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U Sein Nyo Tun

(Late of the Indian Civil Service)

Vol. III, No. 10, 1958

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      In the Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary (1952 Reprint), the meaning of "sarana" is given as, "shelter, house, refuge, protection, especially the three refuges - the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Brotherhood." The three refuges are known as the "Ti-Sarana" Sarana" is a much used word, and the "Ti-Saranas" are an often conceived concept among Buddhists. Acceptance of the Buddha as the Teacher, or acceptance of his teachings as a guide, is often marked by the repetition of the formula, "Buddham Saranam gacchami, Dhammam Saranam gacchami, Sangham Saranam gacchami." (I go to or accept the Buddha as refuge. I go to or accept the Dhamma as refuge. I go to or accept the Sangha as refuge.) Today, the formula is repeated whenever sila (or moral vows) are taken in all Theravada Buddhist countries.

      The late the Most Venerable the Ledi Sayadaw in his "Uttama Purisa Dipani", defined 'sarana' as follows:

      "If I pay my respects or reverence to a certain thing or dhamma, and if that act of respect or reverence amounts to a kusala kamma which can save me from the danger of rebirth in the apaya lokas, then that thing or dhamma amounts to a 'sarana', and thus is worthy of my reverence and respect.

      "On the other hand, if I pay my respects or reverence to a certain thing or dhamma with the idea that it will save me from the danger of rebirth in the apaya lokas, but in actual fact that act of respect or reverence does not amount to a kusala kamma of sufficient strength to possess the quality of saving me from rebirth in the apaya lokas, then that thing or dhamma does not amount to a 'sarana' and is not worthy of my respect or reverence."

      The Venerable Maha Thera then proceeded to give a simile.

      "The virtues of untainted sila, samadhi, and panna, may be compared to the quality of great fertility in the soil. The individuals and the dhamma such as the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, may be compared to the soil itself wherein that quality of fertility exists. The cetana (or volition) arising in the mental personality of an individual through a dependence on the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, are like seeds planted in the fertile soil.

      "Individuals who do not possess untainted sila, samadhi, and panna, are like barren soil devoid of fertility. To approach them and to pay one's respects or reverence to them is like sowing one's seeds on barren soil. They do not amount to kusala kamma and thus are futile.

      "There are principles and codes of conduct laid down by wise men throughout the ages indicating the ways of kusala and akusala kamma, of the duccaritas and the sucaritas, and of ways leading to the sugati lokas and the duggati lokas. If there are persons who reject these right principles and codes of conduct as untrue, even in a single instance, if right dhamma be rejected as wrong, and if wrong dhamma be accepted as right, these persons resemble an utterly barren and rocky soil with flames burning and scorching its surface. If seeds be sowed on such soil, they will not only fail to germinate, but will be scorched and destroyed by the burning flames".

      From one point of views sarana-gamana (taking refuge) may be divided into two classes, viz:

      1. Suta-sarana-gamana;

      2. Dittha-sarana-gamana.

      The act of 'taking the refuges' by those whose minds are still encrusted by sakkaya-ditthi (wrong belief in a personality or ego) and vicikiccha (sceptical doubt, such as doubt in the Buddha, etc.,) whose mental views have not penetrated into the khanda dhamma (the physical and mental groups that comprise the living body), the ayatana dhamma (the twelve physical bases of mental processes), the dhatu dhamma (the elements), etc., who approach the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, through saddha (faith) alone, is called suta-sarana-gamana.

      A person with suta-sarana-gamana, is a puthujjana, i.e. a 'worldling' who is still possessed of all the ten samyojanas (fetters), who is still bound to the round of rebirths, and has not as yet reached any of the four stages of the Paths (i.e. a non-ariya). His faith in the Ti-Saranas that they really constitute refuges is not confirmed, and thus he is liable to change that faith even during this life, while it is not certain what faith he will acquire when death ends the present sarana-gamana and he attains a fresh rebirth. That is why the Buddha said in the Patisambhida Magga, "Nana sattaranarn mukham ullokentiti puthujjana," (a puthujjana turns his face to all kinds of teachers as refuges). It means that a puthujjana acquires all manner of different faiths in his different existences within samsara.

      A puthujjana is one whose mental attainments are limited. His "mind's eye" views are therefore restricted, and he is not in a position to see or realise the truth. It is because of this inabiality to see the truth that he becomes liable to change his faith from one sarana to another, not being certain which sarana is truly deserving of that name. Hence it is that the Buddha said to the Bhikkhu Vakkali, "Yo kho Vakkali dhammam na passati so mam na passati............ Dhammam passati so mam passati." (One who does not see the Dhamma, Vakkali, does not see me........... One who sees the Dhamma sees me.)

      Further, in the Dhammapada, the Buddha said:

     Bahuve saranam yanti,

     Pabbatani vanani ca;

     Arama rukkha cetyani,

     Manussa bhaya tajjira.

     Ne tam kho saranam kheman,

     Ne tam sarana muttamam;

     Ne tam sarana magama, K

     Sabba dukkha pamuccati.

     Yo ca Buddhanca Dhammanca,

     Sanghanca saranam gato;

     Cattari ariya saccani,

      Sammappannaya passati.

      Dukkham dukkha samuppadam,

      Dukkassa ca atikkamam;

      Ariyam athangikam maggam,

      Dukkhupasama gaminam.

      Etam kho saranam khemam,

      Etam sarana muttamam;

      Etam sarana magama,

     Sabba dukkha pamuccati.

      Narada Thera translates these verses as follows:

     "To many a refuge fear stricken men betake themselves to hills, woods, gardens, trees, and shrines.

     "Nay, no such refuge is safe, no such refuge is supreme; not by resorting to such a refuge is one freed from all ill.

     "He who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, sees with right knowledge the Four Noble Truths, Sorrow, the Cause of Sorrow, the Transcending of Sorrow, and the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the cessation of Sorrow.

     "This indeed is refuge secure; this indeed is refuge supreme. By reaching such refuge one is released from all sorrow."

      It is not trusting faith alone in the Ti-saranas that constitutes the true refuge, but it is in the attempt through that faith to realise the Four Noble Truths that the true paramount and noblest of refuges lies. Indeed, the Ledi Sayadaw states that this attempt to ascertain and acquire the truth embodied in the Four Noble Truths itself constitutes the refuge, and no particular and separate attempt becomes necessary to place one's lasting faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. The Suta-sarana-gamana constitutes the first stage of taking the refuges, but it is not complete in itself. It must be used to acquire the second and ultimate stage - the stage of dittha-sarana-gamana - the stage when one becomes free from the encrustments of sakkaya-ditthi and vicikiccha, and when one's mind has penetrated into the true nature of the khanda dhamma, ayatana dhamma, dhatu dhamma, the Paticca Samuppada, and Ariya Sacca. When one attains such a stage, one's faith in the Ti-saranas becomes firm, without any promptings from any outside agency, and one's knowledge of their true nature is so clear that one is no longer in the danger of discarding them even if one were threatened with death. This confirmation lasts not only during this life-time but accompanies one even beyond death.

      Now, if those who are ariyas are clear and unwavering in their view of the Ti-saranas, yet by far the large majority of us today are puthujjanas, and as such we all need some elucidation on certain questions concerning the saranas and the sarana-gamana. Thus there are such questions as:

      1. Is it necessary to take the sarana-gamana every day, or on every occasion of taking the moral vows, such as Theravada Buddhists do at the present day?

      2. Is sarana-gamana broken or destroyed when we approach men or devas, other than the Ti-saranas, for succour in specific or special occasions?

      3. When is sarana-gamana destroyed?

      4. Are there gradations of sarana-gamana for puthujjanas?

      5. Are present day puthujjana members of the Order of the Sangha included within the Ti-saranas?

      6. What are the benefits of sarana-gamana for ordinary puthujjanas?

     It is not possible to deal with all these questions within the compass of a short essay, and they will have to be left over for consideration on another occasion. But one question to which we wish to suggest an answer here is the rather difficult one as to who is a Buddhist.

      There are millions of Buddhists in the world today, but whenever a question is raised as to how many of them can be said to be true Buddhists in the light of the teachings of the Buddha, differences of opinion are likely to arise leading to controversial issues. The fact is that in the Buddha Sasana, a true follower of the Buddha is judged by the practice he puts forth, and opinions as to the standards of practice and standards of achievement necessary often vary. The Buddha Dhamma has been classed as a religion for identification purposes in the non-religious activities of men, but it differs from the other recognised religions in that it is devoid of injunctions since it is no more than a guide to the right way of life, and as such there are no clear cut provisions as to who should be regarded as a Buddhist and who not.

      In the Buddha Sasana, there are no ordination ceremonies except in the case of the Sangha. Even in the case of the Sangha, differences of opinion and doubts arise when one encounters a member of the Order who is lax or who is not very strict in the observance of the Vinaya Rules, or who is regarded as lax in certain quarters and as not culpable in others. These are times when the conditions of life make it increasingly diffcult for devout Buddhists to observe the principles and rules of conduct that the Buddha indicated as right, and wherever specific rules exist great variations of opinion arise as to how far relaxation of those rules constitutes non-culpability.

      The necessity to define clearly as to who is a Buddhist has never been acutely felt within the Buddhist fold in the past. The true Buddhist is not concerned with the differences between himself and his fellowmen, but is intensely interested only in the search for truth. He recognises the exhortations regarding dana (giving), sila (morality), and certain forms of bhavana (mental exercises) in the teachings of the other teachers, which have in them the foundations on which the supreme stage of vipassana bhavana (insight development), which only the Buddha taught, can be built. He also recognises what a thin line there is between him and the followers of the other teachers, so long as he remains a puthujjana. The Buddhist view of life and the world is the extremely long view of samsara - the infinite series of rebirths - and to be a Buddhist for just a lifetime (i.e. if he does not attain Nibbana) does not give him any sense of security or satisfaction. A lifetime of eighty years is an extremely insignificant period when compared to the length of samsara the length that transcends human imagination.

      The trends of modern life everywhere, however, are such that it is becoming more and more difficult to observe the practices which the Buddha indicated as leading to truth. While the Buddha's teachings rest on a systematic reduction of tanha (craving), the root cause of suffering and nescience, modern life is not only characterised by a rapid and vast increase of tanha of all forms, but its very existence is based on such increase. Ariyas today are a rarity, and the day seems not far distant when under modern conditions of life their appearance will become absolutely impossible. The necessity has therefore arisen for Buddhists to preserve within the modern developments an atmosphere amenable to the appearance of ariyas, and it is in the pursuit of this necessity that the need has arisen to distinguish Buddhists from the adherents of the other teachers. It is in the cause of the preservation of the Sasana that we must seek this definition.

      Who then is a Buddhist? The answer is, one who accepts the Buddha as his teacher, his mentor in life. The first step in this acceptance is the taking of the Ti-sarana-gamana. Acccptance of the Buddha as one's teacher ipso facto means the acceptance of the Dhamma which he taught, as also of his recognised disciples, the Sangha, who are his envoys and the caretakers of his teachings. According to the Commentary on the Digha Nikaya (Sila Khandaka), and the Tika on the same, the refuges in the Ti-sarana may be taken before a Bhikkhu, or before more than one Bhikkhu, or before a Cetiya (a Buddha monument), or mentally by oneself without any overt indication. And, once the acceptance of the Ti-sarana is established, it continues to remain established until a change of faith occurs, or until death.

      In most cases in Buddhist communities, the acceptance of the Ti saranas comes through custom and tradition, before a proper knowledge and understanding of what the Ti-saranas mean. Thus even young children are established in the Ti-saranas long before they attain the age of understanding, through the lead given them by their parents or guardians. From the ordinary practical point of view, this may appear rather inadequate, but from the point of view of Buddhists it is sufficient.

      In the story of the Bodhi Prince, it is stated that he asked the Buddha whether it was true that happiness can be achieved only through suffering. The Buddha in reply related his own experiences during the six years of intense effort prior to the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment. The prince was greatly pleased with the reply and extolled it, but he did not take the refuges. When he was rebuked by his companion for this omission, the Prince replied that the three refuges had been taken for him by his mother even while he was in her womb, and that since he was established in the Ti-sarana-gamana before his birth there was no further necessity for him to take the Ti-sarana-gamana again.

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