‘Going for Refuge’ as Idiom and Metaphor


Anyone familiar with Buddhism will know that Buddhists say that they ‘go for refuge’ to the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching), and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). This usage goes back to the time of the Buddha, so it is rightly hallowed. Moreover, in the Triratna Buddhist movement, in which I practise, going for refuge is seen as especially important, because not only is it the one thing that all Buddhists have in common but, as Sangharakshita puts it, it is the central and defining act of the Buddhist life.[1] However, it seems to me that the English expression ‘going for refuge’ is also a piece of jargon, and a good example of ‘Buddhist Hybrid English’, that is, an expression which nobody else uses except Buddhists.[2] In this essay I want to explore how this expression ‘going for refuge’ is (i) an inexact translation of (ii) an ancient Indian idiom, which (iii) even in its day was a metaphor in Buddhism. I want to open up some imaginative space in which to explore how to give better expression in English to the central and defining act of the Buddhist life.

‘Going for refuge’ is the usual English translation of the Pāli expression saraṇa-gamana, and it is also used as a title for the traditional form of words by which one declares that one is a Buddhist:[3]

buddha saraa gacchāmi
dhamma saraa gacchāmi
sagha saraa gacchāmi

I go for refuge to the Buddha.
I go for refuge to the Dhamma.
I go for refuge to the Saṅgha.

However, a look at the grammar of the Pāli expression quickly reveals a difficulty for the translator. The verb gacchāmi means ‘I go’ and is related to the verbal root gam (with which ‘go’ is cognate). In Pāli and Sanskrit, the goal of verbs of motion like gam is expressed by the accusative case, whereas in English the goal of verbs of motion is indicated by the preposition ‘to’. Hence here buddhaṃ is in the accusative, and buddhaṃ gacchāmi means ‘I go to the Buddha’. But the word saraṇam, which means ‘refuge’, ‘shelter’ or ‘protection’, is also in the accusative, and is thus in apposition to the word buddhaṃ. We should therefore properly translate the expression buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi as ‘I go to the Buddha as refuge’, and saraṇa-gamana as ‘refuge-going’.[4]

This may not seem so important since ‘I go to the Buddha as refuge’ means more or less the same as ‘I go for refuge to the Buddha’. However, what do we mean by ‘go’ here? We are not actually going anywhere, so what do we mean when we ‘go to the Buddha as refuge’? This question takes us to another issue of translation. The root gam has some meanings that the word ‘go’ does not, such as ‘reaches, obtains’,[5] and for this reason it is perfectly correct to translate buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi as ‘I take the Buddha as refuge’, as long as it is clear that there is no implication that one is taking the refuges from anybody else.

But now, whether we go to the Buddha as refuge, or take the Buddha as refuge, the question arises of what we mean by ‘refuge’. The word saraṇa is used to mean ‘house’ in Pāli,[6] so in a figurative sense we could say saraṇa-gamana means ‘coming home’ to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. But really the Buddha is not a building but a ‘refuge’ in the sense of offering shelter and protection. Chogyam Trungpa picks up on a different figurative sense of saraṇa when he explains that anyone who ‘goes for refuge’ must therefore be a ‘refugee’, so that Buddhists are ‘refugees from conditioned existence’.[7] But this figurative language does not explain how the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha were considered saraṇas. To understand this we have to go back to the social and linguistic context of ancient India in which the expression saraṇa-gamana arose.

In the Pāli canon it occurs mainly in the context of people declaring their conversion to the Buddha’s teaching, so it evidently became a formulaic expression in the Buddhist tradition early on. Yet this Buddhist use relates to an idiom in which saraṇa-gamana means placing oneself into a reciprocal relationship with a protective power. This is apparent from a later commentarial story illustrating a verse about the unreliability of friends. A king falls ill, and his faithless ministers decide to leave him to seek employment in the court of another king. They think, ‘“This king is not going to live for long; why don’t we seek protection (saraṇaṃ) for ourselves elsewhere?”, and coming before another king they asked to enter his service.’[8] The idiom of saraṇa-gamana is therefore similar to ‘swearing allegiance’ in feudal Europe. In the feudal contract the vassal swears allegiance to the Lord, in return for which he receives the right to land and to protection from the Lord, though the Lord could call on him to bear arms on his behalf. Even today there is a tradition of ‘pledging allegiance’ to the flag in the USA, which has the connotation of a reciprocal relationship, of having a right to the benefits of living under the US constitution by by pledging to serve it.

However, the idiom of saraṇa-gamana had already been transferred from a social to a religious context before the Buddhists took it up. We can see this in the well-known stanzas from the Dhammapada:[9]

Impelled by fear many people go mountains
as refuge (saraṇa), to woods, to park- and tree-shrines.

But this is no secure refuge, not the highest refuge.
Going to this as refuge one is not entirely released from pain.

It is not clear what the first stanza means, and the commentary is not very helpful, but it suggests a religious context in which it was believed that making offerings to supernatural beings, perhaps yakṣas, in the mountains and woods, or at their local shrines, would induce those beings to protect the devotee in return. Certainly there are stories in the great Indian poem, the Mahābhārata, in which people go to trees and their guardian spirits for refuge (śaraṇa) from storms.[10]

Combining the political and religious uses of the idiom of saraṇa-gamana is its use in the context of devotion to Lord Kṛṣṇa. The true devotee surrenders to Kṛṣṇa as śaraṇa, as refuge.[11] This devotional sense of saraṇa-gamana is probably later than the time of the Buddha, but illustrates how, in the Indian religious context, saraṇa-gamana means seeking divine protection. But alongside such religious superstition and devotionalism there was a use of the idiom of saraṇa-gamana in relation to more sophisticated, though still essentially magical, form of thinking, by which the act of giving to a worthy ascetic or samaṇa was believed to produce merit or puñña, which was understood as existential or metaphysical shelter or protection in the sense of bringing a good rebirth. We can see this kind of thinking in a conversation between the Buddha and a young Brahman called Māgha, who approaches the Buddha, wishing to know to whom to give so as to gain the most merit. The Buddha gives a series of stanzas explaining how renunciants like himself are the most worthy of gifts, including the stanza:[12]

One who has knowledge, loves meditation, is mindful,
has attained awakening, is a refuge (saraṇa) for many –
a brahman seeking merit should sacrifice to him
should make an offering at the right time.

The implication here is that, according to the religious belief of the young Brahman, the person worthy of gifts is a saraṇa because giving to him produces merit.

In conclusion, the saraṇa-gamana or taking-refuge was an ancient Indian idiom indicating a movement of assent on the part of the inferior or suppliant or devotee, to a social or religious power, in a reciprocal relation of protection in return for service or devotion or religious giving. This is the cultural context in which the phrase saraṇa-gamana was used. ‘Taking refuge’ meant expressing one’s assent to a superior power that offered protection – even protection from a bad rebirth; and it also signified agreeing to serve that power – for instance, by giving food. In the Buddhist context, it is clear from the early discourses that people expressed their new-found faith in and devotion to the Buddha, his Dharma and the spiritual community, by just such a saraṇa-gamana. This is expressed by a stock paragraph by which people declare themselves converts having heard the Buddha teach:

‘Wonderful, Lord, wonderful! It is as if someone were to set upright something overturned, or explain something that was obscure, or show the way to someone lost, or carry a lamp into the darkness so that those with eyes can see. In the same way, Venerable Gotama has made the Dharma known in many ways. I go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the Dharma and to the Sangha of monks. May the Venerable Gotama remember me as a lay-follower who has taken refuge (saraṇaṃ gataṃ) from this day onward for as long as life lasts.’

It is as if this saraṇa-gamana was simply the accepted form of words by which one expressed one’s conversion to a teaching. In this sense, the saraṇa-gamana simply signifies an act of faith, and what makes one specifically a Buddhist is saraṇa-gamana to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. We should add that, in the Indian cultural context, a saraṇa-gamana to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha meant giving food and requisites to the monastic community with the expectation of merit in return.[13]

However, although the Buddha obviously accepted the cultural idiom of saraṇa-gamana and merit-making, he gave it a new and metaphorical twist. Without trying to dissuade people from giving to ascetics like himself, he re-interpreted the meaning of doing so, from a quasi-magical religious act to an explicitly ethical one.[14] He explained that the best kind of saraṇa is acting ethically, and that it is by keeping the precepts that one makes merit and gains existential or metaphysical saraṇa or protection. This is made explicit in a story of two old brahmans, who approach the Buddha to say that they have not done anything good or wholesome, and they have not made a shelter from what is fearful.[15] The Buddha reassures them by explaining that restraint of body, speech and mind will be their shelter, their protection, their island in the flood and their refuge, after their deaths.[16]

Just as the saraṇa-gamana was a reciprocal relation, with the inferior person going and the superior protecting, so the Buddha’s metaphorical re-interpretation of the idiom is reciprocal in that he offers protection by teaching people how to practise ethics. One discourse explains that the Buddha is one who honours and reveres the Dharma, and who provides protection, shelter and defence by setting in motion the wheel of the Dharma, and by making clear what are good actions of body, speech and mind.[17] In the background of the Buddha’s metaphorical re-interpretation of the saraṇa-gamana is his insight into how our character and destiny are shaped by our own actions: our deeds are our refuge. This is explicit in the last of the ‘five topics for frequent recollection’:

I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, joined to my actions, and actions are my refuge (paṭisaraṇa). Whatever actions I might do, good or bad, of these I will be the heir.[18]

In this sense, the saraṇa-gamana, the taking-refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, has the metaphorical implication that we alone are responsible for our destinies, and that the most reliable source of safety in the cosmos is our own accumulation of goodness.

In this brief survey of saraṇa-gamana as idiom and metaphor, I hope to have shown that the English expression ‘going for refuge’ does not communicate the rich network of connections between social protection, religious power and merit-making that the Indian idiom of saraṇa-gamana implies. And in consequence it does not allow us to appreciate the Buddha’s metaphorical twist of the cultural idiom. So why do we use an inexact translation of a idiom which is so culturally remote from us? I would suggest that we do so because we suppose that the expression ‘going for refuge’ is somehow in itself ‘Buddhist’. However, this is not the case, since one is not a Buddhist because of taking refuge, but because of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Taking refuge is simply the ancient Indian idiom for conversion, whereas the important thing from the Buddhist point of view is the metaphorical twist to the idiom, by which taking refuge in the Buddha means ‘obtaining shelter’ in virtue.

We will no doubt continue to use the English expression ‘going for refuge’ since it has already become so well established, albeit in Buddhist Hybrid English. But how do we understand for ourselves this jargon, and how can we explain it to others? How, then, to re-imagine the saraṇa-gamana in good, native English? Movement has to be involved, for, just as the old idiom implies going under a tree or out to give alms, so the saraṇa-gamana implies assent and resolve – a change of life, and not just of belief. I myself have been experimenting with the expression ‘placing trust’ as a translation of saraṇa-gamana. When I say, ‘I go for refuge to the Buddha, to the Dharma, and to the Sangha’, I feel myself to be using a kind of code or jargon that I have to interpret to myself; but when I say ‘I place my trust in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha’, I directly feel the devotional, grateful tenor of the implied existential commitment, while the very words leave an open aura of cultural familiarity in which to hear the deeper implication: I take responsibility for my thoughts, words and deeds; I wrest my destiny from both the cosmic powers and the crowd.

So when I say buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, dhammaṃ ca saṅghaṃ ca, I translate the expression as ‘I place my trust in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha’. For me ‘placing trust’ is a better translation of saraṇa-gamana than ‘going for refuge’.

[1] This is explored by Sangharakshita in The History of My Going For Refuge, Windhorse Publications, Glasgow, 1988.

[2] See Paul J. Griffiths, ‘Buddhist Hybrid English: Some Notes on Philology and Hermeneutics for Buddhologists’, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 4 (1981) 2:17–32. Buddhist Hybrid English is ‘a dialect comprehensible only to the initiate’ (p.17).

[3] For instance, in Khuddakapatha 1.

[4] The Pāli texts also use the verbs ‘go’ and upa-i ‘come’ with saraṇa to express the same thing, and these verbs also take two accusatives, e.g. saraṇaṃ taṃ upema cakkhuma, ‘We come to you as refuge, man of vision’, Sutta-nipāta v.31; ime dasasatā yakkhā iddhimanto yasassino / sabbe taṃ saraṇaṃ yanti tvaṃ no satthā anuttaro, ‘These one thousand yakṣas, powerful and famous, / all go to you as refuge; you are our supreme teacher’, Sutta-nipāta v.179.

[5] See Margaret Cone, Dictionary of Pāli, vol.II, s.v. gacchati. The old PED, s.v. gacchati, gives the figurative meanings ‘to come to know, to experience, to realize’.

[6] See PED, s.v. saraṇa, and Sutta-nipāta v.591.

[7] ‘By taking refuge, in some sense we become homeless refugees… The point of becoming a refugee is to give up our attachment to basic security. We have to give up our sense of home ground, which is illusory anyway… because we don’t have any home ground, we are lost souls, so to speak.’ Chogyam Trungpa, ‘Taking Refuge: the Decision to Become a Buddhist’, on www.shambhalasun.com.

[8] From the commentary on Sutta-nipāta v.75, Pj II pts p.129. The faithless ministers came to no good, for their new king did not pay them.

[9] Dhammapada vv.188–9: bahū ve saraṇaṃ yanti pabbatāni vanāni ca / ārāmarukkhacetyāni manussā bhayatajjitā // netaṃ kho saraṇaṃ khemaṃ netaṃ saraṇamuttamaṃ / netaṃ saraṇam āgamma sabbadukkhā pamuccati //

[10] For instance, in Mahābhārata 12:141. There is a summary of the incident in The Mahābhārata, trans. John D. Smith, Penguin, 2009, p.623.

[11] Mahābhārata 13:145; also Śrimad Bhagavatām 11:11:29–32.

[12] Sutta-nipāta v.503: yo vedagū jhānarato satīmā / sambodhipatto saraṇaṃ bahunnaṃ / kālena tamhi havyaṃ pavecche / yo brāhmaṇo puññapekho yajetha

[13] These days we might set up a standing order with the bank to support our teacher or Buddhist Centre, but we would probably not suppose that this would affect our destiny.

[14] The Buddha similarly gave a metaphorical twist to the Brahmanical concept of karma, redefining karma in terms of ethical instead of sacrificial action: see Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, London, 2009.

[15] They are akatabhīruttāṇā, for they have not made (akata) a shelter (tāṇa) from fear (bhīru).

[16] This story is from Aṅguttara-nikāya 3:51 and recurs at 3:52.

[17] This is from Aṅguttara-nikāya 3:14.

[18] This is from Aṅguttara-nikāya 5:57.