Going for Refuge is an initiation in which one officially becomes a Buddhist.
It’s a rite of passage ceremony that marks a formal commitment. We don’t have to make this official commitment, of course, but it serves to solidify our sense of purpose. We go for refuge because we are determined to overcome our suffering and help others overcome their suffering.
Like any other rite of passage, it indicates that we are undergoing a transformation.
We’ve almost lost rites of passage in the modern world, but they were really important in traditional societies. The only rite of passage I can think of that’s normal in modern society is getting married, or, put another way, marriage vows.
For this reason, Going for Refuge is sometimes referred to as Taking Refuge Vows. This terminology, I think, is just to remind us that this is a big deal. Unlike marriage vows, though, when we take refuge, we aren’t making a promise to someone else. We’re really only making a promise to ourselves.
When we take refuge we acknowledge—in a formal way—that our goal is Awakening. When we take refuge we become as one with all of the Buddhist lineage that came before us, we become the Buddha’s sons and daughters.
When we go for refuge, we are taking refuge in three things, which are referred to as the Three Jewels. They’re called jewels because we are supposed to think of them as precious and valuable.
These are: The Buddha, The Dharma, and The Sangha.
The Buddha refers to the historical being—Siddhartha Gautama—who found Awakening and who exists as our example to follow. Sometimes when people first hear about Buddhism they think the Buddha is a god. This is not correct. He is our teacher, the one who’s example we follow.
Going for refuge in the Buddha also represents the ideal of Buddhahood. We see the Buddha as our example and we committed to achieving Awakening, just as he did, for the sake of all beings. The Buddha transcended his delusion and engaged with his true nature. We seek to do the same by following his example.
The Dharma is the roadmap to Awakening that the Buddha gave us. It represents his effort, and the efforts of other great Buddhist teachers after him, to put the teachings into words.
He gave us a list of instructions that he summed up as: “Learn to do good, cease to do evil, purify your heart.” A list of simple goals, but certainly something we can spend a lifetime trying to do. Going for refuge in the Dharma means using these teachings and methods to try to increase our mindfulness and kindness as much as we can.
The Sangha is the spiritual community. The Buddha once said that spiritual friendship is the most important aspect of the path. Engaging the practice with others means something to us. This is important because Buddhism isn’t simply a philosophy or belief system. It’s something we do, like having a buddy to go work out with, and having a community on the path with us helps. It’s not that we can’t practice alone, of course we can, it’s just like an uphill battle.
In a narrow sense a Sangha is any spiritual community that we join. In a broader sense, Sangha represents all Buddhists. In a even broader sense, I like to think we can included all like minded spiritual seekers as well, so to me Sangha can easily include some Taoists, Shamans, or Pagans.
So, when we take refuge in the three jewels we begin to transform immediately. By making this commitment we resolve to practice Buddhism, rather than just studying it or thinking about it.
So, how do you do it?
If you want a formal ceremony, you’ll need to find a qualified person to perform it. Search for Buddhist teachers in your community. Most communities have a few.