Q & A

Venue: TIMS

Today is a Q & A session and Ven. Kumara answers two questions put forward by devotees.

Question 1: The way of taking refuge in the Triple Gem as practised in the Mahayana tradition differs from that of the Theravada tradition. Why are they different? When a Mahayanist devotee takes refuge in the Triple Gem, he goes through a special ceremony and is given a Buddhist name. This is a lifetime commitment and he needs not renew his pledge. On the other hand, a Theravadin devotee repeats his pledge over and over again.

Before we answer this question, let us clarify the practice of taking refuge as explained in the scriptures.

What is ‘to take refuge’?

Taking refuge here refers to taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, after which one becomes an upasaka or upasika. For this to be complete, one must understand their qualities. For example, the Buddha is fully enlightened, has severed all defilements; the Dhamma leads to Nibbana; the Sangha has wisdom and keeps precepts. If one merely recites them without any proper understanding, then it has no meaning.

What does taking refuge mean?

A mind that is pure and free of defilements arises in one who has faith in and respect for the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha and one relies on them as the highest support, thinking that nothing else can give rise to such a pure mind or give such support.

There are various ways of taking refuge:

One says: “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dhamma.” as done by Tapussa and Bhallika, the two earliest Buddhists of this Sasana. They did not take refuge in the Sangha as there was none yet. When the Sangha came to be, the Sangha was included in such a manner of taking refuge.

One says to the Buddha: “Bhante, the Blessed One is my teacher. I am his disciple.”

After listening to the Dhamma, one arranges one’s robe (as how a member of the Sangha does) and recites “Namo tassa…” three times.

One surrenders one’s body in self-dedication to the Buddha.

When one attains the stage of an ariya (noble one), one automatically becomes an upasaka or upasika,  a Buddhist lay disciple.

How does one break one’s refuge-taking in the Triple Gem?

The Refuge-taking is broken two ways:

  1. Blameless way: One who has taken refuge dies, and in the next life one has no memory of the past life.
  2. Blameworthy way: Doing the opposite of the ways of taking refuge, such as:

Dedicates oneself as one would to the Buddha, but does it for another teacher, e.g. to Jesus Christ.

If one denounces the taking of refuge in the Triple Gem

If one says: “Buddha is my disciple and I’m his teacher.”

It is not possible to break the refuge-taking when one has become an ariya (noble one).

There are certain situations in which a person can have a defiled refuge-taking in the Triple Gem, though these do not constitute a breach. Examples of this are: when one doubts the virtues of the Buddha; when one shows disrespect towards the Dhamma or the Sangha; when one prays to Buddha for help (i.e., one has wrong views about the Buddha). In these instances, the refuge is defiled though still intact.

When a person consults a psychic (such as Sai Baba) or a deva through a medium (such as at the Moral Uplifting Society) on matters such as health, etc., one has neither defiled nor broken one’s pledge. This is because one merely consults for advice or to find out something, as in consulting a medical doctor, or lawyer.

Now, to answer the question…

The difference is an external matter probably due to the differing cultural backgrounds of these two traditions. However, considering the reasonable points made in the Pali commentary mentioned earlier, it is safer to repeatedly renew our refuge-taking in the Triple Gem, because it is possible to break or defile it.

Besides that, it also reminds us of the Triple Gem which we have taken refuge in and reinforces our faith in them. Repeating the recitation of going for refuge can also be very useful.

Ven Varadhammo, an Indian monk who stayed in SBS for a short while told us of a supernatural encounter. When he awoke from a nap, he felt something holding his body; so he could not move. At the corner of his eyes, he saw a being flipping through his Dhamma books at super speed. When the being noticed that Ven Varadhammo was looking at him, he went to him and pointed his finger with a long and sharp fingernail at him, as if threatening to poke his eye. At that point, Ven Varadhammo instinctively recited “Buddham saranam gacchami!” Then, poof! The being was gone, and he was able to move again.

That’s an example of the power of faith in the Buddha. If one habitually recites the Three Refuges, then one can remember to do so when one needs to. When we chant the Three Refuges, we arouse faith in us. When we have faith, fear disappears because fear and faith cannot coexist.

So, would you rather do it once or repeatedly?

Question 2: According to the Chinese tradition, children cannot pray for their elders to live longer because by doing so the children’s life will be shortened, as compensation. What is the Buddhist viewpoint on this?

This cannot be true. If one offers dana, wishing for the benefit of the receiver, does it mean that one shall suffer loss due to that? On the contrary, one receives more in return.

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