Practice Guides September 1, 2018

Faith & Refuge

Sean Oakes

At the opening of many retreats and practice gatherings, we chant the short invocation known as “going for refuge.” The three refuges, which invoke the “Triple Gem” of Buddha, Dharma (Pāli: Dhamma), and Saṅgha, are a grounding and intention-setting ritual, an affirmation of our confidence in the path, and a teaching on what to rely on for support in a challenging world. They are a gesture of faith.

The word “faith” can be difficult to understand in a non-theistic system like the Dharma, which can be thought of as a “science of mind” as much as a religion. But it’s worth working through any reactivity we may have to the word, because faith is one of the most important qualities to develop if we want to overcome suffering. Without faith, or confidence in the path, the heart is unguided through rough water, unable to see the possibility of freedom. When faith and the feeling of refuge are present, every situation in our life can be seen as workable.

The Pāli word saddhā, translated both as faith and confidence, points to the powerful energy in the heart when the hindrance of doubt is absent. In the Pāli discourses, faith is described as confidence in the Triple Gem (Iti 90): the practitioner is confident that the Buddha is (or was) fully awakened, that the teachings of the Dhamma are “well-proclaimed,” and that the Saṅgha has practiced well. There is the sense that the teacher, the teachings, and the community are all trustworthy, and will be good guides for our life.

Faith is the first quality in lists of beneficial qualities throughout the Pāli Canon—the discourses of the Buddha preserved by our Theravāda lineage:

  • It is the first of the five faculties/powers: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom (AN 5.14).

  • It is the first of the related five “powers of the trainee”: faith, conscience, prudence, energy, and wisdom (AN 5.2). When these qualities are absent, practitioners can be expected to decline (SN 16.7, AN 10.67).

  • It is the first of the five kinds of wealth (AN 5.47), seven qualities of skillful laypeople (AN 8.23), seven qualities of accomplished practitioners (AN 7.43), and eight qualities that define skillful practice (AN 8.25).

  • In a talk given to his cousin Mahānāma, the Buddha describes faith in the form of devotional reflections as the foundation of the entire path, leading directly to the removal of the hindrances and liberating insight (AN 6.10).

  • In the important teaching called “Transcendent Dependent Origination,” faith is the first stage in a sequence that describes the path to full liberation (SN 12.23).

Faith is not just a foundational inner quality, but can be the tone of one’s entire journey. In an interesting discourse, the Buddha teaches that practitioners come to liberation in three ways: through wisdom (insight), immersion (meditative concentration), or faith (AN 3.21). Being “liberated by faith” is as valid an awakening as that gained by either wisdom or immersion! This important perspective recognizes that for many practitioners, devotional practices like chanting, prayer, reflection, and ritual are as powerful as meditation and inquiry. In most of the Buddhist world, devotion is by far the most common form of practice, rather than meditation or mindfulness.

Despite the importance given to it in the tradition, for many of us faith can be a difficult quality to stabilize. Having heard teachings on how human and fallible the Buddha was, or about his relationship to his culture and politics, we may be skeptical about his being fully enlightened, or even if enlightenment is real. Comparing the teachings to contemporary views about liberation and happiness, we may not trust the Dhamma as still relevant as a guide to life. And having seen the misconduct of unethical spiritual teachers in many traditions, and how even the best spiritual communities struggle with the same social and political problems as the cultures they live in, we may be disillusioned about the Buddhist Saṅgha as a reliable refuge.

On top of all of these, a primary hindrance many of us experience is self-doubt. So we not only have a hard time believing in the liberating power of the Dharma, but cannot imagine that we ourselves could ever attain that liberation or even that we are worthy of it. Against such headwinds, how might we understand this heart quality of faith and begin to invite it into our life?

Many practices can support the growth of faith, including going for refuge, gratitude for the fruits of practice, and Dharma reflection.

Going for Refuge

When we chant the three refuges, we are engaging in a ritual of renewing our faith. Like the phrases we repeat in mettā practice, the refuges may sometimes be filled with emotion but can also become rote and dry. For the refuges to deeply support our practice, however, we need to feel them, and that means connecting with how desperately we need a reliable refuge in this world.

In a world marked by impermanence, suffering, and emptiness, physical safety is impossible to guarantee. The inner safety offered by the refuges is grounded in the wisdom of the Buddha and his community, and their direct experience seeking the most helpful conditions for wisdom and compassion to arise. When you chant or speak the refuges, let them touch the part of you that fears pain and loss, and longs for safety and ease.

Practice: Chanting the Refuges

Traditionally, going for refuge is begun by chanting the “Homage to the Buddha” three times. Then chant or speak the refuge phrases. If you have a home altar with a Buddha image on it, you might light a candle there, and bow three times to begin and end this ritual.

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā-sambuddhassa (3x)

Homage to the blessed, noble, and perfectly enlightened one. (3x)

Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Saṅghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

Dutiyampi Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Dutiyampi Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Dutiyampi Saṅghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

Tatiyampi Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Tatiyampi Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Tatiyampi Saṅghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

I go for refuge to the Buddha
I go for refuge to the Dhamma
I go for refuge to the Sangha

For the second time, I go for refuge to the Buddha
For the second time, I go for refuge to the Dhamma
For the second time, I go for refuge to the Sangha

For the third time, I go for refuge to the Buddha
For the third time, I go for refuge to the Dhamma
For the third time, I go for refuge to the Sangha

After going for refuge, sit in silence for a few moments, letting the heart open, holding with mindfulness and kindness whatever comes.

Gratitude for the Fruits of Practice

Even though faith is such an important heart quality to cultivate, it must be balanced with wisdom, or seeing the truth of the Dhamma for yourself. In the list of the “five faculties”—faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom—faith and wisdom balance each other (as do energy and concentration), with mindfulness as the center point.

In the famous Kālāma Sutta, The Buddha taught that faith could not be the only factor supporting one’s trust in a teaching, but that direct experience was necessary.

Please, Kālāmas, don’t go by oral transmission, don’t go by lineage, don’t go by testament, don’t go by canonical authority, don’t rely on logic, don’t rely on inference, don’t go by reasoned contemplation, don’t go by the acceptance of a view after consideration, don’t go by the appearance of competence, and don’t think ‘The ascetic is our respected teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are skillful, blameless, praised by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to welfare and happiness’, then you should acquire them and keep them. (AN 3.65)

One way to know for ourselves what to trust is to reflect on the benefits, or fruits, we have received from our practice so far. This can take the form of a kind of gratitude meditation in which we name and feel into ways that our practice has given comfort, increased resilience, softened attachments, decreased anxiety, created community, or led to insight—for ourselves, and through our actions out into our communities.

Reflection on the fruits of practice deepens our faith by reminding us that the practice is working, even though progress can feel slow, and can help us see through doubtful and self-critical thoughts.

Practice: Dharma Reflection

The instruction in the Kālāma Sutta to know for ourselves can be supported by study of Dharma teachings and comparing them to our experience in the world. Study is a powerful form of inspiration, and builds faith as we feel the resonance of the teachings in our life.

Many people find regular engagement with Dharma teachings to be a valuable touchstone in their life, even when meditation or other formal practices lapse. Reading books, listening to talks, and talking about the teachings with Dharma friends all support a life of faith and engagement with the path. Even if reflection sometimes leads us toward skepticism, difficult questions, and seems to increase doubt, there is always a wholesome aspect to reflecting on teachings and bringing them into conversation with the rest of our life.

Faith particularly grows when we see the truth of a teaching directly. Contemplating impermanence and then seeing it clearly in a moment of loss or tragedy is a confirmation of the truth of the teaching. Even though a loss may give rise to sadness, there can still be the deepening of faith in the power of the Dharma to describe life accurately and to offer skillful practices to decrease the dukkha (suffering and dissatisfaction) we experience when loss and tragedy inevitably strike.

As we grow in practice, and see how the skills of mindfulness, lovingkindness, and letting go have tangible positive effects in our life, faith and confidence in the path naturally grow. If you’ve been practicing for some years and continue to feel supported by the Dharma, faith is present. And if you’re newer to practice and feel drawn to the beauty and clarity of the teachings, faith is there in the inspiration and interest that are leading you along.

Wherever you are in your journey, turning attention toward the blessings of the lineage and feeling the fruits of your practice allows faith and confidence to take root and flower in the heart.


Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.