|Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is one of the most meaningful activities one can embark upon in life—something truly gratifying and laudable. Many consider that the greatest advantage one can have in life is fame and fortune, including all the money and wealth these bring. In truth, all the advantages in the world added together would fall far short of the advantage gained by taking refuge in the Triple Gem, as well as undertaking and observing the Five Precepts, which is explained in the companion booklet The Five Precepts.
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is the starting point for becoming a Buddhist follower, that is, for learning and practicing Buddhism. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—referred to as the Triple Gem—are the focus of faith for every Buddhist follower. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are considered the noble wealth that transcends all worldly forms. The Buddha is like sunlight that can mature and perfect living beings, for the Buddha is the teacher of this world; the Dharma is like water that can nurture living beings, for the Dharma is the truth of life; and the Sangha is like a field that can cultivate the Dharma wealth of merit for the believer, for the Sangha is the community of spiritual friends who sustain the Dharma. The importance of the Triple Gem is comparable to sunlight, water, and soil, for none of these can be lacking. The life of wisdom is planted through taking refuge in the Triple Gem. Undertaking the Triple Gem Refuge allows us to elevate the spiritual world of our mind and transcend the confines of mundane life.
The merit of taking refuge in the Triple Gem is limitless and immeasurable. Not taking refuge surely deprives us of the opportunity to enjoy the merit—the blessings of the Dharma and wholesome karma—to be obtained from this action. It is quite common to express hesitation and doubt before requesting to take refuge in the Triple Gem. “Am I qualified to take refuge in the Triple Gem?” is a question frequently asked by those considering taking refuge. However, there is no need to worry. Requesting to take refuge in the Triple Gem can only offer a multitude of benefits without doing any harm. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is about establishing one’s own faith. In the event that you change your mind for some reason and no longer believe in Buddhism or even end up converting to another religion, at the very most you might suffer some decline in character and credibility,but no negative karma will result.
Whether you simply want to know about taking refuge, are exploring the idea of taking refuge, or are about to take part in the ceremony of the Triple Gem Refuge, you might have some questions. This booklet addresses some common issues, provides a clear explanation of the meaning and significance of taking refuge in the Triple Gem.
I. Some Questions Addressed
Taking Refuge and Commitment to the Buddhist Path
To officially become a Buddhist, one must undergo the procedure of taking refuge in the Triple Gem. When we take refuge, we devoutly make a mind to-mind connection with the Buddha, and then the Buddha infuses our mind and body with the power of loving-kindness and compassion. It is only after this spiritual connection has been made that we can be considered a Buddhist ollower. If we have not undergone this refuge ceremony, but merely worship and burn incense, we are someone who honors Buddhism, but we cannot truly be considered Buddhists.
One might question the need of taking refuge saying, “I already believe in Buddhism, and I regularly worship and burn incense at the temple. Why do I need to participate in the refuge ceremony?” We all understand that if we want to join a political party but have yet to make the pledge, we cannot become a member of that political party. Serving in a public office, such as president of a country, also requires the taking of an oath of office before formally assuming the post. When a couple wishes to marry, they must hold a marriage ceremony and be acknowledged by society, for only then is their union legally binding. Taking refuge is very similar to this, because it formalizes and acknowledges one’s commitment to the Buddha’s path.
Taking Refuge and Being a Vegetarian
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem does not require becoming a vegetarian. Vegetarianism is a lifestyle and a moral question. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is a confirmation of faith unrelated to vegetarianism. People who have not taken refuge become vegetarians based upon such factors as health, morality, or custom, but those who aspire to take refuge need not become vegetarians. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is about declaring one’s faith in Buddhism and becoming a Buddhist follower, taking Buddhism as one’s primary spiritual path. After taking refuge in the Triple Gem, we strive to elevate our character and not follow other religions. That is to say, to change the negative aspects of our character while not converting to another religion. Although vegetarianism is not required after taking refuge, striving to reduce the taking of life is still an important spiritual practice.
Taking Refuge and Non-Buddhist Religions
If circumstances arose that caused one no longer to believe in Buddhism or even to convert to another religion, would Heaven strike the person down with lightning, as is commonly said, bringing about some terrible calamity? Not at all! Faith in Buddhism is not dominated by a divine agency. Buddhism is a religion that values freedom of belief. Historically there have been many people who converted to Buddhism from other religions; in Buddhism they are simply seen as having been “promoted to a higher course of instruction.” If for some reason a Buddhist no longer believed in Buddhism after taking refuge, at most they would only suffer some damage to their own trustworthiness, but Heaven would not strike them with lightning. The idea of punishment by a divine power has been employed by religious cults as a means to control people. This notion is not a part of Buddhism. Buddhist faith is established upon our own free will to generate aspiration to attain enlightenment and make the vow to liberate living beings. The Buddhas and bodhisattvas do not strike us down with disasters.
Actually, in various parts of the world today there is no lack of examples for belief in two religions. The Buddhist faith, of course, pays particular attention to purity and concentration, what are known as “reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name with single-minded effort,” “upholding Amitabha Buddha’s name with single-minded effort,” and “taking refuge with single minded effort.” Within one family, members might follow different religions. Being able to follow one teacher and one path with all one’s heart and mind is best of all, but if this is impossible for some reason, then all you can do is carry on through skillful means and respect your family.
Taking Refuge and Allegiance to a Teacher
Some Buddhist leaders view their devotees as their own private possessions, which is why you sometimes hear: “devotee so-and-so is the disciple of master so-and-so.” In fact when taking refuge in the Triple Gem, the monastic in charge of the refuge ceremony is merely there to certify the pledge you are undertaking, certifying the followers of the Triple Gem, certifying that you are becoming a Buddhist. Taking refuge is not becoming the disciple of a certain teacher. Taking refuge is an expression of a sacred faith. Formally accepting someone as a teacher is a secular ceremony. Even though I have officiated at many Triple Gem Refuge ceremonies, I, too, am merely a certifying teacher because I am also a follower of the Triple Gem––the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The only difference is that I have entered the path earlier than any of you. Taking refuge expresses our belief in Buddhism and our willingness to accept the Dharma as a guide to life. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is cherishing and revering the Buddhist truth, but not becoming the disciple of a certain teacher.
Taking Refuge and Cultural Deities
If one has worshiped cultural deities, as is the case in Taiwan with the Goddess Mazu, the city god, and the Celestial Lord, after taking refuge one can still worship them. We regularly offer our respect whenever we meet our elders, teachers, and noble worthies, and will also shake hands and nod our heads to those of other faiths as an expression of courtesy. Mutual honor and respect are necessary between people, so why can’t we express our reverence and worship towards gods and deities? We must understand, however, that reverence and worship are not the same things as taking refuge and placing faith in them. Paying homage differs from having a belief. An act of worship is something momentary; taking refuge is for a lifetime. What is important is that after taking refuge we can transcend the belief in gods and deities, so that we are no longer controlled by divine powers.
Taking Refuge and Ancestral Practices
The Chinese people have always valued filial piety and promoted the Confucian concept of “taking care of one’s parents until they die and offering sacrifices to one’s ancestors.” Ancestors are worshipped on festival celebrations every year. This is why people of Chinese ancestry might wonder whether if after taking refuge in the Triple Gem they can still worship their ancestors in order to fulfill the filial duties. Certainly! After taking refuge, you can still worship wholesome deities and spirits, as long as this practice is not carried into the realm of sorcery and black magic. Buddhism is a religion that promotes filial piety, thus we can continue worshipping and making offerings to our ancestors and clan elders.
Taking Refuge and Your Root Temple
After taking refuge with the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, Fo Guang Shan becomes the Dharma home for your life of wisdom, but you most certainly can go to other Buddhist temples to worship the Buddha. Although Buddhist temples are different, the Buddha is one and the same. So regardless of where you go to worship the Buddha, there is no need to make any distinctions.
No matter where one takes refuge, whether at Fo Guang Shan or another temple, there are certainly differences between temples and sangha communities in terms of lineage. Thus there is one point that everyone should be clear about: If taking refuge at a Fo Guang Shan temple, Fo Guang Shan becomes the root Dharma community for your refuge. Fo Guang Shan belongs to the Dharma lineage of the Linji School, thus, you, too, join the Dharma lineage of the Linji School of Buddhism. Other Buddhist temples outside of the Fo Guang Shan Dharma community are just like friends. This is comparable to society’s laws which stipulate that only two people may marry and become a couple; subsequently, they then relate to other people as their friends. Thus, everyone taking refuge through Fo Guang Shan can afterwards go to other temples and participate in their activities with joy, but remember that Fo Guang Shan will always be your root Dharma home where you requested and were certified as taking the Triple Gem Refuge.
Taking Refuge and Living by the Triple Gem
When we take refuge in the Triple Gem, we are saying that we believe in Buddhism and have become a follower of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and that we do not place our primary faith in another religion. Taking refuge is an expression confirming the object of faith; no requirement is made concerning the observance of any rules or commands in any way. However, if some rule or commandment admittedly must be observed, then there is only one, and it is that those taking refuge must be true to the pledge they made to themselves upon taking refuge; that is that taking refuge in the Buddha means no refuge will be taken in demonic spirits or in on-Buddhist paths for as long as one lives. Taking refuge in the Dharma means no refuge will be taken in the false teachings of non-Buddhist paths for as long as one lives. Taking refuge in the Sangha means no refuge will be taken in the community of non-Buddhist followers for as long as one lives. The vows that we make in the Triple Gem Refuge to take Buddhism as our spiritual path do not prohibit us from learning from other legitimate religions; rather, they apply to becoming involved in cults or sects that have no history, no lineage or tradition, and no religious octrine, especially leaders and activities based on false teachings that prize contriving popular success by deceitful means. Under no circumstances should refuge be taken in such cults and false teachings. Taking refuge means that you place your faith in the spiritual path of Buddhism.
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is not constrained by rules and commandments; however, our actions in word and deed will manifest some changes after taking refuge. For example, constantly think to yourself: I’m a Buddhist now; I will reflect and be consciously aware; I will act Buddha-like and be compassionate; I will join in Buddhist activities; I will support Buddhist projects; and so on. In addition, after taking refuge in the Triple Gem we will strive to develop correct knowledge and view; we will strive to understand and rely deeply on the law of cause and effect; and we will strive to avoid doing anything unwholesome and perform all that is wholesome. In this way we are sure to experience the enjoyment of the Dharma and obtain the benefits of faith.
II. The Meaning of Taking Refuge
The Significance of Taking Refuge
Human life cannot be without faith, and the first step along the path to faith is taking refuge in the Triple Gem. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem enables human life to become more enriched, as well as more solid and secure. The word “gem” can refer to mundane wealth or it can refer to supramundane wealth. Mundane wealth is represented by gold, diamonds, pearls, carnelian, and so forth; supramundane wealth is represented by the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The possession of mundane wealth can enrich our material life, while obtaining the supramundane Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha can enrich our spiritual life. Thus if we want to live a rich and abundant life, we must first take refuge in the Triple Gem.
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is the confirmation of faith and the path leading to the truth. We can only know ourselves by taking refuge in the Triple Gem, and so each one of us should take refuge in the Triple Gem. We should treat it as the most important event in our lives.
“Taking refuge” here means finding refuge and support. Living in this world, there are times when we acknowledge to ourselves that our strength is not enough, which leads to the hope that someone with greater power will come and be our support. But what in this world can really and truly serve as our secure refuge and support?
A well-known Chinese proverb says: “Rely upon parents when at home, and rely upon friends when away from home.” Children know to rely upon their parents as soon as they are born. But even a bond as close as between parents and children does not mean that parents can take your place when illness strikes the body or death draws near. Even if you rely upon gods and deities, you will find that they too are unreliable. This is because gods and deities themselves will one day manifest the five signs of decay1 and will fall away. Therefore, the Buddha repeatedly reminds us not to rely upon such divine agencies as gods and deities, fortune telling, divination, or geomancy to control our lives for good or ill.
In that case, what is life’s best refuge and support? The Way to Buddhahood 2 states:
Seeking refuge here and there;
seeking it throughout the ten directions;
the place of ultimate refuge
is the Triple Gem, the most auspicious.
The Dharma tells us that what is the most reliable support is the Triple Gem––the Buddha, the
Dharma, and the Sangha. Only the Triple Gem is a worthy object of our trust, and only by taking refuge in the Triple Gem can we find the best way to seek support. Therefore, we must seek refuge and support in the Triple Gem, beseeching the Triple Gem to help and protect us with the expectation that we can be liberated from suffering.
This is why taking refuge actually contains the meanings of “succor” and “protection.” In this world, children must rely upon their parents, for only then will their lives be made secure; the aged must rely upon a sturdy cane, for only then can they walk safely; seafarers must rely upon their compass, for only then will their return voyage be assured; and those in the dark must rely upon a bright lamp, for only then will their direction become clear. The Triple Gem is like our parents, so when a child feels bullied, even though its parents are not nearby, all the child needs to do is call out “Mommy!” and no one will dare to try and take advantage, because the child has a mother. In the same way, there are many wicked ways, bad people, and bad things happening in this world, but with the Triple Gem for support, we always have a safe refuge.
The Triple Gem is also like our compass that can guide us through the vast sea of people and sail into a safe harbor for shelter against the storm. Everyone knows that when it gets dark when away from home, it is time to head back. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem and constantly calling to mind the merits of the Triple Gem will enable us to rely on the divine protection of the Triple Gem and its merits. By availing ourselves of such a precious raft, we may transcend the cycle of life and death and bravely cross the bitter sea of suffering, so that we may return to our true selves, our original home. Therefore, taking refuge in the Triple Gem allows us to find a place where we can settle down and live in peace within this present world, allowing us to have a home to which we can return in the future!
Defining the Triple Gem
The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha constitute the Triple Gem. The Buddha is a Sanskrit term that refers to a perfectly awakened being who has realized the truth of the universe and is further able to teach that truth to living beings for their liberation based upon his inexhaustible vow of compassion. Due to his self awakening, awakening to others, and the perfection of his enlightenment and practice, he has attained unsurpassed, perfect enlightenment (anuttara samyaksambodhi), and is therefore called “the Buddha.” Here this refers to Sakyamuni Buddha, the original teacher and founder of Buddhism, but it may also refer generally to all the Buddhas of the ten directions and the three time periods—past, present, and future.
“Dharma” is a Sanskrit term that connotes “the rule and its observance,” what is known as the
Fourfold Dharma Gem of the Buddha’s teaching, its meaning, its practice, and its fruit. Dharma is the rule-governed path that can lead to the attainment of unsurpassed, perfect enlightenment, just as the Buddhist canon is able to do, hence the name. Here Dharma refers to the fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths,3 the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination,4 the Noble Eightfold Path,5 and the Three Dharma Seals,6 but it may also refer generally to the Twelve Divisions of the Buddhist Canons.7
“Sangha” is a Sanskrit term which can be translated as “harmonious community.” Here it refers
to the monastic order whose members practice the Dharma and live together in harmony which possesses two aspects: “harmony in principle” and “harmony in action.” Harmony in principle refers to unanimity of understanding about the afflictions to be removed and the truth to be realized. Harmony in action refers to the conformity of observance about six main points regarding the three karmas of body, speech, and thought. No action should run counter to
these six main points which form the foundation of the Buddhist monastic order.
The two harmonies of “in principle” and “in action,”
that is, to propagate the Dharma and to liberate
sentient beings, represents both the liberation of self
and the liberation of others, and so it is called the monastic
order or Sangha. Here Sangha refers to the initial
five bhiksus (male Buddhist monastics) who followed
the Buddha in joining the monastic order and cultivating
the Buddha’s path, as well as the twelve hundred
and fifty great bhiksus and arhats; but it may also refer
generally to the present Buddhist monastic order and
greater community of bodhisattvas and monastics.
- Maintain harmony in view by sharing the same understanding, which means establishing a consensus of thought.
- Maintain moral harmony by observing the same precepts, which means that everyone is equal under the rules.
- Maintain economic harmony by sharing things equally,” which means distributing benefits
- Maintain mental harmony by sharing happiness, which means having common spiritual goals and
- Maintain verbal harmony by avoiding disputes, which means avoiding verbal arguments.
- Maintain physical harmony by living together, which means not violating others.
Indeed, ultimately speaking, the term “Buddha”
refers to ourselves because everybody possesses
the Buddha nature. In taking refuge in the Buddha,
we are taking refuge in our Buddha nature. What
is called “Dharma” constitutes the truth; it is the
Dharma nature of self-awakening within each one of
us, as well as the undying life of wisdom and Dharma
body. What is called “Sangha” represents the field of
merit. It is as if we were in possession of a great land
or field in which we can plant and build things after
having opened up the land within the mind field. In
this way one is able to have unwavering faith in one’s
In simpler terms, the Triple Gem means taking
refuge in the Buddha as founder, the Dharma as
truth, and the Sangha as mentor. All three constitute
important causes and conditions that enable living
beings to attain liberation. This is why the Buddhist
scriptures give the following analogy of the Buddha
as a good physician, the Dharma as profound medicine,
and the Sangha as a nurse. Those suffering from
illness can only find its cure when in possession of
all three at the same time. Human life is also just like
this, for it is only by relying upon the power of these
three––Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha––that we can
end suffering, enjoy happiness, and reach the realm
of liberation. This is why the Buddha, the Dharma,
and the Sangha are called the Triple Gem.
The Benefits of Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem can enable us to recognize
our intrinsic nature and to develop the gemlike
treasury within our minds. This is because taking
refuge in the Buddha means that the Buddha is the
one who fully experiences truth in the human world.
He proclaims the brightness of truth and guides us
towards the light, just as the sun and moon in the sky
can cause those who have lost their way to find the
Taking refuge in the Dharma, the unchanging
rule, can set the standard for our moral conduct in
daily life. Acting in reliance upon it, we can gain right
knowledge, and by applying it directly in our practice,
we can reach the other shore of enlightenment.
This is just like a railway, in that by going along the
tracks the train can reach its destination.
Taking refuge in the Sangha, represented by those
who seek liberation through practicing the Dharma,
is the equivalent of having teachers who can serve as
our spiritual friends. Although they have yet to eliminate
affliction or realize true nature, they can guide
everyone in constant learning and practice through
the Dharma. Drawing near to them can enable us to
purify our body and mind and to elevate our spiritual
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is like obtaining
a wonder drug that can cure our mental diseases of
greed, anger, and ignorance. It is like lighting a lamp or
using the stars and moon, which can lead us out of the
wrong path. It is also like finding a boat amid the sea of
people, one that can deliver us from the ocean of suffering
that is samsara––the cycle of birth and death.
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem not only can enable
us to attain ultimate liberation, it can also present
us with many benefits in this present life. These
- Becoming a disciple of the Buddha: People who
take refuge in the Buddha are making Sakyamuni
Buddha, the greatest and noblest figure in the
universe as their teacher, to formally become a
disciple of the Buddha.
- Not falling into the negative realms: As the scriptures
state, people who take refuge in the Triple
Gem will: not fall into the hell realm by taking
refuge in the Buddha; not fall into the animal
realm by taking refuge in the Dharma; and not
fall into the hungry ghost realm by taking refuge
in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem
strikes one’s name from the negative realms and
confers one’s share in the human and heavenly
- Ennobling the moral character: Faith is elevated
by degrees upon taking refuge in the Triple Gem,
just as the human body can wear the fine clothing
and jeweled crown of morality. In this way then
one’s moral character is ennobled.
- Being supported and protected by Dharma guardians:
The Buddha once enjoined the naga and
deva Dharma protectors and all guardian spirits
to safeguard disciples of the Triple Gem in this
age of the Dharma’s decline. Therefore, taking
refuge in the Triple Gem means that one will be
safeguarded by the eight classes of heavenly beings
such as the naga (dragon) and deva (heavenly
being) as well as the guardian spirits who
protect the Dharma.
- Obtaining honor and respect: People who take
refuge in the Triple Gem are able to obtain the
honor and respect of humans and heavenly
- Accomplishing good works: Reliance upon the
blessings of the Triple Gem’s power can enable
those who have taken refuge to lighten their karmic
obstacles and to enjoy peaceful good fortune.
All good works can then be accomplished.
- Accumulating merit: As recorded in the Sutra on
the Marvelous Incomparable Virtue as Spoken
by the Buddha 9 those who possess the four kinds
of support (food and drink, clothing, bedding,
and medicine) and even construct a stupa made
of the seven precious substances (gold, silver, lapis
lazuli, pearl, carnelian, coral, and amber) to
house a relic of the Buddha, the merit obtained
from all of that does not amount to one percent of
the merit obtained by taking refuge in the Triple
Gem. Clearly, the benefits of taking refuge in the
Triple Gem are vast and extraordinary.
- Having encounters with good people: Taking
refuge in the Triple Gem reduces the afflictions
we experience and enables us to encounter good
people as friends. Everywhere we go is an opportune
experience for us for good causes and
conditions will await us.
- Providing a foundation for undertaking the precepts:
Only people who take refuge in the Triple
Gem are qualified to take the next step by requesting
to undertake the five precepts, the eight
precepts retreat,10 and even the lay bodhisattva
- Fulfilling Buddhahood: Everyone who takes refuge
in the Triple Gem, even if they do not cultivate
the Buddhist practice during this lifetime,
will do so in the future due to their faith and positive
connections. All will be able to attain liberation
during the Dragon-flower Assemblies11
when Maitreya Bodhisattva appears in the human
The importance of the Triple Gem––the Buddha,
the Dharma, and the Sangha—is comparable to
sunlight, air, and clean water. They appear quite ordinary,
but in reality they are the most precious things
for human life!
Sunlight, air, and water
are the three precious gems of human life;
The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
are the Triple Gem of the transcendent
Without these, no spiritual life of wisdom can
possibly develop; and without these, no sacred world
can ever be ennobled.
The Initial, Ever-Abiding, and Intrinsic Triple Gem
The Triple Gem also has various differences in terms
of level. There are the initial Triple Gem, the everabiding
Triple Gem, the intrinsic Triple Gem, and so
on. What is the initial Triple Gem? Prince Siddhartha,
born in India during the 5th century BCE, renounced
the royal throne to cultivate the spiritual austerities
in Uruvilva Forest, after which he became the
Buddha, or as some call him, Sakyamuni Buddha.
The Buddha is a noble one who is able to awaken
self and awaken others with compassion, wisdom,
holiness, and majesty. After attaining enlightenment,
the Buddha preached the Dharma at more than three
hundred assemblies over the course of forty-nine
years. The great arhats and disciples who accompanied
him numbered more than a thousand, and each
time he preached the Dharma there were millions of
people and deva-gods in attendance. He is the one
who achieved the great awakening, and so he is
known as the precious gem of the Buddha.
The initial precious gem of the Dharma is represented
by the Four Noble Truths, the Twelve Links
of Dependent Origination, the Noble Eightfold Path,
and other foundational teachings, as preached by the
Buddha. These are all known as the precious gem
of the Dharma only so long as they conform to the
Three Dharma Seals of “all conditioned phenomena
are impermanent,” “all phenomena are without an independent
self,” and “nirvana is perfect tranquility.”
The precious gem of the Dharma is the truth of the
universe and human life, and so long as there are the
scriptures revealing the truth, there you will find the
path to life that remains unchanging for all time and
is always fresh across myriad eons. If one can enter
nirvana, forming a resonance with the true reality of
suchness and oneness with the great transformations
of space itself, then they will have found the precious
gem of the Dharma, neither arising nor ceasing.
The initial precious gem of the Sangha is represented
by the five bhiksus who were the first to follow
the Buddha in joining the monastic order, as well as
such disciples of the Buddha like bhiksunis (female
monastics), arhats, and bodhisattvas. The names of
some include Maitreya Bodhisattva and Ksitigarbha
Bodhisattva, as well as the twelve hundred and fifty
bhiksus including the great arhats Sariputra and
Maudgalyayana, besides all the bhiksunis far too numerous
to count. This was the earliest monastic community
present at the time of the Buddha, representing
as well the initial precious gem of the Sangha.
Upon mentioning the Buddha, his image with
its thirty-two marks of excellence and eighty noble
characteristics will naturally appear in our minds. It
is just so unfortunate that we were not able to see the
Buddha, hear his teachings directly, and be part of his
original sangha. But although we lack the merit for
seeing the initial Triple Gem, we are still fortunate
in being able to view Buddha statues, read Buddhist
scriptures, and meet with great spiritual friends; these
are known as the ever-abiding Triple Gem.
Of course what is most important about taking
refuge in the Triple Gem is to proceed from the everabiding
Triple Gem, which is then to be elevated to
the intrinsic Triple Gem. This so because the Triple
Gem is not merely akin to precious substances of
gold and silver on the outside, but more so the true
Buddha nature of purity on the inside. Only concerted
efforts at excavation and mining will produce
these precious gems.
Twenty-six hundred years ago when the
Buddha attained perfect enlightenment sitting on
the Diamond throne under the bodhi tree he said,
“Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the
Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize
it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.
This is telling us that the intrinsic nature
of each individual is already perfectly endowed with
the immeasurable merit of the Triple Gem. Thus,
everyone possesses the Buddha nature, which is
the precious Buddha gem; everybody possesses the
Dharma nature that is equal and non-discriminating,
which is the precious Dharma gem; and everybody
possesses a character that loves purity and harmony,
which is the precious Sangha gem. Therefore, the
real refuge in the Triple Gem is to take refuge in our
intrinsic Triple Gem.
Self, Other, and the Triple Gem
People will say: I’m such and such a person; I have
such and such a personality; I have such and such
a character. Yes, our character is different for every
one of us; even a microphone has its character, too.
Some microphones can be purchased for only $200
or $400, but then there are those that cost a fortune,
such as $30,000 or $60,000 for a single one. Naturally,
going from a few hundred dollars to several tens of
thousands of dollars means that the gap between their
capacities is huge.
The same things hold for people’s basic nature
as well. Some people can get up early and stay up
late, while others can get up early but lose energy late
in the evening. Some people can both eat and bear
being hungry, while others lack energy when their
stomachs are empty and are unable to do anything.
Some people can be idle or be busy, but then there
are some people who can be idle but not be busy, for
as soon as they become the slightest bit busy, they
start complaining they cannot take it. Some people
can do with or can do without, can be great or can be
small, or can advance or can retreat; and some can
accept honor and can also accept humiliation.
Actually, the Buddha’s teaching that “all the
living beings on earth possess the Buddha nature”
means that all living beings possess the capability
to attain Buddhahood. Everyone’s Buddha nature
will become much stronger after taking refuge in the
Triple Gem. And given that we all are able to attain
Buddhahood, what else is there that we cannot do? It
is just that everyone must have the courage to carry it
all the way through. Everybody is able to obtain benefits
only so long as you dare to utter “I am Buddha.”
Loudly saying “I am Buddha” in an earth-shaking
way enables one to obtain great benefits.
Before taking refuge we consider ourselves as
ordinary. After taking refuge in the Triple Gem, we
recognize ourselves as the Buddha in that we can be
the same as the Buddha. For example, having smoked
in the past, we will now think: Would Buddha hold
a cigarette between his lips like this? Having consumed
alcohol in the past, we will now think: Would
Buddha drink alcohol like this? Sometimes we might
quarrel and bicker with our family members, but now
we will quickly become mindful and think: Does
Buddha quarrel with people? If we will now always
think “I am Buddha” in all matters, then we will not
do bad things.
Nowadays, large numbers of people with all
manner of outstanding talents appear throughout the
world, but in my mind such things do not hold the
most importance. Every time a human being takes
the Triple Gem Refuge, there are that many more
Buddhas in the world. That and only that is the grandest
thing of all in the world!
Not yet having achieved liberation, it is very
important for us to pay homage to Buddha images,
because in the mind of a devout believer, the
Buddha statue sculpted in clay or carved in wood is
the Buddha. Once refuge is taken, we must come to
have faith in the law of cause and effect, and to believe
in the Dharma as a part of daily life. We should
also maintain a form of spiritual practice. Therefore,
taking refuge in the Triple Gem is nothing more that
availing ourselves of another power that can guide us
towards the recognition and affirmation of our sense
of self, then by relying upon our sense of self we
can actualize it, so what we can recover the intrinsic
Triple Gem that lies within our own minds.
Each and every one of us is like a precious mother-
lode of minerals, and taking refuge is mining that
mother-lode within our own minds. Not taking refuge
is the same as never having mined that motherlode
at all, making it impossible to take out any gold.
Therefore, just before his final nirvana, the Buddha
enjoined his disciples by saying:
Take refuge in oneself and in the Dharma,
and nothing else.
Herein lies the true meaning for how we can take
refuge in the intrinsic Triple Gem.
Furthermore, the Chan School stresses "do not
attach to seeking the Buddha; do not attach to seeking
the Dharma; and do not attach to seeking the
Sangha. You should seek nothing." This reflects the
concern that we will seek the Dharma outside of the
mind and that we will be unable to shoulder our responsibilities.
Thus the real refuge is represented by
taking refuge in the intrinsic Triple Gem.
There once was a devotee who asked a Chan
master, “We are supposed to take refuge in the intrinsic
Triple Gem. What is the intrinsic Triple Gem?”
“I can’t tell you until the stone tortoise speaks,”
the Chan master replied.
The devotee too considered himself quite adept
in the Chan School, and so he said, “The stone tortoise
The Chan master then countered, “Then what did
the stone tortoise say to you?”
The meaning here is that taking refuge in the intrinsic
Triple Gem is inexpressible, and what is expressed
is false. Taking refuge in the intrinsic Triple
Gem is therefore taking refuge in one’s own marvelous
intrinsic Triple Gem that is without partiality and
without form. This then is also the Triple Gem of
Our intrinsic Triple Gem remains unchanging
for all time and is always fresh across myriad eons.
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem gives one unsurpassed
merit. And the reason the Triple Gem is designated
as “precious gem” is because it retains the
following six significant characteristics:
- Rare: The precious treasures of the world are
unobtainable by the poor. The same holds true
for the Triple Gem as well, for living beings that
lack wholesome karma will not meet with it even
in a billion eons, hence the name precious gem.
- Free of defilement: The precious treasures of the
world are in essence unflawed and unstained. The
same holds true for the Triple Gem as well, for it
is free of all defilement like ignorance, delusion,
and contamination. It is the purest and brightest
of all, hence the name precious gem.
- Powerful: The precious treasures of the world are
so powerful they can eliminate poverty and bring
about cures for viruses. The same holds true for
the Triple Gem as well, for it is endowed with
awe-inspiring spiritual power, hence the name
- Glorifying: The precious treasures of the world
can glorify this world. The same holds true for
the Triple Gem as well, for it possesses immeasurable
undefiled merit that can glorify the supramundane
world, hence the name precious gem.
- Most supreme: The precious treasures of the
world are the most supremely excellent among
all other things. The same holds true for the
Triple Gem as well, for it is the supramundane
Dharma so undefiled, representing what is most
supremely excellent and unsurpassed, hence the
name precious gem.
- Immutable: The real gold of this world remains
unchanged in its innate character no matter how
it is heated, hammered, or tempered. The same
holds true for the Triple Gem as well, for since
it is undefiled Dharma, it remains unaffected by
the eight winds of praise, blame, defamation,
honor, gain, loss, pain, and pleasure. It is forever
constant and unmoved, hence the name precious
As for the importance of the Triple Gem, the
Buddha is like light, the Dharma is like water, and the
Sangha is like a field, none of which can be lacking,
for the three constitute the causes and conditions that
enable living beings to attain liberation. The Triple
Gem is also like a lamp on a dark night, a boat upon
the surging sea of suffering, and rain that falls upon a
burning house in flames. Taking refuge in the Triple
Gem is like building an electrical power company,
establishing a water supply plant, and developing a
plot of fertile land, all for the sake of one’s own life.
Besides confirming for oneself that one is a devout
Buddhist, the true meaning of “taking refuge” is
to be found in doing the following as a part of one’s
daily life: Be generous and joyful in giving to others;
be thankful and gracious towards the world; develop
contentment with respect to material needs; recognize
positive connections in dealing with matters;
and cultivate such things as industrious and thrifty
habits for life. It is by such means that one builds
wholesome Buddhist images.
In particular, one must apply the Dharma as the
standard for one’s physical and mental conduct after
taking refuge. Be resolute in faith and transformative
in moral character: transform past greed into joyous
giving; transform hatred into compassion; transform
laziness and indolence into perseverance and courage;
and transform negative pessimism into positive
optimism. Then take the next step by requesting
to undertake the Five Precepts, the Eight Precepts
Retreat, and so on, that pertain to the laity, in order
to elevate one’s own faith to a higher level and plant
bodhi seeds for enlightenment.
III. Democracy of the Heart
Let us now consider the meaning of the Triple Gem
Refuge in the context of Humanistic Buddhism. The
Triple Gem Refuge is the first step along the Buddhist
path. This first step actually reflects how Buddhism
and the idea of modern democracy reach across the
vast span of time.
In Buddhism, by taking refuge in the Triple
Gem, we assert that all living beings on earth possess
the Buddha nature—everybody is Buddha. This
is equivalent to modern politics in a democracy
where the people rule; anyone can become president,
because the president is chosen by the people in a
general election. In Buddhism, anyone can become a
Buddha. In Buddhism undertaking and observing the
Five Precepts, which is the second step, expresses
the spirit of freedom in the precepts, because people
who have undertaken the precepts will not be violating
others. As long as they can discipline themselves,
they will not be breaking the laws of the secular state
either. So the sanction and restraint of the law will
not be imposed upon them, and they can thus enjoy a
free and independent life. This is why the Triple Gem
Refuge and Five Precepts then actually are akin to
today’s ideas of democracy and freedom.
Not only is Buddhism adapting to the times, it
also transcends them. It has taken thousands of years
for the world to slowly advance to the modern age of
freedom and democracy, but the Triple Refuge and
Five Precepts promoted by the Buddha had already
expressed the spirit of freedom and democracy more
than twenty-five hundred years earlier.
In the Triple Gem Refuge ceremony, we take
refuge in the Buddha, but what is the point of the
Buddha having us take refuge in him? The real taking
of refuge in the Triple Gem is actually to take
refuge in oneself, to recognize oneself, and to discover
oneself. All along we have been in the world
like walking corpses, totally ignorant of where we
came from in birth and where we will go in death. A
I was lost in oblivion
when the Buddha was in the world
and appeared in this world
after the Buddha’s parinirvana.
I repent for all my many karmic obstacles,
that stopped me from seeing
the Buddha’s glorious body.
After taking refuge in the Triple Gem, each one
of us can suddenly discover that “I am Buddha,” that
we each possess the same wisdom and compassion
as the Buddha, and the same limitless potential. Each
one of us is also the same as the Buddha in his suchness
and intrinsic nature. By relying upon the faith
of taking refuge in the Triple Gem, each one of us
can be elevated to a oneness and equality with the
Buddha. Isn’t that something quite incomparably
In regards to the advantages of taking refuge in
the Triple Gem,
Taking refuge in the Buddha means
one will not fall into the hell realm;
taking refuge in the Dharma means
one will not fall into the animal realm;
and taking refuge in the Sangha means
one will not fall into the hungry ghost
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem strikes one’s
name from the negative realms and confers one’s
share in the human and heavenly realms. This is
why taking refuge in the Triple Gem is so precious.
Taking refuge in the precious gem of the Buddha is
lighting the lamp of one’s spirit; that is like a single
lamp illuminating a room left in darkness for a thousand
years. Taking refuge in the precious gem of the
Dharma is opening up the source of flowing water;
once the source is open, the water of life will naturally
flow forth continuously. Taking refuge in the precious
gem of the Sangha is planting in our own field
of merit. As long as these precious gems are present,
our field of merit will always be able to grow positive
karmic rewards for us.
In taking refuge in the Triple Gem we must certainly
understand the following clearly: As for taking
refuge in the Buddha nature, the Buddha’s existence
can be historically documented; he was born and
raised by his parents, attained realization through
spiritual cultivation, and has the power to liberate
from suffering. As for taking refuge in the Dharma
nature, the Dharma is eternal truth that is universally
applicable, operates as an inevitable standard, and
is characterized by equality. In taking refuge in the
Sangha, “sangha” means harmonious community
in which people conduct themselves in accordance
with this fourfold manner: peacefully, harmoniously,
compatibly, and happily. All living beings are, thus,
able to experience oneness and coexistence.
After taking refuge in the Triple Gem we must
work hard to protect and nurture these beginnings
of the faith that we have generated, just like one
watches over new seedlings. One thing we can do
is to recite the Heart Sutra12 every day. Maintaining
our practice with consistency helps us to develop our
The Triple Gem Refuge represents the motivating
force for the purification of society. Taking refuge
in the Triple Gem, along with undertaking the
Five Precepts, constitutes the highest spirit for implementing
freedom and democracy. Taking refuge
in the Triple Gem is an act of respecting ourselves
and affirming our own Buddha nature. Taking refuge
in the Triple Gem represents democracy. Most of all,
taking refuge in the Triple Gem is taking refuge in
our own hopes of fulfilling the potential of our wonderful
(Excerpted from Buddha's Light Publishing: Buddhism in Every Step booklet #42 )
- The Nirvana Sutra states that (1) their clothes
become soiled, (2) the flowers on their heads
wither, (3) their bodies become dirty and smell
bad, (4) they sweat under the armpits, and (5)
they do not feel happy, wherever they may be.
- The Way to Buddhahood 成佛之道 (chengfo zhi
dao). An important work in Mahayana Buddhism
by the 20th century Chinese master Yinshun
- Four Noble Truths. The truth that the Buddha
taught about suffering which states (l) that there
is a mass of suffering in this world, (2) that this
suffering is caused by ignorance, greed, and anger,
(3) that it is possible for this suffering to
cease with the tranquility of nirvana, and (4) that
there is a path to the cessation of suffering.
- Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. The
Buddhist analysis of the causes and conditions
which lead to life. Each link in the chain is the
cause that gives rise to the next link, and each
link can be broken by removing the link preceding
it. The twelve links are (1) ignorance, (2)
mental formations, (3) consciousness, (4) name
and form, (5) the six sense organs, (6) contact,
(7) feeling, (8) craving, (9) clinging, (10) becoming,
(11) birth, and (12) aging and death.
- Noble Eightfold Path. The path leading to the
cessation of suffering. The eight components are
right view, right thought, right speech, right action,
right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness,
and right meditative concentration.
- The Three Dharma Seals are laws of the universe
and of human life that apply to all things
universally and equally, and are eternal, certain,
transcendent, and confirmable. The Three
Dharma Seals are (1) all conditioned phenomena
are impermanent, (2) all phenomena are without
an independent self, and (3) nirvana is perfect
- Twelve Divisions of the Buddhist Canons. The
divisions constitute twelve ways in which the
Buddhist scriptural texts are categorized in terms
of narrative format and content, and they are
(1) prose narrative, (2) repetition in verse, (3)
detached verse, (4) parables and allegories, (5)
causes and conditions, (6) impromptu statements,
(7) past lives of the Buddha, (8) past events, (9)
wonders and miracles, (10) universal meaning,
(11) discussion and debate, and (12) predictions
- Eight Classes of Heavenly Beings. Originally
drawn from India’s mythology, they are (1) deva,
(2) naga, (3) yaksha, (4) gandharva, (5) asura, (6)
garuda, (7) kimnara, and (8) mahoraga.
- Sutra on the Marvelous Incomparable Virtue as
Spoken by the Buddha. A Mahayana Buddhism
sutra known in Chinese as 佛說希有較量功德
經 (foshuo xiyou jiaoliang gongde jing).
- Eight Precepts. These include the Five Precepts
plus additional precepts to refrain from eating at
inappropriate times, attending performances of
music and dance, wearing perfumes, and sleeping
in luxurious beds. The Eight Precepts are
typically taken by laypeople on retreat or when
they wish to sample monastic life for a short time.
Some lay Buddhists will take the eight precepts
on certain special days throughout the year.
- Dragon-Flower Assemblies of Maitreya Bodhisattva.
As predicted by Sakyamuni Buddha,
Maitreya Bodhisattva will descend and appear
in our world, then attain Buddhahood under the
Dragon-flower tree and preach the Dharma in
three assemblies, known as the Three Dragon-
- Heart Sutra (般若波羅蜜多心經,bore bolomiduo
xin jing). An essential sutra from the
Perfection of Wisdom group of sutras; known in
Sanskrit as the Prajnaparamita-hrdaya-sutra.