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Overcoming the Eight Major Obstacles to Taking Refuge

Is being a Buddhist too lofty a goal to pursue?

Some people visit places that propagate the Dharma, appreciate Buddhism and are fond of learning Buddhist teachings. However, they hesitate when it comes to taking refuge. Some are worried that by taking refuge in the Three Jewels, they will be held to higher moral standards, while others believe that finding a "prestigious teacher," is difficult without visible signs of spiritual connection. The more cautious they are, the less likely they are to take refuge.

Some people also believe that practicing Buddhism merely involves "refraining from doing evil and practicing all good deeds." They maintain that, as long as they perform good deeds with kind intention, taking refuge in the Three Jewels is unnecessary. Others think that the essence of Chan Buddhism revolves around emptiness, thereby rendering the refuge ceremony superfluous.

In this publication, we are going to cover eight most common obstacles to taking refuge. By analyzing the reasons behind people's unwillingness, fear, refusal and reluctance to take refuge, we aim to help readers to dispel misconceptions, overcome mental barriers, and make their first confident stride toward taking refuge and practicing Buddhism.

Misconception #1: Refuge Takers Must Abide by Precepts, and I Don't Like to be Constrained

Refuge takers take the Five Precepts, cannot take alcohol, and are required to be vegetarians? This is no different from asking for trouble!
uddhists' behavior will be closely magnified and scrutinized, it is better not to take refuge.
All Buddhist followers seem serious and strict. If I take refuge, I will feel guilty for having leisure and entertainment.

The precepts may seem like binding ropes; however, when viewed from another perspective, they actually form a safety net that protects our body, speech, and mind. Let's take a look at the Five Precepts: "Abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and drinking alcohol." These precepts are basic moral principles. To take "abstain from killing living beings" as an example, we are never supposed to harm others intentionally, let alone kill them. If we do so, not only do we violate the precept, but we also will be punished by law. Similarly, stealing, false speech (fraud), sexual misconduct (extramarital affairs) are harmful to others and ourselves. Committing it will not only violate the precepts, but also potentially results in lawsuits. Therefore, the positive meaning of observing Five Precepts lies in safeguarding ourselves and others.

Many people enjoy having an occasional drink, and some drink medicinal wines. Drinking for health reasons does not violate the Precepts. Drinking is not a crime in itself, but intoxication can lead to loss of judgment. According to the Sutra on the Five Precepts for Upāsaka (《優婆塞五戒相經》
), the reason for the Buddha to make it a precept was that Venerable Sugata, who vanquished an evil dragon, mistakenly drank the water-like alcohol offered by a poor girl. He became so extremely intoxicated that he collapsed by the door of the monastery, with his body unclothed and his water bladder, alms bowls and walking staff scattered around him. Due to this unseemly incident, the Buddha added abstaining from alcohol as part of the Precepts. Even Venerable Sugata, an Arhat, could lose his composure through intoxication, let alone ordinary people. Nowadays, in addition to alcohol, there are also the temptations of psychedelic drugs and narcotics. Therefore, observing the precept of not drinking alcohol not only protects our health, but also prevents future regret. 

As for the guilt induced by leisure and entertainment, this also stems from misunderstanding the significance of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. After taking refuge, people are still lay practitioners, not Buddhist clerics in monasteries. As Master Sheng Yen indicated in The Family life of the Laity, a lay practitioner taking refuge in the Three Jewels is still a lay Buddhist. As laypersons, they are expected to follow social norms. They need not to eschew family life, leisure and entertainment, or business socializing, as long as they do it responsibly without excess or indulgence, and avoid red light districts. The purpose of these principles is for the sake of protecting ourselves and our family. 

Some may find that Buddhists lead a simple life. This is because they can naturally distinguish between their "wants" and "needs" as their practices in Buddhism deepen. As a result, their lives become simple and eco-friendly without any deliberate efforts. As for the reason that Buddhists seem to be self-disciplined, it is because after taking precepts, they have principles to follow in their lives. Meanwhile, they also uplift their character through practicing Buddhism, thereby improving themselves. 

Therefore, taking the Five Precepts provides us with a proper way of life to follow, and it protects ourselves and others.

Misconception #2: Isn't It Enough to Just Do Good Deeds and Cultivate Merit? Why Do We Have to Take Refuge?

All religions advocate for acts of kindness, emphasizing that having a good heart is what matters most. So, why do we have to take refuge?
Avoiding bad actions means that we avoid negative consequences or hell realms, regardless of our faith in the Buddha.
Engaging in good deeds is akin to the Buddhist practice of cultivating merit, making the act of taking refuge seem redundant.

Doing good is arguably a universal moral standard among religions, often leading to the perception that Buddhism doesn't differ significantly from other faiths, since all advocate virtuous deeds. If this is the case, why is there a need to take refuge in the Three Jewels and identify as a Buddhist?

In other religions, acts of kindness are performed with expectations–to do a good deed might be to receive a good turn, hoping for a better present life or a favorable rebirth, possibly even aiming for heaven or rebirth into a prosperous family.

Buddhism goes beyond simply encouraging acts of kindness and helping others; it also emphasizes the improvement of one's character and the purification of one's actions. After taking refuge in the Three Jewels, adherents are guided not only to observe the Five Precepts, but also to practice the Six Perfections (pāramitās). For example, giving (dāna), the foremost of the Six Perfections, encompasses a broader spectrum than mere kindness, aiming not only for blessings but also to accumulate the provisions for our spiritual cultivation.

Furthermore, Buddhism emphasizes the Ten Virtues, expanding upon the Five Precepts. The Ten Virtues extend from passively safeguarding our own physical, verbal, and mental activities, to actively benefiting others. In addition to physically refraining ourselves from taking lives, stealing, sexual misconduct, the Ten Virtues Deeds also includes the verbal abstentions of false speech, idle talk, divisive speech, and harsh words, as well as avoiding mental states driven by greed, hatred, and ignorance.

This highlights a fundamental difference in the intention behind good deeds between those who have taken refuge and those who have not. Before taking refuge in the Three Jewels, people only seek personal peace and karmic rewards. For those who have taken refuge, the practice is deepened by the constant reminder of the Five Precepts to maintain purity in action, speech, and thought. Coupled with the method of Chan meditation, it helps to foster focus and stability, and further uncover wisdom. This leads to less suffering and more joy, thereby benefiting oneself and others.

Ven. Yin Shun (
印順法師), in the verses of "The Way to Buddhahood, (《成佛之道》)" explained that after becoming Buddhists through taking refuge in the Three Jewels, every action and behavior should be aligned with the bodhisattva path. This not only enhances personal growth but also benefits others.

Misconception #3: The Focus of Practicing Buddhism Lies in Our Mind, so Having a Refuge Ceremony Does Not Matter.
Buddhism emphasizes emptiness, so it does not matter whether we take refuge or not! 
Meditation is all about being at ease, so why bother paying attention to formalities?
Buddhist teachings tell us that everything arises from the mind. As long as we have the intention to practice Buddhism, we are Buddhists!

People often mistakenly think that the "emptiness" in Buddhism means getting rid of everything, or they might interpret it literally, and take it as an excuse to claim themselves as legitimate Buddhists without taking a refuge ceremony. This is actually a misunderstanding of "emptiness" in Buddhism. "Emptiness" represents the law of dependent origination that things arise and perish interdependently, and the realization that there is no such thing as "eternal" or "unchanging" in the world. Emptiness does not imply that nothing exists or that we should get rid of everything. 

Moreover, Chan Buddhism patriarchs throughout history all had their own lineage. From the First Patriarch Bodhidharma to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, followed by the Five Schools and Seven Branches, the development shows that the teachings were passed down through successive lineages. Before practicing Chan Buddhism, patriarchs must take refuge in the Three Jewels, and then venerate masters who instructed them. 

Refuge is taken through making a vow to express our willingness to become Buddhists, follow the teachings of the Buddha, and take the Buddha as our role model. Participating in the refuge ceremony, through the solemn atmosphere at a place for propagating the Dharma, and with the blessings of Venerables and spectators, we make vows devoutly to declare our commitment and determination to practice the Dharma. The power of making vows together not only moves people, but also enhances our faith in practicing Buddhism. Therefore, it is common to see people in tears at a refuge ceremony. Moreover, with so many spiritual friends becoming fellow Buddhists with us, and diligently cultivating our spirituality together, the refuge ceremony is highly conducive to uplifting our faith in practicing Buddhism.

Taking refuge in the Three Jewels allows us to practice and learn the Buddhadharma and firmly embark on the path of Buddhahood without relying on other forces. 

Misconception #4: Buddhism is Against Family's Religious Belief, so Their Opposition Must Become an Obstacle.

For many people, a significant obstacle to taking refuge is their family's existing religious beliefs, or the pressure from their family members. 

First of all, when communicating with our family members, we should clarify that our decision to take refuge in the Three Jewels stems from our recognition of Buddhism's insights into the meaning of life. Let them know that this is a decision was made  on the basis of reasoning, out of rationality, and we believe they will respect it. We can further explain to our family that Buddhism does not ask everyone to become Buddhists; rather, it is an inclusive religion that does not contradict others' theirexisting beliefs and rituals. Besides, Buddhism encompasses various traditions such as Chinese Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Japanese and Korean Buddhism. While they all lead to the Three Jewels, they only differ in their way of practicing. 

Before taking refuge in the Three Jewels, we must understand our family's concerns. They might worry that our conversion to Buddhism could create discord within the family due to different religious beliefs, or we might affect their beliefs in turn. We should help our family understand why we have chosen Buddhism, and assure them that our decision does not require them to convert. Religious belief should foster mutual understanding and acceptance rather than opposition. For instance, we should avoid insisting on setting a Buddhist shrine and chanting Buddhist scriptures at home if this offends our family members. makes our family members feel offended. 

Misconception #5: Since I am More Committed to Spiritual Growth than Many Buddhists, Why Bother with the Formality of Taking Refuge?

Everyday, I engage in reading Buddhist texts, prostrating to the Buddha, and meditating. Given that I'm possibly more committed to my spiritual growth than many who identify as Buddhists, the question arises: why the need to formally take refuge?
If my actions are in line with the teachings of Buddhism, isn't that enough without the ceremonial aspect of taking refuge?

Many individuals believe they adhere to Buddhist principles through their actions and behaviors without feeling the need to formally commit to the Three Jewels. This self-guided approach may seem sufficient to them. However, without the formal act of taking refuge in the Three Jewels, one cannot truly claim to be a Buddhist.

While anyone can study Buddhist scriptures or delve deeply into its teachings, this is considered academic or scholarly research into Buddhism rather than the actual practice of Buddhism. Practices such as prostration and meditation are not exclusive to Buddhism. In the Buddha's time, some non-Buddhist ascetics were also proficient at meditation. The Taoists of China and even modern yoga practitioners have engaged in meditation. Without formally taking refuge in the Three Jewels and observing the Five Precepts, one cannot legitimately claim to be a Buddhist. This is similar to the analogy often used by Master Sheng Yen: without officially enrolling, you cannot consider yourself as a student of a school.

Some individuals feel that a belief in Guanyin (the East Asian representation of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva) automatically aligns them with Buddhism, thus negating the need for formally taking refuge in the Three Jewels. However, devotion to Guanyin is not unique to Buddhism, as she is also revered in various folk traditions. Therefore, merely believing in Guanyin does not equate to being a Buddhist. Furthermore, one does not inherit a Buddhist identity. Even if one's parents have taken refuge in the Three Jewels, this does not automatically make their children Buddhists. It is only through formally taking refuge, as confirmed by a preceptor, that one becomes a true Buddhist.

The ceremony of taking refuge in the Three Jewels is crucial for establishing one's identity as a Buddhist. It serves as a compass for one's Buddhist practice, ensuring that practitioners are on the correct path of spiritual development.

Misconception #6: Worshiping the Buddha is Idolatry and Taking Refuge is Just Superstition.

Master Sheng Yen often said, "The Dharma is so good, yet so many people misunderstand it." This statement encapsulates the fact that most people do not understand the Dharma; instead, they may learn from hearsay and accept what others have told them without real comprehension. Based on their observation of Buddhism from afar, they regard Buddhism as a superstitious religion that even promotes a cult of personality.

As we take the step toward taking refuge in the Three Jewels and learn Buddhism, we will further understand that Buddhism is atheistic. As there exists no God or Buddha that can dominate our future, believing in Buddhism does not lead to salvation or to heaven. The Buddha is an "awakened one." Despite founding Buddhism and establishing the Sangha, the Buddha never regarded himself as a leader, nor did he deify himself.

As for the practice of prostrating to the Buddha and participating in Dharma assemblies, they serve not only as Buddhist rituals but also as part of one's spiritual cultivation. Through making prostrations to Buddhas, we examine our mind and adjust ourselves to be humble and benevolent. The so-called prostrations of gratitude or repentance exist for this purpose, not for a "Buddha" who demands prostrations from people. Participating in Dharma assemblies is also a form of group practice, which allows Buddhist practitioners to learn and practice together. It is analogous to how, after enrollment at a school, we have many subjects to study, while Dharma assembly is merely one of the lessons for Buddhists to learn about Buddhadharma.

In addition, since religious groups are open and inclusive to anyone who intends to learn and engage in Buddhist practice, it is inevitable to have all sorts of phenomena, including rare negative incidents, happening within an organization. It would be a pity if their occurrence makes us mistakenly see Buddhism in a bad light, thereby deterring us from taking refuge. Although the number of outer paths in the Buddha's time was even more than it is today, not only did Buddhism not vanish, but it has even been passed down to the present day. This shows that Buddhadharma can withstand scrutiny, and is one of the reasons people choose to take refuge in the Three Jewels. 

Misconception #7: Buddhism is for People in Distress. I am Good and Do Not Need to Take Refuge.

People taking refuge and engaging in Buddhist practices are individuals who have failed in their relationships and careers. I do not have issues like that.
My life is smooth and happy, so I do not need Buddhism for spiritual sustenance.
Buddhists have a passive attitude towards life. Only those who lack social responsibilities and life goals turn to Buddhism.

Undeniably, such cases mentioned above do exist but are extremely rare after all. The Buddhist organizations nowadays lack no intellectuals, and many professionals and successful entrepreneurs have become monastics. These are people traditionally viewed by our society as successful and happy "winners." However, out of rationality, they choose to take refuge in the Three Jewels and even join the Sangha. This shows that Buddhism is a refuge for everyone's mind, and definitely should not be identified as a shelter for the distressed.

Some might think they have a smooth life with a happy family and a great fortune. Since winners do not need spiritual sustenance, why do they bother to take refuge in the Three Jewels? Such a mentality resonates with the twenty difficulties in cultivation stated in the "Sutra of Forty-two Chapters, (
《四十二章經》)" one of which is "It is difficult for the rich and eminent to learn the Way." This is because people with fame, power, and wealth are prone to be overconfident. Thus, they are less likely to be humble to learn and practice Buddhadharma. Before his renunciation, the Buddha had possessed everything that people seek. Nevertheless, he resolutely left everything behind, leaving his comfort zone to seek the meaning of life. As mentioned in Buddhist scriptures, worldly fortune ends up vanishing for five causes. The world we live in is like a burning house in which we can find nowhere to settle in peace. Only by taking refuge in Three Jewels can we transcend vexations and attain peace of mind.

The attitude towards life that Buddhists advocate is to be content with little desire, worrying little about personal gain and losses. Nevertheless, this attitude does not imply a distressed and passive mindset. Some people with little understanding of monastic lives mistakenly perceive that Buddhist monastics do not engage in productive activities. However, the Sangha in ancient times has already set the rule of "A day without working, a day without eating." Buddhist groups nowadays are even engaged in unpaid work related to social welfare, charitable activities, and educational work. When catastrophe strikes, in addition to actively engaging in front line relief, they also play a role in stabilizing the society, which cannot be valued in monetary terms.

If we enjoy a happy and fulfilling life, after taking refuge in Three Jewels, we should make good use of our own resources and exert our influences at our posts so that more people can perceive the positive power of Buddhist teachings. 

Misconception #8: Multiple Misunderstandings Hinder People from Taking Refuge.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels must be followed by monastic renunciation.
After taking refuge, one must be required to be vegetarian.
Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels must involve heavy monetary donations to the monastery.
After taking refuge, one will surely be brainwashed and become a frequent visitor to monasteries…

For people seeking monastic renunciation, they must take refuge in the Three Jewels, since taking the Three Refuges is the foundation for Buddhist practice. In Buddhism, practitioners are divided into four groups, consisting of bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunīs (nuns), who live in monasteries and lead a life of spiritual practice; and upāsakas (lay male devotees) and upāsikās (lay female devotees), who lead a secular life. Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels is just the first step for Buddhist practice, which does not necessitate immediate tonsure and renunciation. Take the Sangha of Dharma Drum Mountain as an example. To be ordained at Dharma Drum Mountain, one has to enter the Dharma Drum Sangha University first and undergo one year of learning. Afterward, the student has to pass the school's assessment and examine their own willingness before being approved for tonsure.

When it comes to taking refuge, many associate it with "vegetarianism." This deters people from taking refuge because they cannot refrain from eating meat. The Buddhist practice of vegetarianism stems from the precept of abstaining from killing living beings. Apart from passively abstaining from taking the lives of sentient beings, the purpose of this practice also includes actively protecting lives through adopting vegetarianism. After taking refuge, if adopting a vegetarian diet is still challenging, people can start with "Threefold Pure Meat," which means consuming only the meat obtained "without seeing and hearing the killing, and not procured specifically for one's consumption."

Many people have a misunderstanding of the Buddhist practice of giving (dāna), thinking that it only involves monetary donation. In fact, giving includes dedicating our time, mental and physical energy, as well as sharing the benefits of practicing Buddhism. The practice of giving is all about our sincerity and capacity. Master Sheng Yen has a saying: "Our wants are many. Our needs are few." Living in a life of material abundance, we often focus too much on pursuing pleasure, which is not a need but a want. We should transform our "wants" into meeting the "needs" of others.

Elderly Ven. Yin Shun said that Buddhism is like a big garden, where taking refuge in the Three Jewels represents entering the garden, allowing us to enjoy the fragrance of flowers inside. We are encouraged to step into the garden of Buddhism by participating in a refuge ceremony and exploring the fragrance of Buddhadharma. In response to people's questions on Buddhism, Master Sheng Yen has written books such as "Correct Buddhist Belief, (
《正信的佛教》)" "Questions and Answers on Buddhism, (《學佛群疑》)" and "Understanding Buddhism, (《佛教入門》)" all of which are suitable books for "novice" refuge takers to establish correct Buddhist perspectives. When encountering someone with misconceptions about Buddhism, you can also clarify concepts with them using these books, and thus form karmic affinities with them. 

Related articles:

Taking Refuge – The First Step to Firm Buddhist Practice

Overcoming the Eight Major Obstacles to Taking Refuge

Buddhist Stories on the Auspiciousness of Taking the Three Refuges

Taking Refuge: A Sincere Vow to Engage in Buddhist Practice

Common Questions on Taking Refuge

Refuge Taking Rituals of Different Buddhist Traditions

The Three Refuges Verse for Morning and Evening Services as a Reminder

Resource: Issue 373 of Humanity  Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Sinag-ling Li (李祥苓)
Editing: Keith Brown, James, 麗萍, Glen, Christina, 可馨