Jung Myung Sa
Buddhist Temple

Refuge in the Dhamma – The faith in the cosmic truth open to us.

by Jan 5, 2019JMS Blog

The passage for today’s gathering is from Majjima Nikaya 26.Ariyapariyesana Sutta.

“I considered: ‘This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, takes delight in attachment, rejoices in the attachment. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, dependent origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna. If I were to teach the Dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me.

Being Buddhists by Taking Three Refuges

Like baptism within the Catholic church by which one enters the Christian faith, one becomes a disciple of the Buddha by taking the three refuges such as the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. These three are called the three jewels in Buddhism.

The word, refuge, is translated from the Pali word, saraṇam, which means protection, shelter, or house. Thus, taking refuge in the three jewels means that we as Buddhists rely on them, which in turn protect us from danger and suffering. Among the three jewels, the second one is Dhamma in Pali or Dharma in Sanskrit. Likewise, taking refuge in the Dhamma means that we rely on the Buddha’s teaching so it protects us from what can harm us.

Then, what exactly does Dhamma/Dharma mean when we say we are taking refuge in it? Today, I would like to talk about the various meanings of the Dhamma in Buddhism. Further, I would like to discuss how the Dhamma as something that is impersonal can become something that humans can rely on as a refuge. In sum, the Dhamma can become a refuge because living in accordance with it leads us to happiness, equanimity, and ultimately enlightenment.

The Oddball in the Three Refuges

Interestingly, the first refuge, the Buddha, and the third refuge, the Sangha, are something human whereas the Dhamma/Dharma is something impersonal and not tangible. Although the historical Buddha is no longer present, he was a human being. Likewise, the Sangha consists of people, although it is a collective term and its exact definition is still in debate.

So, the Buddha and Sangha are tangible things that we can visualize in our minds when we recite the three refuges. As to the Buddha, we use the statue of the Buddha on the altar at a worship hall to call the image of the Buddha to our minds. As to the Sangha, we can think of Buddhist monks and nuns wearing yellow or brown robes with shaved heads. However, it seems vague and abstract to think the Dhamma/Dharma in a concrete manner since it is something immaterial. I had been confused with what to think for a long time whenever I recited taking refuge in the Dhamma. So, I am curious what other Buddhists call to their mind when they say taking refuge in the Dhamma.

What is the Dhamma/Dharma?

Nowadays, the Dhamma/Dharma seems to exclusively signify Buddhist teaching. But the term has long been one of the important words in Indian religions, even before Buddhism came out. Scholars and experts of Indian religions state that it is daunting to elaborate upon all the meanings that it signifies. Since I am not an expert in Indian religion and Sanskrit, let me skip the original meaning of the word. Wikipedia has a good and long explanation about it.

Like other words and terminologies, the Buddha redefined and developed the meaning of Dhamma/Dharma with its core extant notion in order to deliver his vision of enlightenment. In various places within Buddhist scripture, the Buddha uses the word in different ways to have  more than one meaning. Many of you already know this. It is really hard, and also seems unnecessary, to present all the different and subtle meanings of Dhamma/Dharma here. But, for context, we need to discuss a few meanings of the term in relation to the question that was posed at the beginning of my talk.

Various meanings of Dhamma/Dharma.

In general, Dhamma/Dharma has three meanings, and these are 1) cosmic law as truth, 2) the teaching of the Buddha as a religious doctrine that is true and useful, and 3) all the phenomena as subjects and objects that minds can grasp and know. In Buddhist scripture, the usage of Dhamma/Dharma primarily indicates one of the three meanings discussed above. However, it often carries more than one meaning since all three meanings are closely related to each other.

As to the first meaning, cosmic law, and as we alluded to above, the Buddha also succeeded its meaning and usage from extant ancient Indian religion. Like a man makes something out of his time and place, Buddhism did not come out of nowhere. The Buddha lived at the realm of vast Indian religiosity that he reinvented through his religious vision and wisdom. So, like other contemporary spiritual leaders of his time, the Buddha also used the word Dhamma/Dharma to mean the cosmic law that is truth and not untruth.

Like the laws of physics, which were discovered by experiments and reasoning, the cosmic law, which is the first meaning of Dhamma, is invisible, hidden, and immaterial. In scripture, the Buddha says that he discovered the Dhamma, which is always present here and now. As for the truth of cosmic law, the Buddha stated, “This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.”

First, the Cosmic Law that is True and Ethical

Unlike the law in science, however, the cosmic law of the profound Dhamma was found not by experiment and reasoning, but by spiritual practice that the Buddha rigorously practiced after his going forth to become an ascetics. The Dhamma is invisible because it is profound as hard to understand. It can be only seen and experienced by people who become wise enough to do so through ethical living and practice. Although the cosmic law is profound and invisible, it is open to all. Anyone who sees the Dhamma becomes a Buddha or Arahant in our Buddhist belief, which I call democracy of enlightenment.

However, as the passage that I read at the beginning indicates, it is hard for ordinary people to see it since they are tainted by defilements of mind such as greed, hatred, and ignorance. Thus, the Buddha says, “But this generation delights in attachment, takes delight in attachment, rejoices in attachment.”

What is really interesting here in the passage is that the profound cosmic law is peaceful and sublime. I am not sure whether scientists say that the law of gravity is peaceful and sublime. However, unlike the law of science that is claimed as an objective discourse, the Dhamma of cosmic law is so peaceful and sublime that is something ethical. Therefore, how should we understand that the cosmic law is ethical in Buddhism? We might find some answers to the question in the second meaning of Dhamma/Dharma.

Second, the Teaching of the Buddha

As it is already said above, the second meaning of the Dhamma/Dharma is the teaching of the Buddha, which as a religious doctrine was one of many in ancient India. His teachings were about no other than the truth of cosmic law that invisibly operates behind world phenomena. In the passage that I read at the beginning, he gives some names of the cosmic law such as specific conditionality and dependent origination.

For almost 45 years from the time of his enlightenment, the Buddha relentlessly delivered the Dhamma/Dharma for the people out of compassion and loving-kindness. Therefore, what the Buddha taught is true and useful since he wanted people to use the truth of cosmic law to relieve and overcome their suffering and misery.

As he was much concerned with whether people could understand well what he taught, it is not easy for ordinary people to understand the teaching of the Dhamma/Dharma. Thus, the Buddha said, “And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.” Yet, no matter how hard it was, he had to give it a shot to deliver what he saw through the enlightenment into words of discourse. Otherwise, suffering would continue, aggravate, and get worse.

The cosmic truth that the Buddha discovered is not merely a cold-hearted fact, but it was also about usefulness and practicality. People can find peace through his teaching about the truth, which eventually proceeds to Nibbāna. This seems to be one of the reasons that the Buddha says the Dhamma is peaceful and sublime. Also, the cosmic law operates in the world without saying words for justice and equality of beings. For example, based on the principle of kamma/karma, actions of beings brings about results accordingly. Peaceful maintenance based on the kammic/karmic principle is sublime because the cosmic law is ethical, moral, righteous in itself.

Third, Phenomena based on the Cosmic Law.

As it is implicitly mentioned before, all the phenomena of the world move like streams based on the cosmic law. Thus, the third meaning of the Dhamma/Dharma is phenomena that are both subjects and objects, which our mind can grasp and know. In explanations of Buddhist doctrine, the Dhamma often means the basic entities by which other phenomena can be conjured up.

The third meaning seems to be technical and specialized to Buddhist doctrine, especially to elucidate how mind works with mental objects. This third meaning of the Dhamma/Dharma will be discussed in detail at another time. I just want to point out here that the meaning of phenomena is also related to the first and second meaning. Now, it is time to answer the initial question: How can the impersonal Dhamma/Dharma be a refuge? What does the Dhamma/Dharma exactly mean when we say taking three refuges as Buddhists?

What does the Dhamma mean as a refuge?

As it was stated at the beginning, taking refuge in the three jewels means that you rely on them in order to be free from danger, harm and suffering, which eventually leads to happiness and the perfection of wisdom. In this regard, the first and second meaning of the Dhamma combined together seem to fit for the meaning of refuge. The teaching about the cosmic truth and the right way of life becomes a refuge, shelter, and protection when we live by it. Like other religions, Buddhism also states that happiness, or good rewards, comes about when people live in accordance with the truth.

Thus, the impersonal Dhamma can become something that we can rely on. It is because having faith in it lead one to live in accordance with the truth of the cosmic law, which in turn brings about happiness, equanimity, and ultimately enlightenment.


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