What is Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels?
Taking refuge means to return, to take shelter, to rely on, to trust. Any action that involves returning, depending, taking shelter, and trusting is considered taking refuge. This word is not exclusive to Buddhism.
Children take refuge in their mothers' embrace; they rely on and trust their mothers, and, as a result, gain a sense of security. This sense of security arises from the power of taking refuge. Any such action that involves trust and a sense of security can be considered taking refuge, whether it is a secular relationship or a religious belief.
However, objects that are temporary, unstable, and unreliable cannot be true objects of refuge. People may climb a tree or a rooftop for safety in a huge flood, but rising water and strong winds may destroy their sanctuary. A mountain would be a far better haven. Who wouldn't choose this option over a house or a tree? Refuge in the Three Jewels is stronger than any of these. When you see that nothing is permanent and that everything is contingent and interdependent, you come to realize that there is little security in parents, teachers, plans, bosses, fate, strength, wealth; in all the things we take for granted. As objects of refuge they are highly unreliable. Parents pass away, teachings become outdated, plans are thwarted, bosses come and go, and fate is unpredictable. Strength, schemes, and wealth are even more illusive and ephemeral. Today's king is tomorrow's prisoner; today's millionaire tomorrow's pauper.
In other religions faith is said to lead to heaven, but it is not always assured. According to some Christian beliefs, some people not favored by God will never be destined for heaven, no matter how sincere their faith. From the perspective of Buddhism, heaven—the highest aspiration in many faiths—is still in the realm of birth and death. Heavenly beings live many times longer than humans, but there is still an eventual death. When death arrives, they will be reborn. Only by taking refuge in the Three Jewels can people gradually walk the path of liberation and break free from the suffering of continual life and death.
A path that leads you home is a genuine refuge. Places where you can put up your feet and relax are not worthy refuges. A practice like this would be no different from using a clay ox to cross a river. You may have a sense of security when you first enter the river, but the clay will crumble and you will sink.
Why are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha called Jewels? It is because they generate an inexhaustible amount of merit and wisdom that they are considered genuine "jewels." Gold, silver, and precious gems are rare and valuable. That is why they are called "treasures"; the merit and wisdom of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha can bring us benefits in the world and beyond it. They are more precious than ordinary jewels because they bring peace to the world and help us thoroughly transcend our negative emotions, sufferings, and achieve awakening. The Three Jewels are the best of all jewels.
We are originally buddhas, and we are intrinsically connected with the Three Jewels. Because we misunderstand our original nature, we wander the cycle of birth and death without finding the way home. Taking refuge is to start the journey homeward.