To take refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddhism means putting our trust in the Buddha, the Buddhist community (Sangha), and Buddhist teachings (Dharma). We develop this trust when our meditation and mindfulness practice reaches a certain point that gives rise to an increased appreciation and even a sense of devotion to the people and teachings supporting our spiritual journey. But even more than that, it’s also an important step in becoming a devout Buddhist practitioner. This is what Gil Fronsdal (b. 1954), an American meditation teacher and scholar, explores and elucidates in a portion of his book titled The Issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice.
To take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in wisdom and clarity. Not only does the Buddha exemplify a person who has traversed the path to freedom, he also personifies the full potential for awakening and compassion found in each of us.
To take refuge in the Dharma is, in part, to take refuge in the teachings and practices taught by the Buddha. However, more deeply, the Dharma is the marvelous and immediate awareness unobscured by our greed, hatred, and delusion.
To take refuge in the Sangha is to take refuge in the community of people who share in Buddhist practice. It can be inspiring to know that others are dedicated to living the Buddha’s teachings through their ethics, mindfulness and compassion. More specifically and traditionally, taking refuge in the Sangha refers to taking refuge with the community of people who have tasted liberation — the awakening of the Buddha. To have the example and guidance of such people can be phenomenally encouraging.
Taking refuge is one of the most common rituals a lay practitioner performs in Theravada Buddhism. While it is done as a matter of course at ceremonies, during retreats, and when visiting a temple, it can be a pivotal moment when, for the first time, one takes refuge with the conscious intent of orienting one’s life in accordance to one’s deepest values and aspirations. Relating our practice to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha helps ensure that our practice is not limited to intellectual concerns or issues of personal therapy. It helps solidify a wide foundation of trust and respect from which the entire practice can grow.