Taking Buddhist Refuge At Last: It’s Official!Posted: October 1, 2011
“Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or were to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has Master Gotama — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.”
–The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta [MN 72]
One of the most time-honored ceremonies in Buddhism for a lay follower (not a priest) is the ceremony of Taking Refuge and the Undertaking of the Five Precepts. This tradition varies throughout Buddhism, but as you can see in the sutra above, it began with in the Buddha’s time itself.
The Taking of Refuge means to take refuge in 3 things (in summary):
- The Buddha – the teacher
- The Dharma – the Buddha’s teachings
- The Sangha – the greater Buddhist community
These are called the Three Treasures or Tisarana in the ancient Pali language (三宝, sanbō in Japanese, 삼보, sambo in Korean). I mentioned them briefly here as well.
When people first discover Buddhism, and want to become Buddhist, they might choose to do this by themselves, and that’s perfectly fine. There’s nothing to force you to convert “or else”. People who grow up Buddhist may also be Buddhist all their lives without doing this.
However, in time, people often choose to reaffirm their commitment to Buddhism, or to do so in a more formal setting. As Ven. Yin-Shun explains in The Way to Buddhahood:
When one takes refuge, one willingly says: “All my life I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”; one should also accept and keep the five precepts for life….When one takes refuge and says, “From today until the end of my life, I will protect living beings,” this is the vow to accept the precepts. (pg. 87-88)
There’s a lot of reasons to do this, but it’s a personal decision of course. For me, I have wanted to formally Take Refuge for 6 years, since I first became a Buddhist in 2005, but I’ve never had the opportunity. It’s not actually very common in the Jodo Shinshu tradition I was previously affiliated with (unless you go all the way to the Honganji Temple in Japan), and I have had very few encounters with priests and monks since. These days, I have little opportunity to visit any Buddhist temple in general so the opportunity is even rarer now.
Thankfully, a certain blog reader and ordained bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) kindly accepted my request to formally take refuge. We arranged a time/place to do this over Skype earlier today, and we conducted the ceremony online. I knew this person over the years and as a fully ordained monk, I felt he was an ideal person to accept my request, and to administer the precepts.
The ceremony was brief. We recited verses in Pali language, one of the ancient, holy languages of Buddhism. I formally requested to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, then I formally declared that I would follow the Five Precepts called pañca sila in Pali, go kai (五戒) in Japanese and ogye (오계) in Korean. Once this was completed, the bhikkhu encouraged me to be diligent on the Buddhist path, and then gave a sermon in English, explaining the Five Precepts which I found very helpful. Following Buddhism by myself for so long, I have often had some confusion about minor points in the Five Precepts, and it was good to get a clear, concise explanation “from a professional”.
Once that was done, I recited more verses in Pali dedicating the merit of this action for the benefit of others, and the ceremony was complete.
It was a wonderful feeling to finally do this. I admit I was nervous before the ceremony, because I was worried about whether I would be able to live up to the commitment, but I am glad I went through it. I may yet fail, but it’s better than not trying at all.
Some Western critics may say that it’s just an empty ceremony, or a needless formality, but I would disagree. It’s only empty if you make it empty. The tradition has existed since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, and is open to anyone who willingly wants to formally take the Buddhist path, and wants to commit themselves to a better life.
In the context of Japanese Buddhism, in my opinion this is one form of shugyō in that you are actively training yourself, not just being a passive follower anymore. No one expects perfect results, the Five Precepts are the “gold standard” that people aspire too. Every effort you make to follow the Five Precepts is not wasted effort, and as the Buddha taught:
“There are these five gifts, five great gifts — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and priests….”
–The Abhisandha Sutta [AN 8.39]
Jiun Sonja (慈雲尊者 1718-1804) is a famous Buddhist priest in Japan’s Edo Period, a period usually criticized for its decline in Buddhist thought (more on that in a later post). His efforts to revive Buddhism in Japan at the time centered around the Precepts. He preached about the precepts, and frequently gave them to lay followers and nobility. Indeed, he wrote that:
[the precepts] encompass all countries, the past as well as the present, the wise as well as the foolish, the clever as well as the slow, the noble as well as the humble and men as well as women…
–”Jiun Sonja and Buddhist Reform” by Paul B. Watt, in Confucianism and Tokugawa Culture
And to quote Ven. Yin-Shun again:
Those who have pure minds and who keep the precepts without doing any evil can be reborn as humans or divine beings; with the precepts as a foundation for meditation and wisdom, they can initiate the world-transcending merit. (pg. 88)
For me, it was worth the wait. I officially, finally expressed my formal commitment to the Buddhist path, in spite of my personal shortcomings, and to strive to uphold the Five Precepts. For me, I finally feel like an upāsaka (優婆塞, ubasoku in Japanese, 우바새, ubasae in Korean): a lay follower of the Buddha.
Thanks to “A” for providing me this great opportunity.
Namo Shaka Nyorai
P.S. More on Taking Refuge in a Theravada Buddhist context.
P.P.S. This post was written late-night and unplanned. Apologies for grammar/spelling mistakes.