How to Take Refuge in the Three Jewels
Many modern people are turned off by religious rituals and ceremonies. In Buddhism, emphasis is placed on the practice of methods that leads to the actualization of wisdom and compassion. However, engaging in ritual can be a useful part of the practice because it gives form to our commitment to the path and serves as a guideline to deepen our understanding. When I came to the United States, I incorporated a minimal amount of ritual in my teachings. However, after practicing for a while, people here naturally developed great respect, faith, and gratitude to the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and lineage masters. The normal way to express such feelings is through ritual.
At the time of the Buddha, practitioners were of keen spiritual capacity, so that there was no need for a formal ritual of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. One of Shakyamuni Buddha’s earliest lay disciples, Yasha's father, only had to proclaim before the Buddha: "I now take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. May you consider me your follower." These simple words confirmed his commitment as a Buddhist.
Technically speaking, there was no Sangha Jewel prior to the establishment of a monastic community. But there is the legend that when the Buddha first accepted two merchants and a dragon king as followers, he had them take refuge in the Sangha Jewel of the future. So the Sangha Jewel was ever present and cannot be divided from the Buddha and the Dharma Jewels.
After the formation of the Sangha, the community of monks and nuns, the Buddha required devotees to take refuge in the whole of the Three Jewels. This tradition has continued to the present. To maximize the ritual experience of taking refuges in the Three Jewels, it is best to memorize the verses of refuge in case the preceptor's pronunciation is unclear or the recipient is too nervous. Otherwise the recipient will be ignorant of the contents of the refuge verses, and the taking of refuge will not be successful.
There are two sets of verses:
I (the recipient states his or her name) to the end of my life, take refuge in the Buddha, take refuge in the Dharma, take refuge in the Sangha. (Repeated three times.)
I have taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. (Repeated three times.)
Three repetitions confirm the reception of the Three Jewels. The confirming verses that follow merely conclude the ceremony. The crucial phase of the ceremony is the repetition of the first set of refuge verses. This is the time we receive the uncreated precept essence of the Three Jewels. It is best to visualize this precept essence during one's proclamation. The first time we repeat the verse we imagine our minds filled with merit and virtue, which shakes the earth in the ten directions. From the ten directions clouds of merit emerge from the ground. The second time we repeat the verse, the clouds of merit hover over our heads in the form of a flower canopy. The third time we repeat the verse this flower canopy transforms into the shape of a funnel, slowly enters our crown, pervades our body, and then transmits from our pores and extends throughout the ten directions to all worlds. We have then received the precept essence and our bodies and minds have become identical to the merits of the precept essence, filling all world systems. The refuge ceremony is not only solemn but sacred.
If we cannot perform the visualization, at the very least we should use clear diction when we repeat the refuge verses. It cannot be done haphazardly. The eminent Hongyi ( 1880-1942 ), stated:
"Whether monastic or lay, when we receive the Three Jewels, two things are most important to keep in mind: first, to know the meaning of taking refuge; second, the preceptor must speak with clear diction and must speak words that can be clearly understood. If the recipient cannot understand the words of the preceptor, the refuge is unsuccessful. The refuge is also unsuccessful if the preceptor is too far away and recipients cannot hear the words. Furthermore, if there is doubt in the minds of recipients, the refuge is unsuccessful. In the ceremony, the words, 'take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha' are most important. We should keep this in mind. The words, 'I have already taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha' are only concluding remarks. They are secondary to the first verse. I encourage all those who intend to receive the Three Jewels to understand the meaning of the Three Jewels. At the time of the ceremony, be attentive during the recitation of the words; 'take refuge in the Buddha,' and so on. Only then will we receive the Three Jewels." (Hongyi, Essentials of Vinaya.)
Even though the ceremony is simple, successful reception of the Three Jewels is not easy. So I believe that there are many Buddhists who have not really received the Three Jewels properly. If you know that you have not received the Three Jewels successfully, you can ask your preceptor to transmit them to you again, or you may receive them again from another preceptor. In large refuge ceremonies where hundreds or even thousands of people are in attendance, the chances of failure to properly receive the Three Jewels are the highest. If this is the case, then you may only be establishing positive karmic affinity with the Three Jewels, not really receiving them.
The more solemn the ceremony, the easier it is to generate sincerity. The stricter the requirements for refuge taking, the more precious the ceremony will seem to the recipients. The ceremony originally required one preceptor, but subsequent modifications have added solemnity to the refuge taking. Precept Master Jianyue ( 1601-1679 ), edited a book called, Prototype for the Three Refuge and Precept Conferral Ceremony, which was modeled on the litany of bodhisattva and monastic precepts and it still serves as the blueprint for most refuge procedures today.
The Prototype includes eight procedures for successfully taking refuge in the Three Jewels:
1. Preparation of the ritual and invitation of the preceptor—the procedure for preparing the ritual space, such as adorning the hall with flowers and candles and the protocols for inviting the preceptor.
2. Explanation of the meaning of taking refuge.
3. Inviting the holy assembly—the protocol of inviting the Three Jewels of the ten directions to witness the conferral of the refuge. It also details the invitation of Dharma protectors to guard the ritual space and protect the recipients.
4. Repentance—the preparation of the recipients through the purification of body, speech, and mind so that the reception of the undefiled Three Jewels can be successful.
5. Receiving the Three Jewels—the refuge verses and protocols of the refuge proper.
6. Making vows—the importance of generating the bodhisattva vows to save all sentient beings.
7. Encouragement—the merit of the Three Jewels and encouragement to the recipients to practice the Dharma properly.
8. Transference—the ritual practice of transfer of merit derived from receiving the Three Jewels to all sentient beings, so that they may be alleviated from suffering and be reborn in the Buddha Lands.
However, the language in this manual is classical Chinese and difficult to understand. Master Hongyi wrote this criticism:
"The manual edited by the master at Mt. Baohua, Jieyue, was written in classical form. If the audience of the ceremony does not understand the words, the words will only be empty. It is best if the preceptor can use colloquial Chinese to confer the precepts." (Hongyi, Essentials of Vinaya.)
However, the eight sections of the Prototype for the Three Refuges and Precept Conferral Ceremony include indispensable procedures for taking refuge. For example, it is quite important to provide a conducive environment for the precept monk or nun to explain the meaning of the Three Jewels to the lay recipients. Hence, the importance of preparing the ritual space for refuge ceremony. Since the preceptor represents the Three Jewels, in order to conduct the ceremony, it is only proper to invite him or her into the space with reverence. Receiving the refuge is a commitment to renew your life, so it only logical to repent your past negative karma. Repeating the refuge verses is the heart of the ceremony, so explaining the refuge verses and proper protocols of refuge is important. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels can be divided into three categories: those who wish to receive the refuge for the sake of benefiting self and others belong to the superior category; those who wish to receive the refuge for individual liberation belong to the middle category; those who wish to receive the refuge in order to avoid being reborn in lower realms of existence or for the purpose of being reborn in heaven, belong to the lowest category. Therefore it is important to encourage recipients to generate the altruistic heart of a bodhisattva, to practice Dharma diligently, and to transfer merit to all others. This last imperative diminishes self-centeredness and nourishes compassion.
I would like to point out that we do not discriminate between Hinayana and Mahayana, literally translated as "Small Vehicle" and "Great Vehicle." However, early teachings of Buddhism emphasize personal liberation. The protocol of refuge ceremonies at that time was simple, including only the refuge verses. When Buddhism was transmitted to China, the later teachings of Mahayana predominated, and the focus shifted to universal liberation. The ritual protocols became more elaborate. These changes were beneficial. Any not wishing to engage in the altruistic practice of the Mahayana, however, may omit the practice of making vows and transferring merits.
If space and time are limited, a simplified version of the refuge ceremony is permissible. Below is a distilled version of the ceremony I conduct:
After the preceptor has paid reverence to an image of the Buddha and assumed the proper position, the recipients kneel down and join their palms. The preceptor briefly explains the meaning of the Three Jewels and the refuge. The recipient repeats these lines of repentance after the preceptor:
"All bad karma of greed, aversion, and delusion,
All bad karma of greed, aversion, and delusion,
created in the past through body, speech, and mind,
I repent in front of the Buddha."
After repeating these lines three times, the recipient prostrates once. Then the recipient repeats the following three times:
"I (state your name), till the end of my life, take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha." The recipient repeats this three times and prostrates after each time, then say:
I (state your name) have already taken refuge in the Buddha. I would rather relinquish my life than to take refuge in celestial and demonic beings.
I (state your name) have already taken refuge in the Dharma. I would rather relinquish my life than to take refuge in heterodox teachings.
I (state your name) have already taken refuge in the Sangha. I would rather relinquish my life than to take refuge in heretical communities.
The recipient repeats this three times and prostrates after each time, then generates the four great vows:
I (state your name) vow to deliver all sentient beings.
I (state your name) vow to cut off all vexations.
I (state your name) vow to master limitless approaches to Dharma.
I (state your name) vow to attain supreme Buddhahood.
The recipient repeats this three times and prostrates after each repetition. Then the preceptor can briefly talk about the merits of receiving the Three Jewels and encourage the recipient to practice the Dharma. Afterwards, a verse of merit transfer can be repeated:
The merit of refuge is supreme. I transfer it to all beings.
May all those who suffer be instantaneously reborn to the Pure Lands of the Buddhas.
Homage to the Buddhas of the ten directions, to the bodhisattva-mahasattvas, and to the great transcendent wisdom. (three
This completes the refuge ceremony. Afterwards, recipients can pay reverence to the preceptor. Ordinarily this is expressed with three prostrations, but the preceptor may ask the recipient to just make one prostration.
This ceremony does not involve chanting, but the words spoken must be clear in order to ensure the proper reception of the Three Jewels.
Now I will talk about the vow of "not taking refuge in celestial and demonic beings,” “not taking refuge in heterodox teachings," and "not taking refuge in heretical communities." With these three lines the refuge begins to take on the function of precepts. These are not words of slander to other religious traditions, but according to our tradition the Buddha's wisdom is unsurpassable. After taking refuge in the Buddha there is no need to take refuge in celestial beings. The Dharma is a repository of all the wisdom in the world. When we practice the Dharma, we will be able to alleviate suffering and know peace. Therefore, there is no need to depend on other teachings. The Sangha represents purity and is the teacher of men and gods. Therefore, there is no need to rely on other practitioners. The purpose of these vows is to ensure that once we have entered the correct path, there is no need to turn to other paths.
After we have taken refuge in the Three Jewels, it might happen that we perform or engage in rituals of other religious traditions for the sake of our family, nation, or for other reasons. As long as we do not harbor the intention of taking refuge in these other traditions, we will not lose our commitment to the Three Jewels.
After taking refuge in the Three Jewels, we should be mindful of certain precepts. For example, we should try to uphold the five precepts of not killing sentient beings, not taking what does not belong to us, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not deceiving others, and not using alcohol and addictive drug. The last precept is precautionary; it helps us to maintain a clear mind. Upholding this precept protects us from breaking the previous four precepts. If you cannot give up alcohol because of social obligations, at least try to moderate your intake. These precepts help to cultivate wisdom and compassion. After we have taken refuge, we should try to uphold them in our lives. When we feel ready, we can formally receive these five precepts from our precept master.
For the sake of compassion, it is best to become a vegetarian. But if this is not possible, you should avoid eating five kinds of animal meat: meat that comes from a animal slaughtered for your sole consumption; meat that comes from an animal that you witnessed being slaughtered; meat that comes from an animal that you heard being slaughtered, meat that comes from an animal that died of its own accord; meat that comes from an animal partially eaten by other animals. There are also occupations you should avoid, such as a butcher, seller of alcohol, prostitution, gambler, and so on. Moreover there are ritual fast days every month that proscribe eating after midday. In the West, this practice is not widely known, but in Asia many lay Buddhists engage in this practice. These dates are the 8, 14, 15, 23, and the last two days of each month according to the lunar calendar. According to the scriptures, if you observe these fast days, you will be reborn in the assembly of the next Buddha, Maitreya, and reach full liberation.
We should also keep in mind that we are taking refuge in the Three Jewels of the ten directions and three time periods (past, present, and future). We recite, "Homage to the Buddhas of the ten directions and three times, and to the bodhisattva-mahasattvas, and to the great transcendent wisdom." The first part refers to the Buddha Jewel; the second to the Sangha Jewel; the third, to the Dharma Jewel. These three parts cover the Principle and Phenomenal Three Jewels. We take the Phenomenal Three Jewels as our initial refuge. Therefore, we should revere all images of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, all Buddhist scriptures, and all Sangha members.
Our first and foremost teacher is Shakyamuni Buddha. Our refuge teacher is our preceptor. In order to express our gratitude for receiving the Three Jewels, it is only natural that we emphasize Shakyamuni Buddha and our preceptor. But if we only acknowledge Shakyamuni as a Buddha and deny the existence of other Buddhas in other world systems that are mentioned in the scriptures, then this is not in accordance with proper Buddhist teaching. Similarly, it is incorrect to only show respect to our own preceptor and not toward other Sangha members. This would show favor to only one kind of virtuous behavior and deny the goodness of countless other virtuous acts. This would be like planting seeds on one acre and ignoring the rest of the farm—a foolish thing to do.