Refuge in the Noble Sangha

Once we make a connection to reliable sources of protection, our destination comes into view. We begin to discover the missing piece in our pursuit of happiness, which has eluded us because samsaric refuges do not last.

– Mingyur Rinpoche


In Buddhism, one of the fundamental practices is what is called Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels. These are the Buddha as the teacher, the Dharma as the teachings we choose to follow, and the Sangha or spiritual community as our support. Taking refuge is considered to be the entry into becoming a Buddhist, and this can be done in a formal ceremony. The true act of taking refuge though is something that happens inside for a person.

When we decide that this is a path we can entrust our spiritual life to, that receptivity and the desire to follow this teacher and apply his tradition of teachings is what constitutes taking refuge for us. It’s not something that is done once, but is the foundation from that point on for our lives and our spiritual development.

We may fall away from this way of life, if we lose faith, or the wish to practice the teachings, but we can return to it, with even more enthusiasm than before, and with a deeper devotion.

The first two refuges – those of seeing the Buddha as the teacher who helps us to develop our wisdom, and taking to heart the Dharma as the wealth of practical teachings he and his accomplished followers have given us – are straightforward. The third Jewel however needs some additional explanation, if problems are not to follow, and if we’re to gain the most from this refuge as a source of protection, healing, guidance and strength.

Two types of Sangha

One of the main reasons people join a group of any kind is for companionship and support in life. This is true in anything from a sewing circle to a book club, to a religious organization. It’s when we look for spiritual support from our fellow practitioners or those who go to the same church or temple though that we may meet with problems.

In Buddhism they differentiate the ordinary sangha (or what I like to call now the aspirational sangha) such as our spiritual friends and classmates, from the Noble Sangha, those who have accomplished the teachings to a large extent. These are people, men and women, lay or ordained who are trustworthy when it comes to their understanding and embodiment of the teachings. They have a degree of virtue and a stability and reliability of character on account of their spiritual practice that, to put it plainly, others simply do not have. This can be hard to accept, especially when it comes to those who are our friends and fellow practitioners, but the delineation is there for a good reason.

Mingyur Rinpoche said:

‘There are two types of sangha: noble and ordinary. The noble sangha refers to the bodhisattvas, arhats, and other sages who have attained direct realization and hold the lineage of wisdom teachings. The ordinary sangha are members of our practice community. Both types play a critical role in our development, yet we only take refuge in the noble sangha. While we are still in samsara, it’s important to take refuge in what goes beyond samsara, beyond ordinary. We keep our orientation toward what we aspire to grow into.’

The Noble Sangha are those we can take as a model. What’s more, there’s a compassionate warning in this teaching that says that we shouldn’t expect our friends and allies who are not yet accomplished to have qualities of stability or reliability. In fact, it is pointing out that we should not take refuge in them, but instead place our deeper faith and trust in those who have realized the teachings. We certainly still love and support our friends and family and allies with all our heart, but we cannot expect the deepest kind of care consistently from them.

Part of the problem is that we may want to praise our friends, or be praised by them – ‘Oh, you are so wise… Your understanding of the teachings is so deep…’ all of which can be a trap. Beware of those who flatter your ego! Lay or Ordained people, we do need to make this distinction, and take refuge only in those who offer us a reliable means of support. As much as we may want it to be so, our community, most teachers, our close friends, boyfriend or girlfriend, or husband or wife can’t give this kind of spiritual protection to us, unless they are in fact Accomplished Sages.

There are elements in the psyche of an average person that can and often do rise up unexpectedly and confuse and hurt everyone who counted on them. Oh, mercy! It’s not our fault. We can’t help it at this point. That’s just the way it is. An ordinary person, by definition, is controlled by his or her own karma, and that’s where the need for a spiritual path, for all of us, comes from. To follow someone who is not yet accomplished, in that deep way we are calling Taking Refuge, is to set ourselves up for a fall.

They speak in Buddhism of learning, and then experience, and realization. Some people go only as far as the level of experience, which can in fact last for years, but not to the level of realization, which is revolutionary, and permanent. They may even get a job as a teacher (heaven help us!), and a reputation they then need to protect, and, as their temporary experience falls away, they become split between their public persona, and who they really are, and have become. Teachers such as these are truly deserving our compassion, as are their students, but not that degree of trust we should reserve for the Three Jewels. This is for our own safety, and sanity, and our inmost spiritual life. Though I’m writing this in 2018, these thoughts are true in all times.

In contrast to everyday people and teachings, it is proposed that the Three Jewels in Buddhism offer unfailing spiritual support, and the third of these, it should be known, refers specifically to the Noble Sangha. Relatively, there are precious few Noble Ones, Holy Beings, but they do exist, and such exemplary Saints and Sages are with us even now. Their pure energy is ever available, and their light is steady, and always uplifting:

The Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Longchenpa, Je Tsong Khapa;

Lama Thubten Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Ani Tenzin Palmo, Dipa Ma, Thich Nhat Hanh;

Bokar Rinpoche, Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen, Trulkshik Rinpoche, Chatral Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, Garchen Rinpoche, Ringu Tulku;

Lama Lodro Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso, Khenpo Sodargye, the Venerable Hsuan Hua, Sayadaw U Pandita, and teachers from the Thai Forest Tradition, Ajaan Mun, Ajaan Lee, Ajaan Maha Boowa, Ajaan Chah, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Ajaan Passanno, and Ajaan Amaro…

These and others have certainly have proven themselves most Worthy over time by their virtue and integrity, compassion and wisdom. They are examples of the fulfilled spiritual life. We can extend this through history and to archetypal levels as well, if that is meaningful and accessible for us.

As with other ideas, we should see for ourselves if what is being said here is true, rather than taking someone else’s word for it. Only then will we know, and receive the benefit. Unlike most of what this world offers, there are trustworthy Refuges in Buddhism. May we all find our way to these, and then may we rely on them purely, until we ourselves have accomplished the teachings.