Being a Buddhist
March 11, 2024

Back in the time of the Buddha. becoming a Buddhist was a fairly simple affair. You heard a talk on the Dhamma, you were inspired, and you would say to the Buddha or to the person giving the talk that you were taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha of monks.

At some point the process became a little bit more formal. In the Khuddakapāṭha which is a later text in the suttas, the very first passage deals with taking refuge. It directs you to say it three times not just once. It’s that passage we have heard many times:

Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi.

Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi.

Saṅghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi…

…then Dutiyampi…. and Tatiyampi… – a second time, a third time.

You repeat the phrases but the question is: What does it mean to take refuge?

There’s another passage in the Canon that talks about the ideal lay follower. The ideal lay follower has five characteristics: One is that you’re convinced of the Buddha’s awakening, that he really did awaken to the truth. What he learned about karma, what he learned about rebirth, what he learned about the four noble truths: You take that as your guide. You take the Buddha’s awakening as the event in world history by which you look at the rest of your life, you look at the rest of the world, to get a sense of the possibilities within you and within the world.

We live in a world where the Buddha was awakened, where there has been a Buddha who has left behind his teachings. You try that world on for size, and you decide that it fits.

I remember when I was becoming a Buddhist one of the main breakthroughs or milestones, I guess you would say, was when I realized that I really had to depend on my own karma. Prior to that I’d been raised a Christian, and even as I was beginning to have lots of doubts about those teachings, there was still a strong sense that there was somebody up there who was looking after us. Suddenly I realized that if I wanted to be a true Buddhist, I’d have to drop that. That was a real milestone in my mind. It threw me back on my own actions. I really had to be more honest with myself, I really had to be more careful about what I did.

That’s what the passage in the Canon mentions next: Once you’ve decided that you are convinced of the Buddha’s awakening. then the very first thing is that you live a life of virtue. This is why nowadays when they have formal ceremonies for people who want to declare themselves Buddhist, after you take the Triple Refuge you take the five precepts, which means that you will not intentionally kill, steal, have illicit sex, take intoxicants, or lie. This sort of virtue is the second quality of becoming a Buddhist, and it makes you a genuine Buddhist.

The third is that you do believe in the principle of karma.

The sutta expands on that in the fourth characteristic, which is that you don’t look for protective charms, you don’t look for magical formulae that will somehow undo your karma. Which means that, by the Theravada definition of a Buddhist, Vajrayanists are not Buddhist because they do believe in these charms and formula that will somehow undo your karma. There are even other types of Mahayanists who believe that there is an outside power out there that will come over and take over the ground of your being and erase your karma for you. By Theravada standards, those are not Buddhists.

You decide that when you look for protection in this life—and this is what it means to take refuge, where you go to guarantee that you will not suffer—you have to go to your own actions.

Finally, the fifth characteristic is that when you make merit, you look first for the monastic Sangha. The word “Sangha” has developed many meanings, especially in the past couple of decades, but at the time of the Buddha it meant the Sangha of monks, and secondarily, the Sangha of nuns. When you make merit, you make merit there first. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re not generous to other people. The idea is simply that if you really want to give a gift that will have great benefit, the Sangha is where you look first

So that’s what the texts say.

Ajaan Lee adds that when you take refuge, it has many levels of meaning: The first level is to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha by taking them as examples: This is how you’re going to look for happiness in your life. Then you look at their qualities and you try to develop both the qualities that made the Buddha the Buddha and the qualities he had when he became a Buddha.

That gives you three levels: the external level, then the internalizing level, and then finally the level where the refuge has been fully internalized. It’s that final level where your refuge is secure. The Buddha himself, toward the end of his life, said to take yourself as your refuge, which is the same as taking the Dhamma as your refuge. Then he defined that as practicing the establishment of mindfulness, which is basically how you get the mind into concentration: That’s when you really do become your own refuge on that second level, the level of practice, the level of internalizing. It’s only when you find your first taste of the deathless that you really are safe: That would be the level of fully internalized teachings.

When you practice concentration to develop your discernment, you realize that the concentration—even though it’s a better pleasure, a more stable pleasure than you can gain from sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, or thinking about things—is still fabricated. And remember how good fabricated things can be: They can fall apart. You want something that’s not fabricated, something that’s not liable to falling apart. You investigate the various states of concentration and you realize that none of them qualify.

It’s when you realize that you’re up against a dead end—that you can’t stay in a state of concentration, but you don’t want to go anywhere else because nowhere else is going to be any better—that the third alternative opens up. That third alternative is the deathless. It’s outside of space and time. As the Buddha says, “It’s neither coming nor going nor staying in place.”

Another image in the Canon comes from a passage where a deva is asking the Buddha how he crossed over the stream. The Buddha replied that he had crossed over the stream neither by moving forward nor by staying in place. The deva was perplexed, but the Buddha wasn’t just being funny. We define space and time by either staying or moving. So an alternative that’s neither space nor time has to be neither staying nor moving. That’s where the absolute refuge is.

So there are many stages in the path to become a Buddhist. In terms of the world, we’ve gotten to the point nowadays where people who study Buddhism as an academic subject say that anybody who calls himself a Buddhist is a Buddhist—for their purposes. But what are their purposes? They’re basically doing sociology. For our purposes, the point when you become a Buddhist comes when you’ve made a change in your attitudes. You’re really going to adopt the Buddha’s point of view, the Buddha’s analysis of how we suffer, why we suffer, and how we can stop. That puts you in a different world and makes you a different person. It gives you more capabilities than you would have had otherwise.

There are so many teachings out there that say you can’t do this on your own, that you have to depend on somebody else. The Buddha says, though, that you can do it on your own. You can do it with help—with guidance—but you have to do the actions yourself and you are capable of doing this. That’s the new you that comes when you really take on the Buddha’s awakening as your guide. And of course, the world is a new world, a world that contains this possibility: The teachings are there, they’re still alive, and the opportunity to practice is still there.

“The door is open,” as the Buddha would say. “Show your faith.” You don’t just say that you believe in these things, you actually act on these beliefs: observing the precepts, looking for your security in skillful actions. That’s when you’ve made the important step in becoming a Buddhist.