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Taking Refuge: A Sincere Vow to Engage in Buddhist Practice

Since childhood, we have participated in various ceremonies such as first-day-of-school ceremonies, graduation and commencement ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, and funerals. Among numerous ceremonies, there is one that can bring us long-term benefits and uplift our lives–the Three Refuge ceremony.

Participating in a refuge ceremony to strengthen faith in Buddhist practice

Taking refuge means taking refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It entails vowing to, going forward, take the Buddha as our example, the Dharma as our guideline, and the Sangha as our teacher. Most Chinese Buddhist monasteries organize group ceremonies for refuge-taking, but one can also ask a venerable to transmit the Three Refuges individually.

A refuge ceremony may not necessarily last long; however, it requires refuge takers to make the vow earnestly and sincerely. Some monasteries will hold a simple Dharma assembly to pray for blessings, followed by an explanation of the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts by a monastic teacher to help participants understand its meaning. Participants then learn the basic Buddhist etiquette such as joining palms, the hand position for standing and walking, and how to prostrate to the Buddha. The instruction helps familiarize ourselves with the movements to be performed during the ritual itself.

Before formally taking the Three Refuge and receiving the Five Precepts, new refuge takers must perform repentance first, by reciting the Repentance Verse three times, with one prostration after each recitation, to signify the purification of body and mind.

Next, the Preceptor will formally transmit the Three Refuges. Refuge takers will follow the Preceptor's lead to recite both the Refuge Verse and the Four Great Vows three times and the Five Precepts once. 

The Refuge Verses

I, [the refuge taker's own name], take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma, in the Sangha.
I, [the refuge taker's own name], have taken refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma, in the Sangha. 
I, [the refuge taker's own name], from now on, having taken refuge in the Three Jewels as a Buddhist disciple, vow to practice the Buddhadharma and uphold the Three Jewels with unshakable faith. 

The Four Great Vows

I, [the vow taker's own name], vow to deliver innumerable sentient beings; I vow to cut off endless vexations; I vow to master limitless approaches of the Dharma; I vow to attain Supreme Buddhahood.

The Five Precepts

I, [the upholder's own name], vow to uphold the precept of refraining from killing and harming living beings for the rest of my life.
I, [the upholder's own name], vow to uphold the precept of refraining from taking what is not given for the rest of my life.
I, [the upholder's own name], vow to uphold the precept of refraining from sexual misconduct for the rest of my life.
I, [the upholder's own name], vow to uphold the precept of refraining from false speech for the rest of my life.
I, [the upholder's own name], vow to uphold the precept of refraining from alcohol and intoxicants for the rest of my life.

By the completion of the ceremony, everyone will have their own Dharma name and refuge certificate as a reminder of their refuge in the Three Jewels. The first character of the Dharma name is the recipient's own family name; the second character represents the recipient's generation of the Dharma lineage, symbolizing its passing down and inheritance; and the third character is an auspicious or inspirational word chosen based on the recipient's name, occupation, or photo, such as words related to precept, concentration, and wisdom. The hope is that the refuge taker will feel joyful when receiving the Dharma name, thereby enhancing their willingness to learn and engage in Buddhist practice. 

Taking Three Refuges for the benefit of the present and future lives

Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is extraordinary. As Master Sheng Yen indicated in his book, Essentials of Buddhist Sila and Vinaya (
《戒律學綱要》), taking refuge brings one the following eight major benefits:
1. Becoming a follower of the Buddha
2. Establishing a firm basis for receiving the precepts
3. Reducing one's karmic obstacles
4. Having the potential to accumulate profound and vast merits
5. Avoiding rebirth in lower forms of existence
6. Being free from disturbance and distraction by humans and non-humans
7. Being more likely to accomplish virtuous deeds
8. Being ultimately able to attain Buddhahood

The most obvious change after taking refuge is that, as a Buddhist, we'll begin to pay attention to our own conducts. Others might also remind us by commenting, "As a Buddhist, how can you behave like this?" Meanwhile, we'll be more alert to our unwholesome thoughts as they emerge. We'll reflect on our wrongdoings and amend our misconducts. Especially after taking the Five Precepts, we have a clear guideline to follow in our daily life, thereby enabling us to make choices of benefit to self and others and avoid the three evil destinies of existence. As Buddhist scripture states: "Taking refuge in the Buddha saves us from descending to the hell realm; taking refuge in the Dharma prevents us from descending to the hungry ghost realm; and taking refuge to the Sangha prevents us from descending to the animal realm."

Moreover, taking refuge in the Three Jewels will bring us closer to Dharma practice centers, allowing us to access guidance from monastic teachers and enjoy support from Dharma friends, thus moving forward on the path of Buddhist practice with the help of companions. Contrarily, lacking the encouragement by monastic teachers, people who don't take refuge are very likely to become lazy and even go astray, with little motivation to uplift themselves, since they are less mindful of the distinction between good and evil. As a result, they might not be aware of their wrongdoings and thus miss the opportunity to improve themselves. Even if they are aware of them, without vowing to take refuge in the Three Jewels, it would be hard to keep themselves motivated to practice repentance and seek self-improvement. When experiencing difficulties, they are more prone to be in distress or confusion; when encountering the matter of life and death, they tend to panic and feel lost.

Taking refuge allows us to examine our thoughts intentions at all times. By constantly reflecting on ourselves, repenting our wrongdoings, and improving ourselves, we will someday achieve completion and perfection just as the Buddha did.

Related articles:

Taking Refuge – The First Step to Firm Buddhist Practice

Overcoming the Eight Major Obstacles to Taking Refuge

Buddhist Stories on the Auspiciousness of Taking the Three Refuges

Taking Refuge: A Sincere Vow to Engage in Buddhist Practice

Common Questions on Taking Refuge

Refuge Taking Rituals of Different Buddhist Traditions

The Three Refuges Verse for Morning and Evening Services as a Reminder

Resource: Issue 373 of Humanity  Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Sinag-ling Li (李祥苓)
Editing: Keith Brown, Chia-Cheng Chang (張家誠)