How do you become a Buddhist? Is it complicated? Well no, actually, it can be very simple. In some traditions all you need to do is take the three refuges, these being the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is of course the Buddha himself, the Dhamma is the teachings, and the Sangha is the community of monastics and lay practitioners. In the tradition of Buddhism that I practice there is no formal ceremony such as a Bodhisattva vow, a baptism, or a pledge to take to signify that you are now a Buddhist. To become a Buddhist you simply take the three refuges using these words –
Buddham saranam gacchami, Dhammam saranam gacchami, Sangham saranam gacchami
To the Buddha I go for refuge, to the Dhamma I go for refuge, to the Sangha I go for refuge.
That’s it, that’s all you do. It doesn’t have to be public, and you don’t even need to say it out loud, you can just make an intention to yourself to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha from this point onwards.Sometimes the mind can find this lack of formality off putting, but I really like how much emphasis it puts on you making your own personal decision to take on the practice of Buddhism, to decide when that time is right for you, and how it underpins right from your very first action as a Buddhist that your focus should be on your own inner world and your intentions.
But what does taking refuge mean? It’s a phrase that doesn’t translate without a bit of unpacking. At the time of the Buddha to take refuge in someone was simply the way you expressed that you followed a person’s teachings, so saying you took refuge in the Buddha was a way of saying you were one of his followers. So at the simplest level when we take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha, we are saying we follow their teachings. And to some extent you could just leave it at that because it is factually correct. But a deeper examination of the refuges will show us the full richness of what they have to offer us in terms of guidance, development, and protection from going off the path.
Understanding the refuges can take a lot of work. If you go to the temple for puja then you can chant the refuges every week but just reciting them won’t deepen your understanding or connection to them in any way. Like so much of Buddhist practice deliberately picking up and working with an idea is crucial to help to understand it in your own way, to make a deep personal connection to it. You can read books, listen to talks, or even read this blog, and these are ways that will help you to understand; but it is only when you take that information and process it internally that you will come to understand it for yourself through your own direct experience.
My experience of the refuges has been very much like this. Talking and reading about the refuges only gave me a superficial, intellectual understanding of them. I would recite the words of the chant every week but was always wondering what I was supposed to understand from them. I would hear the monastics talking about them with heart felt enthusiasm about how important they were, but still I didn’t see why. But as I practiced more I eventually got a direct experience of how the three refuges worked in action, and then little by little came to understand why they, and not any of the other teachings, were the defining feature of Buddhist practice.
The process happened for me like this. Sometimes in my practice when I don’t fully understand a teaching I work with it on a linguistic level. I try to find words to describe it that make sense to me, and I know when I have found them because they really resonate with me, either in my heart, mind, or both. When you bear in mind that all the words we use in English when we talk about Buddhist ideas are all translations from the original language of the texts then this is a useful thing to do. Different translators use different words for the same original Pali word, so none of the words we use are set in stone nor are they fully direct translations of the original.
For many nowadays refuge means a hideaway, a safe place, somewhere to get away from the world, but when I applied this idea to the refuges it didn’t resonate with me. For me the practice is about being able to live fully in the world with no need for escape, so it didn’t make sense to me to think of the refuges as a place to hide from the world. But it make me think about it in another way; instead of a place to go, somewhere, what about if it was more like someone to go to, someone to turn to?
So I considered the refuges in this way: who can I turn to when I don’t know what to do? To the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Who can I trust to give me the right information when I don’t know what to do? The Buddha the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Using this idea I investigated if this way of thinking about the refuges could be applied in real life, and if it would help me to make a better connection to this practice. It did, when I thought about the refuges like this I changed the way I dealt with issues that came up for me. If I had a problem I would ask myself if there was a teaching that related to it, if the Buddha had said anything about it, if the Sangha had given advice on it, or if there was no direct teachings I would think about how this problem could be understood from a Buddhist perspective. In this way using the refuges as my sources of guidance gave me great comfort, because I realised that I didn’t have to wonder what to do anymore, whatever the situation, because I always had the wisdom and kindness of the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha to turn to.
What though does turning to the Buddha mean in real terms? How can he tell us what the right thing to do is? In Theravadan tradition the Buddha isn’t thought of as a divine entity that you can pray to, or ask for help, so instead our guidance comes by looking at the example that the Buddha gave us through his own practice and behaviour. We can recall his words on a subject, or we can think about the stories that were told about him. We can think about the stories he told us about his own life, both when he was a prince and when he was a monk, and the lessons he learnt from his own practice. We can ask ourselves what did he do, what did he say, or what would he do in this situation? Or maybe we can even think about how we want to resolve our problem and imagine if the Buddha would do the same. If you take some time to read the suttas you quickly get an idea of how the Buddha was as a person and it can be easy to imagine if he would ever do something in a particular way.
We can get guidance from the Dhamma in two ways; firstly the Dhamma as the teachings, the texts themselves. We can read them when faced with a dilemma if there is a teaching that covers the issue. Or we can read them just for inspiration, simply to lift our spirits while we seek a solution. Sometimes the best response to a situation is to not respond, and the teachings can help us to clear our heads when we are upset. Secondly we can take guidance from the Dhamma in the other meaning of the word, dhamma with a small d, which means phenomena at their basic level. Sometimes we need to immerse ourselves fully in experience at the level of just phenomena and sensation to cut through the confusion. Doing this gives us the opportunity to respond differently and in ways that will be more beneficial for us. For example you get into an argument with someone and your mind gets caught up on trying to win the argument, but when you turn to the dhamma, what is actually happening at the most basic level, you realise that what is really happening is you are feeling angry and you want that feeling to stop. You arguing is you trying to get it to stop by getting the other person to give up, when really the wise way to make it stop is to recognise that your actions are being driven by your attempt to end the discomfort. With this piece of information you can change how you feel about the discomfort, and you can focus on more important things like are you acting with care towards the person you are arguing with or are you acting with hate?
We can get guidance from the Sangha quite directly, we can literally go and talk to them when we don’t know what to do and ask them for instruction or advice. This doesn’t just include the monks and the nuns, but also our well practiced friends among the lay community too. We can learn from their own teachings, and like the Buddha we can learn from their personal examples too, of how to live wisely and delicately in the world. Many of them are incredible role models, and even just spending some time in their gentle company can soothe a busy mind enough to find a wiser solution to a problem.
What really makes the refuges such a significant step in your Buddhist practice is that it marks the point when you turn away from the world and turn towards the practice – when you really start to go against the stream. Ordinarily if we have questions we might read a book by an expert, or watch a tv show or YouTube video, or maybe read a blog, a magazine, or ask our friends. We probably use these same resources if we have a problem in our life. We might though just turn on the tv, and have a few glasses of wine. This is still taking a refuge, but instead of asking for advice to deal with your problems you deal with your problems by escaping or forgetting about them. So we all take refuge in something, but the refuges we normally take are in worldly solutions, which isn’t a problem if you aren’t trying to develop a spiritual practice. But if we have set our intention on following a practice then we need to understand that we can no longer find the right kind of advice to support that practice out in the ordinary world and the usual solutions. So for a Buddhist instead of going to the world for solutions you go to the teachings and the practice; you go to the Buddha , the Dhamma, and the Sangha. The world is left behind. By this action, using the example and teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha as your as your exclusive points of reference, you will be led away from your usual worldly responses and towards ones guided by clear-headedness, compassion, and wisdom. The three refuges become like your compass, always pointing in the right direction; and by resolving to follow their guidance you will never need to fear straying too far from the path.