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May 8, 2014
Now is the Knowing, Now is the Knowing

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When people ask, ‘What do you have to do to become a Buddhist?’, we say that we take refuge in Buddha Dhamma Sangha. And to take refuge we recite a formula in the Pali language: Buddham saranam gacchami

I go to the Buddha for refuge Dhammam saranam gacchami I go to the Dhamma for refuge Sangham saranam gacchami I go to the Sangha for refuge.

As we practise more and more and begin to realize the profundity of the Buddhist Teachings, it becomes a real joy to take these refuges, and even just their recitation spires the mind. After twenty-two years as a monk, I still like to chant Buddham saranam gacchami’ in fact I like it more than I did twenty-one years ago because then it didn’t really mean anything to me, I just chanted it because I had to, because it was part of the tradition. Merely taking refuge verbally in the Buddha doesn’t mean you take refuge in anything: a parrot could be trained to say ‘ Buddham saranam gacchami’, and it would probably be as meaningful to a parrot as it is to many Buddhists. These words are for reflection, looking at them and actually investigating what they mean: what ‘refuge’ means, what ‘Buddha’ means. When we say, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, ‘ what do we mean by that? How can we use that so it is not just a repetition of nonsense syllables, but something that really helps to remind us, gives us direction and increases our devotion, our dedication to the path of the Buddha?  The word ‘Buddha’ is a lovely word it means ‘The one who knows’ and the first refuge is in Buddha as the personification of wisdom. Unpersonified wisdom remains too abstract or us: we can’t conceive a bodiless, soul-less wisdom, and so as wisdom always seems to have a personal quality to it, using Buddha as its symbol is very useful.  We can use the word Buddha to refer to Gotama, the founder ofwhat is now known as Buddhism, the historical sage who attained Parinibband in India 2,500 years ago, the teacher of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, teachings from which we still benefit today. But when we take refuge in the Buddha, it doesn’t mean that we take refuge in some historical prophet, but in that which is wise in the universe, in our minds, that which is not separate from us but is more real than anything we can conceive with the mind or experience through the senses. Without any Buddha-wisdom in the universe, life for any length of time would be totally impossible; it is the Buddha-wisdom that protects. We call it Buddha wisdom, other people can call it other things if they want, these are just words. We happen to use the words of our tradition. We’re not going to argue about Pali words, Sanskrit words, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English or any other, we’re just using the term Buddha-wisdom as a conventional symbol to help remind us to be wise, to be alert, to be awake. Many forest bhikkhus in the North-East of Thailand use the word ‘Buddho’ as their meditation object. They use it as a kind of koan. Firstly, they calm the mind by following the inhalations and exhalations using the syllables BUD-DHO, and then begin to contemplate, ‘What is Buddho, the ‘one who knows’?’ ‘What is the knowing?’  When I used to travel around the North-East of Thailand on tudongl liked to go and stay at the monastery of Ajahn Fun. Ajahn Fun was a much-loved and deeply respected monk, the teacher of the Royal Family, and he was so popular that he was constantly receiving guests. I would sit at his kuti (hut and hear him give the most amazing kind of Dhamma talks, all on the subject of Buddho’ as far as I could see, it was all that he taught. He could make it into a really profound meditation, whether for an illiterate farmer or an elegant, western-educated Thai aristocrat. The main part of his teaching was to not just mechanically repeat ‘Buddho’ , but to reflect and investigate, to awaken the mind to really look into the ‘Buddho’, ‘the one who knows’ really investigate its beginning, its end, above and below, so that one’s whole attention was stuck onto it. When one did that, ‘Buddho’ became something that echoed through the mind. One would investigate it, look at it, examine it before it was said and after it was said, and eventually one would start listening to it and hear beyond the sound, until one heard the silence.

A refuge is a place of safety, and so when superstitious people would come to my teacher Ajahn Chah, wanting charmed medallions or little talismans to protect them from bullets and knives, ghosts and so on, he would say, ‘Why do you want things like that? The only real protection is taking refuge in the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Buddha is enough. But their faith in Buddha usually wasn’t quite as much as their faith in those silly little medallions. They wanted something made out of bronze and clay, stamped and blessed. This is what is called taking refuge in bronze and clay, taking refuge in superstition, taking refuge in that which is truly unsafe and cannot really help us.  Today in modern Britain we find that generally people are more sophisticated. They don’t take refuge in magic charms, they take refuge in things like the Westminster Bank but that is still taking refuge in something that offers no safety. Taking refuge in the Buddha, in wisdom, means that we have a place of safety. When there is wisdom, when we act wisely and live wisely, we are truly safe. The conditions around us might change. We can’t guarantee what will happen to the material standard of living, or that the Westminster Bank will survive the decade. The future remains unknown and mysterious, but in the present, by taking refuge in the Buddha we have that presence of mind now to reflect on and learn from life as we live it. Wisdom doesn’t mean having a lot of knowledge about the world; we don’t have to go to university and collect information about the world to be wise. Wisdom means knowing the nature of conditions as we’re experiencing them. It is not just being caught up in reacting to and absorbing into the conditions of our bodies and minds out of habit, out of fear, worry, doubt, greed and so on, but it is using that ‘Buddho’ that ‘one who knows,’ to observe that these conditions are changing. It is the knowing of that change that we call Buddha and in which we take refuge. We make no claims to Buddha as being ‘me’ or ‘mine’. We don’t say, ‘I am Buddha,’ but rather, ‘I take refuge in Buddha. ‘It is a way of humbly submitting to that wisdom, being aware, being awake.

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Now is the Knowing, Now is the Knowing

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About the author 

Sean Fargo

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]