The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw | 1990 | 1,044,401 words

This page describes Note on Sarana-gamana (taking refuge) contained within the book called the Great Chronicle of Buddhas (maha-buddha-vamsa), a large compilation of stories revolving around the Buddhas and Buddhist disciples. This page is part of the series known as story of King Ajātasattu. This great chronicle of Buddhas was compiled by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw who had a thorough understanding of the thousands and thousands of Buddhist teachings (suttas).

Part 2 - Note on Saraṇa-gamana (taking refuge)

Herein note on Saraṇa-gamana will be mentioned briefly.

There are seven points regarding Saraṇa-gamana:

(a) Saraṇa (Refuge),
(b) Saraṇa-gamana (Refuge taking or Refuge consciousness),
(c) Person established in Saraṇa-gamana,
(d) Forms of Saraṇa-gamana,
(e) Fruit of Saraṇa-gamana,
(f) Contamination of Saraṇa-gamana, and
(g) Destruction of Saraṇa-gamana.

(a) Saraṇa (Refuge).

The Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha are the threefold Saraṇa (Refuge) because those, who seek its protection, overcome their fear, alarm, physical and mental suffering and various miseries in the lower worlds after death. In other words, the Buddha helps beings overcome various perils by contributing to their welfare and averting their misfortunes. So does the Dhamma by making beings free from hardships of life and consoling them. And so does the Sangha by making them gain a great benefit even from a few good acts. Hence the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha constitute the real threefold Refuge that ensures beings freedom from all suffering.

(b) Saraṇa-gamana (Refuge taking or Refuge consciousness)

Great wholesome consciousness (mahākusala-citta) that makes one inclined for the Three Jewels by removing defiling unwholesome mental states through devotion and veneration to the Three Jewels, Great Consciousness of Action (mahākiriya-citta) regarding the arahats, and Path Consciousness (maggacitta) regarding the Noble Ones established in the Path, maggaṭṭha ariyas. All these forms of consciousness are called saraṇa-gamana. Conviction that the Three Jewels are the real factors that eliminate feat and suffering by means of such consciousness is saraṇa-gamana. This is a definition.

(c) Person established in Saraṇa-gamana

A person who has the consciousness described above is one who is established in the threefold Refuge. Thus we should first understand the three aspects (1) Saraṇa (2) Saraṇagamana and (3) Person established in Saraṇa-gamana.

(d) Forms of Saraṇa-gamana

It is of two forms: (1) supramundane and (2) mundane.

(1) Supramundane saraṇa-gamana is implicit by way of fulfilment of function in a single thought-moment when the ariyas realize the Four Truths and attain the Paths, thereby overcoming all defilements and focusing their minds on Nibbāna. (By this is meant as follows: supramundane saraṇa-gamana is Path-consciousness. Path-consciousness is focused on Nibbāna, and this means uprooting the defilements that make saraṇa-gamana impure. So, although the Path-consciousness arises from the focus not on the Three Jewels but on Nibbāna, the fulfilment of its function involves the recognition of the Three Jewels as the real Refuge. In other words, at the moment of Path-consciousness, one is also possessed of the supramundane saraṇa-gamana. For example, it is said that one knows the Four Truths at the moment of Path-consciousness. Having Nibbāna as its object, the Pathconsciousness is concerned only with the truth about the end of suffering. But it also roots out ignorance that makes us blind to the Four Truths. Thus although the ariya focuses his mind only on Nibbāna, he becomes aware of the three other Truths that do not directly concern Nibbāna, viz., the Truths about Suffering, the Cause of suffering and the Way to the Cessation of Suffering.)

(2) The mundane saraṇa-gamana arises in an ordinary person (worldling) when he contemplates the attributes of the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha in the effort to remove the depravities (upakkilesa) that defile saraṇa-gamana. Basically this saraṇa-gamana means faith in the Buddha, etc. or Right View (Sammā-diṭṭhi) based on faith or a mental factor of wisdom (paññā-cetasika). As one of the ten meritorious actions (puñña-kiriya), it is called Diṭṭhijukamma. Here faith too is termed saraṇa-gamana and so is the faith and wisdom combined. Mundane consciousness, with regard to the Threefold Refuge, is of two kinds: intelligent consciousness (ñāṇa-sampayutta saraṇa-gamana) and unintelligent consciousness (ñāṇavippayutta saraṇa-gamana). The former is the consciousness of the children who recite the Refuge-formula at the advice of their parents. Here it is only a matter of faith (saddhācetasika). The intelligent saraṇa-gamana is based on the knowledge of the noble characteristics of the Three Jewels and here faith and wisdom are jointly mentioned as saraṇa-gamana because they are easily felt. The actual saraṇa-gamana however, is the consciousness that is led by faith and wisdom.

Again, the mundane saraṇa-gamana is of four kinds:

(1) Attasanniyyātana-saraṇa-gamana = saraṇa-gamana by giving up oneself to the Three Jewels;

(2) Tapparāyana-saraṇa-gamana = saraṇa-gamana by finding one’s support in the Three Jewels;

(3) Sissabhāv'ūpa-gamana saraṇa-gamana = saraṇa-gamana by becoming a pupil of the Three Jewels; and

(4) Paṇipātta saraṇa-gamana = saraṇa-gamana by showing great reverence to the Three Jewels.

Of these four:

(1) Giving up oneself to the Three Jewels involves declaration as follows: “From today onwards I give up myself to the Buddha; I give up myself to the Dhamma; I give up myself to the Sangha.”

(2) Finding one’s support in the Three Jewels involves supplication as follows: “From today onwards kindly recognize me as one who finds support in the Buddha, in the Dhamma and in the Sangha.”

(3) Becoming a pupil of the Three Jewels involves supplication as follows: “From today onwards, kindly recognize me as a residential pupil (antevāsika) of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.”

(In the Mahājanaka Jātaka, the Bodhisatta pointed out lifeless mango tree bearing fruit and the other mango tree bearing no fruit as his teachers because they instructed him for his welfare. Therefore, one speak of the Dhamma as one’s teacher and speak of oneself as its pupil.)

(4) Showing great reverence to the Three Jewels involves supplication as follows: “From today onwards kindly recognize me as one who worships, welcomes, raises one’s hands in adoration, venerates only the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.

One who adopts any of these four modes of seeking refuge is one who fulfils one’s saraṇa-gamana.


(1) declaration, uttering: “I give up myself to the Buddha, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha,” or “I offer my life to the Three Jewels,” or “I have offered my body to the Three Jewels,” or “I have offered my life to the Three Jewels,” or “I am aware of my approach to the Buddha as my refuge till the end of my life,... to the Dhamma... and... to the Sangha...,” or “the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha are my refuge”, all these utterances of declaration constitute attasanniyyā-saraṇa-gamana.

(2) In the story of Pippali, a youth who later became the well-known Mahā Kassapa, donned the robe by himself and set out from his brahmin village of Mahā Tittha to visit the Buddha. On his way, he saw the Buddha at the foot of the banyan tree called Bahu-puttaka between Rājagaha and Nāḷanda. The Buddha was waiting for him from a distance of three gavutas. As soon as Pippali saw the Buddha, he decided that “this noble ascetic must be the satthā (teacher) of devas and humans, the sugata (good wayfarer) who has really attained Nibbāna through excellent practice, and the Sammāsambuddha (Perfectly Self-Enlightened One) who has rightly penetrated the right doctrines by Himself. Then he took refuge in the Buddha by uttering: “If I am to see the satthā of devas and humans, I will see only You. If I am to see the sugata, I will see only You. If I am to see the Sammāsambuddha, I will see only You. (i.e. I will see no other person with my eye of wisdom as my Satthā, Sugata, and Sammāsambuddha. I will see only You as my Satthā, Sugata, and Sammāsambuddha.)” His utterances indeed amounted to the third mode of taking refuge which is sissabhāv'ūpa-gamana saraṇa-gamana.

(3) The Saraṇa-gamana that is marked by the desire to scale protection and shelter in the Three Jewels, as in the case of the ogre Āḷāvaka, the devakings, Hemavata and Sātāgira, is termed Tapparāyana-saraṇa-gamana.

(4) In the Brahmāyu Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, after the Buddha had answered the eight question put by the Brahmin Brahmāyu, the latter was much impressed and so after rising, he bowed his head to the feet of the Buddha. He also sucked the Buddha’s feet with his mouth and massaged them vigorously, saying: “O Gotama! I am the Brahmin Brahmāyu” and thus mentioning his name.

This gesture of the Brahmin Brahmāyu showing deep reverence for the Three Jewels is Paṇipata saraṇa-gamana.

In short, there is no uniform gesture for the four kinds of saraṇa-gamana. There are many kinds of bodily and verbal actions by which one can show reverence for the Three Jewels. The Commentary distinguished between four kinds of saraṇa-gamana explains the four kinds of reverences.

Four Kinds of Reverence (Paṇipāta)

Reverence may be of four kinds, reverence for relatives, reverence from fear, reverence for the teacher and reverence for one who, as one of the Three Jewels or Refuges, is worthy of excellent offering.

The saraṇa-gamana necessarily presupposes the fourth kind of reverence. It has nothing to do with the others.

Indeed reverence with faith is essential to saraṇa-gamana. This consciousness erodes only when there is reverence for the bogus Buddha, bogus Dhamma and bogus Sangha in place of three genuine Jewels.

(1) So a Sakyan or a Koliyan prince has no saraṇa-gamana if he reveres the Buddha, regarding the Buddha as a senior member of their family.

(2) Neither is it saraṇa-gamana, if a man reveres the Buddha out of fear that as a powerful teacher honoured by kings, the Buddha might do harm to him if he showed no respect.

(3) A man may remember having learnt (some craft) from the Buddha when He was still a Bodhisatta and now he reveres the Buddha, regarding Him as his former teacher. Another man may have heard the Buddha’s sermon on, say, the apportionment of one’s wealth, i.e., a wise person should spend one fourth of his income on enjoying life, two fourths (one half) to be invested in business, and the remaining one fourth to be saved for any emergency. So he looks up to the Buddha as his teacher and reveres Him for the advice with regard to his material welfare. Now neither of these two men’s reverence has anything to do with saraṇa-gamana.

(4) But a certain man reveres the Buddha, believing that He was the real Jewel, the real Refuge, worthy of alms given as foundations for welfare hereafter. Only this man has saraṇa-gamana.

For a layman or a laywoman who seeks refuge in the Buddha, recognizing the Buddha as

a being worthy of excellent offering (aggadakkhiṇeyya-puggala), his or her saraṇa-gamana is not adversely affected even though he reveres a relative of alien, heretical monastic Order, to say nothing of revering a non-heretical monk or a layman in his family. So also a layman or a laywoman who has sought refuge in the Buddha will not have his or her vow damaged by revering the king out of fear. The same is true in the case of a layman paying respect to a heretic who happens to be his former teacher.

(e) Fruit of Saraṇa-gamana

The chief immediate benefits of supramundane saraṇa-gamana are the four Fruitions of the Path gained by ariyas. The subsequent benefit is extinction of saṃsāra. In other words, it is the total extinction of the illusions of permanence, pleasantness and substantiality as regards the impermanent, unpleasant and insubstantial psychophysical phenomena, etc., are the benefits of mundane saraṇa-gamana.

(f) Contamination of Saraṇa-gamana

Mundane saraṇa-gamana gets debased owing to ignorance, doubt and misconceptions about the noble attributes of the Three Jewels. It is not bright, vast and great. The supramundane saraṇa-gamana is free from corruption. It is always clean and pure.

(g) Destruction of Saraṇa-gamana

Supramundane Saraṇa-gamana can never be destroyed. The ariya who is established in it does not point out as his or her teacher anyone other than the Three Refuges even in the next life. It is only the mundane saraṇa-gamana that tends to come to destruction.

Its destruction is of two kinds: (1) disastrous destruction and (2) non-disastrous destruction. The destruction is disastrous when one reveres and seeks refuge in other heretical teachers in one of the ways described above, thereby giving rise to craving, wrong belief, etc. When the destruction follows death, it is not disastrous because it does not involve doing any evil. (The vow taken by Buddhists nowadays as regards taking refuge in the Buddha, etc. is mundane. Like the observance of the moral precepts, its duration is not fixed and it ends only with death. This end is not disastrous because it does not involve craving, wrong belief and other unwholesome states of consciousness.)

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