keep in high school, we would have to say don’t be attached to high school, go further, don’t stop, high school is worthless compared to university.

High school refers to the superstitious refuge, university refers to stream winning.

Kindergarten could be non Buddhists and the primary school is for those at first level of traditional refuge.

Those who repeat grades, stuck in high school can be Buddhists who are not aiming for enlightenment in this life.

Thanks for the reply! I guess I’m still confused on how a necessary step can be considered “deviant”. Like I said in my last reply, even Buddhadasa acknowledges that, for most people, you can’t jump straight to stream entry and “true refuge”, that most people have to go through the “superstitious refuge” stage. So how can it be bad? That’s what’s confusing me.

To learn about General relativity, one should first study Newtonian gravity.

While useful and is an essential step to understand general relativity, Newtonian gravity is still nonetheless, wrong in the ultimate sense of not describing the universe as well as general relativity does.

Also, see my reply on the kindergarten, high school and university analogy.

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Now, I don’t think you can find in Suttas such division as stated by Venerable Buddhadasa. I believe there is no Sutta which describes things this way. And the reason should be obvious. Refuge can be described as:

REFUGE | English meaning - Cambridge Dictionary

"(a place that gives) protection or shelter from danger, trouble, unhappiness,

So one can argue that it is a puthujjana who really needs refuge and protection, since noble disciple is already safe, nothing wrong can happen to him, or at least he is not in danger of hell and animal rebirth.
He is independent, and one who is truly independent doesn’t need anyone, even the Buddha. That’s true, without the Buddha he would never attain such independency, but this is different story, or: it is precisely because as a puthujana he was intelligent enough to see that he truly needs refuge, and even more intelligent that he took it in the Highest Protector.

So as I see it, such division is rather confusing - and while my memory isn’t well, I believe one who proposes it will not find any Sutta which verbatim states it.

Though it’s true we don’t find a schematic arrangement like Buddhadāsa’s, we certainly find the three types exemplified.

  1. After Jīvaka became a disciple of the Buddha, he offered the sangha his services as a physician. When word of this got around, men with various maladies started becoming monks just for the sake of free medical treatment. At their ordinations they would have been required to recite the refuges like everyone else, but their doing so would have been mere conformity to a required protocol.

  2. There are lots of instances of people reciting the refuges upon a first meeting with the Buddha at the conclusion of a teaching that had no ariya-making content to it and yet which nonetheless inspired them.

  3. And of course there are plenty of instances of refuge-going subsequent to a teaching that led to arrival at the sekhabhūmi or even arahatta.

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I would like to agree for the sake of harmony, about that exemplifications, but first example seems to me rather exemplification of obvious case of dishonesty which in reality has nothing in common with the taking refuge in the Buddha. Also no doubt that some lay people may recite the words of refuge just like someone ask: “How are you?” But it is just verbal convention and has nothing in common with genuine interest in our affairs.

But perhaps if we disagree about Ven Buddhadasa wisdom or lack of it, after noticing our disagreement it is a good time to take a break :smiling_face:

But Buddhadasa says for most people the path is gradual, as in they must go through the earlier stages of refuge, including superstitious refuge, before they reach stream entry and true refuge. Would you agree with that?

Again, like I said, how can something deemed necessary for most people be considered deviant? And also if superstitious refuge ultimately leads to true refuge, if you truly practice, how can it be considered to deviant or not aligned with the right path?

I tend to overthink things so maybe that’s why I’m not fully understanding.

I read his words as a description, not a prescription. That is, I take him to be describing what would likely have been the case for most in his audience at that time. The translated talks date from 1971, which is before there were large numbers of Western backpackers and convert Buddhists showing up at Wat Suan Mokkh. According to the translator, the ajahn was addressing audiences consisting chiefly of Surat Thani rubber plantation workers and members of the urban Chinese commercial class. Most members of both groups would unavoidably have gone through refuge-going of the first two types just by virtue of their upbringing.

If I’m right that the ajahn was describing rather prescribing, then your question would need to be something like:

“How can stages that many Buddhists happen to have gone through on their way to true refuge-going be considered deviant?”

This would be a question I already answered in my post citing the Patthāna.

The one may ultimately lead to the other, but there isn’t any inevitability to this. With the Surat Thani rubber plantation workers and the urban Chinese commercial class I suspect that in most cases the one does not lead to the other: from cradle to grave, superstitious refuge-going satisfies those who practise it.


In general I don’t think that close reading of the kind one applies to the suttas is really the optimal way to approach the oral teachings of Thai forest ajahns.

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He says

  • “Refuge develops through these three stages.”
  • “There is the refuge that is just words; the refuge that is a product of faith, of credulous belief that hasn’t acquired wisdom but can lead to practice; and the refuge of clearly seeing the realities of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.”
  • “If less developed, you have the refuge of customs and beliefs that is fairly superstitious. It’s this way in all religions, no matter what their basis. People can’t immediately realize the pinnacle of their religion. They all must make their way gradually, usually depending on others for a while. To reach the highest understanding of their particular system, they have to gradually come to it in this stepwise manner.”

To me that seems obvious. Most people can’t jump straight to stream entry, which Buddhadasa equates with true refuge, so they must go through the different stages. This applies just as much to western converts as it does to his original audience.

I just dont understand how something can be both a necessary step on the path and deviant at the same time.

Have you read what I wrote?

Also, this is far from the only apparent paradox in Buddhism, but they are all solvable if one knows the doctrine properly.

Eg. Buddha asked us to cultivate contentment (with respect to sensuality, don’t chase after them), and not to be contented (with respect to attainments, don’t stop practicing until arahanthood.)

Without the brackets, it can read like a paradox, a contradiction. With the brackets, the context is clear and one sees there’s no issue. Can you see the brackets from my explaination earlier on the gravity and high school analogy?

Also, do you expect perfection? every step along the path must be gold?

Even the dhamma is to be left aside after crossing the flood. It doesn’t mean dhamma is not useful before crossing to the far shore.

Yes, it is good to be “well attached” to ones own raft when one is in the middle of a great expanse of water. And it is also good to investigate the construction of the raft, since some rafts are badly made, and their destiny is to sink to the bottom before reaching the other shore.

And as I see it he perceives, let’s say certain imperfections in the construction of the raft, and is little bit anxious about the builder of this particular raft.