Can an Anarchist Take Refuge?

The first of the Bodhisattva vows is to liberate all sentient beings (from suffering) and it isn’t a stretch to include sociopolitical liberation in that goal. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Buddhist anarchism has been a small, but persistent undercurrent within Buddhism and anarchism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One may wonder, however, whether it is really possible to be both a Buddhist and an anarchist, although this very much depends on the definitions of “Buddhist” and “anarchist”.

The term “anarchism” suggests that an anarchist opposes or rejects (ἀν-) (coercive/opaque) power/authority (ἀρχή) and the institutionalization thereof in the form of some power-wielder (ἀρχός) such as the state. (Notice that the term does not imply a rejection of rules as sometimes is suggested.) What is particularly objectionable from an anarchist point view is opaque (as opposed to transparent) power/authority. “Opacity” here means that whatever lays behind the opaque authority’s decree is inaccessible to the subjects of that decree. “Transparency”, on the other hand, means that the authority’s reasoning can be checked all the way down to observations and fundamental assumptions. (Expert authority is transparent in principle, albeit not always in practice.) Opaque authority is closed, dogmatic, and inscrutable, while transparent authority is open to debate, verification (or refutation), and revision. Coercion is a kind of opacity as whatever reasons lie beyond the coercion are inaccessible (and effectively irrelevant) to the person(s) being coerced. It is worth emphasizing that I’m not claiming here that the rejection of opaque authority/power is a complete definition of “anarchism” (i.e., it is not a sufficient condition, but it is a necessary condition). However, it is a key aspect of anarchism, and it is the aspect that matters here.1

The most common definition of a “Buddhist” is someone who has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma (Sk. Dharma), and the Saṅgha (Sk. Saṃgha). I have pointed out before that, for at least two reasons, this is not a good definition:2 (1) the vast majority of self-identifying Buddhists in Asian countries with significant Buddhist populations never (formally) took refuge; and (2) the notion of taking refuge in the aforementioned “Three Jewels” is so flexible that it is effectively meaningless. Here I will mostly ignore these problems, however, and will assume that taking refuge is the defining characteristic of a “Buddhist”. Consequently, I will reinterpret the question whether it is possible to be both a Buddhist and an anarchist as “Can a Buddhist take refuge?”

The ritual formula by means of which one takes refuge is:

Buddham saraṇam gacchāmi.
Dhammam saraṇam gacchāmi.
Saṅgham saraṇam gacchāmi.

The Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha are the “Three Jewels” one takes refuge in. What exactly these Three Jewels are differs significantly between sects and schools of Buddhism. The Buddha can be the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama or Śākyamuni), or some other specific (past, present, or future) Buddha, or all Buddhas, or the idea of Buddhahood, among other options. The Dhamma can be the Buddhist teachings, or truth/reality, or all true teachings/knowledge (including scientific knowledge), among other options (again). And the Saṅgha can be the monastic community, awakened/​enlightened beings, all followers of Buddhism, society as a whole, and so forth. Historically, Buddhist sects and thinkers have reinterpreted the Three Jewels to suit their needs and it is this flexibility that makes taking refuge somewhat meaningless as a defining characteristic.

The two words that occur three times in the ritual formula quoted above are saraṇam gacchāmi. The noun saraṇa means “protection, shelter, house, or refuge”. The verb gacchati (when combined with an accusative) means (among others) “to go to, to have access to, to arrive at” and more figuratively also “to come to know, to experience, to realize”. Hence, saraṇam gacchati means “to go for refuge”, “to go for protection”, “to realize/​understand protection” and so forth. The words together are also used with the meaning “to entrust oneself to …” (where “…” is another accusative referring to whatever one entrusts oneself to; the Three Jewels in this case).

In Chinese and Japanese, the notion of taking refuge is 皈依 guī yī and 帰依 ki’e, respectively. These two words share the character 依, meaning “to rely on, to consent to” and so forth. The first character in the Chinese term, 皈, means “to follow, to comply with”; the first character in the Japanese term, 帰, means “to return, to come home, to arrive at”. Both the Chinese and Japanese terms are (nowadays!) also used to refer to religious conversion in general. It is worth noticing that the Chinese/​Japanese terms are much less figurative than the Pāli (or Sanskrit): they do not use the metaphor of finding shelter or protection, but literally say what taking refuge is about: consent, compliance, or acceptance.

The original form of taking refuge in the Three Jewels was to accept the Buddha as one’s teacher, and/or (therefore) – after his passing – to accept his teachings (i.e., the Dhamma) and the people safekeeping and transmitting those teachings (i.e., the Saṅgha). In the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, approaching his death, the Buddha says to Ānanda:

it may be that you will think: “The Teacher’s instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher!” It should not be seen like this, Ananda, for what I have taught and explained to you as
Dhamma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher.3

Hence, after the Buddha’s death, the Dhamma becomes the teacher, and the Saṅgha is the guardian of the Dhamma, implying that final authority rests with the Saṅgha. In the Indian tradition, a teacher (typically) had absolute authority,4 and this absolute authority is retained in common understandings of the meaning of taking refuge. That is, taking refuge implies submission, (uncritical) acceptance, wholehearted commitment, and so forth. Taking refuge is to accept the absolute authority of the Buddha, and because he has died and entrusted his teachings (i.e., the Dhamma) to the Saṅgha, to accept the absolute authority of the doctrinal authorities of the school or sect one takes refuge in.

It should now be fairly obvious why I raised the question whether an anarchist can take refuge. An anarchist rejects opaque authority. Taking refuge implies the acceptance of absolute authority. Absolute authority is always opaque. Therefore, an anarchist cannot take refuge.

The crux of this argument is in the premise that absolute authority is always opaque, but I don’t think that this is a problematic assumption. If authority is transparent (i.e., not opaque) it is open to verification and revision, to counter-evidence and counter-argument, but authority that is open in this sense is not absolute. Absolute authority holds regardless of counter-evidence and counter-argument, and therefore, absolute authority is opaque by definition.

The conclusion can be avoided by rejecting one (or both) of the other two premises, of course. That is, one could opt for another definition of “anarchist” or another interpretation of taking refuge. I don’t that these are plausible options, however. The rejection of opaque authority may not be the most conspicuous aspect of anarchism (i.e., it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the word “anarchism”), but it refers to the deepest and most fundamental reason why anarchists reject certain kinds of power/authority and/or its bearers and so forth. (As mentioned above, the rejection of opaque authority/power may not be the only defining aspect of anarchism – an anarchist may also reject certain kinds of transparent authority/power, for example – but it is a necessary element. One cannot be an anarchist and accept opaque authority.)

Buddhist modernists might want to opt for a more liberal, less authoritarian, less submissive, interpretation of taking refuge based, for example, on a common (modernist) reading of the Kesamutti Sutta (also known as Kālāma Sutta) as some kind of endorsement of free inquiry. In that Sutta, the Buddha advises:

Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence [of a speaker], or because you think: “The ascetic is our guru.” But when you know for yourselves: “These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should live in accordance with them.5

This is not an endorsement of free inquiry, however. Far from it! Free inquiry depends primarily on reasoning – “inquiry” is nearly synonymous with “reasoning” – but the Buddha explicitly rejects reasoning in this passage. He doesn’t recommend to research, question, or find out either. Rather, he says that you should accept what “you know for yourselves”, and any way of attaining that knowledge – accept from gut feeling or intuition (which is the very opposite of rational inquiry) – is explicitly rejected.6 About the quoted passage, Richard Gombridge writes that “the Kalamas are told to think for themselves, but the Buddha is confident – as any religious teacher would be – that their thoughts will lead them to the conclusions to which he has come himself”7, but in fact, the Buddha didn’t even tell the Kālāmas to think for themselves (as thinking involves reasoning, which is explicitly rejected). Rather, the Buddha expected the Kalamas to unthinkingly come to the conclusion that he (the Buddha) was right.8 The Kesamutti/​ Kālāma Sutta, then, does not support an anti-authoritarian interpretation of taking refuge. In fact, the opposite is the case: it advocates the unthinking acceptance – and thus, opaque authority (!) – of the Buddha’s authority (by assuming that one really already “knows for oneself” that the Buddha is right).

Notice that the time-honored strategy of reinterpreting the Three Jewels doesn’t help here – the problem isn’t so much in what one takes refuge in, but in the notion of taking refuge itself. Furthermore, one cannot just choose to reinterpret the Three Jewels in any way that fits one’s purposes. Different sects, schools, and thinkers have interpreted the Three Jewels very differently indeed, but these different interpretations were sanctioned by the doctrinal authorities of those sects etcetera. Hence, it is the third Jewel, the Saṅgha, that decided what the Three Jewels are. Similarly, it is the Saṅgha that decides what taking refuge entails. Notice that the term Saṅgha in this context effectively refers to the doctrinal authorities of the sect one joins, and that taking refuge means uncritically accepting the (opaque!) authority thereof. Such doctrinal authorities could reinterpret taking refuge more liberally, but thereby they would deny their own final authority (including, somewhat paradoxically, their authority to decide what taking refuge means or entails). As far as I know, no doctrinal authority (in Buddhism, at least) has ever undermined (or even abolished) itself in this way.

But what defines a sect? Can’t an anarchist be their own sect? Can’t an anarchist study the Dhamma by themselves and make up their own mind about what all of it means, including about what it means to take refuge?

Well, yes, maybe. In Christianity, such reading of scripture and gaining understanding by oneself is the (original) essence of Protestantism, and much the same is true of Protestant Buddhism. The term “Protestant Buddhism” was coined by Gananath Obeyesekere in 1970 to describe this individualist and scriptural turn in Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) Buddhism.9 The term is often interpreted as something like a slur, but it doesn’t have to be. And while Protestant Buddhism and Buddhist Modernism in general are somewhat controversial, they have been around for well over a century and are so deeply embedded in the Buddhist world by now that it is hard to say that these aren’t legitimate varieties of (or paths within) Buddhism. Furthermore, there are passages in the Canon that might be interpreted as supporting something like Protestant Buddhism. For example, in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the Buddha says to Ānanda that, after his death,

you [monks] should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no on else as your refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge. And how does a monk live as an island unto himself, … with no other refuge? Here, Ananda, a monk abides contemplating the body as body, earnestly, clearly aware, mindful and having put away all hankering and fretting for the world, and likewise with regard to feelings, mind and mind-objects. That, Ananda, is how a monk lives as an island unto himself, … with no other refuge.10

Notice that the Buddha is explicitly talking about monks here. This is why I emphasized “something like” above. Protestant Buddhism emphasizes the laity. As in Protestant Christianity, lay followers study scripture by themselves. But the “islands unto themselves who are their own refuge” in this passage are monks who have, thus, already taken refuge in the Three Jewels and who are already part of the Saṅgha (and supposedly, well-studied in the Dhamma), and who have “put away all hankering and fretting for the world and so forth (which is no easy task, implying that these are quite advanced monks). In any case, a monk being his own refuge is not the same as a lay follower deciding doctrinal matters by themselves, and the Buddha’s suggestion of the former is certainly no support for the latter.

Let’s ignore any scriptural or doctrinal problems for Protestant Buddhism (in general, as opposed to its historical Ceylonese variant) and assume that this is a legitimate approach to Buddhism as I suggested above. Then, could an anarchist, by accepting something like this approach (which seems a natural fit to anarchism anyway) interpret taking refuge in such a way that it is unobjectionable?

If one takes refuge in a shelter during a storm, one doesn’t have to assume that the shelter is safe. It may be better than outside, but one could (and perhaps even should) keep an eye open and check whether the shelter is, and remains, safe throughout the storm indeed. This isn’t how taking refuge in Buddhism traditionally works, however. Rather, taking refuge means uncritically accepting the shelter as safe. As soon as one has found and entered the shelter, one proclaims trust in that shelter and stops checking. From the point of view of the metaphor this is quite odd. That just isn’t how sensible sheltering works. Or is it? Am I taking the notion of taking refuge too literally (by emphasizing the metaphor)? According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “in pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one’s allegiance to a patron – a powerful person or god – submitting to the patron’s directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger in return”.11 How important is the metaphor of shelter or protection for the notion of taking refuge? (Recall that the Chinese and Japanese terms aren’t metaphorical at all.) And how important is this pre-Buddhist tradition? Perhaps, only the Saṅgha can answer questions like these, but to accept those answers is to already have accepted the (opaque) authority of the Saṅgha.

Let’s, for argument’s sake, stick with the metaphorical interpretation. Then, finding a refuge (during a storm or earthquake, for example) does not normally lead to blind trust in the shelter. More likely, one continues to check occasionally whether the refuge is still safe (i.e., still offers protection). Taking refuge, then, is tentative. It is a tentative acceptance of the Three Jewels for as long and to the extent that they actually offer the protection that they (seem to) promise. And importantly, by keeping an eye open, by occasionally (?) confirming whether the shelter is still safe, the opaque authority of the Three Jewels is made transparent,12 and therefore, no longer objectionable to an anarchist (provided that there are no other anarchist reasons for rejecting that authority). Hence, if an anarchist is allowed to interpret taking refuge quite literally as seeking shelter or protection from danger (and to further contemplate and build upon that metaphor), then she can (probably) take refuge.

Whether this interpretation of taking refuge is acceptable is impossible to know, however. How could it be decided? No doctrinal authority will ever sanction it, as it would imply giving up its own opaque authority and thereby its status as doctrinal authority. And who or what else could decide its acceptability? To say that it is acceptable means that one has already rejected the absolute authority of the Saṅgha. To say that it is unacceptable means that one has already accepted that authority. Hence, either answer is circular: the liberal interpretation of taking refuge requires rejecting absolute authority, which requires the liberal interpretation of taking refuge; and the standard, authoritarian interpretation of taking refuge implies the acceptance of the authority of the Saṅgha, which implies the standard, authoritarian interpretation of taking refuge.

So here we have arrived at a dead end. Ultimately, it is the common understanding of taking refuge that blocks its reinterpretation (through the absolute authority of the Saṅgha). And rejecting that interpretation implies or involves refusing to take refuge according to that interpretation. An anarchist, therefore, can only take refuge by refusing to take refuge in the sense that the notion is commonly understood. (Because again, to reinterpret taking refuge, one must already have rejected the standard interpretation and reinterpreted taking refuge.) But thereby she would declare herself a non-Buddhist from the standard/​mainstream point of view. In a sense, a Buddhist anarchist would have to be anarchist about Buddhism as well, but that conflicts with common Buddhist understandings of what it means to be a Buddhist. Perhaps, that means that an anarchist cannot take refuge indeed. Or perhaps, it means that traditional understandings of what it means to be a Buddhist are no longer valid. Personally, I don’t like either of these two options, but I can’t really see a third.

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  1. Most of this paragraph is based on: Lajos Brons (2015), “Anarchism as Metaphilosophy”, The Science of Mind 53: 139–58, pp. 145–8.
  2. See: Lajos Brons (2022), A Buddha Land in This World: Philosophy, Utopia, and Radical Buddhism (Earth: punctum), pp. 167–8.
  3. DN 16.6.1. Translation: Maurice Walshe (1995), The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya (Somerville: Wisdom).
  4. e.g., Richard Gombrich (1996), “Freedom and Authority in Buddhism”, in: Brian Gates ed., Freedom and Authority in Religions and Religious Education (London: Bloomsbury): 10–7.
  5. AN 3.65. Translation: Bhikkhu Boddhi (2012), The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikāya (Somerville: Wisdom).
  6. See also: Brons, A Buddha Land in This World, pp. 158–9.
  7. Gombrich, “Freedom and Authority”, p. 14.
  8. The Buddha’s notion of “knowing for yourself” in this passage always reminds me of Christians telling atheists that the latter deep down know (for themselves) that God exists (and are just angry at Him or whatever). This is, of course, related to the religious confidence that Gombrich refers to.
  9. Gananath Obeyesekere (1970), “Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Ceylon”, Modern Ceylon Studies 1: 43–63. See also Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere (1988), Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  10. DN 16.2.26. Translation: Walshe, The Long Discourses.
  11. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1996), Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha (no publisher, circulating online), p. 6.
  12. Recall that transparent authority is open to verification and revision. By making the authority of the Three Jewels open to verification (or confirmation) and revision (or reinterpretation) or even rejection, that authority is made transparent.

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