Technically we become a Buddhist when we decide to take refuge in the Three Jewels and when we generate Bodhichitta, which is known as compassion, the altruistic mind, or our good heart. The Three Jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the enlightened Teacher, the Dhamma his teaching, and the Sangha or community of practitioners. It is very clear that the idea of helping others lies at the heart of both Refuge and Bodhichitta. The practice of Generating Bodhichitta explicitly entails committing oneself to activities which are primarily aimed at helping others while the practice of Taking Refuge lays the foundation for the practitioner to lead his or her life in an ethically disciplined way, avoiding actions that are harmful to others and respecting the Law of Karma.
Unless we have a good foundational experience of the practice of Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels, we will not be able to have a high level of realization of bodhichitta. It is for this reason that the distinction between a practising Buddhist and a non-Buddhist is made on the basis of whether or not an individual has taken Refuge in the Three Jewels.
However, when we talk about Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels, we should not imagine that it simply involves a ceremony in which we formally take Refuge from a master, or that merely by virtue of participating in such a ceremony we have become a Buddhist. There is a formal Refuge ceremony in Buddhism, but the ceremony is not the point. The point is that as a result of your own reflection, even without a master, you become fully convinced of the validity of the Buddha,
Dharma and Sangha as the true ultimate objects of refuge, and that is when you actually become a Buddhist. You entrust your spiritual wellbeing to the Three Jewels, and that is what is really meant by Taking Refuge . On the other hand, if there is any doubt or apprehension in your mind about the validity of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as being the ultimate objects of refuge, even though you may have taken part in a Refuge ceremony, that very suspicion or doubt prevents you from being a practising Buddhist, at least for the time being. It is therefore important to understand what these objects of refuge are.
The ultimate goal in Buddhism is complete and permanent liberation from suffering, enlightenment and Buddhahood. Nothing less than that. For this we have to live a correct and meaningful life. Committing no harm, benefiting others, continuously uplifting ourselves, transcending samsara and attaining enlightenment are all examples of a worthy life.
The path to reach this goal is a long one, on which the obstacles are many and our own deficiencies are numerous; so it is necessary to have a support, a stabilizing influence, a refuge. This support is provided by the practice of taking refuge.
Buddhist prayer meditation starts with the recitation of taking refuge in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. The Buddha is the guide showing the path to salvation, Dhamma is the Path shown by him and Sangha is the community of Noble Ones who have walked the path and reapld the fruits. Taking refuge in these three gems supports us and contributes to our progress on the path. Taking of refuge is based on faith.
Faith in Buddhism does not mean blind belief and unquestiong adherence as in non-Buddhist traditions. Among all the religious leaders of the world, Buddha is the only exceptional one, UNIQUE one who exhorted his followers not to repose faith implicitly on what he taught without subjecting the same to the touchstone of reason. He asks us not to accept anything simply because it is a traditional custom or belief, because it is the opinion of a majority, because it is found in the scriptures or it is told by a prestigious teacher.
Faith in Buddhism is understood in three levels: (1) Clear faith, which consists of a clear appreciation of the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha; (2) aspiring faith, which means that, having developed a clear appreciation of the qualities of the Triple Gem, one aspires to achieve these qualities for oneself; (3) confident faith, which means that, once clear faith and aspiring faith have been firmly established, one’s faith gradually becomes unshakable. Through these three levels of faith – from the appreciation to aspiration to confident certainty – one’s faith is developed to a point where its progress and effects are irreversible.
Faith becomes confident faith, confident in Dhamma and in the possibility of success. It is said that spiritual practice whithout faith is like a burned seed that will not put forth the seedling of spiritual progress no matter how rich the soil or how carefully we tend.
Refuge in the three gems is taken on this confident faith. As you all must be knowing, taking refuge in the three gems is the first recitation in the Buddhist meditation.
Every religion has certain objects of veneration in which its followers are expected to have confidence. It is the fervent acceptance of these sacred objects which awaken the religious impulse in men and which in turn inspire them to lead a religious life.
The essence of going for Refuge is the development of a deep conviction in the efficacy of the Dhamma as a means to liberation, as well as a deep aspiration or desire to attain that liberation. Dhamma is the actual object of Refuge. Buddha is the teacher who shows the Path and the Sangha are your companions on the path.
When we speak about Buddha in this context, we should not confine our understanding of the word to the historical person who was born in India and taught a certain spiritual way of life. Rather, our understanding of buddhahood should be based on levels of consciousness, or levels of spiritual realization. We should understand that buddhahood is a spiritual state of being. This is why the Buddhist scriptures can speak about past buddhas, buddhas of the present and buddhas of the future.
The Buddha is the Unsurpassed One, who achieved perfection in every aspect of existence. He exemplified compassion, wisdom, merit, Samadhi, supernatural powers, and all wondrous functions. The Dhamma is the teaching of the Buddha. It can benefit us tremendously in all aspects of life. The Sangha is the community of ordained Buddhist monks and nuns, who devote their life to the practice and propagation of the Dhamma.
People consider precious jewels to be diamonds, gold, and money. These are mere worldly treasures, which neither last nor bring us true happiness. However, the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha give us eternal protection, wisdom, and liberation. They help us achieve happiness, end suffering, and evolve to the highest level of existence.
Some people believe enlightenment is very difficult, if not impossible to achieve. On the contrary, awakened people realize that enlightenment is feasible, and is a must. Otherwise, we will be trapped in the endless, miserable cycle of birth and death. To achieve enlightenment, we must practise the Way; we need the Three Jewels. In fact, the Three Jewels are our only hope. Therefore, they are truly precious. A famous Chinese poet named Su Dong-Po once said:
“In the vast ocean of suffering, the Three Jewels are the saving vessel.
In the burning house of fire, the Three Jewels are the cooling rain.
In the long night of darkness, the Three Jewels are the guiding lighthouse.”
Through the guidance of the external Three Jewels, we can find and manifest the internal Three Jewels of Buddha (awareness), Dhamma (truth), and Sangha (purity) in our Mind. We thus walk along the Path, knowing the purpose and goal of life, and continuously increase our value as a person. In this manner, we can live a correct and meaningful life that ultimately leads to freedom and brightness.
Taking –Refuge means: to “Turn to and rely upon.” By taking the Three-Refuges, we acknowledge that our past was filled with delusion and error-we indulged in in greed, anger, and ignorant pursuits, instead of reflecting inwardly for self transformation. Upon acknowledging this, we wish to lead an awakened life and therefore turn to and rely upon the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. We choose to be their students and follow their instructions and guidance.
Buddhist practice has several of advancement. Each higher level indicate that one has substantially elevated oneself, and is therefore endowed with considerably more merit and virtue. These levels are: (1) Three-Refuge disciple: after taking the Three-Refuges, one formally becomes a disciple of the Buddha; (2) Five-Precept disciple-one who advances to observe the Five Precepts; and (3) Bodhisattvic-Precept disciple: one who advances to observe the precepts for lay Bodhisattvas.
Taking the Three-Refuges plants a seed of the Right Path in our Mind. This seed will lead us to the Three Jewels, life after life. It will also help us to continue the right practise until full liberation is reached. After taking the Three-Refuges, we gain the support and protection of thirty-six guardians. Thereafter, even if we do not practise the Way, we can still attain enlightenment during the second Lonhua Gathering of Maitreya-the next Buddha.
On the contrary, those who choose not to take the Three-Refuges will not gain these benefits. It may be an indication that they lack the confidence in Buddhism and the determination required in the Path. They can still practise the Way, but will not be duly guided or as protected. They are like non-registered students for whom a school bears no responsibility.
Three-Refuge Transmission Ceremony
To take the Three-Refuges, we are required to participate in a Three-Refuge Transmission Ceremony. It lasts approximately 30 minutes. During the ceremony, taking the Three-Refuges is recited three times before the presiding Bhante (in Theravada Buddhism). In Zen Buddhism, we recite the following vows which are taken before the presiding Dhamma Master:
Take refuge in the Buddha, unequaled in merit and wisdom.
Take refuge in the Dharma, unequaled in detaching desires.
Take refuge in the Sangha, unequaled among all beings.
Take refuge in the Buddha, descending not to the hell realm.
Take refuge in the Dharma, descending not to the ghost realm.
Take refuge in the Sangha, descending not to the animal realm.
The Buddha was the holiest, most virtuous, wisest and most spiritually perfected personality who had ever lived. His Dhamma (doctrine) is the Ultimate Truth about the universe which explains the real nature of the world and of life as well.
The Sangha refers to all the disciples of the Buddha who have attained sainthood. It refers to the Holy Order of the Buddha, whose members lead the religious life and who are responsible for preserving his original teachings.
By declaring one’s willingness to be guided by the Holy Triple Gem, one should not be led to think that one will thereby be mentally enslaved. Everyone must have some guidance for his spiritual development; but one is here not asked to give up one’s right to think freely, intellingently and respectfully in response to whatever is taught in the name of religion.
These verses are recited to pay homage to the Triple Gem – Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. These explain some of the great qualities and virtues pertaining to the Triple Gem. By reciting these verses, one can understand the admirable qualities of the Triple Gem and so gain confident faith in them. He aspires to acquire these great qualities and virtues for himself.
The Buddha Himself explained these qualities in many of his Suttas. By reciting these verses and familiarizing oneself with them, one becomes mindful and recollects Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha in times of distress, fear or disturbance, whether arising from external sources or through evil influences, and by these recollections such disturbances can be vanquished. This is because the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha are free from all kinds of defilements and hindrances such as greed, anger and ignorance.
There are some people who pray to gods or devas in times of danger for their own protection, not realizing that these gods themselves are not free from greed, anger, ignorance and impermanence. It has also to be remembered that even the gods themselves are subject to fear. Therefore, for our own protection, it is more advisable to remember the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
Iti pi so Bhagavā
He indeed is the most exalted Bhagavar
Who has eradicated all the defilements, vanquished all the enemies; (Even in secret he does no evil)
(2) Sammā Sambuddho
Who is a fully self-enlightened one; (Sammā – sambodhi is the supreme Enlightenment of a most developed, most compassionate, most loving, all knowing perfect being) (By his own efforts he became the Buddha)
(3) Vijjā Carana – sampanno
Who is endowed with clear vision, virtuous of conduct;
Walking the Holy Path who has reached the goal, who is most sublime;
Who is the knower of all the worlds;
(6) Anuttaro Purisa dhamma-sārathi
Who is the incomparable guide and leader of men to be tamed;
(7) Satthā Deva – Manussānam
Who is the Teacher of gods and men;
To the devas, yakkas and men in this world, he gives the highest fruits. They are enabled to subdue their defilements
(9) Bhagavā ti
Who is Holy / Blessed (The world- honoured one The all- knowing one / Theall- seeing one.)
Nine Great Virtues of the Buddha
He is Arahant and worthy of offerings.
Even in secret, He does no evil.
He attained the fruit of Arahantship.
To thee, the worthy One, my homage be.
He is Sammā Sambuddha.
He not only comprehends the Dhamma by his own efforts and wisdom, but also expounds the doctrine to seekers of truth to purify and save them from the recurring cycle of suffering.
A fully self-enlightened One is He in the world.
To thee, the fully Enlightened One, my homage be.
He is endowed with wisdom and knowledge.
His wisdom is made known to others.
The past and the future He knows.
To thee, endowed with wisdom and courage, my homage be.
H e is Sugata who has walked the Holy Path and reached the goal.
He is free from craving and clinging,
He is not in bondage,
He is happy and mindful and feels the same towards all beings as that of a mother towards her only beloved son.
What must be directly known is directly known by him.
What has to be developed has been developed by him.
What has to be abandoned has been abandoned by him.
He has great compassion.
He knows through realization what is good or harmful to all human beings. He uses only fitting speech in fitting places and soon.
He is Lokavidu, knower of all the words.
He knows the past and the future.
Things, beings and space He knows.
To Thee, the knower of all the worlds, my homage be.
By wisdom and conduct He is unrivalled.
An unrivalled one is He in the world.
In this world He is revered as an Imcomparable One.
That Incomparable One, I salute.
A charioteer, a charioteer is He of devas.
He is charioteer to the world.
He is the venerated charioteer in this world.
That charioteer I salute.
To devas, yakkhas and men in this world,
He gives the highest teachings and the highest fruits.
And they subdue (their difilements)
To the teacher of all men and devas, my homage be.
The Bhagava is replete with all virtues and fortune.
He has destroyed all passions.
He has crossed the ocean of samsāra.
To that Bhagava, my homage be.
Svākkhāto Bhagavatā Dhammo
Well- expounded is the Dhamma by the Blessed one.
Very effective in yielding fruits.
The fruits of the Dhamma are visible here and now and are realized in this very life.
Not limited to a particular period (timeless, applicable for all times).
Ehi – passiko
“Come and test for yourself, experience yourself”, it calls upon all.
Leads all to higher states, capable of being entered upon.
Paccattam Veditabbo viññuhi ti
To be attained by the wise, each by himself.
Of good conduct is the Order
of the Disciples of the Blessed one.
Of upright conduct is the Order
of the the Diciples of the Blessed one.
Of wise conduct is the Order
of the Disciples of the Blessed one.
Of dutiful conduct is the Order
Of the Disciples of the Blessed one.
These four pairs of persons,
This Order of the Disciples of the Blessed one,
is worthy of offerings,
is worthy of hospitality,
is worthy of gifts,
is worthy of reverential salutation,
is an incomparable field of merits to the world.
Now the next question is: how does a Buddha come into being?
How does a person become fully enlightened? When we reflect on buddhahood, we are bound to ask ourselves whether or not it is possible for an individual to attain such a state, to become a fully enlightened being, a Buddha. Here we find that the key lies in understanding the nature of Dharma. If the Dharma exists, then the Sangha will certainly exist – the Sangha are those who have engaged in the path of the Dharma, and who have realized and actualized its truth. If there are Sangha members who have reached spiritual states where they have overcome at least the gross levels of negativity and afflictive emotions, then we can envision the possibility of attaining a freedom from negativity and afflictive emotions which is total. That state is what we call buddhahood. In the present context, we must make a distinction between the use of ‘Dharma’ as a generic term and its use in the specific framework of the Refuge. Generically, it refers to the scriptural Dharma – the Buddha’s teaching and the spiritual realizations based on the practice of that teaching. In relation to the Refuge it has two aspects: one is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering and afflictive emotions, and the other is cessation itself. It is only by understanding true cessation and the path leading to cessation that we can have some idea of what that state of liberation is.
Excerpt from a Sutra
The following is abstracted from: The Buddha Says Deva Jivanadharma Took Three-Refuges and was Saved from Rebirth in a Lower Realm Sutra:
“A heavenly being, whose name is Jivanadharma, said to the King of Indra’s
Heaven “I have only seven days before I die. After my death, I will descend to Rajagrha City in India, become a pig, and eat feces and filth for several years. I see this suffering and that is why I worry and lament.”
Hearing this, the king was very sympathetic and said to Jivanadharma, “You should take refuge in the Three Jewels with sincerity.” Then Jivanadharma, for fear of death and rebirth as a pig, followed the king to say, “I now take refuge in the Buddha, unequaled in merit and wisdom; take refuge in the Dharma, uequaled in detaching desires; and take refuge in the Sangha, unequaled among all beings.” After Jivanadharma took the Three-Refuges, he passed away.
Heavenly beings can see the worlds below their level of existence, but not the worlds above. So, after Jivanadharma died, the king tried to locate where he was reborn. He searched all the pigs in the Rajagrha City of India in vain. He then searched all the animal and ghost realms in vain. He searched the human realm in vain. He even searched the Four-King Heaven and the Indra’s Heaven in vain. The king, feeling dumbfounded, went to see the Buddha. He prostrated at the Buddha’s feet, then, turned away, sat down, and humb by asked the Buddha to tell him where Jivanadharma had been reborn.
The Buddha replied; “Jivanadharma has been born in the Tusita Heaven (which is two levels above the Indra’s Heaven). Upon learning this, the king was jubilant! Thus, he recited the following verse before the Buddha:
“Take refuge in the Buddha, and one will not fall to the evil realm. Relinquishing the human flesh, one will gain a heavenly body.
Take refuge in the Dharma, and one will not fall to the evil realm. Relinquishing the human flesh, one will gain a heavenly body.
Take refuge in the Sangha, and one will not fall to the evil realm. Relinquishing the human flesh, one will gain a heavely body.”
Afterwards, the king recited another verse:
“Sincerely take refuge in the Buddha, and day and night, one gains constant consideration from the Mind of the Buddha.
Sincerely take refuge in the Dharma, and day and night, one gains constant blessing from the power of the Dharma.
Sincerely take refuge in the Sangha, and day and night, one gains constant sheltering from the might of the Sangha.”
After the king recited these verses, the Buddha affirmed and said:
“Take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and one will definitely not fall to the evil realms. After one relinquishes the human flesh, one will certainly gain a heavenly body.”
Then, the Buddha uttered a second verse:
“If one does not know the names of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, one is lowest of the lowly and cannot have these gains, transmigrating themselves in the samsara of no ending.”
Taking the Three-Refuges is fundamental to living as a person of merit and to practising the Way. It has profound meaning and innumerable benefits in this lifetime and all future existences. Wise people take the Three-Refuges and observe the Five Precepts, thereby laying a solid foundation for their practice and happiness. Based on this foundation, they continue to cultivate merit, wisdom, compassion, Samadhi, and good relationships with all sentient being. They are greatly blessed, and their lives are brighter and much richer. Though they are still mundane people now, they live as holy beings.