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Refuge in the Buddha: Man or Myth?

In most Buddhist traditions, practitioners contemplate The Three Jewels, otherwise known as The Three Gems:

  1. Refuge in the Buddha
  2. Refuge in the Sangha
  3. Refuge in the Dharma

The meaning and context of the word refuge in and of itself is worth some thought and consideration, especially to those of us who practice secular Buddhism. In most traditions, refuge is considered faith, faith that what one is being taught is true or valid. But those of us who come from and have rejected religious pasts, faith may cause one to balk. At the least, it should prompt you to question and explore just why and how one takes refuge.

Refuge also represents a place of sanctuary or safety, but how can this apply to the Buddha? How can you have faith or trust in this figure of many centuries ago? I want to explore the first refuge, as answering for the second two seemed easier to me. Refuge in the sangha generally translates in coming to count on the support of your local or virtual Buddhist community. And Refuge in the Dharma opens wide as you get deeper and deeper into practice.

But Refuge in the Buddha was a sticking point for me for a long time. I don’t regard faith as a wise move, yet I did accept a certain amount of trust after reading about and hearing about the Buddha’s teachings. Still, how even can I trust in this man, especially when some of the teachings seemed to contradict themselves?

I found that if I looked at the Buddha as an enlightened man who once taught great wisdom and had all the answers regarding enlightenment that more problems arose than were solved, and refuge was not to be had for me. And as I watched those in my sangha, I started seeing a lot of hero worship, many perceiving the teachings dogmatically. I started feeling reverberations of my childhood religion, outlandish claims that lacked evidence, and it seemed contradicted other teachings and what I was discovering in my own experience.

One day I had decided to reread Genesis in the bible. It struck me powerfully how it read like myth, and it suddenly showed itself as the perfect metaphor for how those in power may try to control you by keeping you ignorant and in the dark! The way out, of course, was only through knowledge. Viewed as metaphor, Genesis revealed poignant meaning and was a red flag for that entire religion!

I wondered then what would happen if I set aside the literal views of the Buddhist canon, of the Buddha himself? What would I gain from the teachings if I took refuge in the Buddha not as a historical figure, a wise man who knew all about enlightenment, but instead as a metaphor, a myth?

My mind opened in new ways as I viewed the Buddha as a metaphor for the teacher within and the teacher from outside (life itself). Buddha came to represent possibilities in many different manifestations from within myself, within each moment, with every second of mindfulness. When it no longer mattered if the canon was truth, and when I looked to it as metaphors and analogies, the contradictions faded away. I could simply discard the absurd as story, and make use of what proved itself valid.

The literal view of rebirth, which never made sense to me, became a metaphor for the birth of feeling of self, the emerging ego, and the dying of such through recognition. Instead of reading a passage and wondering, what in the heck did Buddha mean by this, I saw instead creative possibilities of what the story revealed.

What the truth is regarding Buddha as a historical figure doesn’t matter. Even if I’m wrong, I feel I’m better off erring on the side of this view because to believe the Buddha as a man, a famous historical figure, an all knowing being, is to miss the point of what the Buddha represents within my own practice. In one sutta, even the Buddha says to one young man who is so enamored by him, “You do not see me. You do not see the dharma.”

Taking Refuge in the Buddha as a myth prevents hero worship, prevents getting caught in dogma, prevents confusion over ‘did he mean this or did he mean that?’ Instead, seeing via analogies, metaphor, and myth opens the mind and practice together, and it all dissolves into simply being in the moment, with whatever is present.

After awhile, you realize the Three Jewels: Refuge in the Buddha; Refuge in the Sangha; and Refuge in the Dharma are really just one in the same anyway. There is nothing magical, and there are no boundaries or separation. They are one, as is the whole of existence, all interconnected.

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  1. Earl Rectanus on June 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Wonderful topic, Ted, and a very good secular review of the importance of understanding “religious” texts, institutions, and messages generally in metaphorical, mythical terms. Indeed, when we insist upon literal meanings for these messages we commit the anciently prohibited inaccuracy of idolatry. Mistaking symbol for reality, is something which humans do over and over and over. It seems to be part of our oscillating nature to go from literalism to iconoclasm and then back. Even in science we see this as a literally accepted paradigm is forcefully shattered to be replaced by the next. In the end what tends to remain constant (as the cliche goes) is change. Flux, impermanence, a contextually dependent arising of patterns that resonate. And in “religious” contexts what seems quite important for the emerging secularists/skeptics is to tease apart those aspects of Dharma/teachings and Sangha/community which are primarily about our neolithic and primate organizational imperatives, that define ingroup from outgroup and which define dominance and submission roles within working groups (like the seeking of an iconic leader or hero). So much of all ideological working group behavior seems to have to do with this, and cannot really be dispensed with. For it to be acknowledged and observed though makes at least some small difference in the degree to which these concerns define the evolving processes.

  2. star on June 19, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    There is, of course, a middle way between seeing the Buddha as someone who “had all the answers regarding enlightenment ” and seeing him as pure myth, and that’s just seeing him as someone who had very useful insights into human nature, who developed a system through which we could see the same insights he saw, and skills that would help us effect change based on it.

    Seeing the Buddha as simply a chaos of myth and making the man into a metaphor just takes all the mythologizing to the opposite extreme, and turns him right back into a myth again. It also seems to encourage an attitude that fosters a lack of desire to gain good focus on what he taught. If it’s all a pile of stories made up to promote the views of those who wrote the suttas, and there is no coherent thinker behind it, why bother to look for coherence in the texts? Surely what we have so far is good enough, and we can modify it to suit our likes and dislikes.

    That is the attitude I find among many who dismiss the likelihood that one man came up with the insights, and while the path is an improvement over the way we do things by default, even when it is not well understood, it is even more useful when it is understood.

    Meanwhile, back in the middle, if we can take the word of most of those who have the most experience through having made a career of studying the texts* — that there was a man who had a plan, and we can then simply respect him as a teacher, and perhaps even be startled by how clear that insight was, it makes it worthwhile to see if a better understanding of what’s in the texts we have (that are the best record we have of what he taught) can give us an even more accurate — and more useful — view of that insight and system. And from making that effort myself, I’d say the extra study using the assumption that there was a coherent thinker with a coherent thought does make the teaching clearer and more useful.

    But this only addresses the point of reacting to aversion to hero worship by going too far in the other direction and turning a quite human — though quite remarkable — man into a metaphor. I would agree that, in the end, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are one. The Buddha said that if you see him (accurately, one presumes) you see the dharma, if you see the dharma, you see him. He quite literally embodied the dharma by putting it into practice so that, for the followers in his day, seeing him in action would give evidence for the usefulness of what he taught. As he lived and breathed, struggled with how best to teach, and with the politics of his day, he must have been a quite amazing fellow, but that doesn’t make him either a hero to be worshiped, or a metaphor.

    * Somewhere I recently read a paper of Richard Gombrich’s in which he went to a conference full of scholars of Pali and Sanksrit, and from the start he was expecting to have to defend his thesis that a man who came to be called the Buddha existed; that what we see underlying the mythology can only have come from one great mind, but he was surprised to find that it wasn’t an issue at all — everyone who had dedicated themselves to the study was convinced this was so from the evidence. Many of these scholars aren’t even Buddhists (Gombrich isn’t) so it’s not religious reverence blinding them.

  3. frank jude on June 20, 2011 at 4:46 am

    Ted,

    In both the Vietnamese and Korean Zen (Thien/Seon) traditions, the refuge chant includes the statement: “I take refuge in the three jewels within myself.”

    While I do regard with gratitude, appreciation and reverence the historical Buddha as the founder-teacher, with the awareness that “buddha” simply means awakened one, what I really take refuge in is my capacity to awaken, to be awake. As I point out to my students, they must have some confidence that they can live an awakening life, or they’d not be putting time and energy into practice and study. That is itself “taking refuge.”

    As for the view of literal rebirth, some “modernists,” such as Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, have rejected a literal, metaphysical or ontological understanding of rebirth and given the following re-interpretation, similar to your point, based upon the “birth” and “death” of the sense of “I” and “mine:”

    A single emergence of the feeling of “I” and “mine” is called one birth (jāti). This is the real meaning of the word “birth.” Don’t take it to mean birth from a mother’s womb. A person is born from the womb once and gets laid out in the coffin once. That’s not the birth the Buddha pointed to; that’s much too physical. The Buddha was pointing to a spiritual birth, the birth of clinging to “I” and “mine.” In one day there can be hundreds of such births. The number depends on a person’s facility for it, but in each birth the “I” and “mine” arises, slowly fades, gradually disappears, and dies. Shortly, on contact with another sense object, “I” and “mine” arise again. (Buddhadāsa, 1994: 86)

    Buddhadāsa also agrees with the understanding that it is clinging, specifically clinging to “I” and “mine,” that is dukkha:

    “Anything that has no clinging to “I” or “mine” is not dukkha. Therefore birth, old age, sickness, and death, and so on, if they are not clung to as “I” or “mine” cannot be dukkha. Only when birth, old age, sickness, and death are clung to as “I” or “mine” are they dukkha…. Only when there is clinging to “I” or “mine” do they become dukkha. With the pure and undefiled body and mind, that of the Arahant, there is no dukkha at all. (Buddhadaasa, 1994: 17)

    Such an understanding is more life affirming in that it denies that life is inherently dukkha, as many traditionalists, believing in literal rebirth, believe. Buddhadāsa’s understanding is also “this-worldly” as it involves the view that cessation is within life and not as some transcendent realm.

    Buddhadaasa, B., 1994, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, Boston, Wisdom Publications

  4. Dana Nourie on June 20, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Frank, thank you. I didn’t realize Buddhadaasa had that view. I have Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, but it’s been so many years since I read it. Or maybe I didn’t read it. Will definitely read through it this summer!

    Dana

  5. earl on June 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Star, I am wondering why, from your point of view, it matters if there was a single thinker behind the essential concepts. For me, it would tend to weaken the structure for it to be essentially the ideas of one bright person, rather than strengthen it. In general, wisdom that has been woven from a variety of sources, and which has been tempered through time (evolutionary processes actively winnowing) seems a sturdier structure theoretically from my pov. Secondarily, our strong predilections to create iconic “religious” figures to whom we offer submission, fealty, worship, etc. seems to be an innate and problematic aspect of our natures. So to flirt with adulation of the individual in this fashion seems a slippery slope that can lead us toward the time-honored traditions of worshiping statues, or at the very least not being as directly heretical as we might otherwise be. Finally, it seems that to cultivate an attachment to an “ego” or person-hood of the Buddha, to create a personality as it were, goes somewhat against what it is that we are attempting to do with ourselves, by the precepts.

  6. Bunkai on June 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Time for my standard pitch for “Functional Mythology.”

    We can choose myths to change us. If I wanted to, I could be a “Yoda Disciple” and read all Star Wars books and watch all the movies (even the yucky last three)

    And create life-changing meaning.

    I would never be able to lift an X-Wing out of a swamp like Yoda, but I COULD learn to do Herculean tasks within the physical universe with some “Jedi Training” I create with others for our mutual betterment.

    Here is an object lesson for you to prove this point.

    1. Imagine a real person from your life that you learned a life lesson from.
    2. Imagine a movie or book hero from your life that you learned a life lesson from.

    Now …

    What’s the difference?

    Buddha myth? Buddha not myth? Buddha middle of myth/not-myth?

    A soap bubble pops on Superman.

  7. Brad on June 20, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    The Pali Canon is so incredibly *immense* I often have questioned if it possibly could even be fit into a 45 year ministry activity. Surely the “Buddha” did not give daily discourses, and it would have taken numerous tellings for people to memorize them. Could all the suttas in the Pali canon — as well as the vinaya — even fit into the Buddha’s life?

    I also think it is interesting that the latest edition of Insight Journal includes an article by a scholar who proposes that the Satipatthana Sutta is actually an *anthology* of collected teachings that probably go back to the historical Buddha. Gil Fronsdal, in a talk I listened to once, related that some scholars even feel the Four Noble Truths could not possibly go back to the time of the historical Buddha. I found this shocking — and shocking that he would say this in a dharma talk! (Don’t ask for a reference. Trust me, it’s there somewhere on AudioDharma.)

    To me it just seems obvious that Gotama the man is lost to history. We probably know the *sorts of things Gotama said* but that is all. And that’s okay! We know the *sorts* of things the historical Jesus said, but scholars are pretty sure that the Gospels are a mixture of historical information with legends. Interestingly, John’s Gospel — often thought the best and most profound of the four — probably contains little or no actual words of Jesus! So it’s not as if every profound or useful teaching has to go back to the founder. I think the same is probably true with Buddhism as well.

    As to the idea of “taking refuge” at all: I wonder to what extent this is *necessary.* I’ve done it. And I’ve also undone it. It may have some value to go through those formalizations in our mind, but it can also constrict our creativity as to our lives in all their intricate individuality. The *thought* behind the refuges is worth far more than their formality.

  8. mknick on June 21, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Zen is very good on this point: the only Buddha that matters is the one right in front of you. I think when we take refuge in the Buddha, we’re taking refuge in the potential of awakening. Whatever the ontological status of Gotama, we know when we begin to practice that awakening is real. For me, taking refuge in the Buddha means trusting that my own process of awakening will continue, and that everyone I encounter has the same capacity to wake up.

  9. Dana Nourie on June 21, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Frank, you piqued my curiosity in a big way, so I have ordered: Me and Mine: Selected Essaysof Bhikkhu Buddhadasa. Looking forward to reading it.

    • frank jude on June 21, 2011 at 7:08 pm

      Dana,

      Wow! Now you’ve piqued MY curiosity! I’ve Buddhdasa’s “Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree” and his commentary on Anapanasati, but I wasn’t aware of the selected essays! Looks like I’ll be ordering it as well!

      Thanks for the “heads-up” Dana!

      • Dana Nourie on June 21, 2011 at 11:26 pm

        Frank I found my copy of the Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, and realized this is one of the books that helped me to see through some beliefs being pushed on me. It was also super helpful in providing a clear path for my practice! Thanks for reminding me to look at it again!

  10. star on June 21, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Hey earl.

    My primary reason is stated in my post, “It seems to encourage an attitude that fosters a lack of desire to gain good focus on what he taught.” When I study the suttas I find a consistent teaching as well as a distinctive sense of humor — *one* sense of humor, not several, and one that is thoroughly embedded in his time and place, which leads me to fair certainty that one person came up with an astounding insight. I also find that people who don’t think there could have been “a Buddha” generally can’t be bothered to look for that consistency and because of that, a great deal is misunderstood, and much energy is spent on added layers of confusion.

    Whether it comes from one person or a committee has no relevance to its usefulness; it is either useful or not, regardless of the source. But its usefulness is impressive. If one mind came up with it, then that was an impressive mind.. I’d be even *more* impressed if a committee had managed such a deep level of insight. But I don’t see evidence for the other influences in the suttas (the ones with no sense of humor) having added anything of benefit to the teaching.

    But if the teaching was arrived at by committee then everyone — even now — is a part of that committee. I understand in this day of Open Access that such committees are said to be Good Things, and in theory I think they are. But in this case it has been my personal experience that reading books by the committee — with all their conflicting views of what it is all about — creates about as much confusion as clarity. There may well be teachers out there who have added to the value of what the Buddha taught but they are few, far between, and difficult to find. I have gotten far more benefit by spending my reading-time on suttas these last few years than the 20 years of reading the committee’s writings that came before that.

    I am not idolatrous, but I am an unabashed admirer of Gotama; I can be impressed with what individuals have achieved without needing to set them up as gods.

    • Dana Nourie on June 21, 2011 at 11:37 pm

      Star, in my readings the Buddha’s sense of humor is very evident, enjoyable, and often educational. Not sure why you have the impression we might miss out on that if we don’t hold a historical view.

      A modern day analogy is the dozens of Star Wars novels out there. They are written independently by various unrelated people. No one knew Yoda, Darth Vadar, or Luke Skywalker, yet all these people manage quite impressive consistency of character for each. Histories for each character are amazing consistent. I’ve read a dozen or so of these novels and never felt like someone didn’t understand Yoda or Hans Solo, or the universe in which they traversed.

      Honestly, I don’t think it would be difficult for people to have some kind of consensus on what the ideal enlightened person would be like, write about him, and add to the canon over time. Occasionally, someone is not going to get it. Now and then you are going to have contradictions. And sure enough, we do get that in the Pali Canon. Then top that with language translation problems, people who just plain misunderstood the culture and the time, and we get a lot of modern day books than can be way off the mark of what was originally intended by the authors.

      So, by not adhering to the canon as some kind of “bible” and viewing it skeptically, openly, and metaphorically we are forced to rely on what we discover through our practice, and we can dismiss what is clearly counter to that which is revealed through other means. For instance, when practice reveals there is no static self, no central driver, it becomes blatantly obvious there is no one to be reborn. I’m simplifying, but you get the idea.

      • star on June 25, 2011 at 1:11 am

        Dana,

        “Not sure why you have the impression we might miss out on that if we don’t hold a historical view.”

        Because, as I have said, most people who have stated to me that the Buddha was probably not real, don’t bother to read the suttas. It is hard to notice his sense of humor if we never read any of what he is recorded as having said.

        Your fiction analogy might almost work if the “added over time” is over a short period of time. The popular concept of what makes “the ideal enlightened person” changes; the sorts of things that were of concern and were discussed changes quickly. New technology gets introduced and new authors have no idea that these weren’t around since forever, so we’d get a mixture of similes covering different times and tech — but we don’t see that.

        You are positing a group of people who managed to keep a consistent character for their enlightened person, including sense of humor, style of speaking, really tricky subtleties of point of view (of non-self) *while* he was speaking, not to mention a consistent backstory scattered throughout the hundreds of suttas. It’s quite a feat doing all that by committee over the course of time — yet simultaneously they tangled up the central insights to the point that we now have difficulty figuring out what’s meant? So they got the trivial “fiction” part they made up really accurate, but screwed up the important bits? I could understand confusing the important bits, but don’t see the same people who were arguing about and confusing the core message, managing to keep the backstory straight. Occam’s Razor might suggest you’ve added more complications to the problem than your theory removes.

        If I didn’t see huge chunks of the canon as metaphorical I would not be able to make sense of it. But I see it as *intentionally* metaphorical, not as something we need to twist into metaphor because too many cooks spoiled the broth. (Actually, thinking about that, it makes no sense that we should be able to take all the talk about heavens and hells and rebirth as “added by many hands later” and *make* it into a consistent metaphor for what was in the core teachings, if it wasn’t metaphor to begin with, whenever it was first introduced. If it was a hodge-podge of nonsense added on it would not fit with the rest of what the Buddha taught as well as it does.)

        But yes, practice is the acid test.

  11. umeboshiatama on June 22, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Where do these words come from? refuge… suffering etc… from the buddha himself? are these words translated literally from their originally scribed characters? When one speaks of what the Buddha taught or spoke of… is it not just as diluted and reinterpreted from a million mouths as the gospels? Can not a deaf, mute and blind person attain enlightenment without ever utilizing a word?

    You know I love you ms D… so these questions flow from that essence.

    Too many here have killed the concept by over rationalization… keep walking… there lays a long road (path) ahead, or perhaps you are standing in the right spot this moment it is just that the over utilization of explanation prohibits the subsidence of pursuit.

  12. […] But no one can prove it either way. You can read more of what I had to say about this topic in Refuge in the Buddha. That Buddha spoke of gods and hell and heaven realms is not a problem for me because I see that as […]

  13. NaturalEntrust on July 19, 2012 at 2:48 am

    Thanks Dana for this text. Faith seems to have many meanings.
    I chosed my user name here to point out another suggested meaning for that faith in Secular Buddhist practice. Natural Entrust. If one look up what to entrust refers to that most likely is supported by Secular Buddhist practice.

    if it is not then I have to look into it deeper and go from that new knowledge. I get back soon.

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