Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Once we understand the three principal realizations of the pathdetermination to be free from difficulties, cherishing all beings, & realization of emptiness—we'll want to take refuge in a guide who can show us the way.

The Three Jewels of refuge are:

  • The Buddhas—all beings who have attained enlightenment
  • The Dharma—the realizations & teachings that lead us to liberation
  • The Sangha—all those who have actualized this liberating wisdom by realizing emptiness directly

Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is the gateway to enter the path. Taking refuge means:

  • Taking responsibility for our own experience; only we can transform our attitudes & actions
  • Turning to the Three Jewels for guidance with the confidence that we can improve and with trust that they will guide us in the right direction

The Three Jewels

What makes the Three Jewels reliable objects of refuge?

  • The Buddhas have completed the entire path to enlightenment and thus can show us the way.
    • They have infinite, impartial compassion for all beings, so we can be assured of their continual help.
    • They can guide, inspire & teach us, but we are the only ones who can control our thoughts, words & deeds.
    • We must open our minds to their guidance by remedying our attachment, anger & closed-mindedness.
  • The Dharma ("that which sustains us") refers to:
    • Realizations of the path, especially the wisdom directly realizing emptiness
    • Cessations of all sufferings & their causes, brought about by these realizations
    • Teachings of the Buddha that show us the way to actualize the realizations & cessations
  • The Sangha includes all those who have directly realized emptiness.
    • They are reliable friends who encourage & accompany us on the path.
    • Sangha incudes arhats & bodhisattvas who have directly realized emptiness.
    • More commonly, "sangha" refers to monastics who have dedicated their lives to actualizing the Dharma, though they may not yet have attained realizations.

Why Take Refuge?

We turn to the Three Jewels for refuge because of our:

  • Dread of continuing with the present unhappiness of our disturbing attitudes, fear of an unfortunate rebirth, and dread of being trapped in cyclic existence
  • Confidence in the abilities of the Three Jewels to guide us
  • Compassion for all living beings who are in the same situation we are

Confidence vs. Blind Faith

Blind faith is not cultivated in Buddhism. Instead, we cultivate confidence in the Three Jewels by learning about them and then trusting their abilities to guide us.

Three kinds of constructive faith or confidence are developed in Buddhist practice:

  • Convinced confidence arises from understanding, reason & experience, thus it's firm & valid.
    • Ex: We learn about disturbing attitudes & techniques to overcome them, we test it in our own experience, and we become convinced that it is necessary & possible to eliminate the disturbing attitudes.
  • Aspiring confidence gives us enthusiasm for practice, so that we'll aspire to become Buddhas.
    • Ex: We read about the benefits of a kind heart & observe the wonderful effects altruistic people have upon the world. We then aspire to increase our own love & compassion.
  • Admiring or clear confidence makes our minds joyful by focusing on others' good qualities (i.e., admiring them) and rejoicing.
    • Ex: We learn about the impartial compassion & penetrating wisdom of the bodhisattvas & Buddhas and admire them with a happy heart.

Confidence in the Buddhas, Dharma & Sangha makes our hearts peaceful & gives direction to our lives.

  • In Buddhism, faith or confidence is developed slowly and arises through knowledge & understanding.
  • We discern through our own experience that the guidance offered by the Three Jewels resolves our unsatisfactory situations.
  • Thus, taking refuge involves taking responsibility for our own experience, as well as relying on the guidance, instruction & inspiration of those who can show us how to transform our minds.

The Analogy of Doctor, Medicine and Nurse

Refuge is like the doctor, medicine & nurse a sick person relies upon to be cured.

  • We're like a sick person because we're afflicted with many unsatisfactory situations in this & future lives.
  • We consult a qualified doctor, the Buddha, who diagnoses the cause of our illness: the disturbing attitudes & the confused actions we've done under their influence.
  • He prescribes the medicine of the Dharma, the teachings on how to gain the realizations & cessations leading to enlightenment. We have to practice the teachings to attain the result.
  • The Sangha are like the nurses who help us take the medicine.

For the benefit of everyone, it's wiser to form friendships with people who live ethically & value self-cultivation. We can still mentally have equal love & compassion for everyone, but remain physically near those who influence us positively.

The Refuge Ceremony

By taking refuge, we're making a firm statement to ourselves & to the holy beings that we'll take a beneficial direction in life.

In the Tibetan tradition, this verse of taking refuge & generating the altruistic intention is recited in the morning upon awakening and before all meditation sessions:

I go for refuge, until I am enlightened, to the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. By the positive potential I create by practicing generosity and the other far-reaching attitudes (ethics, patience, joyous effort, meditative stabilization and wisdom), may I attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all beings.

After Taking Refuge

Once we've taken refuge, we follow the instructions of the Buddha.

  • His first instruction is to observe the law of cause & effect (or karma & its effects).
  • The lower realms of cyclic existence and our rebirth there are all created by our karma, which is why we need to be careful about what we say, think, feel & do.

Refuge is a very important part of our practice.

  • All our meditations, rituals, etc. start with refuge & bodhicitta.
  • When we take refuge, we're making very clear in our own minds what our spiritual direction is in life and whom we're relying upon to guide us in the right direction.

Realize that before taking refuge in the Three Jewels, we have already been taking refuge in all sorts of other things we thought were going to lead us to happiness.

  • We keep taking refuge in things that are external to us, things that are impermanent & constantly changing. Thus they can't possibly provide us with stable security or lasting happiness, let alone benefit other sentient beings.
  • These things are produced under the influence of afflictions & karma, just as our own aggregates are. They simply don't have it in them to lead us to security & happiness.
  • In contrast, the Three Jewels are not produced under the influence of the afflictions & karma. In fact, the Buddha, the Dharma & the Sangha are the true path & the cessations arise under their influence. Being sustained by wisdom & compassion, they have the ability to guide us to the kind of happiness that we want, so that's why we take refuge in them.