If someone believes in and practices Buddhism, should they also take refuge in the Three Jewels?Yes, they should. But first, we should clearly distinguish between believing in Buddhism and worshipping deities and spirits as practiced in folk religions. Someone who believes and practices Buddhism should fully accept the Three Jewels, namely, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. They are called jewels because we treasure them and because they are inexhaustible. Once we accept them they are forever with us; neither water nor fire can destroy them, nor can thieves take them away. One can enjoy their benefits forever, and no other treasures in the world can compare with them.
The Buddha Jewel refers to the completely enlightened being, Shakyamuni Buddha, who attained buddhahood with complete virtue and perfect wisdom. All sentient beings are able to reach buddhahood, but in human history, there has been only Shakyamuni who attained buddhahood. Nevertheless, we pay respect to all buddhas in the past, present, and future.
The Dharma Jewel refers to the principles and methods that guide us to attain buddhahood. Since the Dharma consists of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, we honor him as the Original Teacher. In terms of doctrine the Dharma consists of the Tripitaka: the three canons consisting of the sutras (sermons), the vinaya (rules of conduct), and the shastras (commentaries). To that we add the commentaries and records of the patriarchs. All these are the principles that guide us in practicing Buddhism.
The Sangha Jewel refers to people who are studying and practicing Dharma, helping others studying and practicing Dharma, and protecting and upholding sentient beings who study and practice Dharma. The Sangha includes bodhisattvas, arhats, and not-yet-lightened bhikshus (monks) and bhikshunis (nuns). Ordinary people like us seldom recognize enlightened bodhisattvas and arhats even when we see them. Most of what we see is the not-yet-enlightened Sangha. Therefore, monks and nuns constitute the core of the Sangha Jewel.
The Sangha Jewel is the teacher, the Dharma Jewel is the text, and the Buddha Jewel is the discoverer and creator of the text. Only when all Three Jewels are present can there be the complete Buddhism; accepting only one or two of the Three Jewels is not true Buddhism. Having faith in only the Buddha Jewel is not different from those who blindly worship spirits and ghosts; practicing the Dharma Jewel alone is similar to a scholastic pursuit; and believing only in the Sangha Jewel is no different from having godparents. Taken singly, these are not true Buddhism.
Therefore, taking refuge in the Three Jewels is like students getting registered for school; it marks the beginning of Buddhist learning and practice. Only when students have officially enrolled are they accepted to attend classes. It is then the students’ obligation to attend classes, and the school’s responsibility to teach them. Similarly, going through the refuge-taking ritual is essential for those who believe in and practice Buddhism. It is also like a marriage, an inauguration, or school enrollment, where people make vows and commitments, and accept oversight by others. This is in order to be prudent and to affirm their commitments.
Certainly, people can study Buddhism without taking refuge in the Three Jewels; no one would consider them evil. However, without taking refuge one consciously lacks commitment and would tend to make excuses, hesitate, and vacillate. At some crucial moment, one would waver and say: “I’m not a Buddhist yet. I don’t quite need to follow the precepts and rules of Buddhadharma.” Consequently, they would easily forgive themselves. Needless to say, they are foregoing measures to avoid certain vices and bad habits such as laxity, overindulging in leisure, wicked morals, improper speech, and freely walk away with things. If they had taken refuge in the Three Jewels, they would be more vigilant and cautious to keep themselves within bounds. They would also receive guidance, encouragement, and advice from teachers, the sangha, and peers, hence transforming one’s character, strengthening one’s mind, sustaining one’s diligence, and leading one’s practice on to the right and normal path.
Dear reader, please do not consider taking refuge in the Three Jewels as trivial, or consider yourself not qualified, just because you do not thoroughly understand the Dharma and how to practice it. On the contrary, simply because you already know that the Dharma is worth believing in and learning, you should quickly come to take refuge in the Three Jewels. If you think you are not yet adequate to be a Buddhist, it is even more urgent that you take refuge. After taking refuge, you will have the support of your fellow Buddhists, many buddhas and bodhisattvas. The Dharma-protecting heavenly beings are there to help and uphold you, with respect to every aspect of your thoughts, life, and habits. Especially if you lack willpower or confidence, once taking refuge in the Three Jewels, your willpower will be strengthened, and your confidence will increase.