The Buddha's Dharma, the One True Refuge

by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, 26 December 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- A question was asked during a Dharma sharing session. A young man, probably in his mid-20s, asked the Dharma speaker, "Which is the one true refuge, the Buddha, Dharma or Sangha?"

A Buddhist Shrine with Buddha flanked by Sariputta and Moggalana (taken from Jing Long Shan Wan Fuo Shi, Rawang, Malaysia).

The speaker answered and said, "Dharma is the one true refuge." He didn't elaborate much, but in my personal reflection, this is what I thought.

In Buddhist philosophy, the Three Refuges — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — all hold significant importance. However, among them, Dharma emerges as the ultimate refuge, embodying the truth and the path to awakening, a journey to be undertaken individually, akin to the Buddha's own.

Dharma represents the universal reality discovered by the Buddha, shared for the benefit of all beings. While the Buddha symbolizes human awakening and Sangha embodies the community on the true path, there exists a singular spiritual refuge — Dharma, the teaching and liberating truth.

Taking refuge in Dharma signifies an exclusive commitment to the path toward nirvana. It is a journey of self-discovery, a walk along the path of awakening, embodying the wisdom revealed by the Buddha. Dharma serves as the universal reality guiding individuals toward ultimate liberation from suffering.

In the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (D 16), the Buddha urges practitioners to make Dharma their refuge by dwelling as an island unto themselves. This teaching underscores the importance of self-reliance and the practice of mindfulness, emphasizing the four foundation of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna) as a method for cultivating this refuge within oneself.

Dharma possesses the profound ability to transform individuals into a wholesome community. Commencing with understanding one's own mind, the practice of Dharma liberates individuals, fostering a shift in perception and interaction with the world. Impermanence and non-attachment become guiding principles, leading to a harmonious existence.

The stories of early saints, particularly the arhats, stand as testament to the transformative power of Dharma. Confronted with challenges of the mind, these individuals overcame struggles through self-effort and correct meditation, attaining liberation. Their narratives inspire, affirming that through the practice of true Dharma, one can awaken in this life and liberate oneself from suffering.

The transformation of Sariputta through the Dharma is an example of the transformative power of the Buddha's teachings. Sariputta, who later became one of the Buddha's chief disciples, was known for his wisdom.

His journey towards enlightenment and becoming the Buddha's heart disciple began in a past life. In that past life, Sariputta, while fixing his shoes, noticed a painting of a Buddha on the wall and was struck by its beauty.

This simple act of appreciation planted the seeds of positive kamma, which came to fruition in his next life. Because of the merit accumulated from this wholesome action, he was reborn with the opportunity to meet the Buddha and become his heart disciple, known for his profound wisdom.

Sariputta's example is a testament to the Dharma's ability to shape one's destiny through the cultivation of wholesome actions and thoughts. It also illustrates the principle of paticca sammupada, or dependent origination, which explains how conditions and actions in one life can influence the circumstances of future lives.

Sariputta's transformation through the Dharma is not only a story of personal spiritual development but also serves as an inspiration for others to follow the path of the Dharma, cultivating wisdom and compassion in their own lives.

In conclusion, while the Buddha signifies human awakening and Sangha embodies the community of path saints, it is unequivocally Dharma that stands as the singular, supreme refuge. Embracing the truth and walking the transformative path, practitioners find solace, enlightenment, and ultimate liberation in the profound teachings of Dharma.

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