Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels
Degé Kangyur, vol. 63 (mdo sde, dza), folios 174.a–175.a.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
In Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels, the venerable Śāriputra wonders how much merit accrues to someone who takes refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha. He therefore seeks out the Buddha Śākyamuni and requests a teaching on this topic. The Buddha proceeds to describe how even vast offerings, performed in miraculous ways, would not constitute a fraction of the merit gained by someone who takes refuge in the Three Jewels.
This text was translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the guidance of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. Benjamin Collet-Cassart translated the text from Tibetan. Andreas Doctor compared the draft translation with the original Tibetan, edited the text, and wrote the introduction.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels1 unfolds in the Jeta Grove at Śrāvastī, where the Buddha Śākyamuni is residing with a large gathering of monks. The sūtra begins as the venerable Śāriputra, who is practicing meditation alone in the forest, wonders how much merit is obtained by those who take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha. After finishing his meditation practice, Śāriputra goes before the Buddha Śākyamuni and requests the Buddha to teach on that topic. In his answer, the Buddha presents an analogy that is meant to describe the enormous merit that such devotees obtain. Even if someone could magically erect a stūpa the size of the entire world and make vast, miraculous offerings to it for eons on end, the merit gained thereby would not constitute even a fraction of the merit gained by those who take refuge in the Three Jewels. After the Buddha has delivered this teaching, the earth quakes, lightning strikes, and the gods in the heavens play divine music to celebrate the teaching. Finally, the Buddha instructs Ānanda to remember the teaching so that he can pass it on to others.
Very little is known about the history of this text in India. The Sanskrit version of this sūtra is no longer extant, and it seems to have never been translated into Chinese. Hence, the only witness of this sūtra available today is the Tibetan translation included in the Kangyur. The colophon of the Tibetan translation states that it was produced by the Indian paṇḍita Sarvajñādeva and the Tibetan translator-editor Paltsek, thus locating its translation in the late eighth or early ninth century. This dating is also confirmed by the text’s inclusion in the Denkarma (lhan/ldan dkar ma) catalog of the early ninth century ᴄᴇ.2 The text has previously been translated into English by Kenneth Liberman with the assistance of Jampa Losel in 1988, and most recently, there is another English translation by Peter Skilling, along with some helpful notes, found in his 2021 anthology Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras.3 The translation presented here was made primarily based on the Degé edition, in consultation with the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) and the Stok Palace manuscript edition.
Homage to the Three Jewels!
At that time, while the venerable Śāradvatīputra was alone in the forest, this thought arose in his mind: “I should go before the Teacher so that I can ask the Blissful One, the Dharma Lord, this question: ‘How much merit is accumulated by faithful noble sons or noble daughters who take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha of monks?’ ”
At dusk the venerable Śāriputra emerged from his meditative seclusion and went to see the Blessed One. When he arrived, he bowed his head to the Blessed One’s feet and sat to one side. While seated to the side, the venerable Śāriputra asked the Blessed One, “Honored One, while I was staying alone in the forest in meditative seclusion, this thought arose in my mind: ‘How much merit is accumulated by faithful noble sons or noble daughters who take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha of monks?’ ”
The Blessed One replied to the venerable Śāriputra, “Śāriputra, you have asked this question in order to benefit and bring happiness to many beings. Out of love for the world, you seek to help a vast number of beings, [F.174.b] gods and humans alike, by accomplishing their welfare and happiness. That is excellent, excellent! Śāriputra, as you have thought to come and question the Thus-Gone One about this matter, I will reply with an analogy to make you understand.
“Imagine that someone endowed with magical powers were to transfer into another world all the beings that live in Jambudvīpa—the land of Jambudvīpa and its subcontinents, which measure seven thousand leagues across and lengthwise. Having made the ground even like the palm of a hand, that person would then build a stūpa made of the seven precious gems—gold, silver, beryl, crystal, red coral, emerald, and white coral. It would be the size of Jambudvīpa, and its summit would reach the Brahmā realms. That person would then worship that stūpa with offerings of divine incense, divine flowers, divine garlands, and divine parasols, banners, and flags. This person endowed with these magical powers would then pour all the water of the four great oceans into another world system and replace it with four oceans filled with maruka oil.4 He would then place a wick the size of Mount Sumeru into the oceans so that for many eons this oil lamp would continuously burn.
“Blessed One, yes, a lot! Blissful One, yes, a lot! This is beyond all the hearers and solitary buddhas. Blessed One, this is the domain of the thus-gone ones. Blissful One, this is the domain of the thus-gone ones.”
“Śāriputra, that amount of merit would not match even a hundredth, [F.175.a] a thousandth, or even a hundred thousandth of the merit created by a noble son or noble daughter who takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha. This difference could not be illustrated by any numbers, examples, or calculations.”
When this Dharma teaching was given, the whole great trichiliocosm began to quiver, tremble, quake, wobble, rock, sway, vibrate, shudder, and reel. Great lightning flashes struck, and the gods caused the sound of drums to be heard.
The venerable Ānanda asked the Blessed One, “Blessed One, what is the name of this Dharma teaching? How should it be remembered?”
When the Blessed One had spoken, the venerable Śāriputra and the other monks praised the Blessed One’s words.
This concludes the noble Great Vehicle sūtra “Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels.”
’phags pa gsum la skyabs su ’gro ba zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryatriśaraṇagamananāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh 225, Degé Kangyur vol. 63 (mdo sde, dza), folios 174.a–175.a.
’phags pa gsum la skyabs su ’gro ba zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryatriśaraṇagamananāmamahāyānasūtra). Stok 196, Stok Palace Kangyur (stog pho brang bris ma) vol. 72 (mdo sde, zha), folios 336.a–338.a.
’phags pa gsum la skyabs su ’gro ba zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo. bka’ ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–2009, vol. 63, pp. 471–74.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan[/ lhan] dkar gyi chos ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Degé Tengyur, vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294.b–310.a.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
Liberman, Kenneth. “The Going for Refuge Sutra.” Bulletin of Tibetology, new series no. 1 (1988): 35–36.
Skilling, Peter. Questioning the Buddha: A Selection of Twenty-Five Sutras. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2021.
- kun dga’ bo
The personal attendant and cousin of the Buddha, who compiled the sūtras.
- mgon med zas sbyin
A wealthy householder of Śrāvastī renowned for his generosity. He spent a small fortune to purchase the grove of Prince Jeta, built a monastery there, and offered both to the Buddha.
- tshangs pa’i ’jig rten
The heaven of Brahmā, usually located just above the desire realm (kāmadhātu) as one of the first levels of the form realm (rūpadhātu) and equated with the state that one achieves in the first meditative absorption (dhyāna).
- stong gsum gyi stong chen po’i ’jig rten gyi khams
The largest universe spoken of in Buddhist cosmology, consisting of one billion smaller world systems.
- nyan thos
Primarily referring to those disciples of the Buddha who aspire to attain the state of a worthy one by seeking personal liberation. The term is usually defined as a person who hears the teaching from the Buddha and makes it heard to others.
- ’dzam bu’i gling
The continent (dvīpa) on which we live, shaped like a rose apple (jambū) according to ancient South Asian cosmology.
- nang du yang dag ’jog
This term can mean both physical seclusion and a meditative state of withdrawal.
- ri rab
The great mountain at the center of the universe according to ancient Indian cosmology.
- dpal brtsegs
Paltsek, from the village of Kawa north of Lhasa, was one of Tibet’s preeminent translators. He was one of the first seven Tibetans to be ordained by Śāntarakṣita and is counted as one of Guru Rinpoche’s twenty-five close disciples. In a famous verse by Ngok Lotsawa, Paltsek is named along with Chokro Lui Gyaltsen and Zhang Nanam Yeshé as part of a group of translators whose skills were surpassed only by Vairotsana. He translated works from a wide variety of genres, including sūtra, śāstra, vinaya, and tantra, and was an author himself. Paltsek was also one of the most important editors of the early period, one of nine translators installed by Trisong Detsen to supervise the translation of the Tripiṭaka and help catalog translated works for the first two of three imperial catalogs (the ldan kar ma and bsam yas mchims phu ma catalogs).
- sha ra dwa ti’i bu
Along with Maudgalyāyana, Śāradvatīputra (also known as Śāriputra) was one of the two main disciples of the Buddha. He was renowned for his pure discipline and was praised by the Buddha as being foremost in terms of insight.
- sarba dz+nyA de ba
According to traditional accounts, the Kashmiri abbot Sarvajñādeva was among the “one hundred” paṇḍitas invited by Trisong Detsen (r. 755–797/800) to assist with the translation of the Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan. Sarvajñādeva assisted in the translation of more than twenty-three works, including numerous sūtras and the first translations of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra and Nāgārjuna’s Suhṛllekha. Much of this work was likely carried out in the first years of the ninth century and may have continued into the reign of Ralpachen, who ascended the throne in 815 and died in 838 or 841 ᴄᴇ.
- rang sangs rgyas
Individuals who, in their last life, attain realization by realizing the nature of dependent origination without relying upon a spiritual guide.
- mnyan yod
During the life of the Buddha, Śrāvastī was a major city in the kingdom of Kosala, in present day Uttar Pradesh.