Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

How do you become a Buddhist?

Katinka Hesselink 2006, 2014

Buddhism is not a membership religion. This means that you can, in practice, start calling yourself a Buddhist as soon as you feel like one. However, traditionally, the way to signal to the community that you are in fact a Buddhist is to take refuge in the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, also known as the triple gem or the three jewels.

The crucial points here are that:

  1. You take on the Buddhist path as your central spiritual practice for the rest of your life
  2. You refrain from praying to other god(s) for gaining ultimate enlightenment and release from suffering.

The central spiritual practice in Buddhism doesn't have to be more than to abstain from hurting other beings (killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct etc). However, many lay Buddhists take on the Lay Vows when taking refuge as well. In many traditions people who have taken refuge officially, i.e. in front of a Buddhist official (usually a monk or nun), will take on the practice of taking refuge daily.

Thus, in many Buddhist communities, a Pali chant, the Vandana Ti-sarana is often recited by both monks and lay people. It means the following:

  • Buddham saranam gacchāmi
    I go for refuge in the Buddha
  • Dhammam saranam gacchāmi
    I go for refuge in the Dharma
  • Sangham saranam gacchāmi
    I go for refuge in the Sangha

The Japanese / Chinese version means something only slightly different:

  • I take refuge in the Buddha, wishing for all sentient beings to understand the great way and make the greatest vow.
  • I take refuge in the Dharma, wishing for all sentient beings to deeply delve into the Sutra Pitaka, gaining an ocean of knowledge.
  • I take refuge in the Sangha, wishing all sentient beings to lead the congregation in harmony, entirely without obstruction.

In both cases the central concepts are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The meaning given to those terms does differ though, depending on the precise lineage. The Pali version stands for Theravada Buddhism, where the Japanese/Chinese version exemplifies Mahayana Buddhism.

Buddha

Originally, it is safe to say, the term Buddha simply meant Gautama Buddha, Siddharta the prince who had found Enlightenment after years of fasting, meditation and having followed the best spiritual teachers of India. When Theravada Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, they mean exactly that: thank you Buddha for having found enlightenment and showing us the way. They honour the man who started the whole tradition.

In Mahayana Buddhism the term Buddha has come to mean not just the originator of the tradition, but also every other being who reaches enlightenment. So when Mahayana Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, they honour all beings who have taken that path and reached the ultimate goal. As can be seen in the Japanese or Chinese version above, they also wish for all sentient beings to follow that example and take the great vow. The Bodhisattva Vow is meant, which is to vow to reach enlightenment and save all sentient beings in the process. This is obviously circular: every being is hoped to reach enlightenment, to become a bodhisattva and to help each other being reach enlightenment. Nobody is left out, at any stage of the process. 

Dharma

Dharma (or Dhamma in Pali) stands for the teachings of Buddhism, or for the practice of the Buddhist Path. Mahayana Buddhism is obviously going to include a wider variety of texts and teachings in that term than Theravada Buddhism. For Theravada Buddhism the Dharma means the Pali Scripture as well as the stories of Buddha's life and his previous lives (the Jataka tales).

Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana or esoteric Buddhism have an extensive literature added to the traditional texts. These include works like The Dhammapada, The Diamond Sutra, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Part of this list is more local. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not included in Zen Buddhist dharma, but even Zen Buddhists only consider themselves seriously part of the tradition of Buddhism if they have taken refuge in the three jewels. 

Sangha

Sangha can be interpreted widely or very strictly. The strict (Theravada) interpretation is that of the community of Buddhist monks. An even stricter interpretation is that of the community of Arhats. The widest interpretation of Sangha is: the community of those who come together in any size group to study, discuss or practice meditation with a desire to help and be helped by that group. The Sangha might even be taken to mean the community of active spiritual seekers, though that is a theosophical interpretation. 

More basic Buddhism

Sources (checked September 2006, May 2013, March 2014)