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Taking Refuge: Becoming a Buddhist

The Meaning of Taking Refuge

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Golden Buddhas at Wat Arun
Brad Rickerby

To become a Buddhist is to take refuge in the Three Jewels, also called the Three Treasures. The Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

The formal ceremony of Ti Samana Gamana (Pali), or "taking the three refuges," is performed in nearly all schools of Buddhism. However, anyone who sincerely wants to follow the Buddha's path may begin that commitment by reciting these lines:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

The English word refuge refers to a place of shelter and protection from danger. What danger? We seek shelter from the passions that jerk us around, from feeling distressed and broken, from pain and suffering, from the fear of death. We seek shelter from the wheel of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

Taking Refuge

The meaning of taking refuge in the Three Jewels is explained somewhat differently by the various schools of Buddhism. The Theravada teacher Bhikkhu Bodhi said,

"The Buddha's teaching can be thought of as a kind of building with its own distinct foundation, stories, stairs, and roof. Like any other building the teaching also has a door, and in order to enter it we have to enter through this door. The door of entrance to the teaching of the Buddha is the going for refuge to the Triple Gem — that is, to the Buddha as the fully enlightened teacher, to the Dhamma as the truth taught by him, and to the Sangha as the community of his noble disciples."

In his book Taking the Path of Zen, Zen teacher Robert Aitken wrote that taking refuge in the Three Jewels more of a vow than a prayer. The original Pali words of the three "I take refuge" lines, translated literally, read "I will undertake to find my home in the Buddha," and then the Dharma and Sangha. "The implication is that by finding my home in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha I can free myself from blind conditioning and realize true nature," Aitken writes.

No Magic

Taking the refuges will not summon supernatural spirits to come and save you. The power of the vow comes from your own sincerity and commitment. Robert Thurman, a Tibetan Buddhist and Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, said of the Three Jewels,

"Remember that awakening, freedom from suffering, salvation, if you will, liberation, omniscience, buddhahood, all come from your own understanding, your insight into your own reality. It cannot come just from the blessing of another, from some magical empowerment, from some sort of secret gimmick, or from membership in a group."

Ch'an Master Sheng-Yen said, "The genuine Three Jewels, in essence, are none other than the enlightened Buddha nature that is already inside you."

"Taking refuge in the Buddha, we learn to transform anger into compassion; taking refuge in the Dharma, we learn to transform delusion into wisdom; taking refuge in the Sangha, we learn to transform desire into generosity." (Red Pine, The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas, p. 132)

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