15 January 2010

Triratna Buddhist Order

On the 6th of January I received an email from the founder of our Order, Sangharakshita, [1] explaining that he was changing the name of the Order from the Western Buddhist Order to the Triratna Buddhist Order.

There were a number of factors behind this momentous decision. It was increasingly anachronistic to call us 'Western' when about a quarter of the order live in India, and we have groups and centres in Eastern Europe and other places which might not think of themselves as 'Western': Turkey for instance! When we started off in 1968 'Western' was quite appropriate, but now we are a global order. In India we had even more problems because the Order there was called Trailokya Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha (the Great Buddhist Order of the Triple-World). Having two different names for the Order was always problematic as we only have one ordination, and was a bit confusing at times - I noticed this at the Order Convention in India for instance. Also the word trailokya was not understood outside Buddhist circles in India - I doubt whether many westerners knew what it meant either. It seemed that we really needed a single name for the whole Order and that it was one that would be widely comprehensible.

The Order itself has been aware of these problems for many years - Viśvapāṇi wrote about it in 1995 for instance: Finding a Name for the FWBO (interestingly he suggested Triratna Buddhist Order way back then!) However because we aim to operate by consensus, and this was a difficult issue to find a consensus on, the discussion bogged down. We did almost change the name of the Order to 'Buddhayāna' about ten years ago until it was pointed out that there was already a Buddhist group with this name. Towards the end of 2009 some members of the Order in India asked Sangharakshita to step in and make a decision for us as the founder of the Order because they felt the situation in India was urgent. And that is what he did. Now that he has made the change, my sense is that most people are happy to put this issue behind us and look to the future.

So now there is just one name for the Order, though it will, of course, be translated into various languages - for instance in Hindi it will be Triratna Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha. Triratna is usually translated as 'three jewels' (more on this shortly). It solves the problem with trailokya in India as it is the same in Hindi, and is also reasonably well know in the Buddhist world. Also because Triratna is Sanskrit, that part will be the same all over the world - it will be the part of the name that is not translated and therefore universal.

I can immediately see the appeal of the name. As an Order we emphasise going for refuge to the three jewels above any particular beliefs or practices. The three jewels are, of course, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These represent the ideal of enlightenment, the foundations on which enlightenment is attained, and the guides and companions on the path. [2] On our kesa, or symbolic robe, [3] we have an emblem of three jewels on a lotus, wreathed in flames which symbolise transformation (see accompanying image).

Triratna (Pāli tiratana) is a type of compound known as dvigu (literally 'two-cow') where the stem form of the number is affixed to the item being counted. This avoids having to work out the appropriate inflection for the number, though the inflection of the compound must reflect the number (Sanskrit retains a dual number as well as singular and plural). So 'tri-' just means three - both the Sanskrit and English words are some of the least changed from their Indo-European roots. [4] Ratna probably stems from a verbal root √rā 'to give'. A ratna was originally a 'precious gift'. In some Pāli texts there are lists of seven ratana: suvaṇṇa, rajata, muttā, maṇi, veḷuriya, vajira, and pavāla - that is: gold, silver, pearls, crystal, lapis lazuli, diamond, and coral. Other precious substances such as ruby, beryl, and cat's eye were also known, and maṇi can be used as a general term for a gem-stone. It's clear from this list that 'jewels' is only a part of what ratna refers to. The three jewels, then, can be thought of as 'the three precious gifts', which appeals to me very much!

We formalise our relationship to these precious gifts by reciting the ancient Pāli formula:

buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
dhammaṃ saraṇaṇ gacchāmi

saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi

I go to the Buddha who is a refuge
I go to the Dhamma which is a refuge
I go to the Sangha which is refuge

Note that the verb is √gam (stem gaccha), and the conjugation is 1st person singular present indicative - 'I go' or 'I am going' (not 'I take'). Going for refuge is an individual act of will, it can't be done for you, and the refuges can't be 'given' to you, except perhaps by a Buddha. The standard translation is 'I go to the Buddha for refuge', but because both buddha and saraṇa are in the same case (accusative) it would be usual to read one as an attribute of the other as I have done here. Saṅgha is also in the singular - our refuge is the ārya-saṅgha as a whole, not any individual member of it.

With the name Triratna Buddhist Order we are saying three things. First, that we are an order, i.e. an ordained collective who share spiritual ideals and disciplines. [5] Second, that we are Buddhists - we go for refuge to the three jewels. We broadly share our values and methods with other Buddhists, and see our selves as belonging to that broad and sometimes contradictory range of traditions stemming from the Buddha. Third, that we identify more with the three precious gifts themselves than with any sectarian expression of Buddhism - i.e. with any particular lineage, philosophy, practice, or national and/or cultural expression of Buddhism. The three precious gifts themselves are the most important things to us.

Personally I hope that we do not slip into our old habit of using initials for our name. The name reminds us of who we are and what we are about, and using an acronym hides that. Also because the name is translated the initials are different in different countries. In his 1995 article Viśvapāṇi (somewhat prophetically) suggested we refer to ourselves as 'Triratna Buddhists', and I hope that this might catch on. Another thing about acronyms is that they suggest haste - we are in a hurry to say the name and move on, so we abbreviate it, thereby rendering it meaningless like some mere marketing slogan, rather than an expression of our highest ideals and values. It would be more consistent with our vision to linger over names, and revel in long descriptive names. This is one of the advantages to having awkward sounding Sanskrit names for Order Members - one has to slow down, to linger over them, to explain, to practice patience and contentment. Attention to pronunciation also encourages mindfulness. So let us be the Triratna Buddhist Order, not the TBO, please!

As far as I am aware nothing except the name of the Order has changed. The ordination itself remains the same, and no one need be re-ordained. We call our ordination a (or 'the') Dharmacārī/Dharmacāriṇī Ordination. [6] Dharmacārin is an adjective - 'he who walks the path'. Perhaps we will come to think of ourselves as Triratna Dharmacārins. In Sanskrit I think this would be a single compound triratnadharmacārin 'a walker of the path of the three precious gifts'. Though it is grammatically masculine, gender is not predicated on natural gender in Pāli and Sanskrit - saṅgha, for instance, is also grammatically masculine.

Lastly, but not leastly, I must mention that the Order has an auxiliary movement historically called the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, or sometimes simply 'The Friends' or 'The Movement'. Sangharakshita originally expressed a wish that we change the name of The Friends to '...of the Triratna Buddhist Order'. Then as a result of a suggestion from some Centre Chairs he opted for Triratna Buddhist Community. Each centre of The Friends is legally and organisationally autonomous so they needed to decide for themselves how to respond to this. The suggestion has been taken up and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order will officially become the Triratna Buddhist Community on Buddha Day, 28 May 2010. Personally I could see a time when our centre names also reflect the change - the Cambridge Triratna Buddhist Centre for instance.

I written a blog post about the relationship between the Triratna Order and Community, how each functions and some of the main institutions of each: Triratna Buddhist Order and Community.

(This post has been edited several times, most recently on 7 July 2010)

  1. The Anglicised Sanskrit spelling of Sangharakshita's name is firmly established (though he got it in Pāli). A more accurate spelling would be Saṅgharakṣita i.e सङ्घरक्षित, though Saṃgharakṣita would also be acceptable. The name means 'protected by the saṅgha' (rakṣita being a past-participle from √rakṣ 'to protect').
  2. We do not go for refuge to the Bhikkhu Saṅgha and I would argue that to do so is a mistake. It's clear in Pāli texts that the Saṅgha Refuge is the Ariya-saṅgha, i.e. those people who have already attained the fruits of stream entry whether or not they are ordained - the focus is on practice rather than lifestyle!
  3. kesa (Japanese) 'a robe'. Our kesa is modelled on those worn in Zen schools and is a strip of cloth worn over the neck. The word comes (via Chinese chia-sha) from kaṣāya 'red/orange/yellow' which referred to the robes Buddhist bhikṣus wore - the colour came not from expensive saffron, but from dirt, and was to make the white cloth not worth stealing! The Sanskrit word for robe is cīvara. Order members wear a white kesa, unless they have taken the brahmacarya precept when they wear a gold kesa.
  4. There is a tendency for English speakers to pronounce 'tri' as 'chri'. The 't' is a true dental, pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the tip of the teeth; the 'r' is tapped (the motion is very like pronouncing 'l' but the tongue makes contact after the vocalisation has started). Opinions vary on the quality of the vowel. my suggestion is to pronounce it like 'tree' (but again not chree) - but not as long. The next syllable 'ra' is stressed so don't emphasise the 'tri'.
  5. I've written at some length about the word 'order' and why the Triratna Buddhist Order is an order, and the ceremony by which we join it is an ordination. See my essay - Ordination : A Contested Term.
  6. Dharmacārin is the stem form, though in the Order we still regularly use the nominative singular- Dharmacārī and Dharmacāriṇī. The stem is in fact masculine or neuter in gender rather than genderless as I have previously suggested.

Other Resources

namapada : a guide to names in the Triratna Buddhist OrderNāmapada. A guide to Sanskrit and Pali names used in the Triratna Buddhist Order. Definitions and etymologies for almost 500 words and affixes. Background on the Sanskrit and Pali languages and relevant points of grammar and morphology.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

main image: the
Triratna emblem from a Triratnadharmacārin's kesa.
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