Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem
Must we take the refuge in order to become Buddhists?
Venerable Master Sheng Yen – Buddhism of Right Belief
It was translated from Chinese by Brother Say Lee
Practicing Buddhism is poles apart from the ritualistic belief in supernatural beings prevalent among the lay public. Practicing Buddhism entails embracing the Triple gem. The Triple gem refers to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha; thus named as gem because they are inexhaustible in supply; once imbued, they become our constant companions, beyond destruction by fire and water as well as pilferage through theft, and serve as our guidance for eternity, they being superior to the likes of other earthly treasures.
The Buddha gem denotes the epitome of practice, attaining both compassion and wisdom. All sentient beings are endowed with the Buddha nature. It follows then that all the past, present and future generations of Bodhisattvas command our reverence. However, in our world of historical personalities, only Shakyamuni Buddha has achieved enlightenment.
The Dharma gem denotes the way of practice that would lead to Buddhahood. The Dharma that we know comes from the utterances of Shakyamuni. Hence, we address him as our "Teacher Shakyamuni Buddha". Today, the sutras/scriptures, precepts, and treatises of the Tripitaka, together with the accounts and explanations of various Venerable masters constitute the Dharma gem that not only guides our practice, but functions as the criteria to which our practice must adhere.
The Sangha gem refers to the community of practitioners and those assisting and nurturing others to practice Buddhism, and include Bodhisattvas, Arhats, and lay Buddhist monks and nuns. Since we are not able to recognize Bodhisattvas and Arhats even upon encounter, we come into contact with the lay Buddhist monks and nuns much more readily. Therefore, these lay Buddhist monks and nuns become the center of the Sangha gem in this mundane world of ours.
The Sangha gem is the teacher, the Dharma gem is the teaching material, and the Buddha gem is the one who both invented and discovered the teaching material. It is only when the three are together, forming the Triple gem, that the practice of Buddhism is considered complete. Otherwise, if we selectively adopt the Buddha gem among the three, that's no difference from superstitious belief in the supernatural. Similarly, if we opt only for the Dharma gem, it's not different from engaging in an academic study of philosophy. So too is adhering to the Sangha gem only being likened to having god-parents, a common societal practice. These selective adoptions do not a Buddhist make.
Therefore, taking refuge in the Triple gem is analogous to registering to be a student, the very first step toward embracing Buddhism. It's only after registration, and being issued a student ID that we recognize ourselves to be students of the school. And the school will likewise accept our attendance. Attending classes is a student's obligation, and teaching classes is the school's responsibility. Hence, undergoing the ceremony of taking refuge is essential, its significance being no less than other similarly solemnized and sanctioned occasions such as matrimony, employee and member swearing-in, all subjected to the rigor of oath.
However, one obviously can learn to become a Buddhist even without having to go through the taking the refuge ceremony. Buddhism does not deem those who have not taken the refuge as devils. But, it's perhaps fair to conclude that those who have not taken the refuge would become hesitant, resort to excuses, and prevaricate. When pressed into making a decision, they may exonerate themselves by citing the fact that not being a Buddhist, they are not duty-bound to observe the various edicts that forbid sloth, indulgence, promiscuity, slander, pilfering and other such bad habits. They are more prone to forgiving themselves, and would not institute preventive measures as safeguards.
On the other hand, it's natural that one who has taken the refuge will exercise self-discipline, and be alert to pitfalls. They will also receive encouragement, guidance, and advice from fellow Buddhists and the Sangha community. All these supports will facilitate elevating our moral character, augmenting our Dharma mind, and strengthening our learning resolve, placing these and other endeavors toward attaining enlightenment on the right track.
Readers are hereby admonished not to disregard the importance of taking the refuge, or misconstrue that a lay person who has yet to learn and practice Buddhism is not qualified to participate in taking the refuge in the Triple gem. It is precisely that one does not understand the how of practicing Buddhism, and yet convinced that Buddhism is the way to go that one must take the refuge straightaway. For those who feel inadequate in becoming a Buddhist, there is more reason that they should take the refuge now. After taking the refuge, we will be assisted and nurtured in our endeavor, be it mental state, living condition, habit, and other aspects by all the Bodhisattvas and others within the Sangha community. Therefore, those who are weak in mental fortitude and lack confidence will have their fortitude buttressed and confidence boosted after taking the refuge in the Triple gem.