Going for Refuge: Becoming a Buddhist
“They go to many a refuge, to mountains and forests, to park and tree shrines: people threatened with danger. That’s not the secure refuge, not the supreme refuge, that’s not the refuge – having gone to which, you gain release from all suffering and stress.
But when, having gone to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha for refuge, you see with right discernment the Four Noble Truths — stress, the cause of stress, the transcending of stress, and the Noble Eightfold Path, the way to the stilling of stress: that is the secure refuge, that is the supreme refuge, that is the refuge – having gone to which, you gain release from all suffering and stress.”
A refuge is a place, person, or thing that offers protection from harm and danger. Since the “Triple Gem” or “Three Jewels” (Triratna, also known as Tisarana or Threefold Refuge) of the Buddha (Awakened One), Dharma (his teachings), and Sangha (community of noble disciples) offers release from dukkha (suffering/stress) – it is the highest refuge. Its also called the “Triple Gem” because way back during Buddha’s time, gems were very valuable and thought to offer protection.
Therefore, “going for refuge” is taking the Triple Gem as guides (and protectors) along the path. This is a commitment to learn from Buddha’s example, his teachings (Dharma), and the community or Sangha. This is also like making a commitment to Buddhist teaching and practice. Also, most Buddhists don’t go for refuge just once in their lifetime. It is often an ongoing process which is renewed every day as part of one’s daily routine. Therefore, going for refuge becomes a practice of cultivation which reaffirms our commitment to learn from the example of the Buddha, from his teachings, and from the community of disciples.
Traditionally, one is usually considered a Buddhist if they have taken the five precepts, and if they have also taken refuge in the Triple Gem/Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It is usually suggested to take refuge with an ordained monk, but if one is not available it is also possible to take refuge on your own. Bhikkhu Samãhita provides a “virtual Sangha” in which he, an ordained monk, will bear witness to your refuge and vows at his Saddhamma Sangha. However, if you wish to perform your own refuge ceremony at home, all that you will need is an image of the Buddha at about the same height as your head. When refuge is taken, one usually kneels before this image with their palms together at the their chest. This is a gesture of respect called anjali (literally meaning “divine offering”). If possible, keep a composed posture and calm your mind. Before taking refuge, one pays respect to Buddha by reciting the following vandana (or “homage”) three times, bowing each time with the palms moving from chest level to the forehead as they are touching the floor. It should be noted the reason for the triple repetition is that the mind is easily distracted, and repetition helps ensure concentration:
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa
(Homage to the Blessed One, the Perfect One, the Fully-Enlightened One.)
Once homage has been given, recite the following refuge with hands still placed in anjali:
Buddham saranam gaccha-mi
Dhammam saranam gaccha-mi
Sangham saranam gaccha-mi
(I take refuge in the [Buddha, Dharma, Sangha])
Dutiyampi Buddham saranam gaccha-mi
Dutiyampi Dhammam saranam gaccha-mi
Dutiyampi Sangham saranam gaccha-mi
(For the second time I take refuge in the [Buddha, Dharma, Sangha])
Tatiyampi Buddham saranam gaccha-mi
Tatiyampi Dhammam saranam gaccha-mi
Tatiyampi Sangham saranam gaccha-mi
(For the third time I take refuge in the [Buddha, Dharma, Sangha])
The Pancha Sila (Five Precepts or Virtues) form the very basis of ethical discipline for all practicing lay Buddhists. They are often recited after the Threefold Refuge. The Abhisanda Sutta calls them “five great gifts — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and priests.” In living accordingly with these five precepts, one “gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings” and thus “gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression”.
In my previous post On Being a Lay Buddhist, I explained that the Dhammika Sutta also gives a detailed analysis of the five precepts as duties of a lay Buddhist. However, the five precepts are generally explained as follows:
1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the discipline to refrain from destroying living creatures (This is ahimsa or nonviolence, harmlessness, amiability, etc. Ahimsa is realized through the application of metta [loving-kindness] and karuna [compassion]. Because of this, some Buddhists may be strict vegetarians, but Buddhists can still eat meat if the being has not been killed for them specifically. Buddhism – in contrast to contemporary teachings such as Jainism, does not require one to become a vegetarian although it is encouraged)
2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the discipline to refrain from taking that which is not given. (This is refraining from stealing, fraud, extortion, ransom, embezzlement, etc.).
3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the discipline to refrain from sexual misconduct (e.g. being unfaithful to one’s partner, involvement with prostitution, rape and other unlawful illicit sex, etc.).
4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the discipline to refrain from incorrect speech (e.g. lying, gossip, etc.).
5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the discipline to refrain from the abusive consumption of intoxicants (which lead to carelessness and diminish clarity of consciousness).
If you followed the formula above, then congratulations – you are now officially a practicing Buddhist! You can recite the above any time you wish, as taking refuge and the five precepts also constitute a daily Buddhist practice.
Taking refuge vows
Cultivating five virtues
Essence of practice