Taking Refuge makes the difference between Buddhists and non-Buddhists.
One accepts the example of the Buddha as the perfect, enlightened teacher, the Dharma as the guidebook on the spiritual path, and the Sangha as the supporting spiritual community. These three are also known as the Three Jewels.
It is not really necessary to take formal refuge in front of a teacher, although it may help one to remember the choice of direction in life.
- In pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one’s allegiance to a patron — a powerful person or god — submitting to the patron’s directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger in return. In the early years of the Buddha’s teaching career, his new followers adopted this custom to express their allegiance to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha ..
- — Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha
Often, one who takes refuge will make vows as well, typically vows to adhere to the Five Precepts (paĆ±ca-sila). Laypeople generally undertake at least one of the five. The Five Precepts are not given in the form of commands such as “thou shalt not ..”, but rather are promises to oneself: “I will (try) ..”
- To refrain from harming living creatures (killing).
- To refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).
- To refrain from sexual misconduct.
- To refrain from incorrect speech (lying, harsh language, slander, idle chit-chat).
- To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.
In some schools of Buddhism, serious lay people or aspiring monks take an additional three to five ethical precepts, and some of the five precepts are strengthened. For example, the precept pertaining to sexual misconduct becomes a precept of celibacy.
To actualise refuge in:
- – Buddha: commit yourself to one teacher, the Buddha
- – Dharma: listen, study and practice Dharma to overcome your own delusions
- – Sangha: respect Sangha and train in accordance with their example
- – subdue the body, speech and mind, instead of letting our senses rule us: do not speak harsh, skeptical things and avoid being judgmental.
- – practice ethics and vows.
- – be kind and considerate to any living being.
- – make special offerings on two special days of the year: the 15th of 4th lunar month (around May), to celebrate birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, and on the 4th of 6th lunar month (around July) to celebrate the first turning of the wheel – or the first teachings of the Buddha on the Four Noble Truths in Sarnath.
Referring to the refuge in the:
- – Buddha: do not follow other, lower beings as ultimate spiritual guides.
- – Dharma: do not harm or upset humans or animals.
- – Sangha: do not be negatively influenced by any extremists or others opposing our beliefs
Show respect to the:
- – Buddha: respect all images of the Buddha, treat these as if they are Buddhas.
- – Dharma: respect texts, treat them with utmost care.
- – Sangha: respect even piece of robes and all who wear robes (despite behaviour)
Six points of training
- Take refuge in the Three Jewels, do not seek the source of your happiness and problems outside yourself.
- Offer the first part of food or drink to the triple jewel, by blessing it before eating or drinking by reciting “Om Ah Hum”.
- Encourage others to become inner beings (Buddhists) and to take refuge; but only when one is asked for advice.
- Recite the refuge prayer 3x in the day and 3x in the night.
- Follow the example of the Three Jewels, rely on them as the only trustworthy refuge objects.
- Never lose faith in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
- Buddham saranam gacchami (to the Buddha for refuge I go)
- Dhammam saranam gacchami (to the Dharma for refuge I go)
- Sangham saranam gacchami (to the Sangha for refuge I go)
- Dutiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami (For the second time .. (repeated for each of the three))
- Tatiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami (For the third time .. (repeated for each of the three))
or, the Tibetan (Mahayana) version:
- Until I am enlightened,
- I go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
- Through the virtue I create by practising giving and the other perfections,
- may I become a Buddha to benefit all sentient beings.
Levels of Refuge
According to Atisha in the 11th century ‘Lamp for the Path’ and in the subsequent Lamrim tradition as elaborated by Tsongkhapa, one can distinguish several levels of refuge:
These purposes are introduced using the concept of the ‘scope’ of a practitioner
- Worldly scope is taking refuge to improve this life (not Buddhist)
- Lowest Buddhist scope is taking refuge to gain high rebirth and avoid the low realms
- Middle Buddhist scope is taking refuge to achieve Nirvana
- High Buddhist scope is taking refuge to become a Buddha
- Highest Buddhist scope is also sometimes included, which is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood in this life (using Buddhist Tantra techniques)
Another distinction between different levels of Going for Refuge, first given by Sangharakshita in his Going for Refuge is:
- Ethnic Going for Refuge, when one is born into a Buddhist culture and practice is a matter more of social conditioning than personal commitment.
- Effective Going for Refuge, when one has taken the conscious decision to commit oneself to the Three Jewels.
- Real Going for Refuge, when the Three Fetters of Conditioned Arising has been broken and Stream Entry has been attained.
- Absolute Going for Refuge, which corresponds with the attainment of Enlightenment.
The Dhammapada on Refuge
- Driven only by fear, do men go for refuge to many places — to hills, woods, groves, trees and shrines.
- Such, indeed, is no safe refuge; such is not the refuge supreme. Not by resorting to such a refuge is one released from all suffering.
- He who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Teaching and his Order, penetrates with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths — suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering.
- This indeed is the safe refuge, this the refuge supreme. Having gone to such a refuge, one is released from all suffering.
- — Dhammapada 188-192
- Bikshu Sthavira Sangharakshita, Going for Refuge. Windhorse Publications. (1997)