Buddha Dhamma Sangha
Buddha Dhamma Sangha



An Introduction to the
Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff)
Copyright © Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997

They go to many a refuge,
to mountains, forests,
parks, trees, and shrines:
people threatened with danger.
That's not the secure refuge,
that's not the highest refuge,
that's not the refuge,
having gone to which,
one gains release
from all suffering and stress.
But a person who, having gone for refuge
to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha,
sees the four Noble Truths
with right discernment --
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
and the Noble Eightfold Path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
That is the secure refuge,
that is the highest refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
one gains release
from all suffering and stress.

-- Dhammapada, 188-192


I. Introduction
Going for Refuge
A Refuge in Skillful Action
II. Readings
Basic Principles
The Four Noble Truths
III. Essays
The Meaning of the Buddha's Awakening
No-self or Not-self?
The Economy of Gifts



A ..... Anguttara Nikaya
Cv ..... Cullavagga
D ..... Digha Nikaya
Dhp ..... Dhammapada
Iti ..... Itivuttaka
M ..... Majjhima Nikaya
Mv ..... Mahavagga
S ..... Samyutta Nikaya
Sn ..... Sutta Nipata
Thig ..... Therigatha
Ud ..... Udana
References to D, M, and Iti are to discourse. References to Dhp are to verse. References to Mv and Cv are to chapter, section, and sub-section. References to the remaining texts are to chapter (vagga, nipata, or samyutta) and discourse.

This book is a short introduction to the basic principles of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dhamma (his teachings), and Sangha (the community of his noble disciples), also known as the Triple Gem or the Triple Refuge. The material is divided into three parts: (I) a pair of introductory essays on the meaning of refuge and the act of going for refuge; (II) a series of readings drawn from the earliest Buddhist texts illustrating the essential qualities of the Triple Gem; and (III) a set of essays explaining aspects of the Triple Gem that often provoke questions in those who are new to the Buddha's teachings. The readings on Dhamma form the core of the book and are organized in a pattern -- called a graduated discourse (anupubbi-katha) -- that the Buddha himself often used when introducing his teachings to new listeners. After beginning with the joys of generosity, he would describe the joys of a virtuous life, followed by the rewards of generosity and virtue to be experienced here and in heaven; the drawbacks of sensual pleasures, even heavenly ones; and the rewards of renunciation. Then, when he sensed that his listeners were inclined to look favorably on renunciation as a way to true happiness, he would discuss the central message of his teaching: the four noble truths.

My hope is that this introduction will help answer many of the questions that newcomers bring to Buddhism, and will spark new questions in their minds as they contemplate the possibility of developing within their own lives the qualities of refuge exemplified by the Triple Gem.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu


I. Introduction

Going for Refuge
The act of going for refuge marks the point where one commits oneself to taking the Dhamma, or the Buddha's teaching, as the primary guide to the conduct of one's life. To understand why this commitment is called a "refuge," it is helpful to look at the history of the custom.

In pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one's allegiance to a patron -- a powerful person or god -- submitting to the patron's directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger in return. In the early years of the Buddha's teaching career, his new followers adopted this custom to express their allegiance to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, but in the Buddhist context this custom took on a new meaning.

Buddhism is not a theistic religion -- the Buddha is not a god -- and so a person taking refuge in the Buddhist sense is not asking for the Buddha personally to intervene to provide protection. Still, the Buddha's teachings center on the realization that human life is fraught with dangers -- from greed, anger, and delusion -- and so the concept of refuge is a central part of the path of practice, in that the practice is aimed at gaining release from those dangers. Because both the dangers and the release from them come ultimately from the mind, there is a need for two levels of refuge: external refuges, which provide models and guidelines so that we can identify which qualities in the mind lead to danger and which to release; and internal refuges, i.e., the qualities leading to release that we develop in our own mind in imitation of our external models. The internal level is where true refuge is found.

Although the tradition of going to refuge is an ancient practice, it is still relevant for our own practice today, for we are faced with the same internal dangers that faced people in the Buddha's time. We still need the same protection as they. When a Buddhist takes refuge, it is essentially an act of taking refuge in the doctrine of karma: It is an act of submission in that one is committed to living in line with the belief that actions based on skillful intentions lead to happiness, while actions based on unskillful intentions lead to suffering; it is an act of claiming protection in that one trusts that by following the teaching one will not fall into the misfortunes that bad karma engenders. To take refuge in this way ultimately means to take refuge in the quality of our own intentions, for that's where the essence of karma lies.

The refuges in Buddhism -- both on the internal and on the external levels -- are the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, also known as the Triple Gem. They are called gems both because they are valuable and because, in ancient times, gems were believed to have protective powers. The Triple Gem outdoes other gems in this respect because its protective powers can be put to the test and can lead further than those of any physical gem, all the way to absolute freedom from the uncertainties of the realm of aging, illness, and death.

The Buddha, on the external level, refers to Siddhattha Gotama, the Indian prince who renounced his royal titles and went into the forest, meditating until he ultimately gained Awakening. To take refuge in the Buddha means, not taking refuge in him as a person, but taking refuge in the fact of his Awakening: placing trust in the belief that he did awaken to the truth, that he did so by developing qualities that we too can develop, and that the truths to which he awoke provide the best perspective for the conduct of our life.

The Dhamma, on the external level, refers to the path of practice the Buddha taught to his followers. This, in turn, is divided into three levels: the words of his teachings, the act of putting those teachings into practice, and the attainment of Awakening as the result of that practice. This three-way division of the word "Dhamma" is essentially a map showing how to take the external refuges and make them internal: learning about the teachings, using them to develop the qualities that the Buddha himself used to attain Awakening, and then realizing the same release from danger that he found in the quality of Deathlessness that we can touch within.

The word Sangha, on the external level, has two senses: conventional and ideal. In its ideal sense, the Sangha consists of all people, lay or ordained, who have practiced the Dhamma to the point of gaining at least a glimpse of the Deathless. In a conventional sense, Sangha denotes the communities of ordained monks and nuns. The two meanings overlap but are not necessarily identical. Some members of the ideal Sangha are not ordained; some monks and nuns have yet to touch the Deathless. All those who take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha become members of the Buddha's four-fold assembly (parisa) of followers: monks, nuns, male lay devotees, and female lay devotees. Although it is widely believed that all Buddhist followers are members of the Sangha, this is not the case. Only those who are ordained are members of the conventional Sangha; only those who have glimpsed the Deathless are members of the ideal Sangha. Nevertheless, those followers who do not belong to the Sangha in either sense of the word still count as genuine Buddhists in that they are members of the Buddha's parisa.

When taking refuge in the external Sangha, one takes refuge in both senses of the Sangha, but the two senses provide different levels of refuge. The conventional Sangha has helped keep the teaching alive for more than 2,500 years. Without them, we would never have learned what the Buddha taught. However, not all members of the conventional Sangha are reliable models of behavior. So when looking for guidance in the conduct of one's life, one must look to the living or recorded examples provided by the ideal Sangha. Without their example, we would not know (1) that Awakening is available to all, and not just to the Buddha; and (2) how Awakening expresses itself in the varied aspects of everyday life.

On the internal level, the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha are the skillful qualities that we develop in our own minds in imitation of our external models. For instance, the Buddha was a person of wisdom, purity, and compassion. When we develop wisdom, purity, and compassion in our own minds, they form our refuge on an internal level. The Buddha tasted Awakening by developing conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. When we develop these same qualities to the point of attaining Awakening too, that Awakening is our ultimate refuge. This is the point where the three aspects of the Triple Gem become one: beyond the reach of greed, anger, and delusion, and thus totally secure.

A Refuge in Skillful Action
Is human action real or illusory? If real, is it effective? If it is effective, does one have a choice in what one does? If one has a choice, can one choose to act in a way that will lead to genuine happiness? If so, what is that way? These are questions that lie at the heart of the way we conduct our lives. The way we answer them will determine whether we look for happiness through our own abilities, seek happiness through outside help, or abandon the quest for a higher-than-ordinary level of happiness altogether.

These questions were precisely the ones that led Siddhattha Gotama -- the Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be -- to undertake his quest for Awakening. He felt that there was no honor, no value in life, if true happiness could not be found through one's own efforts. Thus he put his life on the line to see how far human effort could go. Eventually he found that effort, skillfully applied, could bring about an Awakening to the Deathless. The lessons he learned about action and effort in the course of developing that skill, and which were certified by the experience of his Awakening, formed the basis of his doctrine of kamma (in Sanskrit: karma). This doctrine lies at the heart of his teaching, and forms the essence of the Triple Refuge. Put briefly, it states that action is real, effective, and the result of one's own choice. If one chooses to act skillfully, and works to develop that skill, one's actions can lead to happiness, not only on the ordinary sensory level, but also on a level that transcends all the dimensions of time and the present. To understand this doctrine and get a sense of its full implications, we must first have some background on how the Buddha arrived at it. This will help us to see how kamma can act as a refuge, and what kind of refuge it provides.

People often believe that the Buddha simply picked up the doctrine of kamma from his environment, but nothing could be further from the truth. Northern India at his time was a place of great intellectual activity, and all of the great philosophical and religious issues of human life were up for grabs, as science made new advances and called many of the old, established beliefs into question. The foremost science at that time was astronomy. New, precise observations of planetary movements, combined with newly developed means of calculation, had led astronomers to conclude that time was measured in eons, incomprehensibly long cycles that repeat themselves endlessly. Taking up these conclusions, philosophers of the time tried to work out the implications of this vast temporal frame for the drama of human life and the quest for ultimate happiness. These philosophers fell into two broad camps: those who conducted their speculations within the traditions of the Vedas, orthodox religious and ritual texts; and other, unorthodox groups, called the Samanas (contemplatives), who questioned the authority of the Vedas.

Already by the time of Siddhattha Gotama, philosophers of the Vedic and Samana schools had developed widely differing interpretations of what the laws of nature were and how they affected the pursuit of true happiness. Their main points of disagreement were two:

1) Survival beyond death. Most Vedic and Samana philosophers assumed that a person's identity extended beyond this lifetime, eons before birth back into the past through the cycles of time, and after death on into the future. There was some disagreement, however, as to whether one's identity from life to life would change or remain the same. The Vedas had viewed rebirth in a positive light, but by the time of Prince Siddhattha the influence of the newly discovered astronomical cycles had led those who believed in rebirth to regard the cycles as pointless and confining, and release as the only possibility for true happiness. There was, however, a Samana school of hedonist materialists, called Lokayatans, who denied the existence of any identity beyond death and insisted that happiness could be found only by indulging in sensual pleasures here and now.

2) Action and causality. The ancient Vedas had formulated a doctrine of kamma (in Sanskrit, karma), or purposeful action, which stated that correctly performed actions played a causal role in providing for one's happiness in the life after death. The primary actions recognized by these texts, though, were ritualistic: ritually performed sacrifices, often involving animals, and gifts to priests. To be effective, the ritual actions had to be correctly performed. This concern for correct performance led the Vedists to compose ritual manuals that prescribed in incredibly minute detail the proper things to do and say in the course of their rituals. They even included special chants and spells that were supposed to compensate for any inadvertent mistakes in the course of a particular ritual, so great was their conviction that the quality of an act depend on its physical expression.

The Samana schools rejected the Vedic teachings on kamma, but for a variety of different reasons. One set of Samana schools, called the Ajivakas, asserted that an individual's actions were not in the least bit responsible for the course of his/her life. One branch of the Ajivakas taught that all action in the cosmos is illusory, as the only truly existing things are the unchanging substances of which the cosmos is made. Thus there is no such thing as right or wrong, good or evil, for in the ultimate sense there is no such thing as action.

Another branch of the Ajivakas taught that action was real, but that it was totally subject to fate: deterministic causal laws that left no room for free will. Thus they insisted that release from the round of rebirth came only when the round worked itself out. Peace of mind could be found by accepting one's fate and patiently waiting for the cycle, like a ball of string unwinding, to come to its end. Although these two positions derived from two very different pictures of the cosmos, they both led to the same conclusion: good and evil were illusory social conventions, human beings were not responsible for their acts, and human action had no role in shaping one's experience of the cosmos.

The Lokayatans came to a similar conclusion, but for different reasons. They agreed with the Vedists that physical action was real, but they maintained that it bore no results. There was no way to observe any invariable cause-effect relationship between events, they said; as a result, all events were spontaneous and self-caused. This meant that human actions had no consequences, and thus there were no such things as good and evil because no action could have a good or evil effect on anything else. They concluded that one could safely ignore moral rules in one's pursuit of sensual pleasure, and would be a fool to deny oneself immediate gratification of one's desires whenever the opportunity appeared.

Another school, the Jains, accepted the Vedic premise that one's actions shaped one's experience of the cosmos, but they differed from the Vedas in the way they conceived of action. All action, according to them, was a form of violence. The more violent the act, the more it produced effluents, conceived as sticky substances that bound the soul to the round of rebirth. Thus they rejected the Vedic assertion that ritual sacrifice produced good kamma, for the violence involved in killing the sacrificial animals was actually a form of bad kamma. In their eyes, the only way to true happiness was to try to escape the round of kamma entirely. This was to be done by violence against themselves: various forms of self-torture that were supposed to burn away the effluents, the "heat" of pain being a sign that the effluents were burning. At the same time, they tried to create as little new kamma as possible. This practice would culminate in total abstinence from physical action resulting in suicide by starvation, the theory being that if old kamma were completely burned away, and no new kamma created, there would be no more effluents to bind the soul to the cosmos. Thus the soul would be released.

Despite the differences between the Vedic and Jain views of action, they shared some important similarities: Both believed that the physical performance of an action, rather than the mental attitude behind it, is what determined its kammic result. And, both saw kamma as acting under deterministic, linear laws. Kamma performed in the present would not bear fruit until the future, and the relationship between a particular action and its result was predictable and fixed.

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Teaching of Refuge
Meaning of Refuge
Taking Refuge