Dragon's Gate Temple Library

"Ti-Sarana", the Three Refuges

The Three Refuges, or "taking refuge", is how you formally become a Buddhist. Notice I say "formally". You can be Buddhist by trying to learn Buddhism and apply it to your own life. Without doing that, formally joining won't do you a damn bit of good. But for those of us who haven't yet gotten over attachment to the idea of a "self", an aid to a more Buddhistic self-image like this can really help us practice more consistently.

When the Buddha organized the Sangha (the monks and nuns) in India, He used the legal form of adoption, taking the monks and nuns into his own family. This meant, for a start, that the whole question of caste was bypassed. Buddhism has always worked against race or class discrimination.

In being adopted, the tradition was to take on a new name. This is still done when taking refuge. Usually the name is something meaningful, a phrase from the Sutras, the name of some master or teacher, a practice or quality you want to develop, etc. It is often in the language of whatever country your tradition is from- Japanese, Chinese, Pali, Sanskrit or whatever. Some Temples assign you a name, others (like us) let you to choose your own. Monks and nuns use their Buddhist name exclusively. Other groups like the Buddhist Churches of America, groups with ministers rather than monks, often use it as a middle name. That's what I do. Many laypersons just keep it put away in a drawer somewhere and hardly ever mention it. It's up to you.

Incidentally, when people joined the Buddha's family, they were legally considered to have been newly born into it, so no matter what their age before, all those who had already been members were considered their elders, and anyone who joined later their juniors. The Buddha invented seniority based on time in rank! A bit of historical trivia there.

Since most people were illiterate in the Buddha's day, the agreement of joining was a spoken ritual rather than a written contract. To make it binding in Indian law, you had to state your intention three times- the equivalent of signing here and here and initialing there. So the Buddha had people who wanted to join repeat, three times through,

"I go to the Buddha for refuge,

"I go to the Dharma for refuge,

I go to the Sangha for refuge"

That's really the heart of it. The rest- bowing, burning incense, chanting- is just trimmings- useful for other things, but they don't make you more of a member.

Most Buddhist groups will offer this ceremony. If you can't find a local group, we can do it over the internet, but try to find a local group first. Face-to-face always has more impact.

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