On Taking Refuge in Evil Buddhas

In a recent fine talk,  Absolute Refuge, Jiryu Mark Rutschman Byler shares the practice of taking refuge in evil Buddhas. We had a lively conversation about this during our last Monday night Dogen study here. Turns out it’s a theme that riles some folks up.

Gentle Jiryu’s riling talk, by the way, is one of the audio dharma talks that we’ll use in the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training.

Jiryu has studied an old Buddhist school in China, the Three Stages Sect, who seem to have been interested in how to live in peace and harmony. And they noticed how attachment to our views creates conflict and discord. They came to the opinion that all opinions are false, as a practice for cutting through attachment to our own limited perspectives.

But if all views are false, where can we go for refuge? What is a reliable source of stability, strength, and sanity? The Three Stages Sect identified the teachings of the historical Buddha, the universal Buddha, and evil Buddhas as fitting sources for refuge.

The first two, the historical and universal Buddhas, go well with what we usually think of as objects of refuge but taking refuge in evil Buddhas just might sound rather messed up. As one person said, “‘Evil Buddhas’ is an oxymoron.  And refuge, to me, indicates a place of safety and security… as in a circle of protection. Why would I let evil Buddhas into my circle of protection?”

In the same vein, during Catholic confirmation, if memory serves, the bishop asks, “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?”

If anybody in my confirmation cohort had been a member of the Three Stages Sect, they’d have hollered, “No way, dude! I take refuge in Satan, too.”

So this is a teaching that is intended, I believe, to rile us up, to disclose our one-sidedness and free us from being Buddhist fundamentalists – imv, really important for our times.

If “evil Buddha” is too provocative, consider opening up that category so that evil includes delusion and death and difficulty. Consider that the evil Buddha isn’t out there somewhere but right here. Just this person. And even when the so-called other is before us, who is seeing this “evil Buddha”?

See, for example (I hope), my recent post about what to do when life is disrupted (click here) for a practical, personal way that this perspective can be practiced.

This refuge-in-evil-Buddhas teaching in various forms recurs throughout the Buddhist tradition, including in Dogen, Shinran, and the Vimalakirti Sutra (see the end of the this post for a few excerpts of what they had to say). You might sit calmly and reflect deeply about this. After all, as I said, it’s a recurring theme, so just maybe there is something important for us here, too.

It is my unreliable opinion that there is.

One of the evil sides of refuge in evil Buddhas, (otherwise known as entering fully into Mara, or the way as going the wrong way, or being an evil person – see below for the excerpts I’m referencing here), is that we might use these teachings to justify our own harmful actions of body, speech, and thought, and to condone the negative actions of others.

That’s really not the point, although, in a way it supports the Three Stage’s contention – all perspectives are unreliable.

Jiryu says about the Three Stages Sect, “It’s not that they liked evil Buddhas. [The Three Stages Sect] were a great source for good, they really helped people, and they lived by all the rules that Buddhists have always lived by to be most kind and most compassionate…. They realized that the only place to find real reliable refuge is right here, so if there is an evil buddha in front of me, that is my refuge…. If I’m not finding refuge in what’s here, then how will I find it anywhere?”

Jiryu also mentions a really hinky test that the founder of this school advocated for determining whether a donor should give gifts to a community. S/he should ask, “Is there anyone among the assembly who breaks their vows?”

If the answer is “No sir! We are a pure community of righteous practitioners,” then you shouldn’t give to that group because the group is “…excluding from the embrace of refuge those who break their vows,” as Jiryu put it.

As a breaker of vows, sinner, and broken-down old guy, I think that’s so tender.

Comments welcome and okay. Here are the excerpts:

1. Dogen, Thirty-seven Conditions Contributing to Bodhisattva Practice:

When a demon becomes a buddha, it exerts its demon-ness, breaks it, and actualizes a buddha. When a buddha becomes a buddha, he/she exerts his/her buddhahood, strives for it, and actualizes a buddha. When a human being becomes a buddha, he/she exerts his/her human nature, trains it, and actualizes a buddha. You should thoroughly understand the truth that possibilities lie precisely in the ways various beings exert their respective natures.

2. Vimalakirti Sutra, Chapter 8, The Family of the Tathagathas

Then, the crown prince Manjusri said to the Licchavi Vimalakirti, “Noble sir, how does the bodhisattva follow the way to attain the qualities of the Buddha?”

Vimalakirti replied, “Manjusri, when the bodhisattva follows the wrong way, he follows the way to attain the qualities of the Buddha.”

Manjusri continued, “How does the bodhisattva follow the wrong way?”

Vimalakirti replied, “Even should he enact the five deadly sins, he feels no malice, violence, or hate. Even should he go into the hells, he remains free of all taint of passions. Even should he go into the states of the animals, he remains free of darkness and ignorance. When he goes into the states of the asuras, he remains free of pride, conceit, and arrogance. When he goes into the realm of the lord of death, he accumulates the stores of merit and wisdom. When he goes into the states of motionlessness and immateriality, he does not dissolve therein.

“He may follow the ways of desire, yet he stays free of attachment to the enjoyments of desire. He may follow the ways of hatred, yet he feels no anger to any living being. He may follow the ways of folly, yet he is ever conscious with the wisdom of firm understanding.

3. Shinran’s Tannisho: Even the good person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the evil person.

But the people of the world constantly say, even the evil person attains birth, how much more so the good person. Although this appears to be sound at first glance, it goes against the intention of the Primal Vow of Other Power. The reason is that since the person of self power, being conscious of doing good, lacks the thought of entrusting the self completely to Other Power, he or she is not the focus of the Primal Vow of Amida. But when self-power is turned over and entrusting to Other Power occurs, the person attains birth in the land of True Fulfillment.

The Primal Vow was established out of deep compassion for us who cannot become freed from the bondage of birth-and-death through any religious practice, due to the abundance of blind passion. Since its basic intention is to effect the enlightenment of such an evil one, the evil person who is led to true entrusting by Other Power is the person who attains birth in the Pure Land. Thus, even the good person attains birth, how much more so the evil person!

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  • Stephanie

    Thank you for this great post, Dosho. I have been helped to better understand the difficulties I’ve had rekindling my practice by this post and this quote from James Shaheen in the opening essay of the current issue of Tricycle: “Institutions, no less but no more than individuals, are marked by what the novelist Philip Roth called ‘the human stain’ — our inevitable failure to live up to the purity of our ideals. Desire, the very pulse of life, is not something to be mastered; it will always be with us, always causing trouble, undermining our high-mindedness, delighting us and driving us crazy, and reminding us that we are, alas, human.” The problem is that I have some idea of “practice” or “spirituality” that is very idealistic and set apart from my life as it is, one that is easy to abandon when it does not seem my life is anywhere close to looking like that ideal. The truth is I’ve never abandoned practice; I’ve just failed to recognize practice that doesn’t look like what I think it’s supposed to look like. That’s not a flip endorsement of doing whatever feels good, but a recognition that the most important aspects of practice are what a sincere person never loses: the desire to know what’s true and the desire to live with a more open heart and less delusion. Evil Buddhas are just the ones that we can’t recognize as Buddhas, which is why they might be the most help to us of all.

    • doshoport

      Thank you, Stephanie. Even old Dogen referred to his practice as “broken wooden ladle Zen.” Not so useful and oh, what a mess.

  • http://bodhiarmour.blogspot.ie/ Harry

    Damn you, Port! Just when I’m about to give up on Buddhism as just another empty pyrotechnic crock some wiseguy throws me a swerve-ball like this.

    If Buddhism isn’t Way too close for comfort then I don’t see how it could work.

    Sincere bow-ness,


    • doshoport

      Harry, damnation and sincere bow-ness back,

  • Jeff

    This is very interesting stuff. I feel compelled to point out that in Tannisho (and this is the most famous passage in the text) Shinran is not telling us to take refuge IN evil buddhas, but to take refugee AS evil buddhas. That’s the crux of the entire Jodo Shinshu teaching right there.

    Shinran does support the existence of evil buddhas as objects of thanks and helpers of deluded beings. In the first few lines of his magnum opus Kyogyoshinsho, he says that Devadatta and Ajatasatru are celestial bodhisattvas whose evil actions helped open the door to the Pure Land for all living beings.

    Buddhism may be the strangest religion ever created. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • doshoport

      Thanks for your point here – IN and AS – important. I don’t know much about Shinran or Jodo Shinshu so I especially appreciate this. Another angle/opinion, somehow going in the similar hinky direction. And I’m with you on strangeness and not having it any other way!


  • http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/ Bob

    One of the big misconceptions floating around in the collective consciousness is that “we are only human”, when in fact, little could be further from the truth. Indeed, this notion is the source of endless excuse-making, as well as compouded foolishness. Moreover, clinging to and fixating on one’s identity as a human being will guarantee that one remains bound to the illusion.
    For an elaboration, see

  • Paul

    I have been living with this “taking refuge in evil Buddha” for the last eight days, since our Monday night conversation.

    Living with it in a “not-knowing mind” state. Accepting it as true, as something that I don’t understand but might bring some insight.
    As such, “evil Buddha” still does not make any kind of sense to me. As that person said, it still seems an oxymoron. How could an awakened one do evil? But that has not been as fruitful as my consideration of “refuge.”

    What do I mean when i say I take refuge? Are there meanings of refuge that are different than that classic one of a safe place, a place of security? Can I expand my view of refuge? Or can i make even unpleasant moments a place of refuge?

    After all, as Jiryu said, if only the pleasant moments count, much of my life would not count. But… if I can find refuge throughout my life, how much better might it be?

    I don’t know. But I’ll keep working on it.

    • doshoport

      Great to see you here!
      And thank you for your practice.

  • http://bodhiarmour.blogspot.ie/ Harry

    BTW, the evil Buddha in me originally read ‘Three Stages Sect’ as ‘Three Stooges Sect’… some of the old Chinese koan records aren’t far of that actually what with all the poking and slapping and kicking…



    • doshoport

      Hey, the Three Stooges Sect could still arise – wanna start it?

  • Aaron Caruso

    Scary picture. It looks like my wife before she has had her morning coffee.

    • doshoport

      …who I assume is not a blog reader?

  • http://bodhiarmour.blogspot.ie/ Harry


    Certainly, everyone’s welcome to join; the Moe the merrier.


  • Pingback: Five Meats, Five Ambrosias, and Refuge in Evil | No Zen in the West()

  • http://nozeninthewest.com Jiryu

    Thanks for this great post and the conversation here – I myself don’t totally “get” the teachings pointed to in all of this, but I think they are super important anyway. Over at No Zen in the West I just added another piece to this conversation, a maybe even stranger (certainly grosser) teaching from our Tantric Buddhist friends that points to this same “refuge in evil” kind of nondual mind.
    It’s at http://nozeninthewest.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/five-meats-five-ambrosias-and-refuge-in-evil/

    • doshoport

      Thank you, Jiryu, for stimulating this post – and also our conversations and reflections Wild Fox and in Vine of Obstacles.

      And you are right – your new blog post is both stranger and grosser!

      Warm regards


  • http://wakingupinthegarden.blogspot.com/ Lauren

    I came to your blog by way of “No Zen…” And thank you, I really enjoyed your post as I am really enjoying this topic. I feel like taking refuge in evil buddhas is a call to accept every part of ourselves which is, in turn, inside everyone else. For some reason I do not get so hung up on the semantics or use of the word evil in this case. But I think it gets us stirred up and flustered which encourages us to dig around “looking” for this evil, to discover its true nature. And I feel like when we see “evil” in someone, we are only able to recognize it because we have it too. It’s a safer (self-protectice) way to see evil in the world, when it’s in someone else.

  • VajraSmile

    This post is so evil. Like Zen of the Norwegian Black Metal type. I can hear the shrieking buddhas attacking all those dark, stinky thoughts and feelings wrapped up and mummified in the hell of my ignorance. Thank you, evil ones. My head is in your fanged mouth.

  • Larry Anderson

    Good Buddha
    evil Buddha
    same Buddha
    only different…….

    Good Sun
    bad Sun
    same Sun
    only different……..

    Good Rain
    bad Rain
    same Rain
    only same difference.

    Bows to bad Dosho
    Bows to good Dosho
    Bowing the same
    to different Doshos………

    Happy Easter/Spring!!!