The London Buddhist Vihara goes back to 1955, and before that to the period 1926 to 1939, having been founded by Don David Hewavitarne (1864–1933), who took the title Anagarika Dharmapala. He was a Sinhalese man who took up the new role of the Anagarika that is half way between that of a layperson and [...]

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Taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha

Peter Harvey, retired Professor of Buddhist Studies, and meditation teacher at the Samatha Trust Tradition, UK, delivered the Anagarika Dharmapala memorial lecture at a ceremony held at the London Buddhist Vihara, on Sept 15, 2018 to mark the Founder’s Day. Here are excerpts of his speech on ‘Reflections on the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha’:

The London Buddhist Vihara goes back to 1955, and before that to the period 1926 to 1939, having been founded by Don David Hewavitarne (1864–1933), who took the title Anagarika Dharmapala. He was a Sinhalese man who took up the new role of the Anagarika that is half way between that of a layperson and a monk, entailing permanent adherence to the eight precepts, and he is seen by many as having been a bodhisatta. He helped revive Buddhism in Ceylon, founded the Mah Bodhi Society in India, worked for the return of Bodh-Gaya to Buddhist hands, and spoke inspiringly at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. He later visited the US and the UK several times.

The Anagarika (seated left) with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame (seated second from the right) at an Interfaith meeting in London. The photo appeared in The Graphic, a British newspaper, on October 8, 1927

He can be seen as a key force for revivifying the Sasana and hence strengthening and spreading respect for the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha in Sri Lanka, India and the West, being a key figure for Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the wider world. Like all things, knowledge and practice of the Dhamma is subject to decay, so we should all do our bit to live by it and deepen our understanding of it, while guarding against distorting it by misinterpretations, one-sidedness or clinging attachment to it and ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Buddhists’ as alone right.

Taking the ‘three refuges’

Chanting the three refuges is a way of expressing gratitude, appreciation and commitment to the Buddha, his teachings, and those who live in accord with them. ‘Taking refuge’ looks to three sources of guidance, inspiration, and aids to developing inner strength. It is an expression of trust; not a blind trust but a discerning and exploratory trust.

The notion of a ‘refuge’ is not that of a place to hide, but of something the thought of which calms, purifies, uplifts and strengthens the heart. ‘Taking refuge’ in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, as guides to a better way of living, can be experienced as a joyful haven of calm, a firm ‘island amidst a flood’, in contrast to the troubles of life. The ‘refuges’ remind one of calm, wise, spiritual people and states of mind, and so help engender these states.

Prof. Peter Harvey delivering the Anagarika Dharmapala memorial speech at the London Vihara

The ‘Buddha’ is the rediscoverer and exemplifier of Dhamma, who also showed others how to live by and experience it. As benefits of living by Dhamma teachings are experienced, a reverence and gratitude to the Buddha naturally tends to arise and deepen. The Buddha refuge does not only refer to Gotama Buddha, the historical Buddha, but also to past Buddhas and the principle of awakening/enlightenment as supremely worthy of attainment. In this respect, the first refuge can also be taken as a pointer to the faculties of wisdom, mindfulness, etc. developing within oneself.

Devotion to the three refuges can be expressed in various ways, such as chanting, bowing before a Buddha image, stupa or monk, and mindfully listening to a Dhamma talk.  When bowing, a possible reflection that one might use is:

To the great Lord of Calm and Insight, who breathed in Dhamma, became Dhamma, and radiated Dhamma, I humbly bow.

To the profound Dhamma, that is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely in its culmination, I humbly bow.

To the Noble Sangha that has breathed in Dhamma, plunged into Dhamma and become Dhamma, I humbly bow.

What is the classical description of the qualities of the Buddha?

The following is a translation of a very well-known chant, which expresses how a stream-enterer with unwavering confidence in the Buddha sees him:

‘Thus he is the Blessed One, because he is (iti pi so bhagava) thus: an Arahat, perfectly and completely Awakened, endowed with knowledge and good conduct, Well-gone, knower of worlds, an incomparable charioteer for the training of persons, teacher of gods and humans, Awakened One, Blessed One’.

London Buddhist Vihara Chief Incumbant Ven. Bogoda Seelawimala Nayaka Thera garlanding the bust of Anagarika Dharmapala. Pix by Tissa Madawela

That is:

- an Arahat – a ‘worthy’ or ‘accomplished’ one who is completely free of greed/attachment, hatred and delusion;

samma-sambuddho: ‘perfectly and completely Awakened’ to the nature of reality, as discovered by himself;

vijja-carana-sampanno: ‘endowed with (liberating) knowledge and (good) conduct’;

sugato: ‘well-gone’, practising well, rightly, so as to have gone to/experienced that which is excellent. This echoes the term Tathagata, literally Thus-gone/Thus-come, i.e. One Who Moves in Reality.

loka-vidu:  ‘knower of worlds’ – of the various kinds of rebirths and parallel mind-states, and of the many physical worlds spread through the universe, and knower of the impermanent and conditioned nature of all worlds.

anuttaro purisa-damma-saratthi: ‘an incomparable charioteer for the training of persons’: a great guide for others.

sattha deva-manussanam: ‘teacher of humans and gods (devas)’: based on his understanding of the worlds of all beings, and what lies beyond these.

buddho: ‘Awakened One’ – awakened to or enlightened to the true nature of reality.

bhagavati: ‘Blessed One/Exalted One/Fortunate One/Lord’: full of good qualities.

On the Dhamma

The Anagarika Dharmapala Trust held an almsgiving at the Vidyodaya Pirivena in Colombo on September 17 to mark the 154th birth anniversary of the Anagarika. Pictures show the Chairman of the Trust, Sudhammika Hewavitarne offering 'Pirikara' to Ven. Balangoda Sobitha Thera, Chief Incumbent of the Pirivena

‘Well explained (svakkhato) by the Blessed One is Dhamma: it is directly visible, not delayed (in its results), inviting one to come and see,  applicable and onward leading, to be experienced personally by the wise/discerning’.

This emphasises Dhamma as ever available, open to experiential investigation, practical and transformatory. As refuge, Dhamma is explained as the Noble Eight-factored Path: the path of practice, particularly in its noble (ariya) or world-transcending (lokuttara) form, as that which immediately leads to an experience of Nibbana: the complete end of attachment, hatred and delusion, and the dukkha they cause. Dhamma also includes the Buddha’s teachings, and the deep experiences that come from practising the path, right up to Nibbana itself.   Dhamma, then, is to be heard/read and understood, practised, and realised. It is also the ‘law-orderliness’ inherent in nature, the ‘Basic Pattern’ in which phenomena occur according to the Conditioned Arising principle, from appropriate conditions.

On the Sangha

‘The Community of the Blessed One’s disciples is practising the good way (su-patipanno Bhagavato savaka-sangho), the Community of the Blessed One’s disciples is practising the straight way, the Community of the Blessed One’s disciples  is practising the way of the true method, the Community of the Blessed One’s disciples is practising the proper way; that is, the four pairs of persons, the eight types of individuals; this Community of the Blessed One’s disciples is worthy of gifts, hospitality, offerings, and reverential salutation, the unsurpassed field of karmic fruitfulness for the world’:

Sangha: the noble religious ‘Community’ of people who have been spiritually ennobled by partial or full experience of Nibbana, which the monastic Sangha is particularly designed to produce.

‘The four pairs of persons, the eight kinds of individuals’ – Stream-enterers, Once-returners, Non-returners and Arahats, and those intently practising the Noble Path to realise any of these states.   The first three glimpse Nibbana and have some spiritual fetters destroyed; the Arahat fully experiences Nibbana, and is free of all spiritual fetters. These make up the Ariya, or ‘Noble’, Sangha. Its members may be monks or nuns, but also include some lay people and even some devas.

officials of the Trust offering dhane to the monks

‘An incomparable field of karmic fruitfulness (punna, ‘merit’) for the world’ – gifts and service ‘planted’ in this field will produce, for the giver, abundant fruit in the form of happiness and uplifting spiritual qualities.

On the four ‘assemblies’ that make up the noble Sangha, the Buddha said, not long before his death:

“I will not attain final Nibbana (at death) till I have monk disciples … nun disciples … laymen disciples … and laywomen disciples who are accomplished, trained, skilled, learned, versed in Dhamma, practising Dhamma in accordance with Dhamma, practising the proper way, conducting themselves according to Dhamma, who will pass on what they have gained from their own teacher, teach it, declare it, establish it, expound it, analyse it, make it clear, till they shall be able by means of Dhamma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the Dhamma of wondrous effect.” (DN.II.104–105).

On the relationship of monastics and lay-Buddhists, he said they mutually support each other, with lay people providing material support for those in the monastic Sangha, and receiving Dhamma teachings from them, so that, ‘Householders and the homeless (renunciants) in mutual dependence, both reach the true Dhamma: the unsurpassed safety from bondage’ (It.111).

Recollecting the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha

A kind of practice which draws on both chanting and formal meditation consists of recollections (anussati) which mindfully contemplate and savour the qualities listed in the Iti pi so… Svakhato and Supatipanno chants. Such recollections are seen to help suspend the five hindrances to meditative calm and wisdom (desire for sense-pleasures; ill-will; dullness and lethargy; restlessness and worry; and vacillation).

The Suttas say of the recollections

When a noble disciple recollects thus, on that occasion his mind is not obsessed by attachment, hatred or delusion; his mind is straight, with the Tathagata (Thus-gone = Buddha), or Dhamma or Sangha as object. A noble disciple whose mind is straight gains inspiration of the meaning, the inspiration of the Dhamma, gains gladness connected with the Dhamma. When he is gladdened, joy arises; for one uplifted by joy, the body becomes tranquil; one tranquil of body feels happy; for one who is happy, the mind becomes concentrated. This is called a noble disciple who dwells evenly amidst an uneven generation, who dwells unafflicted amidst an afflicted generation, who has entered the stream of the Dhamma and cultivates recollection of the Buddha … of the Dhamma … of the Sangha (AN.III.285).

In the Path of Purification, Buddhaghosa says of recollection
of the Buddha

When a monk is devoted to recollection of the Buddha, he is respectful and deferential towards the teacher/master (satth). He attains fullness of trustful confidence, mindfulness, understanding and karmic fruitfulness (puñña). He has much joy and gladness. He conquers fear and dread. He is able to endure pain. He comes to feel as if he were living in the master’s presence. And his body, when the recollection of the Buddha’s special qualities dwells in it, becomes as worthy of veneration as a shrine room. His mind tends to the plane of the Buddhas.

When he encounters an opportunity for transgression, he has a sense of moral integrity and concern for consequences as vivid as though he were face to face with the master. And if he penetrates no higher, he is at least heading for a happy destiny. (Visuddhimagga VII.67)

The same is said of recollection of the Dhamma, except that this leads to great reverence for the Dhamma, and ‘He comes to feel as if he were living in the Dhamma’s presence. And his body, when the recollection of the Dhamma’s special qualities dwells in it, becomes as worthy of veneration as a shrine room. The same with recollection of the Sangha, except that this leads to being respectful and deferential towards the Sangha, and ‘He comes to feel as if he were living in the Sangha’s presence. And his body, when the recollection of the Sangha’s special qualities dwells in it, becomes as worthy of veneration as an Uposatha house where the Sangha has met (to recite their precepts)’.


People may see chanting as simply ‘ritual’ or ‘devotion’, but it can also have a meditative quality as it contributes to the systematic nurturing and growing of good qualities, undermining negative traits which hinder this process, and enabling the arising of insight.

Chanting can express skilful states of mind through calm vocalisation that vibrates through the body. It helps tune up the mind and body, as preparation for formal practice – it helps prepare a good psychological ‘space’ in which to sit for meditation. It arouses energy and sometimes joy, but also calms and helps the mind become more mindful and focused.

Good chanting involves the whole of a person, body, speech and mind. It builds up a ‘sound body’ whose quality of vibration and tone corresponds to and enhances the emotional centre, which is felt in the middle of the chest. It sets up harmonious vibrations in the chest and even stomach regions, from where they permeate the rest of the body, helping to clear out inner tensions and associated negative emotions. To attain this effect, the sound must resonate not just in the vocal cords and top of the chest.

One needs to apply mindfulness to the sound one is producing, to check on its correctness as regards pronunciation and sound quality. Mindfulness is also needed in remembering the up-coming part of the chant – in practice, this means not letting the mind wander onto something else, but leaving a clear mental space into which the words of a learnt chant can emerge without obstruction.

The emotions – well, wholesome ones – are certainly engaged in chanting. In normal life, emotions are often expressed in one’s tone of voice, not just in the content of speech. While chanting usually has cognitive content, it also very much works though the kind of tones which it uses, e.g. soothing and harmonious, yet with energy and discipline. The tone quality helps tune the mind of chanters and listeners to mind states normally associated with such tones.

One can see chanting as helping to build up, for example, the five faculties, of trustful confidence, vigour, mindfulness, concentration, and even wisdom: from mindfulness of the fluid nature of mind in the process of chanting, as in all else, and in times when the chanting is observed to lift to a level where there is chanting but the sense of there being a ‘chanter’ drops away.

Paritta (pirit) chanting

Paritta chanting is of great value in offering protection to those who chant and listen to it, to the extent that they have confidence in the ‘three refuges’ and live by the precepts. It develops health-giving calm, kind-heartedness that disarms hostility from other beings, makes good karma and brings to fruition past good karma, draws protection from devas who are devotees of the Buddha, and draws on the spiritual power of the Buddha through devoutly chanting his Dhamma-teachings and opening the heart to them.


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