Questions about Buddhadasa's Teachings

What you say makes sense, but I’m still a little confused. If superstitious refuge, if practiced correctly, ultimately leads to true refuge, how can it be considered deviant, as in deviating from the true path? That’s what is confusing me.

If he had said “staying at the level of superstitious refuge without progressing is deviant” I wouldn’t have a problem, but he simply says superstitious refuge is deviant after earlier saying it’s a good stepping stone.

I hope that makes sense!

I think it’s asking too much to demand authors to write just the exact way we wish them to. It’s sufficient to be able to make sense of it in context.

Not everyone is super skilled in writing or expressing ideas. And sometimes, the context is so clear, one need not add words to compare between different contexts.

To a flat earther, I would say, earth is round.

A more refined school kid would say, no it’s not, it’s a bit oval, bulged out in the equator.

Do you demand we always use the oval terminology when in the context of talking with flat earthers?

Another would say, no clearly, there’s mountains on earth, it’s not even oval, but oval with things on it.

It’s just that I’m having a hard time understanding how something can be both a stepping stone to true refuge and a deviation from true refuge at the same time. Like I said in another reply, I do tend to overthink things, a lot, so that might be why I’m having such a hard time with this.

Me and most people are obviously not at the level of true refuge and stream entry. It seems like Buddhadasa is saying if we haven’t reached stream entry and are still at a lower level of refuge then we are deviating from the path, but again this seems to contradict what he says earlier about all of these stages being necessary steps on the path towards true refuge.

I’m honestly trying to understand but it’s hard!

A lot of this hinges on your understanding, definition, and function of words like “necessary” and “deviation.”

In a given framework, you are correct. By definition, if something is “necessary” then should not also be called a “deviation.” But this just has to do with the semantic ranges of the terms you have adopted. Why not try stating the idea in language that seems consistent to you?

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When Bāhiya was living by the seashore at Suppāraka, he deludedly believed himself to be an arahant. Entertaining such a deluded belief is deviant, right?

But had he not entertained this deluded belief, the friendly deva wouldn’t have been motivated to intervene, setting Bāhiya on the trajectory that led him to actual arahantship. And so the deluded belief was (for Bāhiya) a necessary stepping, right?

Therefore Bāhiya’s deluded belief was both deviant and a necessary stepping stone.

It was deviant when viewed at the time of its occurrence and with regard to intrinsic properties. It was a necessary stepping stone when viewed retrospectively and with regard to extrinsic properties.

  1. A sentence or statement or proposition that ascribes intrinsic properties to something is entirely about that thing; whereas an ascription of extrinsic properties to something is not entirely about that thing, though it may well be about some larger whole which includes that thing as part.

  2. A thing has its intrinsic properties in virtue of the way that thing itself, and nothing else, is. Not so for extrinsic properties, though a thing may well have these in virtue of the way some larger whole is.

  3. The intrinsic properties of something depend only on that thing; whereas the extrinsic properties of something may depend, wholly or partly, on something else.

  4. If something has an intrinsic property, then so does any perfect duplicate of that thing; whereas duplicates situated in different surroundings will differ in their extrinsic properties.

Intrinsic properties are fundamental in understanding Kantian deontological ethics, which is based upon the argument that an action should be viewed on its intrinsic value (the value of the action in itself) with regard to ethics and morality, as opposed to consequentialist utilitarian arguments that an action should be viewed by the value of its outcomes.

Intrinsic and extrinsic properties

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I wonder what Thai word underlies this translation?

So would it be correct to say that superstitious refuge is deviant when viewed alone or in and of itself, but not if it’s used as a stepping stone towards true refuge that is eventually given up?

My first guess was the Pali loanword micchā or its Thai translation, ผิด.

But then I found that the translators use “deviant” only once in the whole book, which suggests that it’s a rendering of some less common word. So my second guess would be something like, ผิดจากคลองธรรม, นอกรีตนอกรอย or นอกตำรา.

Perhaps, though if I were saying it, I should want to substitute a different verb in the final clause and change the tense:

“… but not in cases where it has proved to be a stepping stone towards true refuge-going, whereupon it was given up.”

I’m just still having trouble understanding how superstitious refuge is a deviation from the right path if it is a necessary step for most people towards the right path, true refuge (stream entry). Wouldn’t calling it deviant imply the opposite, that it isnt a step towards true refuge? But that would contradict what Buddhadasa says earlier: “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.”

I’ll make this my final post in this thread, as I’ve already given it more time than I think it really deserves.

I’m not able to resolve your doubts in this matter since I don’t believe that it is a necessary step for most people; nor do I share your view that Ajahn Buddhadāsa was teaching such a thing.

As previous stated, to me the subject of the ajahn’s generalizations are not “most people”, but rather, most of the Buddhists with whom he was most familiar: rural Thais raised and socialized in the ritualistic and superstitious Thai civic religion, and urban Chinese raised and socialized in the even more superstitious and ritualistic folk Mahayana.

It’s not likely that either of us will persuade the other that we are reading the ajahn correctly, for we approach his teachings with quite different presuppositions. To single out one in particular: although Buddhadāsa is neither my teacher nor even a person with whom I often agree, I do hold him in sufficient regard to approach his teachings with Quine’s “principle of charity” and Grandy’s “principle of humanity” in mind. That is, I respect Buddhadāsa as someone who made his bones as both monk and scholar to an extent that he earned the right to have his teachings approached in this spirit. In effect, therefore, I start from the prejudice that the ajahn most likely did not contradict himself (at least not within the space of a single talk) and that an interpreter’s aim should be to construe his words in a way that will not have him contradicting himself.

In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity or charitable interpretation requires interpreting a speaker’s statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation. In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies, or falsehoods to the others’ statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available.

In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of humanity states that when interpreting another speaker we must assume that his or her beliefs and desires are connected to each other and to reality in some way, and attribute to him or her “the propositional attitudes one supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances”.


I recommend you to learn about quantum mechanics then.

How can a particle not have the exact position and momentum to arbitrary degree? Isn’t it contradictory? That’s uncertainty principle for you.

How can the quantum particle’s properties changes depending on how we measure it? Does it mean there’s no underlying reality? That’s contextuality for you.

To a smoker seeking to quit smoking, downgrading from 20 packs a day to one pack a day is an improvement, to a non smoker, even one stick at anytime is a decline. How can the same thing be both an improvement and a decline? Answer: to different people at different stages. If one cannot get the perspective of different people, maybe one should ask oneself why one cannot.

The original Thai version of the book is here I can’t read Thai so if anyone here can, I’d appreciate knowing what word is translated into English as deviant.

The word is khwěi – to distort; to diverge; to go awry.

The Thai sentence is: " สรณคมน์มันเขวหมด มันเป็นสรณคมน์ไสยศาสตร์ "

“Such refuge is deviant, a superstitious refuge.”

I would translate it:

“A refuge-going like this is a complete going astray; it’s a going for refuge in Brahminical folk magic.”

Or: “… it’s a magical going for refuge.”

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Thanks for that! I’m not sure it’s going to be extremely helpful for me, because if superstitious refuge completely diverges from the highest ideals of Buddhism how can it also be a normal part of the gradual path towards true refuge like Buddhadasa also says?

I wanted to include the full context of Buddhadasa’s statements about superstitious refuge so I’m going to include the full section even though it is pretty long:

  • “There is one more matter to consider: going for refuge. When going for refuge is mentioned, most Buddhists assume refuge is a simple business, the simplest of all things to acquire. But be careful; don’t let refuge be like the good grass next to the cattle pen that the cows rush by to get out into bigger fields. Those who think they can genuinely take refuge without proper mental cultivation are like foolish cows in a hurry. Merely parroting the traditional phrases can’t hope to achieve genuine refuge from the problems of life. We can recite “Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi” (To the Buddha for refuge I go, to the Dhamma for refuge I go, to the Sangha for refuge I go) many thousands of times and never know the Buddha, nor Dhamma, nor Sangha. Until there is the wisdom that sees the Buddha and Dhamma and joins the Sangha of right practice, we are just working our lips and throats, at most showing sincere interest but not yet finding true refuge. When the skillfully cultivated mind sees the kilesas, knows how to cut the kilesas, and realizes the end of the kilesas, it then knows the true Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. The undeveloped mind, however, can only see and parrot formulas. It’s one thing to teach these traditions to children, to prepare them for later understanding. Adults, however, ought to cultivate a higher level. How many thousands of repetitions does it take to reach the true Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha? Intermediate between the refuge of received tradition and true refuge is the refuge of superstitious belief. This involves repeating mantras in order to be protected, to earn merit, and to avoid dukkha without understanding how any of that works. 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 third level of refuge goes beyond mere words and traditions. It no longer relies on someone else’s words. At this level, we practice developing mind until we understand the kilesas and nīvaraṇas. We practice until we have seen how they can be severed and removed, then do it. Mind, thus clear of obstruction, realizes that this is what the Buddha is about. The Dhamma and Sangha are just like this. The genuine Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha appear; they’re no longer just words. Then when someone takes refuge in the Buddha, they mean the true Buddha, one with such a mind. When they take refuge in the Dhamma, they mean the true Dhamma, which has the property of destroying kilesas. And when they take refuge in the Sangha, they mean the true Sangha, those people with Buddha-like minds. This third level is genuine Buddhist refuge, which follows tasting the true path, fruit, and nibbāna. Although this knowledge may not yet be complete, it is enough to understand the proper meaning of path, fruit, and nibbāna and thus finds genuine refuge. Let’s consider the three levels of refuge with clear distinction. 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. The final level is reached when mind is cultivated enough to see the true Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha directly. There is actual experience and knowledge of the end of the kilesas, nīvaraṇas, and āsavas. Refuge develops through these three stages. We must discern for ourselves which level of refuge we have found. It isn’t about judging each other, which only makes trouble. I don’t want to judge anyone else, yet I do want to clarify the three levels available to us. People can decide for themselves. 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. Now you may find yourself asking, “Have I reached the third level yet?” Perhaps you’ve heard about this subject dozens of times and are curious, “Have I discovered real knowledge of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha yet?” Once you have, you are saved. One is at least stream enterer (sotāpanna). Knowing the genuine Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, you know the true and genuine refuge without any remaining doubts and trembles. 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. As for we Buddhists, after wrestling with this for dozens of years, to what level have we uplifted ourselves? We ought to have some idea of how much we’ve developed. Inevitably, our level is the fruit of our mental cultivation. It reflects our degree of dedication to the psycho-spiritual cultivation that is the heart of developing life. So, what level has our development of life reached? Do we know the meaning of path, fruit, and nibbāna yet? And how deeply and fully do we know? Do we know the real meaning of the words Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha yet? If we do, if we’ve arrived at this level of understanding, we’ve saved ourselves for sure. Even though our understanding isn’t yet at the highest level, still, when we see the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha clearly enough so that there’s no more uncertainty and confusion, that gives us a true refuge. This, at least, is the level of stream entry (sotāpatti). If our refuge remains with customs and tradition, or in superstitious beliefs, we can’t count on safety. That’s the level of ordinary worldlings who can’t yet break away from worldly habits to become noble members of our religion.”

That’s what he says at first, but like I said in a later section he calls superstitious refuge deviant. Doesn’t that contradict the passage I just quoted?

Which stage are you in? Level 1 or 2? Or level 0? Not even chanted or wish to take refuge yet?

From the text you quoted, he is very much talking to people who in childhood was in level 1, now in level 2, and he’s urging them not to rest content and don’t be satisfied until level 3. There’s no issue for me to see him even using denigrating terms to describe level 2.

If you’re in level 0 or 1, and you want to step to level 3, and you see, oh must go through level 2, but level 2 is said to be lousy, why would I want to step into lousiness? Because level 1 and 0 are even more lousy.

It’s as if a person in a quick sand (level 1) is asked to step into a muddy region (level 2) to get out to dry land (level 3), but they hear people saying that the muddy region is disgusting for having leech. Not seeing that the more pressing danger of quicksand, they are hesitant to go to the muddy region to get to dry land, but that statement of muddy region is meant for people who happily stay in the muddy region.

I’m sorry to say this but I’m still having trouble understanding these passages even now. I just don’t understand how “superstitious refuge” can serve as a stepping stone or have any potential positive benefits like the first passage says, but also be deviant or completely misguided like the second passage says.