Knowing True Refuge – Three Suttas
Knowing True Refuge
Two suttas consistently misunderstood, misquoted, and misapplied in modern Buddhism are the Ratana and Kalama Suttas. The common occurrence of adapting, accommodating, and embellishing what an awakened human being actually taught only continues ignorance of the Buddha’s Dhamma.
The Buddha never presented himself as a magic-producing eternal god-among-gods, or his Dhamma as a continually re-imagined mystical soup, or a super-natural sangha holding special and often unattainable “insight” and “empowerments.”
In the Ratana Sutta, the human Buddha teaches to take refuge in an awakened human being – that human beings CAN awaken, to take refuge in his timeless, authentic, direct, and entirely practical Dhamma, and to take refuge in a well-focused and well-informed sangha restring in concentration and refined mindfulness established through the Heartwood of the Dhamma – The Noble Eightfold Path.
The irony here is that these two suttas, as originally taught by Siddartha Gotama 2,600 years ago, continues to provide the guidance and focus for skillful and effective Dhamma practice. It is skillful and effective Dhamma practice that avoids the institutionalized ignorance prevalent in modern Buddhism-By-Common-Agreement. It is skillful and effective Dhamma practice that develops recognition of fabricated beliefs and abandons clinging to the fabricated belief that the Buddha would actually teach endless contradictory magical and mystical un-focused and constantly adapted “dharmas” that one should pick and choose from and call the resulting fabricated “dharmas” Buddhist Practice.
As seen in the Kalama Sutta, this grasping-after-dharmas is precisely what Siddartha taught to recognize and quickly abandon. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha teaches a group confused by their own grasping-after-dharma practice that his Dhamma can only be known and developed through wholehearted individual engagement with his Dhamma as he taught 2,600 years ago.
A third included sutta is the Dhaagga Sutta. Simlar to the Ratna Sutta, the Buddha uses a common teaching method of using metaphor to decsrtibe confused and troubled mind-states.
Ratana Sutta Introduction
For a complete understanding of this sutta within the context intended by an awakened human being, please read the suttas linked at the end of this article. ([x])
Everything the Buddha taught was taught in the context of Dependent Origination and the ongoing stress, suffering, and distraction that results from ignorance of Four Noble Truths. 
His first teaching was taught to describe the results of this common ignorance and the singular path the Buddha taught to recognize and abandon ignorance. [2,3]
Refuge is a place or state of mind that is a protection or a shelter from hardship or danger. Refuge is a place or state of mind that is a source of comfort and peace.
True refuge is found in:
1. The Buddha
2. The Dhamma
3. The Sangha
Nearly all schools of Buddhism refer to “The Triple Refuge” or taking refuge in “The Three Jewels.” In modern Buddhism By Common Agreement, the meaning of true refuge is often altered and adapted to allow for non-specific culturally and individually influenced “dharmas.” This then intentionally avoids the effective refuge found in the Buddha’s Dhamma and ignores recognizing the ignorance that is the Heartwood of the Buddha’s Dhamma. 
The teaching known as the “Jewel Discourse” or the “Ratana Sutta” was given in the city of Vesali at a time of widespread famine and spreading disease. There were many dead bodies as the conditions overwhelmed the ability to properly dispose of bodies. The local citizens sought out the Buddha’s help, who was nearby in Rajagaha.
My comments below are in italics.
Ratana Sutta Talks
Samyutta Nikaya 2.1
At that time the city of Vesali there was widespread famine and spreading disease. There were many dead bodies as the conditions overwhelmed the ability to properly dispose of bodies. The local citizens sought out the Buddha’s help, who was nearby in Rajagaha. The Buddha arrived in Vesali a short time later with a large number of monks, including Ananda. Just before the Buddha’s arrival, torrential rains helped the situation somewhat by cleansing the landscape of rotting corpses and clearing the air and water.
Prior to his presenting this discourse, he instructed his attending monks to walk through the city and do what they could to ease the physical suffering of the citizens and to individually present this teaching. At the formal teaching the Buddha then presented a way to bring true refuge from the stress and suffering of the world and to put an end to all dukkha:
“May all beings assembled have peace of mind. May all beings assembled listen mindfully to these words. May you all radiate goodwill and loving-kindness to all who offer help and understanding to you. Understand this: “There is no more precious jewel, no more refuge, no more comfort, than the Buddha. As woodland groves in the early heat of summer are crowned with blossoming flowers, so is the sublime Dhamma leading to the calm and peace of nirvana. The peerless and excellent awakened one, the teacher of true understanding, the teacher of the Noble Path is the Buddha, The one who has awakened.
Here the Buddha is not teaching worship of himself. The Buddha often referred to himself as the “Tathagata,” the one who has gone forth. The Buddha had gone forth from distraction and ignorance, stress and suffering, to well-concentrated wisdom. He liberated himself from clinging to all objects and views. Through his own efforts, Siddartha Gotama awakened to become a Buddha. The Buddha is here offering himself as the example of one going forth and actually developing the Eightfold Path. This also establishes the qualification for teaching an authentic Dhamma. 
Taking refuge in the Buddha is understanding that all human beings can go forth from ignorance and attain wisdom and Right Understanding. There is great protection and comfort in understanding that liberation and freedom is possible for all human beings who wholeheartedly develop the Buddha’s Dhamma.
“There is no more precious jewel than the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma. Understanding this brings true liberation and freedom. The Buddha, calm and mindful has experienced the cessation of clinging and desire. The Deathless state of nirvana has been attained. The Buddha teaches the Noble Eightfold Path that unfailingly brings concentration, liberation, and freedom. There is no more precious jewel than the Buddhadhamma.
The Buddha is describing that there is a precious jewel in taking refuge in the path of liberation and freedom. In this setting in Vesali, the Buddha is teaching that once practical needs have been taken care of to turn one’s attention to being mindful of the actual teachings of the Buddha and his emphasis on the Eightfold Path – the Heartwood of the Dhamma.
“There is no more precious jewel than the Sangha. Understanding this brings true liberation and freedom. The virtuous ones who bring the Dhamma, they are the Jewel of The Sangha. Those with steadfast minds, free of clinging, they are the jewel of the Sangha. Those that understand with wisdom The Four Noble Truths, they are the jewel of the Sangha. Those that gain true insight and abandon self-delusion, doubt, and indulgence in meaningless rites and rituals, They are the jewel of the sangha. Those beyond despair and evil-doings, They are the jewel of the sangha. Those whose understanding arises from the support of the sangha, who can no longer conceal the truth from themselves due to the sangha, they are the precious jewel of the sangha. Those whose karma is extinguished, the future of no concern, with rebirth ending, due to the support of the sangha, this is the precious jewel of the sangha.
End Of Sutta
The example of the Buddha’s life, the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma, along with the support of a well-focused Sangha, provides true refuge from the suffering of distraction and ignorance arising from ignorance of his Dhamma. Being mindful of the three jewels concentrates the mind to what is of utmost importance.
A well-focused sangha informed and guided by the Buddha’s Dhamma continues the true refuge taught here. Much of modern Buddhism By Common Agreement no longer provides this true refuge. This sutta also shows the responsibility that Dhamma practitioners have in maintaining the authentic teachings of an awakened human being if they would hope to establish a true refuge of and for the Buddha’s Dhamma. [5,6]
Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels is taking great comfort in understanding that awakening is possible for any human being. The example of the Buddha’s life shows that.
There is great comfort in realizing that the way of liberation is a path accessible and integrated by anyone, the Eightfold Path. 
There is also great comfort in knowing that we do not engage in the path of liberation and freedom alone. The Buddha often said that the most important aspect of practice is the sangha. The support and commitment that we gain from each other often provides the encouragement and strength to continue, even when difficult times interfere. 
Holding in mind the Three Jewels provides continual direction for one’s mindfulness.
Taking refuge in the Buddha, The Dhamma and the Sangha also provides a framework for mindful expression of joy and freedom.
This article is an excerpt from The Truth of Happiness
Linked Suttas For Further Study
- Dependent Origination – The Paticca Samuppada Sutta
- Four Noble Truths – The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
- Eightfold Path – The Magga-Vibhanga Sutta
- Teaching An Authentic Dhamma
- Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
- An Admirable Sangha – Upaddha Sutta
For a complete understanding of this sutta within the context intended by an awakened human being, please read the suttas linked inline and at the end of this article. ([x]) Inline links will open in a new window.
Everything the Buddha taught was taught in the context of Dependent Origination and the ongoing stress, suffering and distraction that results from ignorance of Four Noble Truths.
His first teaching was taught to describe the results of this common ignorance and the single path the Buddha taught to recognize and abandon ignorance.  Eightfold Path – The Magga-Vibhanga Sutta
The Dhajagga Sutta is similar to the Ratana Sutta in teaching the true and practical refuge of a human Buddha, his Dhamma, and a well-informed and well-focused Sangha. 
The Buddha begins this teaching using disturbed and corrupted mind-states as metaphor for minds rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths.  Mara And Metaphor
The Buddha used metaphor when appropriate to describe fabricated mind-states. He uses metaphor and simile consistently throughout his forty-five-year teaching career.
Using metaphor to describe corrupted qualities of mind relates directly to the common human compulsion to fabricate a view of self in relation to the people and events of the world. Metaphor, though fabricated, provides a common point of reference and a clear path away from fabricated views to understanding .
Those in attendance understand context and focus of the Buddha’s teaching methods and know that the Buddha is referring to troubled mind states in his use of metaphor. The use of metaphor in teaching his Dhamma is common and prevalent throughout the Buddha’s Dhamma, though commonly misunderstood and over-emphasizing fabricated and speculative “realities.”. This is not always apparent when studying individual sutta or when developing a “Buddhist practice” that ignores Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths as the framework for authentic Dhamma practice.
Modern Buddhism-By-Common-Agreement compulsively encourages a cobbled-together practice of picking and choosing “dharmas” that allow for continuing ignorance of Four Noble Truths. [6[ Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
My comments below are in italics.
Dhajagga Sutta – True Refuge -The Highest Standard
Samyutta Nikaya 11:3
On one occasion, the Buddha was staying near Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. He addressed those gathered:
“Friends, once the devas and asuras were prepared for war with each other. Sakka, lord of the Devas addressed those of the Thirty-Three (fabled “Thirty-Three realms”): ‘If fear or terror should arise when going to battle, be mindful of the standard (of understanding) established ny me. When you are mindful of my standard, all fear and terror are abandoned.’
As stated previously, references to non-physical realms, and the speculated inhabitants of “higher realms” was constantly and directly taught to be recognized and quickly abandoned.  Right Mindfulness And Authentic Dhamma
‘If you are not mindful of my standard then look at Pajapati’s standard of understanding. When you are mindful of Pajapati’s standard, all fear and terror are abandoned.’
Sakka’s fabricated view may occasionally provide distraction from what is occurring by establishing the mind in fabricated realities given authenticity simply by common agrreement. 
‘In this same manner, If you are not mindful of Pajapati’s standard of understanding, then look at Varuna’s standard of understanding. When you are mindful of Varuna’s standard, all fear and terror are abandoned.’
‘In this same manner, If you are not mindful of Varuna’s standard of understanding, then look at Isana’s standard of understanding. When you are mindful of Isana’s standard, all fear and terror are abandoned.’
The Buddha continuers: “Friends, look at the standards of understanding established by Sakka, or Pajapati, or Varuna, or Isana. Becoming mindful of their standard(s), all fear and terror might be abandoned, or it might not.
“Why this uncertainty? Because Sakka, Lord Of The Devas, despite his standard (of practice) Sakka is not free of greed, aversion, or fire of deluded thinking. He can be cowardly, frightened, and quick to flee. The others as well.
No matter the standard used to authenticate a “teacher”, if the “standard” is not established by the Human Buddha, his authentic Dhamma, and a well-focused and well-informed Sangha the results will be disjointing at best and continually distracting in practice. 
“Friends, listen carefully: When you have established seclusion at the root of a tree or an empty hut, and fear and terror arise, be mindful that I, the Rightly-Self-Awakened One, am consumate in knowledge and understanding, pure in behavior, unexcelled in teaching those fit to be taught. When you understand my standard, all fear and terror are abandoned.
When telling his disciples it is time to meditate, the Buddha would say “go find the root of a tree or an empty hut, and do Jhana. Jhana means concentration. hana is the sole meditation method taught by the Buddha. It is a well-concentrated mind that is able to develop the refined mindfulness necessary hold in mind the entire Eightfold Path as the framework and guidance for authentic Dhamma practice.  Right Meditation – Samadhi – Jhanas
“Also, you can be mindful of the standard of my Dhamma. The Dhamma is a complete and timeless path. My Dhamma is inviting and verified by direct experience. When you understand the standard established through my Dhamma, all fear and terror are abandoned.
“Also, you can be mindful of the standard of a (well-focused and well-informed) Sangha. My Sangha is established in Four Noble Truths and practiced authentically, straightforwardly, and methodically.
“This Sangha of Dhamma Disciples is worthy of gifts, hospitality. And appropriate offerings. This Sangha is deserving of respect. Through their understanding of my Dhamma, they will bring much good-will to the world. When you understand the standard established through (a well-focused and well-informed) Sangha, all fear and terror are abandoned.
“Why is this true? Because the Buddha is free of greed, aversion, and fire of deluded thinking. He can not be cowardly, frightened, or quick to flee.
“In seclusion, friends, at the rot of a tree or an empty hut, established in Jhana, be mindful and take refuge in the Buddha, be mindful and take refuge in the my Dhamma, and be mindful and take refuge in a well-focused and well informed Sangha.
“Those wise disciples, practicing in this manner, are free of greed, aversion, and fire of deluded thinking. They can not be cowardly, frightened, or quick to flee.
Thise gathered were delighted in informed by the Buddha’s words.
End Of Sutta
The closing of this sutta shows the emphasis the Buddha maintained on developing and practicing his Dhamma free of the adaptations, accommodations, and widespread embellishment of his authentic Dhamma. This compulsive need to substitute a corrupt and fabricated dharma in favor of the Buddha’s Dhamma was just as common during the Buddha’s time as today. The solution is the same as well: Study and practice what a Buddha actually taught in order to become released from all troubled mind-states.
Linked Articles For Further Study
- Dependent Origination – The Paticca Samuppada Sutta
- Four Noble Truths – The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
- Eightfold Path – The Magga-Vibhanga Sutta
- True Refuge – The Ratana Sutta
- Mara And Metaphor
- Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
- Right Mindfulness And Authentic Dhamma
The Kalama Sutta – A Refined Dhamma is an article on the unique and direct path the Buddha taught for the forty-five years of his teaching career.
“Abstain from wrong-doing, work for the good of all, purify your mind,” this is the teaching of the Buddha” (Dhammapada)
In the Kalama Sutta  the Buddha addresses greed, aversion and deluded thinking directly as a way of pointing out how other teachings fail to directly address the defilements, and in many cases inadvertently promote deluded behavior.
The Buddha then uses the qualities of generosity, non-clinging and well-concentrated refined mindfulness developed through The Eightfold Path as the framework for Dhamma practice. The Buddha points out that through awakening developed within the framework of The Eightfold Path one becomes “mindful and imbued with equanimity, free of ill-will, undefiled and pure.”
The Buddha consistently presented The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as unique and distinct, not as a common teaching that could be integrated into other teachings according to the hardened beliefs of individuals. It is the insistence that the Buddha’s teachings can and should be accommodated to individual and cultural beliefs that have resulted in confusing, contradictory, and ineffective “dharmas.”
He instructed the Kalama’s to not “go by other’s accounts, or by legends or traditions. Do not follow scriptures (later developed texts) or logical conjecture (conditioned thinking). Do not form conclusions through inference, analogies or common agreement.”
His admonition here to “question everything” must also be seen in the context in which he made this statement. Often gleefully and compulsively taken by many today as license to practice anything and everything and call it “Buddhist practice,” taken in context it is clear that the Buddha is telling the Kalamas to question other teachings in the context of what he teaches and to then decide for yourself if the teachings are consistent with his Dhamma and effective. He also provides very skillful guidance how to precisely determine what his Dhamma is based on.
Another way that many have adapted his admonition to “question everything” was in reference to him telling students that “when uncertain, confused, or doubtful to question me directly” conveniently leaving out the part where the Buddha wants to be addressed directly. This should be obvious that there could be no useful answer by asking someone who has become confused by their own insistence that the Dhamma should be adapted to fit desired answers to questions that are rooted in ignorance and taken out of context.
The Buddha encouraged others to question his teachings directly to him so that he could provide an answer in the proper context, not to engage in endless debate or to convince someone of his Dhamma. The Buddha’s response was only to provide guidance within the proper context. Of course, since the Buddha’s passing, we can no longer question him directly but we can look to the only written record of his teachings still existing today, or question a teacher that has actually studied his teachings as preserved in the Pali Canon.
An article explaining the development of the Pali Canon and the maintenance of its authenticity is here: The Pali Canon
Kalama Sutta Talks
The Kalama Sutta
Anguttara Nikaya 3.65
The Buddha was walking with a large group from the sangha. They arrived at Kesaputta, the town of the Kalamas. The Kalamas have heard that the Buddha was an awakened human being who teaches a complete path that is admirable in the beginning, in the middle and in its conclusion.
The Kalamas went to the Buddha and told him of the many teachers that come through their town all claiming to have taught the one true “dhamma” while ridiculing other teachers and their teachings. “How are we to know which is a useful and effective dhamma and what is not.”
The Buddha replies “Of course you are uncertain and filled with doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty will follow. Do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty.
“When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are unskillful, shameful, confusing, and distracting these teachings should be abandoned. When these teachings are criticized by the wise they should be abandoned. When these teachings lead to harm and suffering they should be abandoned.
“What do you think, Kalamas – when the three defilements of greed,
aversion and deluded thinking arise in a person do they arise for benefit or for harm?”
“The defilements always bring harm.”
“And when a person is driven by the defilements, their mind possessed, they kill other beings, they take what is not given, they take another’s spouse, they lie and induce other’s to lie, all of which create long-term harm and suffering for themselves and others.
“What do you think, Kalamas – are these defilements skillful or unskillful, shameful or shameless, criticized or praised by the wise?”
“The defilements are unskillful, shameful, and criticized by the wise.”
“When the defilements are acted upon do they lead to long-term suffering for one’s self and others, or not?”
“They always lead to long-term suffering for one’s self and others.”
“So as I said ‘Do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty. When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are unskillful, shameful, confusing, and distracting these teachings should be abandoned. When these teachings are criticized by the wise they should be abandoned. When these teachings lead to harm and suffering they should be abandoned.’
“Now ‘do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty. When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are skillful, shameless, unambiguous, and direct these teachings should be developed. When these teachings are praised by the wise they should be developed. When these teachings lead to unbinding and calm they should be developed.’
“What do you think, Kalamas – when the defilements do not arise in a person is this for their long-term welfare and happiness and for others long-term welfare and happiness?”
“For everyone’s long-term welfare and happiness.”
“And this person, free of the defilements, does not kill living beings or take what is not given or take another’s spouse, or lie or induce other’s to lie. So what do you think – are these qualities skillful, shameless, and praised by the wise?”
“They are, sir. When developed and acted on they bring long-term welfare and happiness to one’s self and others.”
“Now, Kalamas, one who follows the Dhamma, free of greed, aversion or deluded thinking, alert and mindful of the path, experiences their life imbued with good will. Everywhere they go their mindfulness is imbued with good will, with gratitude, with a mind resting in equanimity. They are abundant and free from all agitation towards themselves and all humanity.
“When one follows the Eightfold Path, free from greed, aversion, and deluded thinking, undefiled and pure, there are four qualities they will naturally develop:
1. They will give rise to pleasant experiences in the present.
2. They will give rise to pleasant experiences in the future.
3. If harm is dome with no intention no suffering will touch them.
4. If they remain harmless than they can know that they are pure and no suffering will touch them.
“These are the for qualities naturally developed in one free of the defilements from following the Dhamma.”
“Great Teacher, you have shown a way to those who were lost. Through clear reasoning, you have made the Dhamma clear and taught us how to know a true Dhamma. We take refuge in you the Great Teacher, in your Dhamma and in your Sangha. Please remember that from this day forward we have taken refuge.”
End Of Sutta
The Kalama Sutta concludes with the Buddha describing the results of awakening directly through the Eightfold Path: “Now, Kalamas, one who follows the Dhamma, free of greed, aversion or deluded thinking, alert and mindful of the path, experiences their life imbued with good will. Everywhere they go their mindfulness is imbued with good will, with gratitude, with a mind resting in equanimity. They are abundant and free from all agitation towards themselves and all humanity.”
There continues to be strong desire to accommodate the Buddha’s direct teachings to fit cultural and individual traditions and hardened beliefs. The Buddha taught to avoid the desire to make his teachings fit self-referential views. He taught The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path as the framework for deciding what is skillful to be mindful of in order to recognize conditioned thinking, abandon clinging, and develop a life of lasting peace and happiness.
The Buddha taught a distinct and direct path to develop lasting peace and happiness. He also taught that recognizing differences in philosophies was not intolerant or in any way discriminatory. Anyone seeking the truth of their own existence should and must be encouraged to abandon that which proves to be distracting from that search.
Maintaining a refined focus is the essence of refined mindfulness of the Dhamma and will prevent the confusion and continuing distraction of attempting to incorporate all things into an initially refined, complete and specific dhamma.
Here is an article and talk on the Thicket Of Views that have developed in modern Buddhism as a result of ignoring the Buddha’s direct teachings and adapting and accommodating his teachings to fit charismatic individuals and cultural views: Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
For All Who Reside In The Dhamma - Agantuka Sutta
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
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