Special Topics

Q1: Does taking refuge in Buddhism automatically render me a monastic?

To formally become a Buddhist, we must first take refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha Jewel refers to those who have achieved ultimate and perfect merit and wisdom. The Dharma Jewel refers to the methods and doctrines that help us practice the Buddha path and, thus, attain Buddhahood. The Sangha Jewel refers to Buddhist renunciants, who apply the Buddha's teachings on themselves while also devoted to helping others learn and practice Buddhist teachings. People often have many questions regarding refuge taking: Who are qualified to take refuge in the Three Jewels? How many times can a Buddhist take refuge? What influence does refuge taking have on our lives? Now, we will answer these questions one by one.

Some people believe that taking refuge in the Three Jewels automatically entails becoming a monastic. In fact, these are two separate things.

Wanting to be a Buddhist for ourselves

To take refuge in Buddhism is to engage in practice by relying on the guidance and help of the Three Jewels. After completing the refuge-taking ceremony, one  formally becomes a Buddhist. We can say that, by taking the refuge, we consider ourselves as Buddhists, aspiring to become followers of the Buddha's teaching. However, taking refuge doesn't require us to become  monastics. Most people who take refuge become lay practitioners; after taking refuge, they lead a normal layperson's life. The only difference is that we now have a clear religious belief and  goal in life, which prevents us from going astray and committing wrongdoing.

To become a monastic is to go forth from the lay life, by having one's hair shaved off, wearing a yellow-brown robe, and observing monastic precepts. During the Buddha's time, there were four assemblies of Buddhist disciples—male and female monastics, and lay practitioners. A male monastic is called a bhikshu, while a female monastic a bhikshuni; a male lay disciple is referred to as an upāsaka, while a female lay disciple, an upāsikā. After taking refuge, monastics will receive the bhikshu or bhikshuni precepts, whereas lay people are supposed to follow the five precepts. In any case, taking refuge in the Three Jewels is a required foundation for formally engaging in Buddhist practice.

Taking refuge doesn't automatically make you a monastic

Therefore, it is a misconception that taking the Three Refuges automatically makes one a Buddhist monk. You can get ordained and become a monastic after taking refuge; however, taking refuge doesn't mean we must immediately leave the household life to become a monastic. Most Buddhists are lay practitioners. If Buddhism were only for monastics, there would be no reason for it to exist, since Buddhism is meant to universally benefit sentient beings and help people develop their character as well as establish a correct direction of life. This is what the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are there for.

After taking refuge, we need to further learn and practice the Buddha's teaching, applying it to adjust our goals, attitudes, and way of life. Taking refuge, in its true sense, requires us to practice, protect, and promote the Dharma, to qualify as a real Buddhist disciple. Otherwise, we will only be a Buddhist in name, without fulfilling the actual purpose of taking refuge.

Extended reading: 

Q1: Does taking refuge in Buddhism automatically render me a monastic?

Q2: Why do we receive a Dharma name after the refuge-taking ceremony?

Q3: What do we take the Three Refuges?

Q4: Who can take refuge in the Three Jewels?

Q5: Will those who have not formally taken refuge in the Three Jewels have any merits when chanting Buddhist scriptures or the Buddha's name?

Q6: After taking refuge in Buddhism, is it necessary to set up a Buddhist hall or a Buddha statue at home?

Q7: How does taking refuge in the Three Jewels affect our daily lives?

Q8: Does one have to take refuge in the Three Jewels in order to formally become a Buddhist?

Q9: How many times can a Buddhist take refuge?

Resource: 學佛新手50問 (50 Questions by Beginner Buddhists)
Photos: 蔡全
Translation: Jonathan
Editing: Keith Brown, Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠)