We can think of the Buddha’s teaching as a building with its own foundation, stories, stairs and roof. Like any other building, the teaching also has a door, and to enter it we have to enter through this door. The door of entrance to the Buddha’s teaching is the going for refuge to the Triple Gem: to the Buddha as the fully enlightened teacher, to the Dhamma as the truth and path taught by him, and to the Sangha as the community of his noble disciples. From ancient times to the present, the going for refuge has served as the entrance to the path, giving admission to the rest of the teaching from its basement to its pinnacle. All those in the past who embraced the Buddha’s teaching did so by passing through the door of taking refuge, and anyone today who wants to follow the teaching should make the same threefold affirmation:
Buddham saranam gacchami I go for refuge to the Buddha;
Dhammam saranam gacchami I go for refuge to the Dhamma;
Sangham saranam gacchami I go for refuge to the Sangha.
If you sincerely wish to follow the Buddha’s teaching, it is best to do so by undergoing this ancient ritual and receiving the three refuges from a qualified Buddhist teacher. When you are convinced that you want to commit yourself to the Buddhist path, you should discuss your intentions with your teacher and fix a day for the ceremony. When the auspicious day arrives, you should come to the monastery or center, bringing such offerings as incense, fruit and flowers and a small gift for the teacher. After making the offerings, with joined palms, you should bow down three times before the image of the Buddha, thereby paying respects to the Three Jewels. Then, kneeling in front of the shrine, you should request the refuges. The teacher will recite each line of the formula and ask you to repeat each line. The procedure is repeated three times.
Following the declaration of the refuges, the teacher will usually administer the Five Precepts, the ethical code of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech and intoxicants.
The ritual of going for refuge, if sincerely undertaken, is not a blind and empty convention but the outward expression of an inner, spiritual process by which we commit ourselves to the Triple Gem as our supreme resort. By inwardly turning to the Triple Gem, the going for refuge becomes an act of self-surrender. Simultaneously, we drop our defenses before the objects of refuge and open ourselves to their capacity to help, to guide us to release from confusion, turmoil and pain.
The going for refuge should not be an event that occurs only once and then fades into the background of our lives. This little ritual is in reality a method of cultivation, a practice that should be undertaken regularly. The act is a complex process involving intelligence, volition and emotion. First, as an act of intelligence, the going for refuge is guided by a clear understanding that protects us from the dangers of dogmatism and blind emotion. The faculty of intelligence steers the act of refuge toward the realization of its inner urge for liberation. It distinguishes the goal from any distractions and prevents us from wandering in pursuit of futile ends. The faculty of intelligence involved in taking refuge comprehends the basic unsatisfactoriness of life, our vulnerability to suffering. We further see that the cause of our suffering lies within ourselves—in our clinging, craving and delusion—and that to win freedom from suffering we must follow a course of practice that can effectively extinguish its causes. The growth of understanding brings a deeper commitment to the refuges, and the deepening of the inner refuge facilitates the growth of understanding.
The going for refuge is secondly an act of volition, a free act reflecting a personal decision. The ritual, if done mindfully, radically reorients the will. It brings about a harmonization of values, which now converge on the fundamental aspiration for awakening and liberation as the chief purpose guiding one’s life. Before refuge is taken, the will tends to move outwardly, pushing to extend the bounds of self-identity. We seek to gain increasing territory for the self, to widen the range of ownership, control and domination. With the act of taking refuge, this pattern is undermined and reversed. Our will starts to move in the opposite direction, toward renunciation and detachment. We see that true liberation lies not in the extension of the ego to the limits of infinity but in the utter abolition of the ego-delusion at its base. We thus begin to relinquish the objects of clinging and the notions of “I” and “mine” from which attachment originates.
The third aspect of going for refuge is the emotional. The emotions entering into the refuge ritual are principally three: confidence, reverence and love. Confidence (pasada) is a feeling of serene trust in the protective power of the refuge-objects based on a clear understanding of their qualities and functions. Confidence gives rise to reverence (garava)—esteem and veneration born from a growing awareness of the lofty nature of the Triple Gem. As we experience the transforming effect of the Dhamma in our lives, reverence awakens love (pema), which adds the element of warmth and fervor to the spiritual life. Love kindles the flame of devotion, which is expressed in dedicated service by which we seek to extend the protection of the threefold refuge to others and share with them its potential for wisdom and liberation.