The ceremony for becoming a Buddhist consists of “taking refuge” in the Three Treasures – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. While expressing one’s commitment to the Buddha-dharma – a commitment that can embrace many lifetimes given the Buddhist belief in rebirth – essentially one takes refuge in the Buddha as example, the Dharma as path, and Sangha as monastics and Buddhist community.
Master Cheng Yen shares her insight about this important spiritual milestone:
I’ve always felt that the meaning behind taking refuge is more important than the ceremony itself, and I always tell people that such a ceremony is not about joining a certain religion. Religion, in my perspective, is not so much a set of beliefs or dogma, but a kind of education. This education leads us to discover life’s true purpose and meaning, and teaches us about life and living.
Our true nature is very pure, like a clean sheet of paper. Over time, our sheet of paper came to be filled with many scribbles as we developed selfish desires and illusions. Our hearts became tainted and we came to lose sight of what life is really about. In “taking refuge,” we’re choosing to break from this pattern and to embark on a new path, a path to recover our pure heart, and to return to our true nature.
When we take refuge in Buddhism, we’re choosing to follow in the steps of the Buddha and to learn from his example. Buddha means “Enlightened One” in Sanskrit. The Buddha is a being who has reached full awakening. He has come to comprehend the workings of the universe and all its deep, subtle, and profound laws. Upon enlightenment, however, the first thing the Buddha realized was that all living beings possess this same potential for Enlightenment. He said that all of us have Buddha nature and are capable of the same wisdom, insight, and awakening as he. Our goal then is to emulate him and walk on the path to enlightenment that he has illuminated for us.
The Buddha’s heart is all-embracing and full of true love for all living beings—a pure love characterized by loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity [the Four Immeasurables]. With this love, the Buddha dedicates himself to guiding all living beings. As disciples of the Buddha, we too dedicate ourselves to the good of all humanity and strive to live out his spirit of compassion and awakening. This is a lifelong endeavor and the learning is never-ending. This is taking refuge in the Buddha.
Taking refuge in the Dharma is about turning our hearts and minds to the Dharma, the true principles of the universe. In his years of teaching, the Buddha has explained and elucidated many of these principles for us. These are deep and profound and we should be very mindful in learning them.
Today, we have the teachings in the form of written texts, called sutras. But, as they are written in classical language, it is very difficult for people of our day to understand them. That is why we need to take refuge in the Sangha—the monastic community who continue the Buddha’s legacy. The monastics dedicate themselves to deeply understanding the teachings, then making them useful and applicable to our world and our lives. They do this so that the teachings may be of benefit to this world and to humankind.
This is to take refuge in Buddhism—taking refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. By taking refuge, we come to discover life’s true purpose and learn how to live in this world so that we can recover our pure original nature and live out the value of our precious human life. This is the true meaning of “religion”.
Along the Tzu Chi Buddhist Path, taking refuge includes vows, as expressed in the verses of Refuge in the Three Treasures that one can recite.
The section in italics consists of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks.