Instructions Preceding the Ceremony of Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels
Namo Amitabha Buddha (three times)!
Good men and women: Before the ceremony begins, let me explain to you the purpose and meaning of taking refuge in the Three Jewels with seven points.
First, why do we “take refuge”? There are two paths in life: mundane and transcendental.
What is the path of mundane life? It is one that places central value on family and a physical body, which requires food, clothing, shelter, transportation, fame, and wealth.
What is the path of transcendental life? It means having faith in Amitabha Buddha, reciting his name, and attaining eternal peace and happiness. Our true life is not this body of flesh and blood, but spiritual consciousness, our Buddha nature, and Dharmakaya, which is the life of wisdom. How do we live our transcendental life? As mentioned before, it is simply believing in Amitabha, reciting his name, and having eternal peace and happiness. Believing in Amitabha Buddha and reciting his name will lead to rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, forever freeing us from suffering in the six realms of samsara. Why? All beings, except those who have entered sagehood (Arahats, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas), are still in the six realms, thereby undergoing the cycle of birth and death, the essence of which is suffering.
It doesn’t matter whether we reside in the three evil realms of complete suffering, the realms of heavens, or the human world, because in the end, we will all suffer anyways. The human world is accompanied by both happiness and afflictions. On the other hand, heaven itself offers pure happiness without suffering, but when a heavenly being’s life reaches the end, the five characteristics of decay appear, after which he or she often will descend into the three evil realms. This is because heaven is mainly to enjoy the karmic rewards of past lives; once those rewards are depleted, the beings will be reborn in other realms. However, in the human world, there are still opportunities for spiritual cultivation.
Therefore, we must first have faith and, hence, take refuge.
Second, what is meant by “taking refuge”? It means to “submit ourselves to” and “rely on,” which will be explained later.
Third, what is meant by the “Three Jewels”? They are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Therefore, “taking refuge in the Three Jewels” means to surrender our bodies, minds, and lives to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. In other words, we put our faith only in the Three Jewels such that our lives depend on them.
Fourth, to take refuge in the Three Jewels is to take refuge in their entirety. Some people think: I am taking refuge only in a certain master; does that count? No. Or some people think: what if I take refuge in a particular monastery, does that count? That does not truly count either.
The phrase “taking refuge in the Three Jewels” is to take refuge in the entirety of the Three Jewels, NOT a certain monk or monastery. If that were the case, it would not be enough. Why? How can we rely on a specific monk or monastery to eliminate our disasters, increase our merit, and even prevent us from falling into the three evil realms in our next life?
Therefore, everyone must have a correct understanding: Today, I am here to accept taking refuge in the entire Three Jewels, whose merits I want to receive, not just a single part, such as a certain monastery or master. Everyone should be clear about this.
Fifth, everyone can take refuge. It brings only benefits and no harm, so there is nothing to lose.
Some people might worry: Oh, I have to be a vegetarian in order to take refuge, but I’m not, so I can’t. On the contrary, taking refuge is only the first step and, thus, can be done regardless of whether or not one is a vegetarian.
Some people may think that upon taking refuge, one must keep the precepts. In fact, as stated before, taking refuge is just the first step, while the precepts, such as the five basic ones, the eight precepts, and even the Bodhisattva precepts, are additional steps forward. Of course, you must take refuge in the Three Jewels prior to observing any precepts, not vice-versa.
Also, some people think they cannot take refuge if they do not understand Buddhist teachings. It does not matter; just take refuge first, and then try to study little by little.
Others believe that if their daily work involves taking the lives of animals, they are not qualified to take refuge as it seems to pollute Buddhism. This does not matter either. On the contrary, even though killing creates karmic offenses, taking refuge can at least eliminate some of them and sow the seeds to prevent falling into the three evil realms in the future.
Of course, we needn’t worry about our bad temper or behavior, which has little to do with taking refuge.
Some people think: I promise to take refuge in the Three Jewels in front of the Buddha, but I’m afraid that I will be punished if I change my mind in the future. You won’t be, since taking refuge brings forth only merits. If one day you renounce refuge, you will merely lose those merits, not be struck by the five thunder gods on the head as rumored in folklore or subject to other penalties.
Therefore, taking refuge in Buddhism has no taboos or negative effects so that everyone can do. Even if one day you regretted and don’t want to take refuge anymore, at most, you lose the merit which prevents you from otherwise falling into the three evil realms.
Sixth, taking refuge must be done sincerely. Some people think: I must have money to take refuge, so what should I do if I don’t? Neither red envelopes nor offerings are required; all you need to have is sincerity.
There is the slang phrase “the dumb burns incense”; what does it mean? We can recite sutras, sing praises, and say prayers before the Buddha. Although the dumb person cannot do any of these things, he sincerely and reverently worships the Buddha, who knows the states of all our hearts and minds, as the saying, “Buddha knows our minds,” goes. A sincere mind gains merit, whereas one with mere, heartless formality cannot.
Seventh, taking refuge, as an analogy, is asking for rescue. The Buddha used a metaphor to illustrate its meaning in The Sutra of Great Repayment of Grace. A man has offended his country’s king, who wants him arrested and beheaded. How can he be free from such troubles? A wise person told him that he can take refuge in the neighboring country because their king is charitable and can protect him. So this man went to the neighboring country, and its king said to him: “As long as you remain in my country and obey the law, I can protect you and provide lifelong safety, which will prevent you from being killed.” This is Sakyamuni Buddha’s metaphor for taking refuge.
The metaphor states that all of us in the evil realms of the five turbidities have offended the devil of life and death. Why? Because of our greed, hatred, and ignorance, as well as wrong thoughts and evil actions. Offending the devil of life and death is equivalent to committing the crime punishable by beheading and becoming stuck in the cycle of birth and death forever. Now that we take refuge in and rely on the Three Jewels’ compassion, love, and meritorious power, we will no longer fall into the three evil realms in the next life. This is also the reason and importance of taking refuge.
What is this heart of taking refuge? A sincere heart, which can be illustrated with another analogy.
A man falls into the open sea and is swept away by the waves. Surrounded by water and on the brink of death, he becomes terrified. At this moment, if he sees even a bunch of floating grasses or sea reefs, he will immediately reach out and grab them. If he hears the wind or birds chirping, he will cry out for help to see if anyone is coming to rescue him. His only thought is that of asking for help, which can be considered very sincere. At this time, if a ship comes by and throws down the rope or lifeboat, he will immediately reach out and grab it, just like he would the floating grasses or sea reefs, and try his best to climb onboard. Our sincerity in taking refuge is like this mindset of solely seeking help after falling into the sea. Taking refuge with this kind of sincerity will reap us the supreme merit to the fullest.
(Translated and edited by the Pure Land School Translation Team)
Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings