The meaning of the Pāli word ‘sutta’

well said

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Pāli word sutta: it is equivalent to the Sanskrit word sūtra and it means ‘discourse’. It is used in the sense of a discourse of the Buddha, one of the many discourses which generally begin evaṃ me sutaṃ, ‘thus have I heard’, and which are traditionally regarded as having been remembered by Ānanda, the Buddha’s friend and attendant.[1] At the same time, from the point of view of the word itself, we often read that the word sutta does not literally mean ‘discourse’, but that it means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and that the meaning ‘discourse’ is an applied meaning. However, in this essay I will show how some recent as well as traditional scholarship does not support the idea that sutta means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, but that the word was always understood to mean ‘discourse’.

Let us begin with the Pali-English Dictionary (PED). There are in fact two entries for sutta, in that sutta1 means ‘asleep’, being the past participle of supati ‘sleeps’. We can leave this meaning of sutta aside. The other meaning is as follows:

sutta2 (nt.) [Vedic sūtra, fr. sīv to sew] 1. a thread, string… 2. the (discursive, narrational) part of the Buddhist Scriptures containing the suttas or dialogues, later called Sutta-piṭaka… 3. one of the divisions of the Scriptures (see navanga)… 4. a rule, a clause (of the Pātimokkha)… 5. a chapter, division, dialogue (of a Buddh. text), text, discourse… 6. an ancient verse, quotation… 7. book of rules, lore, text book…[2]

PED thus relates sutta to Sanskrit sūtra and both words to sīv ‘to sew’, and gives its primary meaning as ‘thread’ as well as other meanings including ‘discourse’. Following PED, Buddhist commentators have tried to explain why a word meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’ should also be used as the word for Buddhist discourse. Sangharakshita, for instance, explains that:

meaning literally a thread, the word [sūtra, also sutta] suggests a series of topics strung on a common thread of argument or exhortation. By implication, therefore, a sūtra is of considerable length, systematic in form and substantial in content.[3]

However, there is a puzzle associated with this kind of explanation.

There certainly is a Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and there certainly is a Pāli word sutta with the same meaning.[4] There also certainly is a genre of Sanskrit literature called sūtra. This genre, perhaps the best-known example of which is the Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali, consists of a number of brief aphoristic sayings in verse (each called sūtra). The genre long pre-dates Buddhism, being first used around 800 BCE in the Śrauta-sūtras, concerned with Vedic ritual, and the genre remained important in philosophy and literature for many centuries. The aphorisms of the genre can certainly be said to have been strung together or to have a common thread, and perhaps were so-called for this reason. However, neither the Pāli suttas nor the Sanskrit Buddhist sūtras are like this at all. The Buddhist discourses are not in the least aphoristic and neither do they consist in sayings of the Buddha strung together. It is therefore a puzzle to read even in an up-to-date Dictionary of Buddhism under the entry sūtra:

In Sanskrit, lit. “aphorism”, but in a Buddhist context translated as “discourse”, “sermon”, or “scripture”; a sermon said to be delivered by the Buddha or delivered with his sanction. A term probably used originally to refer to sayings of the Buddha that were preserved orally by his followers (and hence called “aphorisms”), the sūtra developed into its own genre of Buddhist literature, with a fairly standard set of literary conventions…[5]

Reading this entry, one might reasonably ask why a word meaning “aphorism” would have been used to describe the oral record of the Buddha’s teaching, and why this word later came to refer to a genre of Buddhist literature which was not in the least aphoristic.

Scholars have proposed a pleasing and elegant answer to this puzzle. It is that we have been misled by the Sanskrit word sūtra into supposing that the Pāli word sutta means ‘thread’ and therefore ‘aphorism’. The Indian Buddhists who used the Sanskrit word sūtra were incorrect to use it as an equivalent to the older Middle-Indo-Aryan word sutta, and this earlier word should actually be derived from sūkta, meaning ‘well-spoken’, hence ‘discourse’ of the Buddha. As Prof. K.R. Norman puts it:

Many Buddhist Sanskrit texts are entitled sūtra. To anyone who comes to Buddhist studies from classical Sanskrit studies, this name comes as a surprise, because, in Sanskrit, sūtra literature is a specific genre of literature, composed in prose, usually of a very abbreviated and concise nature, while Buddhist sūtras have an entirely different character. This difference is due to the fact that the word sūtra in Buddhist Sanskrit is a Sanskritisation of the Middle Indo-Aryan word sutta, which is probably to be derived from Sanskrit sūkta, a compound of su and ukta, literally “well-Spoken”. It would be a synonym for subhāṣita, which is the word used of the Buddhavacana [sayings of the Buddha] by the emperor Aśoka… when he said: “All that was spoken by the Lord Buddha was well-spoken”.[6]

According to this explanation, the word sutta means ‘well-spoken’ and hence ‘discourse’ of the Buddha, from the verb vac ‘to speak’ (the past participle of which is ukta) with the prefix su meaning ‘well’, ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. If this is true, the early Buddhists who used the word sutta to mean ‘discourse’ did so with good reason, and did not do so thinking that sutta meant ‘string’ or ‘thread’. This meaning of sutta is to be understood as distinct from the meaning of sutta as ‘thread’, just as sutta also means ‘asleep’. Hence, sutta1 ‘asleep’ (past participle of sup), sutta2 ‘thread’ (from sīv), sutta3 ‘discourse’ (from su+ukta).

Inevitably, however, other scholars have found fault with the details of this explanation. Prof. Oscar von Hinüber thinks that this proposed etymology of sutta from sūkta is unnecessary. He writes:

In der Theravāda-Überlieferung findet die Annahme, daß sutta eigentlich sūkta- entspräche, nirgends eine Stütze, wie die lange Erörterung zu sutta-, As 19, 15–26, mit aller Deutlichkeit zeigt.[7]

In the oral tradition of the Theravāda, the assumption that sutta really corresponds to sūkta nowhere finds a support, as the long discussion on sutta in As 19, 15–26, quite distinctly shows.

Von Hinüber’s point is that, while it is theoretically possible that sutta is derived from sūkta, and that this would elegantly explain its usage, there is no traditional support for such a derivation. He cites the Atthasālinī, the Theravādin commentary on the Dhammasaṅganī, the first book of the Abhidhamma-piṭaka.[8] This commentary gives the following explanation of the word sutta:

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca ‘suttan’ti akkhātaṃ.

tañhi attatthaparatthādibhede atthe sūceti. suvuttā cettha atthā veneyyajjhāsayānulomena vuttattā. savati cetaṃ atthe, sassamiva phalaṃ, pasavatīti vuttaṃ hoti. sūdati cetaṃ, dhenu viya khīraṃ, paggharatīti vuttaṃ hoti. Suṭṭhu ca ne tāyati rakkhatīti vuttaṃ hoti. suttasabhāgañcetaṃ. yathā hi tacchakānaṃ suttaṃ pamāṇaṃ hoti evametampi viññūnaṃ. yathā ca suttena saṅgahitāni pupphāni na vikiriyanti na viddhaṃsiyanti evametena saṅgahitā atthā. tenetametassa vacanatthakosallatthaṃ vuttaṃ –

atthānaṃ sūcanato, suvuttato savanatotha sūdanato;

suttāṇā suttasabhāgato ca suttanti akkhātan’ti.[9]

From showing (sūcana) the good, from having been well spoken (suvutta), from begetting (savana) and from giving out (sūdana);

Through being an excellent shelter (suttāṇa), and from being like thread (sutta), sutta is called ‘sutta’.

For it shows the good (attha) consisting of the good for one’s self, the good for others, and so on. And meaning (attha) has been well spoken in this respect through being spoken in conformity with the dispositions of those ready for the teaching. And it begets the good (attha), like crops do fruit, so it is said that it brings forth. And it gives it [the good] out, like a cow does milk, so it is said that it flows out. And it excellently shelters and protects it [the good]. And it is similar to thread, for as the carpenter’s thread is a measure, so it is too for the wise, and as flowers tied together with thread are not scattered and damaged, so by it good things are tied together. Therefore this has been said about it for the sake of knowledge about the meaning of the word: [repeat of stanzas].’[10]

This traditional discussion of the meaning of sutta is revealing, in that although Von Hinüber is correct in saying that it does not definitively support the derivation of sutta from sūkta, neither does it support the derivation of sutta from the word sutta meaning ‘thread’. Let us look more closely at this traditional explanation.

The Atthasālinī explains the meaning of sutta (as in sutta-piṭaka, the ‘discourse collection) in six distinct ways:

  1. It means sūcana (‘showing’, ‘indicating’), as it shows the good. The word sūcana comes from sūcī (‘needle’) via the denominative root sūc. Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit Dictionary (MW p.1241) links sūcī with sīv (‘to sew’), the root of sūtra, but the PED doubts this connection (p.721).
  1. It means suvutta (‘well spoken’, ‘well said’) from su (‘well’, ‘excellent’) and vac (‘to speak’). This explanation amounts to the derivation proposed by Norman, that sutta = Sanskrit sūkta. However, the commentary is not claiming that sutta is the same word as suvutta or that it derives from su+vac, only that sutta can be explained as suvutta (‘what has been well spoken’).
  1. It means savana (‘begetting’), which can be derived from the Sanskrit root su4 (= 2) (‘to generate’) (MW p.1219). This explanation gains strength from the fact that the past participle of su is suta, literally meaning ‘issue’, hence ‘son’ (PED p.717). There is hence an edifying background word-play between sutta and savana via suta.[11]
  1. It means sūdana (‘gives out’), which is cognate with the Sanskrit root sūd, which, according to MW p.1242 can have the meaning ‘eject’ (nikṣepana).
  1. It means su+(t)tāṇa (‘excellent shelter’), from the prefix su together with the word tāṇa (‘shelter’), cognative with Sanskrit trāṇa from the root trai (‘shelter’, MW p.457). This explanation is an example of explanation through edifying word-play, since the commentator would not have supposed that the word sutta was etymologically connected with suttāṇa, only that the resemblance of sounds between the words could be exploited to explain the meaning of sutta. 
  1. The final explanation is in the form of a comparison. Sutta is said to be suttasabhāga (‘like or similar to sutta’) where sutta in this case means ‘string’ or ‘thread’, which is derived from the Sanskrit root sīv (‘to sew’).

From these six explanations of the meaning of the word sutta, we can see how the commentators primarily took the word to mean ‘discourse’, and then they explained this meaning in various ways, relating sutta to other words that were either homonyms (sutta meaning ‘thread’), or were edifyingly similar in sound (suttāṇa, sūdana, sūcana), or were both similar in sound and related in meaning (suvutta), or were related in meaning (savana). The impression one gets is that the commentator does not have a single view about the derivation of sutta.

However, from a historical perspective the commentator’s explanation of the meaning of sutta is from a later period, and does not tell us much about how the early Buddhists who first used the word sutta understood it. We can also only wonder whether the commentator was familiar with the Buddhist Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘discourse’ as the equivalent of the Pāli sutta. If he was, which seems likely, then two interesting conclusions seem to follow. Firstly, the Pāli commentator does not seem to relate the words sutta or sūtra to the genre of Indian literature called sūtra or ‘aphorism’. Rather, the words sutta or sūtra are explained as comparable to a string or thread only as an edifying metaphor. Secondly, the Pāli commentarial explanation of sutta seems to allow that this word may be the equivalent either of Sanskrit sūkta or of sūtra.

In conclusion, then, the Pāli word sutta, when used to refer to Buddhist literature, need not be taken literally to mean ‘thread’. It is equally possible to derive sutta from su+ukta as from the root sīv (‘to sew’), and the former derivation would support the meaning of sutta as ‘discourse’, in the sense of ‘what has been well spoken (by the Buddha)’. While the Pāli commentary does not give any direct support to this derivation, it does support the meaning of sutta as ‘discourse’ and does not appear to support any connection of sutta to the Sanskrit word sūtra meaning ‘aphorism’, derived from the meaning of sūtra as ‘thread’. In short, despite our not knowing for certain the derivation of sutta, it is consistently used to mean ‘discourse’ in a way that supports its derivation from sūkta, ‘well-spoken’.

[1] The situation is in fact more complicated, in that the early Buddhist scriptures record a nine-fold analysis of Buddhist literature, the first sort being sutta, meaning ‘discourse’, the second being gāthā, ‘verse’, the third geyya, ‘mixed prose and verse’, and so on. However, this nine-fold analysis appears to have been superseded by the more now-familiar three-fold division of the scriptures into three piṭakas or collections, including the sutta-piṭaka or ‘discourse collection’.

[2] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pali–English Dictionary, PTS: London, 1925, p.178.

[3] Sangharakshita, The Eternal Legacy, Tharpa: London, 1985, p.14. Cf. A Survey of Buddhism, 6th ed., Tharpa: London, 1987, p.17.

[4] This and the following information from Brian Levman, Linguistic Ambiguities, the Transmissional Process, and the Earliest Recoverable Language of Buddhism, unpublished PhD thesis, 2014, pp.228–30.

[5] Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press, 2014, p.875.

[6] K.R. Norman, A Philological Approach to Buddhism, PTS: Lancaster, 2006, p.135. His explanation was first suggested by Walleser in 1914. Norman’s suggestion has been taken up by Richard Gombrich, ‘How Mahāyāna Began’, in Journal of Pāli and Buddhist Studies, 1988, 29–46, p.32; also by Rupert Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.13, n.1.

[7] Oscar von Hinüber, ‘Die neun Aṅgas: ein früher Versuch zur Einteilung buddhistischer Texte’, WZKS 38, 1994, 121–35, p.132. Von Hinüber’s view is followed by Johannes Bronkhorst in Buddhist Teaching in India, Wisdom: Boston, 2009, p.xi n.4.

[8] As is an abbreviation for Atthasālinī.

[9] Atthasālinī ed. Edward Müller, PTS: London, 1897, p.19.

[10] My translation; there is also a PTS trans. by Pe Maung Tin and Mrs Rhys Davids, The Expositor, vol.1, London: PTS, 1920, p.24. The explanation of sutta is also found in a slightly different form in the commentary to the Sutta-nipāta, the Paramatthajotika II, vol.1, ed. Helmer Smith, PTS: London, 1916, p.1.

[11] Thanks to Bryan Levman for his advice on savana. This word may be related to several different Sanskrit roots: ‘impel’, su ‘press out’ as well as su ‘generate’. It is possible that the Pāli commentators had several meanings in mind.


Not Easily Repaid


I haven’t posted anything on this blog for a while as I have been pre-occupied with my dad’s illness and death on May 9th. But here I am getting back into the swing of blogging by sharing a translation I have made of an early Buddhist discourse from the Pali canon, concerning what we owe to our parents and how we might or might not be able to repay them for what they have given us. This discourse is not unique in the Pali canon, and it helps us put into perspective the Buddha’s well-known rejection of family life, in favour of a life of renunciation. Such renunciation does not imply that we forget everything that has been given us by our families. In fact, our Buddhist practice might be very well expressed by the way we try to repay our parents, by loving actions, speech and thoughts. So this translation is an offering for my father, Richard Jones (who really liked his chickens).

Not Easily Repaid

Monks,[1] I tell you, there are two people who are not easily repaid. Which two? Your mother and your father. You might carry them about on your shoulders, you might look after them when they are one hundred years old, at the end of life,[2] by rubbing their limbs, massaging them, bathing and washing them, and though they might become incontinent, urinating and defecating right where they are, nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. You might establish your mother and father in sovereign dominion over the realm of this great earth, abounding in the seven precious things, but nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. For what reason? Because, monks, mothers and fathers do a great deal for their children, bringing them up, feeding them and introducing them to this world.

But, monks, you could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack trust, in the blessing of confidence (saddhā). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack virtue, in the blessing of virtuous conduct (sīla). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they are selfish, in the blessing of generosity (cāga). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they have poor understanding, in the blessing of wisdom (paññā). To that extent, monks, you have done enough for your mother and father, you have repaid them, you have very much done enough for them.[3]


[1]This discourse does not have a title, so I have invented something suitable. It is from the Aṅguttara-nikāya 2:33, PTS i.61–2. Alternative translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, and by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.

[2]The text has vassasatāyuko vassasatajīvī, ‘having a life span of one hundred years, living a hundred years’, agreeing with the subject, but it hardly makes sense to think the child at such an age might be looking after their parents, so my translation here is more of an interpretation.

[3]The final phrase, translating atikatañca, is not given in the Burmese ed., though it appears in the PTS and Sri Lankan eds., and ends the discourse nicely.


‘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

[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.