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Volume 4  No 2

The Dharma in Blossom

Taking refuge and morality
By Venerable Shen-Kai

In the same way that we are recognised as students only after we are enrolled with a particular institution and begin to take lessons, we are truly Buddhists only after we have taken refuge in the Three Treasures and begin to learn and practise what the Buddha taught. Taking refuge means to return to the Buddha's domain and to rely on the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha as our teacher. An important aspect of being a Buddhist is to observe the code of morality - that of 'benefiting others and self.'

WE ALL know that a formal education is essential for knowledge - understanding the science of reasoning, building a strong foundation and understanding the code of ethics, so as to prepare ourselves as a useful member of the society. For a university education, one first needs to register and take the required entrance examinations. Upon qualifying, one needs to attend the lectures. Only then is one a university student. If you read widely and is knowledgeable, and you attend the university lectures from outside the lecture hall to the extent that you feel that you understand as much as the students in the lecture hall, still, nobody believes nor are you recognised as a university student.

It is the same with learning Buddhism. The entrance to Buddhism is very broad and there are many side entrances. How then can one be considered an authentic practitioner of Buddhism? Thus, a formal ceremony to take refuge is very important. You may have read many books on Buddhism and you may consider yourself a Buddhist. In reality, without taking refuge you have not yet form a cause or basis with the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Hence, according to Buddhism you are not yet a Buddhist.

What does taking refuge mean? In mandarin this phrase is made up of two characters: "gui" meaning to return to and "yi" meaning to rely on. From the aeons of births, from time immemorial, the Buddha-nature in each and everyone of us is an integral part of the Buddha domain. It is because of ignorance that we are departed from this domain and are caused to exist in the fire of the three planes of existence, namely, the worlds of sensuous desire, form and the formless, and to transmigrate in the six realms of existence, namely, deva, human being, asura, animal, ghost and hell. At times we are in the heavenly realm, yet at others we may be human, ghost, animal or in hell. It is like leaving the comforts of our home and parents to wander about as a vagabond. After having encountered a lot of difficulties and sufferings, and being helpless, we finally remember our parents at home and decide to return home to them.

It is the same with Buddhism. After departing from the Buddha's domain and having arrived at the three planes of existence, experienced the transmigration in the six realms and a lot of suffering, we decide to return to the Buddha's domain. Having returned, we then rely on the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, collectively termed as the Three Treasures or Triratna, as our teacher. We rely on the Dharma expounded by the Buddha as our compass in life. Regardless of our occupation, whether we are home or in society, we use the Dharma as a guide to living and advance towards the direction of the brightness of Buddhism. Just as a vagabond who has returned home rely on the material support and the guidance of his parents to live a proper life of peace and well being, it is the same principle with taking refuge.

To take refuge in the three treasures means taking refuge in the precious Buddha, the precious Dharma and the precious Sangha. The precious Buddha refers to all the Buddhas of the ten directions (eight directions of the compass, and the nadir and zenith), and the three periods (past, present and future). To take refuge in the Buddha means to sincerely become a disciple of the Buddha. It does not mean to buy an image of the Buddha, place it on an altar and called oneself a Buddhist. The precious Buddha is invaluable and therefore cannot be bought with money. The precious Dharma is the teachings of all the Buddhas of the ten directions and the three periods and also cannot be bought with money. It is the same with the precious Sangha, it also cannot be bought with money. It is only when we sincerely take refuge in the three treasures that we can call ourselves disciples of the three treasures. The precious Sangha are Buddhist monks and nuns who renounced the worldly life to learn and practise the Buddha's teachings and to promote the Dharma. Having taken refuge in the precious Sangha we address them as "Masters". One has a master only after taking refuge. It is therefore obvious that masters also cannot be bought. Thus, they are called treasures.

We become disciples of the three treasures after taking refuge. Disciples of the three treasures are Buddhists who learn and practise the correct doctrines of the Buddha. We pay respect to the Bodhisattvas and learn from the Bodhisattvas. We also need to be Bodhisattvas ourselves, eradicate our self-serving temperaments, and practise according to the teachings. Bodhisattvas possess the virtuous quality of great compassion. Thus, we need to emulate the great compassion of the Bodhisattvas to consider ourselves as Buddhists.

In Buddhism we burn incense and bow before the Buddha. The fragrance of the incense is symbolic of morality. The significance of the practice is that we want to uphold the code of ethics and morality and let its fragrance permeates across the entire universe. As Buddhists, first and foremost, we need to examine ourselves if we are righteous in our morality. Jen Chen Buddhism defines the principle morality as "Benefiting self and others". For example, a doctor who excels in his studies and skills in practising medicine is said to possess the correct principles of medical practice. If, as a doctor he possesses such excellent knowledge and skills but he refuses to treat the sick even when begged to, or he charges unreasonably high fees, then he is said to be lacking in medical ethics. Similarly, if the patient is very poor and the doctor does not show compassion and overcharges him, and perhaps even does not completely treat the sickness, then he is also lacking in medical ethics.

Students of law may excel in their law studies. These become their correct principles of study. However, if having qualified as attorneys, they fail to observe these principles and are dubious in character, then they are lacking in morality. Furthermore, if as an attorney he overcharges or fails to discharge his duty in carrying out justice, then he has no morals. A skilful swimmer has already acquired the correct principles of swimming. Yet, if he fails to act to rescue a drowning person, then he has failed in morality. On the other hand, you may be a person of great compassion, but you cannot swim. Yet, you didn't hesitate to save a drowning person. In the end not only do you fail to save him, but also you lose your own life. That is also being immoral.

The above are a few simple examples to illustrate the principles of morality. Even scholars and authorities find it difficult to agree on a common definition of morality. It is even more difficult for the masses to observe them. Thus, Jen Chen Buddhism uses a very simple definition, 'Benefiting others and self'. It is hoped that in future authorities of education would adopt this principle in the curriculum. Only then, I believe, will we know and observe national and social morals. Thus, when we want to build our country, each and everyone of us needs to understand the principle of morality, be moral in our conduct and have an ethical culture.

When we have taken refuge we are students of the Buddha. We need to be ethical and moral, and we need to zealously observe the code of morality. In this way, as a human being, our conduct becomes complete and fulfilling. If, as a Buddhist one is ignorant of the principles of morality, then taking refuge does not serve any purpose. When we take refuge, therefore, it is to observe the code of morality.

Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre