What is the foundation of lay Buddhist practice?

The Three refuges – The vehicle for lay practice

“Marvellous, venerable sir! It is as if a person were to turn face upwards what is upside down, or to uncover the concealed, or to point the way to one who is lost or to carry a lamp in the darkness, thinking, ‘Those who have eyes will see,’ so has the  Dhamma been set forth in many ways by the Blessed One. We go to the Buddha for refuge, to the Dhamma for refuge, and to the Sangha for refuge. May the Blessed One regard us as lay followers who have gone for refuge for life, from today.” 

(Extract from the Kalama Sutta)

Based on a translation from the Pali by Soma Thera. Anguttara Nikaya, Mahavagga, Sutta No. 65. This is a standard text found in many Suttas, where lay people hearing the discourse take the three refuges as a commitment to becoming a lay Buddhist.

What are we taking refuge in?

The Buddha

We are not taking refuge in the historical Buddha of the past but in his enlightenment as an experience which is available now, in the present. Clearly this requires a conviction that the Buddha realised enlightenment in the past, but more so, the conviction that this can be realised by us in the present – the Buddha is here and now.

The Dhamma

We are not taking refuge in the Buddha’s teachings as something sacred to be believed in, but a path we can use to realise reality – to see the way things are. And the path is to be realised here and now, not put on the shelf for when we have time, or for some future life.

The Sangha

We are not taking refuge in the community of monks and nuns, but those who can point the way. The Buddha walks with us as a guide in the form of the Sangha – but Sangha who walk beside us and help guide us towards the goal are those who have realised or at least glimpsed the truth, whether they are monastic or lay.

The four similes

It is worth reflecting on what the four similes mean. They are all about revealing something which is hidden from us by our misperception, but is already there. All we need is the truth uncovering, or light to see with, the way pointing out, or in the case of something upturned, it turning over so we see it as it really is

Martin Evans