Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is the first formal step onto the Buddhist path. Taking refuge signifies that we believe in Buddhism and that we have become disciples of the Triple Gem—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. When we take refuge in the Triple Gem, it determines the direction of our faith. When a Buddhist practitioner decides to take refuge in the Triple Gem, it represents a stronger life commitment to learn, practice, and embody the virtues of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Gold, silver, diamonds, and pearls are all considered to be treasures in our mundane world. In the world of Buddhism, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are the treasures of our Dharma body and wisdom-life. By making a commitment to the Triple Gem, we reap the benefits of such sublime gems, which ultimately bring us far more meaningful benefits than any material gems could provide.
The Meaning of the Triple Gem
The Triple Gem is the collective term for the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Buddha is the Sanskrit word for “awakened one.” It refers to an awakened being who has awakened to the truth of the universe and has vowed to teach other sentient beings the truth, liberating them with infinite compassion.
Dharma, also a Sanskrit word, has many meanings. The Dharma we are speaking about here means the teachings of a Buddha. Usually, it refers to all of the written teachings contained in the Tripitaka, the Buddhist Canon. If sentient beings rely on the Dharma to cultivate, they will realize the truth and attain liberation.
Sangha is a Sanskrit word meaning “community in harmony.” It refers to the community of monastics (monks and nuns) who live together in harmony while committing their lives to learning and teaching the Dharma. The sangha is a community that is harmonious in two ways: they have “harmony in principle” and “harmony in practice.” Harmony in principle means that all monastics realize the same truth. Harmony in practice means that the monastics’ physical, verbal, and mental actions comply with the six points of reverent harmony:
Harmony in view through sharing the same understanding, such that there is a common point of view.
Moral harmony through sharing the same precepts, such that everyone is subject to the same regulations.
Economic harmony through sharing material things and benefits equally
Mental harmony through shared happiness, through a common commitment to the Way.
Verbal harmony through avoiding disputes by using kindness in one’s speech.
Physical harmony through living together, such that everyone gets along happily and does not violate one another.
The sangha is a great crucible for cultivating oneself, disciplining one’s character, and tempering the mind to sagehood, and as such is a method of self-benefit. The sangha also has the power to transmit the Dharma to help sentient beings liberate themselves, and is this sense does much to benefit others. We can see the importance of the sangha in each of these areas.
To put it simply, the Buddha is like a doctor, the Dharma is like medicine, and the Sangha is like a team of nurses. Each of these three causes are important causes for the liberation of sentient beings. Not one can be lacking. Only when a patient has a good doctor, the proper medicine, and skillful nurses can his illness be cured. This is also true in life, for only by relying on the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha can we be happy, liberated, and free from suffering.
The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are called “gems” to show their supreme virtue, for they transcend the value of all worldly treasures. They can relieve our mental suffering and lead us to liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
The Meaning of Taking Refuge
Taking refuge means that we return to and rely on the Triple Gem, seek protection from the Triple Gem, and attain liberation from suffering through the Triple Gem. Children rely on their parents for protection and safety. Many seniors rely on a cane to walk more steadily. Sailors rely on compasses so they can safely return home. In the dark, people rely on lights so they can see what is in front of them. Likewise, if we have the Triple Gem in our lives, we will have something safe to rely on.
The Triple Gem is also like a compass that can guide us in the great ocean of life towards a safe harbor. If we take refuge in the Triple Gem and learn to appreciate its merit, we can rely on it to cross the sea of suffering and to return to our true home–our Buddha nature. Therefore, taking refuge in the Triple Gem can help us find a safe haven to settle in during this lifetime, and allow us to have a home that we can return to in the future.
The Benefits of Taking Refuge
The Triple Gem is like candlelight on a dark night or the rain that falls to put out the fire of a blazing house. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem not only allows us to attain ultimate liberation, but also gain great benefit in this lifetime. According to the sutras, there are ten benefits of taking refuge:
We will become disciples of the Buddha. When we take refuge in the Triple Gem, we accept the greatest sage of all, Sakyamuni Buddha, as our teacher, and we formally become disciples of the Buddha.
We will not be reborn in the three lower realms. According to the sutras, when we take refuge in the Buddha, we will not fall into the hell realm. When we take refuge in the Dharma, we will not fall into the animal realm. When we take refuge in the Sangha, we will not fall into the hungry ghost realm. By taking refuge in the Triple Gem, we can escape from the lower realms and will only be reborn in the human or heavenly realms.
It will dignify our character. When we don beautiful clothing, our appearance becomes more elegant. After we take refuge in the Triple Gem, our faith deepens and our character becomes more dignified.
We will be protected by the Dharma guardians. The Buddha instructed the Dharma guardians and all good deities to protect the disciples of the Triple Gem.
We will gain the respect of others. After we take refuge in the Triple Gem, we will receive respect from other people and from heavenly beings.
We will accomplish good deeds. By relying on the strength and support of the Triple Gem, we will lessen our negative karma and gain peace and joy. We will then be able to achieve many good deeds in our lives.
We will accumulate merit and virtue. According to the sutras, even all the merit and virtue from making offerings cannot compare with the merit of taking refuge. From this, we can see that the benefits of taking refuge in the Triple Gem are vast and supreme.
We will meet good people. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem can help us eliminate our troubles. We will have the opportunity to meet good people and become friends with them. No matter where we go, we will find assistance and make good connections.
We will lay the foundation for taking precepts. Only after taking refuge in the Triple Gem are we qualified to take the five precepts and the bodhisattva precepts for laypeople.
We can achieve Buddhahood. All who take refuge in the Triple Gem, even if they do not cultivate in this lifetime, will be liberated when Maitreya Bodhisattva comes to this world because they have faith and good karmic conditions.
The Different Kinds of Triple Gem
There are different classifications for the Triple Gem. The most common classification further divides the Triple Gem into three levels: Initial Triple Gem, Ever-Abiding Triple Gem, and Intrinsic Triple Gem.
Initial Triple Gem. The Initial Gem of the Buddha refers to Sakyamuni Buddha, who attained awakening under the bodhi tree and manifested thirty-two marks of excellence and eighty notable characteristics. The Initial Gem of the Dharma refers to the Four Noble Truths, the twelve links of dependent origination, and the three Dharma seals, which the Buddha taught at the Deer Park after he attained awakening. The Initial Gem of the Sangha refers to the Buddha’s first five disciples: Kaundinya, Mahanama, Bhadrika, Vaspa, and Asvajit.
Ever-Abiding Triple Gem. This refers to everything that upholds the Buddha’s teachings after his final nirvana: all the images of the Buddha, all written sutras, and all monastics that have existed up to the present.
Intrinsic Triple Gem. At the very moment the Buddha attained awakening under the bodhi tree, he said, “Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.” Within our intrinsic nature, we already possess the immeasurable merits and virtues of the Triple Gem. All people have Buddha nature; this is the Intrinsic Gem of the Buddha. All people have Dharma nature that is equal and without differentiation; this is the Intrinsic Gem of the Dharma. All people have the nature of the mind that is pure and joyful; this is the Intrinsic Gem of the Sangha.
The act of taking refuge in the Triple Gem is the external force through which we are guided to recognize the true self, affirm the true self, further rely on the true self, actualize the true self, and finally find the Intrinsic Triple Gem within ourselves. Each one of us is like a treasury. By taking refuge, we are discovering the treasures of our mind. When the Buddha was about to enter parinirvana, he instructed his disciples to “Take refuge in oneself, take refuge in the Dharma, and do not take refuge in others.” This is the true significance of taking refuge in the Intrinsic Triple Gem.
The Procedure for Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem comes from a deep and heartfelt aspiration to seek the Way. However, many people still go through a refuge ceremony to strengthen and secure their resolve. The sincere act of taking refuge lets our mind connect with the mind of the Buddha. The Buddha’s compassion and virtue can improve our bodies and minds. The sincerity in a moment of taking refuge can last a lifetime.
If we have a container that is filled to the top with filthy water, we will not be able to pour in any clean water. Similarly, if our mind is filled with doubt, arrogance, and delusion, we will not be able to accept the pristine Triple Gem. For this reason, the Sutra of the Great Name says that all who take refuge must first sincerely repent their previous wrongdoing. Then, with a reverent and pure mind, kneel down and join palms. Before the Buddha, they make the commitment and say:
I, disciple (your name), for the rest of my life, take refuge in the Buddha, the incomparably honored one. I, (your name) for the rest of my life, take refuge in the Dharma, honored for being away from defilements. I, (your name) for the rest of my life, take refuge in the Sangha, most honored among sentient beings.
(Repeat three times.)
I have taken refuge in the Buddha. I have taken refuge in the Dharma. I have taken refuge in the Sangha.
(Repeat three times.)
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is our first step towards Buddhahood. This is why we should take refuge under a monastic who is properly qualified. The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom, says:
When ready to take refuge and prepared to cultivate, go before a monastic. This refuge master will teach one the Dharma of ‘good and bad’ for distinguishing between right and wrong, to have joy for the good and aversion for the bad, and to open the mind. Then take refuge by saying, “I, (your name), for the rest of my life, take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” Repeat this three times. Then say, “I, (your name) for the rest of my life, have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” Repeat this three times.
These vows are spoken twice during the refuge ceremony. When we say them the first time, we formally accept refuge from the Triple Gem. When we say them the second time, it is at the conclusion of the ceremony.
A typical refuge ceremony has a number of steps. The ceremony begins with paying homage to the Buddhas with three bows. The participants then invite the refuge master to preside over the ceremony. The liturgy begins with singing a short poem called the “Incense Praise” which is used to begin morning and evening chanting, followed by reciting the name of Sakyamuni Buddha three times. Then the participants chant the Heart Sutra, a short sutra that summarizes some of the most important Buddhist teachings.
The participants are then asked if they are prepared to take refuge in the Triple Gem. After assenting, the participants repent for any of their previous misdeeds. What follows is the formal taking of the three refuges, with the participants repeating “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha” together. The refuge master then concludes the ceremony by delivering a Dharma talk, often on dedicating the merit of taking refuge. The participants then bow to the refuge master and to the other monastics in attendance. The participants have now officially taken refuge in the Triple Gem.
Answers to Basic Questions About Taking Refuge
1. Do I need to become a vegetarian after taking refuge?
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem does not require you to become a vegetarian. Taking refuge is the declaration of your commitment to follow the Triple Gem. It has nothing to do with vegetarianism. Those who take refuge do not have to be vegetarians. There is only one requirement when we take refuge: “I follow the Buddha’s teachings with unwavering confidence.” Some people choose to do this as part of their commitment to purify their mind and actions, but taking refuge in the Triple Gem is not about becoming a vegetarian.
2. After taking refuge, can we participate in other religious practices?
Those who take refuge can still participate in other religious practices, like honoring ancestors or paying respect at non-Buddhist temples. Taking refuge and showing respect are two different things. Taking refuge shows a lifetime commitment, while being respectful is something that happens in a moment. With regard to our ancestors or the deities of other religions, we should be respectful. But it is important to note that these kinds of observances are not the same as the commitment of taking refuge. That being said, after taking refuge we should be committed to seeking the truth, and be wary of superstition.
3. Is taking refuge in the Triple Gem temporary?
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is not a momentary showing of respect; it is a lifelong commitment. According to the Yogacara Precepts, a day without taking refuge is a day without following the precepts. A Buddhist practitioner should renew their commitment to the Triple Gem daily. This very act demonstrates that we, ourselves, do not forget we are Buddhists. By doing this, we deepen our own belief and plant the seeds that can grow into bodhi.
4. Does taking refuge in the Triple Gem mean that we worship the monastic who presided over the refuge ceremony?
To take refuge does not mean that we worship the refuge master, simply that we pay homage to the Buddha, learn the Dharma, and respect the Sangha. There are some Buddhists who may call themselves disciples of the Triple Gem, but have only actually taken refuge in one. They may only pay homage to the Buddha, but they do not learn the Dharma or show respect to the Sangha. Some only study the Dharma, but do not pay respect to the Buddha or the Sangha. Others respect the Sangha, but do not pay homage to the Buddha or learn the Dharma. There are even those who only make offerings to the master they took refuge from, or those who treat the Buddha as a god to whom they pray for wealth, blessings, and good fortune. These people are not true Buddhist practitioners. True Buddhist practitioners should not only show respect to all three gems, they should treat all members of the sangha as their teachers as well as study the sutras, learn the Dharma, and be close to Dharma friends. This is the true disciple of the Triple Gem.
Aside from these things, those who take refuge in the Triple Gem must have right view and right thought, believe in cause and effect, and try their best to do good and not harm others. Only in this way can we receive the benefits of the Dharma and of Buddhism.