Dharma and Ourselves as Refuge
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
Why We Take Refuge in the Buddha 1
No Self Surrender 2
No Sinners 3
Do It Yourself 4
Human Beings are Responsible for Everything 5
Human Beings are their own Jailors 6
You Protect Yourself 7
You Have to Save Yourself 8
Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha to gain inspiration and right understanding for their self-purification and to affirm their confidence in the Buddha or to recall the Buddha to their minds.

BUDDHISTS do not take refuge in the Buddha with the belief that He is a God or son of God. The Buddha never claimed any divinity. He was the Enlightened One, the most Compassionate, Wise, and Holy One who ever lived in this world. Therefore, people take refuge in the Buddha as a Teacher or Master who has shown the real path of emancipation. They pay homage to Him to show their gratitude and respect, but they do not ask for material favours through Him. Buddhists do not pray to the Buddha thinking that He is a god who will reward them or punish them. They recite verses or some sutras not in the sense of supplication but as a means of recalling His great virtues and good qualities to get more inspiration and guidance for themselves and to develop the confidence to follow His Teachings so that they too could be like Him. There are critics who condemn this attitude of taking refuge in the Buddha. They do not know the true meaning of the concept of taking refuge in and paying homage to a great religious Teacher. They have learned about praying which is the only thing that some people do in the name of religion. When Buddhists seek refuge it means they accept the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha as the means through which they can eradicate all the causes of their fear and other mental disturbances. Many people, especially those with animistic beliefs, seek protection in certain objects around them which they believe are inhabited by spirits. Buddhist however, know that the only protection they can have is through a complete understanding of their own natures and eradicating their base instincts. To do this they place their confidence in the Buddha's teachings and His Path, because this is the only way to true Emancipation and freedom from suffering.

The Buddha advised about the futility of taking refuge in hills, woods, groves, trees and shrines when people are fear-stricken. No such refuge is safe, no such refuge is Supreme. Not by resorting to such a refuge is one freed from all ill. One who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha sees with right knowledge the Four Noble Truths—Sorrow, the cause of Sorrow, the transcending of Sorrow, and the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the cessation of Sorrow. This indeed is secure refuge. By seeking such refuge one is released from all Sorrow. (DHAMMAPADA 188-192)

In the DHAJAGGA SUTRA , it is mentioned that by taking refuge in Sakra, the king of gods or any god, the followers would not be free from all their worldly problems and fears. The reason is, such gods are themselves not free from lust, hatred, illusion and fear, but the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha are free from them. Only those who are free from unsatisfactoriness can show the way to lasting happiness.

Francis Story, a western Buddhist scholar, gives his views on seeking refuge in the Buddha. ‘I go for refuge to the Buddha. I seek the presence of the Exalted Teacher by whose compassion I may be guided through the torrents of Samsara, by whose serene countenance I may be uplifted from the mire of worldly thoughts and cravings, seeing there in the very assurance of Nirvanic Peace, which He himself attained. In sorrow and pain I turn to Him and in my happiness I seek His tranquil gaze. I lay before His Image not only flowers and incense, but also the burning fires of my restless heart, that they may be quenched and stilled. I lay down the burden of my pride and my selfhood, the heavy burden of my cares and aspirations, the weary load of this incessant birth and death.'

Sri Rama Chandra Bharati, an Indian poet, gives another meaningful reason for taking refuge in the Buddha.

‘I seek not thy refuge for the sake of gain, Not fear of thee, nor for the love of fame, Not as thou hailest from the solar race, Not for the sake of gaining knowledge vast, But drawn by the power of the boundless love, And thy all-embracing peerless ken, The vast Samsara's sea safe to cross, I bend low, O lord, and become thy devotee.'

Some people say that since the Buddha was only a man, there is no meaning in taking refuge in Him. But they do not know that although the Buddha very clearly said that He was a man, He was not an ordinary man like any of us. He was an extraordinary and incomparably holy person who possessed Supreme Enlightenment and great compassion toward every living being. He was a man freed from all human weaknesses, defilements and even from ordinary human emotions. Of Him it has been said, ‘There is none so godless as the Buddha, and yet none so godlike'. In the Buddha is embodied all the great virtues, sacredness, wisdom and enlightenment.

Another question that people very often raise is this: ‘If the Buddha is not a god, if He is not living in this world today, how can He bless people?' According to the Buddha, if people follow His advice by leading a religious life, they would certainly receive blessings. Blessing in a Buddhist sense means the joy we experience when we develop confidence and satisfaction. The Buddha once said, ‘If anyone wishes to see me, he should look at My Teachings and practise them.' (SAMYUTTA NIKAYA ) Those who understand His Teachings easily see the real nature of the Buddha reflected in themselves. The image of the Buddha they maintain in their minds is more real than the image they see on the altar, which is merely a symbolic representation. ‘ Those who live in accordance with the Dharma (righteous way of life) will be protected by that very Dharma ' (THERAGATHA ). One who knows the real nature of existence and the facts of life through Dharma will not have any fear and will secure a harmonious way of life.

In other religions, people worship their God by asking for favours to be granted to them. Buddhists do not worship the Buddha to ask for worldly favours, but they respect Him for His supreme achievement. When Buddhists respect the Buddha, they are indirectly elevating their own minds so that one day they also can get the same enlightenment to serve mankind if they aspire to become a Buddha. Since the Buddha has been a human being, His experiences and achievements are the domain of all mortals. The Buddha's Teachings are for all of us, and certainly not beyond our capabilities as ordinary mortals.

Buddhists respect the Buddha as their Master. However, this respect does not imply an attachment to or a dependence on the Teacher. This kind of respect is in accordance with His Teaching which is as follows:

‘Monks, even if a monk should take hold of the edge of My outer robe and should walk close behind me, step for step, yet if he should be covetous, strongly attracted by pleasures of the senses, malevolent in thought, of corrupt mind and purpose, of confused recollection, inattentive and not contemplative, scatter-brained, his sense-faculties uncontrolled, then he is far from Me and I am far from him.'

‘Monks, if the monk should be staying even a hundred miles away, yet he is not covetous, not strongly attracted by the pleasures of the senses, not malevolent in thought, not of corrupt mind and purpose, his recollection firmly set, attentive, contemplative, his thoughts be one-pointed, restrained in his sense-faculties, then he is near Me and I am near him.' (SAMYUTTA NIKAYA )

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Dependence on others means a surrender of one's effort and self-confidence.

BUDDHISM is a gentle religion where equality, justice and peace reign supreme. To depend on others for salvation is negative, but to depend on oneself is positive. Dependence on others means surrendering one's intelligence and efforts.

Everything which has improved and uplifted humanity has been done by human beings themselves. Their improvement must come from their own knowledge, understanding, effort and experience and not from heaven. They should not be slaves even to the great forces of nature because even though they are crushed by them they remain superior by virtue of their understanding. Buddhism carries the Truth further: it shows that by means of understanding, people can also control their environment and circumstances. They can cease to be crushed and use their power to raise themselves to great heights of spirituality and nobility.

Buddhism gives due credit to human intelligence and effort in their achievements without relying on supernatural beings. True religion should mean faith in the good of humanity rather than faith in unknown forces. In that respect, Buddhism is not merely a religion, but a noble method to gain peace and eternal salvation through living a respectable way of life. From the very outset, Bud­dhism appeals to the cultured and the intellectual minds. Every cultured person in the world today respects the Buddha as a rational Teacher.

The Buddha taught that what we need for our happiness is not a religion with a mass of dogmas and theories but knowledge— knowledge of the cosmic forces and their relationship to the law of cause and effect. Until this principle that life is merely an imperfect manifestation of nature is fully understood, no human can be fully emancipated.

The Buddha has given a new explanation of the universe. It is a new vision of eternal happiness, the achievement of perfection. The winning of the human goal in Buddhism is the permanent state beyond impermanence, the attainment of Nirvana beyond all the worlds of change, and the final deliverance from the miseries of existence.

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In Buddhism, bad actions are merely termed as unskillful or unwholesome, and not as sinful.

BUDDHISTS do not regard humans as sinful by nature or ‘in rebellion against god'. Every human being is a person of great worth who has within him or herself a vast store of good as well as evil habits. The good in a person is always waiting for a suitable opportunity to flower and to ripen. Remember the saying, ‘There is so much that is good in the worst of us and so much that is bad in the best of us.'

Buddhism teaches that everyone is responsible for his or her own good and bad deeds, and that each individual can mould his or her own destiny. Says the Buddha, ‘These evil deeds were only done by you, not by your parents, friends, or relatives; and you yourself will reap the painful results.' (DHAMMAPADA 165)

Our sorrow is of our own making and is not handed down as a family curse or an original sin of a mythical primeval ancestor. Buddhists do not accept the belief that this world is merely a place of trial and testing. This world can be made a place where we can attain the highest perfection. And perfection is synonymous with happiness. To the Buddha, human beings are not an experiment in life created by somebody and who can be done away with when unwanted. If a sin could be forgiven, people could take advantage and commit more and more sins. The Buddhist has no reason to believe that the sinner can escape the consequences of his or her actions by the grace of an external power. If we thrust our hand into a furnace, the hand will be burnt, and all the prayer in the world will not remove the scars. The same is with the person who walks into the fires of evil action. This is not to say that every wrong doing will automatically be followed by a predictable reaction. Evil actions are prompted by evil states of mind. If one purifies the mind, then the effects of previous actions can be reduced or eradicated all together. The Buddha's approach to the problems of suffering is not imaginary, speculative or metaphysical, but essentially empirical and impartial.

According to Buddhism, there is no such thing as “sin” as explained by other religions. In these religions sin is a trangression of a law laid down by a Divine law giver. To the Buddhists, sin is unskilful or unwholesome action—Akusala Karma which creates Papa—the downfall of people. The wicked person is an ignorant one who needs instruction more than punishment and condemnation. That person is not regarded as violating god's will or as a person who must beg for divine mercy and forgiveness. What is needed is only guidance for enlightenment.

All that is necessary is for someone to help them to use their reason to realise that they are responsible for their wrong action and that they must pay for the consequences. Therefore the belief in confession is foreign to Buddhism, although Buddhists are encouraged to acknowledge their wrong doings and remind themselves not to repeat their mistakes.

The purpose of the Buddha's appearance in this world is not to wash away the sins committed by human beings nor to punish or to destroy wicked people, but to make them understand how foolish it is to commit evil and to point out the consequences of such evil deeds. Therefore there are no commandments in Buddhism, since no one can control another's spiritual upliftment. The Buddha has encouraged us to develop and use our understanding. He has shown us the path for our liberation from suffering. The precepts that we undertake to observe are not commandments: they are observed voluntarily. The Buddha's Teaching is this: ‘Pay attention; take this advice and think it over. If you think it is suitable for you to practise My advice, then try to practise it. You can see the results through your own experience.' There is no religious value in blindly observing any commandment without proper conviction and understanding. However, we should not take advantage of the liberty given by the Buddha to do anything we like. It is our duty to behave as cultured, civilised and understanding human beings to lead a religious life. If we can understand this, commandments are not important. As an enlightened teacher, the Buddha advised us how to lead a pure life without imposing commandments and using the fear of punishment. The Five Precepts that a Buddhist takes as part of the daily practice are therefore not commandments. They are by definition training rules which one voluntarily undertakes for spiritual development.

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Self-confidence plays an important part in every aspect of our lives.

KNOWING that no external sources, no faith or rituals can save us, Buddhists understand the need to rely on self effort. We gain confidence through self-reliance. We realise that the whole responsibility of our present life as well as the future life depends completely on ourselves alone. Each must seek salvation for himself or herself. Achieving salvation can be compared to curing a disease: if one is ill, one must go to a doctor. The doctor diagnoses the ailment and prescribes medicine. The medicine must be taken by the persons themselves. They cannot depute someone else to take the medicine for them. No one can be cured by simply admiring the medicine or just praising the doctor for a good prescription.

In order to be cured, the patient must faithfully follow the instructions given by the doctor with regard to the manner and frequency in taking medicine, daily diet and other relevant medical restraints. Likewise, a person must follow the precepts, instructions or advice given by the Buddha (who gives prescriptions for liberation) by controlling or subduing greed, hatred and ignorance. No one can find salvation by simply singing praises of the Buddha or by making offerings to Him. Neither can one find salvation by celebrating certain important occasions in honour of the Buddha. Buddhism is not a religion where people can attain salvation by mere prayers or begging to be saved. They must strive hard by controlling their minds to eradicate their selfish desires and emotions in order to attain perfection.

‘To understand yourself is the beginning of wisdom.'

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When we try to live as real human beings without disturbing others, all can live peacefully without any fear.

ACCORDING to the Buddha, human beings themselves are the makers of their own destiny. They have none to blame for their lot since they alone are responsible for their lives. They mould their lives for better or for worse.

The Buddha says: humans create everything. All our grief, perils and misfortunes are of our own creation. We spring from no other source than our own imperfections of heart and mind. We are the results of our good and bad actions committed in the past under the influence of greed and delusion. And since we ourselves brought them into being, it is within our power to overcome bad effects and cultivate good natures.

The human mind, like that of an animal, is sometimes governed by animal instincts. But unlike the animal mind, the human mind can be trained for higher values. If the mind is not properly cultured, that uncultured mind creates a great deal of trouble in this world. Sometimes human behaviour is more harmful and more dangerous than animal behaviour. Animals have no religious problems, no language problems, no political problems, no social and ethical problems, no ethnic problems. They fight only for food, shelter and sensual pleasure. But, there are thousands of problems created by human beings. Their behaviour is such that they are not able to solve any of these problems without creating further problems. They are reluctant to admit their weaknesses and are not willing to shoulder their responsibilities. Their attitude is always to blame others for their failures. If we become more responsible in our actions, we can maintain peace and happiness.*


Is there any truth in our claim that we should be given freedom to do things as what we like?

WHEN we consider human freedom, it is very difficult to see whether we are really free to do anything according to our own wishes. We are bound by many conditions both external and internal: we are asked to obey the laws that are imposed on us by the government; we are bound to follow certain religious principles; we are required to co-operate with the moral and social conditions of the society in which we live; we are compelled to follow certain national and family customs and traditions. In modern society, we are under great pressure; we are expected to conform by adapting ourselves to the modern way of life. We are bound to co-operate with natural laws and cosmic energy, because we are also part of the same energy. We are subjected to the weather and climatic conditions of the region. Not only do we have to pay attention to our lives or to physical elements, but we have also to make up our minds to control our own emotions. In other words, we have no freedom to think freely because we are overwhelmed by new thoughts which may contradict or do away with our previous thoughts and convictions. At the same time, we may believe that we have to obey and work according to the will of god, and not follow our own free will.

Taking into consideration all the above changing conditions to which we are bound, we can ask ‘Is there any truth to the claim that we should be given freedom to do things as we like?'

Why do human beings have their hands tied so firmly? The reason is that there are various bad elements within them. These elements are dangerous and harmful to all living creatures. For the past few thousand years, all religions have been trying to tame this unreliable attitude and to teach mankind how to live a noble life. But it is most unfortunate that they are still not ready to be trustworthy, however good they may appear to be. Human beings still continue to harbour all these evil elements within themselves. These evil elements are not introduced or influenced by external sources but are created by themselves. If these evil forces are made by themselves they must work hard to get rid of them after recognising their danger. Unfortunately the majority of people are cruel, cunning, wicked, ungrateful, unreliable, unscrupulous. If they are allowed to live according to their own free will without moderation and restraint, they would most definitely violate the peace and happiness of innocent people. Their behaviour would probably be much worse than that of other dangerous living beings.

Religion is required to train them to lead a respectable life and to gain peace and happiness here and hereafter.

Another obstacle confronting religious life and spiritual progress is racial arrogance. The Buddha advised His followers not to bring forward any racial issue when they come to practise religion. Buddhists are taught to understand that concepts like racial origin and caste or class distinction are all made by deluded minds which cannot see the essential unity of all that exists. People of all religions should not discriminate against any groups of people by glorifying their own ways of life. They should treat everyone equally, especially in the religious field. Unfortunately, followers of different religions encourage discrimination and hostility towards other religious groups.

While working with others, true disciples should not disturb their feelings because of their own traditions and customs. They can follow traditions and customs that are in keeping with the religious principles and moral codes of their religions.

Racial arrogance is a great hindrance to religious and spiritual progress. The Buddha once used the simile of ocean water to illustrate the harmony which can be experienced by people who have learnt to cast aside their racial arrogance: Different rivers have different names. The waters of the individual rivers all flow into the ocean and become ocean water, with one taste, the taste of salt. In a similar manner, all those who have come from different communities and different castes, must forget their differences and think of themselves only as human beings.

*Read the booklet ‘You are Responsible' by the same author. For further clarification on devas, refer to sections entitled Belief in Deities – Devas, spirit world and The Significance of Transference of Merit to the Departed in this book.

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‘Protecting oneself one protects others Protecting others one protects oneself '.

ONCE the Blessed One told His monks the following story: ‘There was once a pair of jugglers who did their acrobatic feats on a bamboo pole. One day the master said to his apprentice: `Now get on my shoulders and climb up the bamboo pole.' When the apprentice had done so, the master said: ‘Now protect me well and I shall protect you. By watching each other in that way, we shall be able to show our skill, we shall make a good profit and you can get down safely from the bamboo pole'. But the apprentice said: `Not so, master. You! O Master, should protect yourself, and I too shall protect myself. Thus self-protected and self-guarded we shall safely do our feats, and protect each other.'

‘This is the right way,' said the Blessed One and spoke further as follows:

‘It is just as the apprentice said: ‘I shall protect myself,' in that way the Foundation of Mindfulness should be practised. ‘I shall protect others,' in that way the Foundation of Mindfulness should be practised. Protecting oneself one protects others; protecting others one protects oneself.

‘And how does one, in protecting oneself, protect others? By the repeated and frequent practice of meditation'.

‘And how does one, by protecting others, protect oneself? By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and harmless life, by loving kindness and compassion.' (SATIPATTHANA, SAMYUTTA, No. l9).

‘Protecting oneself one protects others' ‘Protecting others one protects oneself'.

These two sentences complement each other and should not be taken (or quoted) separately.

Nowadays, when social service is so greatly emphasised, people may for instance, be tempted to quote, in support of their ideas, only the second sentence. But any such one-sided quotation would misrepresent the Buddha's statement. It has to be remembered that in our story, the Buddha expressly approved the words of the apprentice, which is that one has first to carefully watch one's own steps if one wishes to protect others from harm. He who is sunk in the mire himself cannot help others out of it. In that sense, self-protection is not selfish protection. It is the cultivation of self-control, and ethical and spiritual self-development.

Protecting oneself one protects others—the truth of this statement begins at a very simple and practical level. At the material level, this truth is so self-evident that we need not say more than a few words about it. It is obvious that the protection of our own health will go far in protecting the health of our closer or wider environment, especially where contagious diseases are concerned. Caution and circumspection in all our doings and movements will protect others from harm that may come to them through our carelessness and negligence. By careful driving, abstention from alcohol, by self-restraint in situations that might lead to violence—in all these and many other ways we shall protect others by protecting ourselves. We can even go as far as to say that by enhancing our own economic position, we are in a better position to help others.

We come now to the ethical level of that truth. Moral self-protection will safeguard others, individual and society, against our own unrestrained passions and selfish impulses. If we permit the Three Roots of everything evil, Greed, Hate and Delusion, to take a firm hold in our minds, then that which grows from those evil roots will spread around like the jungle creeper which suffocates and kills the healthy and noble tree. But if we protect ourselves against these Three Roots of Evil, fellow beings too will be safe from our reckless greed for possession and power, from our unrestrained lust and sensuality, from our envy and jealousy. They will be safe from the disruptive, or even destructive and murderous, consequences of our hate and enmity, from the outbursts of our anger, from our spreading an atmosphere of antagonism and quarrelsomeness which may make life unbearable for those around us. But the harmful effects of our greed and hate on others are not limited to cases when they become the passive objects or victims of our hate, or their possessions the object of our greed. Greed and hate have an infectious power, which can multiply the evil effects. If we ourselves think of nothing else than to crave and grasp, to acquire and possess, to hold and cling, then we may rouse or strengthen these possessive instincts in others too. Our bad example may become the standard of behaviour of our environment for instance among our own children, our colleagues, and so on. Our own conduct may induce others to join us in the common satisfaction of rapacious desires; or we may arouse feelings of resentment and competitiveness in others who wish to beat us in the race. If we are full of sensuality we may kindle the fire of lust in others. Our own hate may cause the hate and vengeance of others. It may also happen that we ally ourselves with others or instigate them to common acts of hate and enmity.

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ONESELF, indeed, is one's saviour, for what other saviour would there be? With oneself well controlled the problem of looking for an external saviour is solved.


As the Buddha was about to pass away, His disciples came from everywhere to be near Him. While the other disciples were constantly at His side and in deep sorrow over the impending loss of their Master, a monk named Attadatta went into his cell and practised meditation. The other monks, thinking that he was unconcerned about the welfare of the Buddha, were upset and reported the matter to Him. The monk, however, addressed the Buddha thus, ‘Lord as the Blessed One would be passing away soon, I thought the best way to honour the Blessed One would be by attaining Arahantship during the lifetime of the Blessed One itself'. The Buddha praised his attitude and his conduct and said that one's spiritual welfare should not be abandoned for the sake of others.

In this story is illustrated one of the most important aspects of Buddhism. A person must constantly be on the alert to seek his or her own deliverance from Samsara, and ‘salvation' must be brought about by the individual alone. One cannot look to any external force or agency for help to attain Nirvana.

People who do not understand Buddhism criticise this concept and say that Buddhism is a selfish religion which only talks about the concern for one's own freedom from pain and sorrow. This is not true at all. The Buddha states clearly that one should work ceaselessly for the spiritual and material welfare of all beings, while at the same time diligently pursuing one's own goal of attaining Nirvana. Selfless service is highly commended by the Buddha.

Again, people who do not understand Buddhism may ask, ‘It may be alright for the fortunate human beings, in full command of their mental powers, to seek Nirvana by their own efforts. But what about those who are mentally and physically or even materially handicapped? How can they be self-reliant? Do they not need the help of some external force, some god or deva to assist them?'

The answer to this is that Buddhists do not believe that the final release must necessarily take place in one lifetime. The process can take a long time, over the period of many births. One has to apply oneself, to the best of one's ability, and slowly develop the powers of self-reliance. Therefore, even those who are handicapped mentally and spiritually must make an effort, however small, to begin the process of deliverance and the duty of those more able is to help them do this; e.g. monks and nuns help lay people to understand and practise the Dharma.

Once the wheels are set in motion, the individual slowly trains himself or herself to improve that power of self-reliance. The tiny acorn will one day grow into a mighty oak, but not overnight. Patience is an essential ingredient in this difficult process.

For example, we know from experience how many parents do everything in their power to bring up their children according to the parents' hopes and aspirations. And yet when these children grow up, they develop in their own way, not necessarily the way the parents wanted them to be. In Buddhism, we believe that while others can exert an influence on someone's life, the individual will in the end create his or her own karma and be responsible for their own actions. No human being or deva can, in the final analysis, direct or control an individual's attainment of the ultimate salvation. This is the meaning of self-reliance.

This does not mean that Buddhism teaches one to be selfish. In Buddhism, when people seek, by their own effort, to attain Nirvana, they are determined not to kill, steal, tell lies, lust after others, or lose the control of their senses through intoxication. When they control themselves thus they automatically contribute to the happiness of others. So is not this so-called ‘selfishness' a good thing for the general welfare of others?

On a more mundane level it has been asked how the lower forms of life can extricate themselves from a mere meaningless round of existence. Surely in that helpless state some benevolent external force is necessary to pull the unfortunate being from the quicksand. To answer this question we must refer to our knowledge of the evolution theory. It is clearly stated that life began in very primitive forms—no more than a single cell floating in the water. Over millions of years these basic life forms evolved and became more complex, more intelligent. It is at this more intelligent level that life forms are capable of organization, independent thought, conceptualization and so on.

When Buddhists talk about the ability to save oneself, they are referring to life forms at this higher level of mental development. In the earlier stages of evolution karmic and mental forces remain dormant, but over countless rebirths, a being raises itself to the level of independent thought and becomes capable of rational rather than instinctive behaviour. It is at this stage that the being becomes aware of the meaninglessness of undergoing endless rebirths with its natural concomitants of pain and sorrow. It is then that the being is capable of making its determination to end rebirth and seek happiness by gaining enlightenment and Nirvana. With this high level of intelligence, the individual is indeed capable of self-improvement and self-development.

We all know human beings are born with many varying levels of intelligence and powers of reasoning. Some are born as geniuses, while at the other end of the spectrum, some are born with very low intelligence. Yet every being has some ability to distinguish between choices or options, especially when they concern survival. If we extend this fact of survival even to the animal world we can distinguish between higher and lower animals, with this same ability (in varying degrees of course) to make choices for the sake of survival.

Hence, even a lower form of life has the potential to create a good karma, however limited its scope. With the diligent application of this and the gradual increase of good karma a being can raise itself to higher levels of existence and understanding.

To look at this problem from another angle, we can consider one of the earliest stories that have been told to show how the Buddha-to-be first made the initial decision to strive for Enlightenment. A great many rebirths before the Buddha was born as Siddharta, he was born as an ordinary man.

One day while travelling in a boat with his mother, a great storm arose and the boat capsized, throwing the occupants into the angry sea. With no thought for his personal safety, this brave young man carried his mother on his back and struggled to swim to dry land. But so great was the expanse of water ahead of him that he did not know the best route to safety. When he was in this dilemma, not knowing which way to turn, his bravery was noticed by one of the devas. This deva could not physically come to his aid, but he was able to make him to know the best route to take. The young man listened to the deva and both he and his mother were saved. After his mother had been saved, he reflected on how much happiness he had gained from saving a single being. How much greater would that happiness be, if he perfected himself and then saved all sentient beings? There and then he made a firm deter­mination and life after life he went on cultivating his life for gaining Enlightenment.

This story illustrates the fact that Buddhists can and do seek the help of devas in their daily lives. A deva is a being who by virtue of having acquired great merit is born with the power to help other beings. But this power is limited to material and physical things. In our daily existence, we can seek help of the devas (when misfortune strikes, when we need to be comforted, when we are sick or afraid, and so on).

The fact that we seek the aid of these devas means that we are still tied to the material world. We must accept the fact that by being born we are subject to physical desires and needs. And it is not wrong to satisfy these needs on a limited scale. When the Buddha advocated the Middle Path, He said that we should neither indulge ourselves in luxury nor completely deny ourselves the basic necessities of life.

However, we should not stop at that. While we accept the con­ditions of our birth, we must also make every effort, by following the Noble Eightfold Path, to reach a level of development where we realize that attachment to the material world creates only pain and sorrow.

As we develop our understanding over countless births, we crave less and less for the pleasures of the senses. It is at this stage that we become truly self-reliant. At this stage, the devas cannot help us anymore, because we are not seeking to satisfy our material needs.

Buddhists who really understand the fleeting nature of the world practise detachment from material goods. As they are not unduly attached to them, they share the goods freely with those who are more unfortunate than they are—they practise generosity. In this way again Buddhists contribute to the welfare of others.

When the Buddha gained Enlightenment as a result of His own efforts, He did not selfishly keep this knowledge to Himself. In fact, after His Supreme Enlightenment, there was nothing He needed for Himself—but His Compassion moved Him to show the Path He had discovered to others. He spent no less than forty five years imparting His knowledge not only to men and women but even to the devas.

It is often said that the Buddha helped devotees who were in trouble. But He did this, not through the performance of miracles such as restoring the dead to life and so on, but through His acts of wisdom and compassion which helped these people to understand the reality of existence.

In one instance, a woman named Kisa Gotami went to seek the help of the Buddha in restoring her dead child to life. Knowing that He could not reason with her as she was so distressed and overwhelmed with grief, the Buddha told her that she should first obtain a handful of mustard seeds from a person who had never lost a dear one through death. The distracted woman ran from house to house and while everyone was only too willing to give her the mustard seeds, no one could honestly say that they had not lost a dear one through death. Slowly, Kisa Gotami came to the realization that death is a natural occurrence to be experienced by any being that is born. Filled with this realisation she returned to the Buddha and thanked Him for showing her the truth about death.

Now, the point here is that the Buddha was more concerned with the woman's understanding about the nature of life than giving her temporary relief by restoring her child to life—the child would have grown old and still have died. With her greater realisation Kisa Gotami was able not only to come to terms with the phenomenon of death but also to learn about the cause of sorrow through attachment. She was able to realise that attachment causes sorrow, that when attachment is destroyed, then sorrow is also destroyed.

Therefore in Buddhism, a person can seek the help of external agencies (like devas) in the pursuit of temporal happiness, but in the later stages of development when attachment to the worldly conditions ceases, there begins the path towards renunciation and enlightenment at which point one must stand alone. When one seeks to gain liberation, to break away from the endless cycle of birth and death, to gain realisation and enlightenment, one can only do this by one's own effort and own concentrated will power. “No one saves us but ourselves”.

Buddhism gives great credit to human beings. It is the only religion which states that human beings have the power to help and free themselves. In the later stages of their development, they are not at the mercy of any external force or agency which they must constantly please by worshipping or offering sacrifices.*

* For further clarification on devas, refer to sections entitled Belief in Deities - Devas, spirit world and The Significance of Transference of Merit to the Departed in this book.

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