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The Three Refuges

Ven. Dr. Thich Huyen-Vi 

 In this world, there are so many sufferings and desires. We are living in the midst of desire (lobho), hate (doso) and stupidity (moho). We cannot find any good means in order to be free from the above sufferings. It is very pity for human beings’ life on this Jambudvipa world.

 But we do not pessimists! We have « Buddhata » for a long time, every person has the true nature, the fundamental nature of each individual, i.e. Buddha-nature. But it is due to at one thought the work completed, so that we have to eddy around in the births-and-deaths, transmigrants in the three realms i.e. world of sensuous desire, from and formless world of pure spirit, and the six ways i.e. the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, maleviolent nature spirits, human existence and Deva existence.

We would like to free ourselves from the darkness of this world, and return to tha way of the enlightenment. But how can we know the right path? Who can guide us on this path? Which doctrine can help us to go out of the fiery pit of three ill destinies; the hell, animals and hungry ghosts.

The Blessed One was strong enough to guide us to go to the enlightenment, that is, the Sakyamuni Buddha who attained « the Neither to be born nor ended », and His Doctrines may save us in the present and future time and free us from transiency, sorrowfulness and soullessness.

Nothing was more natural, therefore, than that Buddhist, even during the lifetime of the historic Buddha, was considered as a synonym for the « three values » (Sanskrit Triratna, Pali Tiratana), Buddha, the doctrine, and the society. Ordination and the daily worship in Buddhism, therefore, came to be connected with the well-known triad which, in simler or more complicated form, has been repeated again and again: Kuei-i-Fu, kuei-i-Fa, kuei-i-Seng, that is « I dedicate myself to Buddha, to the doctrine, to the society. »

We therefore, mus take refuge in the « three values ».


(1) What is the meaning of refuge?

The meaning of the word refuge translated from Sarana. According to Chinese in Kuei, that means to return to; to rely on. There is a general act of surrender performed by all Buddhists. For example, the stupid child leaves his parents and wanders here and there. He gets so many troubles on the way. Now he returns to and relies on his parents. Kuei-i also another meaning is respect or obey.

(2) What is the meaning of Triratna or Tiratana?

Triratna or Ratnatraya is a Sanskrit word, which means the three Precious Ones: Buddha (Enlightened One), Dharma (the Law), Sangha (the Ecclesia or Order). Tiratana is the Pali word, the meaning is same as Triratna. In Chinese it is called San-Pao, that means three values: Blessed One, Doctrine and Society.

In this world, gold, silver, gem, reputation are very precious. But really speaking these things cannot save mankind from the sufferings of birth, age, disease and death. It sometimes make trouble for men more and more! On the other hand, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are strong enough to guide mankind and get emancipation from the above sufferings. Therefore, people really venerated three Precious: the Enlightened One, Doctrine and Community.

a) Buddha is Sanskrit or Pali word. Chinese translation is Kioh-Che, i.e. an Enlightened One. He is the Enlightened One, completely conscious, Enlightened and came to mean the enlightened.

There are three meanings of the enlightenment, according to the Chinese texts: 1) Enlightenment for self; 2) for others; 3) Perfect enlightenment and accomplishment.
b) Dharma is Sanskrit word, Pali word is Dhamma. Chinese translation is Doctrine, Law. Dharma is from dhara, holding, bearing, possessing, etc. and means « that which is to be held fast or kept, ordinance, statute, law usage practice, anything right ». Tripitakas are called the Doctrine.

c) Sangha is a Sanskrit word, too. Sangha peans an assembly, collection, company, society. The corporate assembly of at least three (formerly four) monks under a charman, enpowered to hear confession, grand absolution, and ordain. The church or monastic order, the third membre of the Triratna. The term Sangha used alone has come to mean a monk or monks in general. Chinese translation is Shen-Chia, that means harmonious and compliant from spirit to material.

(3) What is the meaning of Trisarana?

Trisarana means three Surrenders to the Precious Ones. The surrender is to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Why we take refuge in the Buddha? Because Lord Buddha is the Enlightened One, his great compassion is immeasurable, his blessedness and wisdom is limitless. He is completely the adornment of blessedness and virtue, i.e. of good deeds. Because Lord Buddha is One great Man can guide us to go to the Nirvana. His experience has liberated men from births-and-deaths. Why we take refuge in the Dharma? Because only Buddha’s Doctrine which is strong enough to help us to cross over the ocean of sufferings and go to the way of liberation. Why we take refuge in the Sangha? Because the Sangha which forsook family, wealth, reputation, etc. in order to take vow representatives of Lord Buddha to guide mankind on the right path.

 Herein we can understand the great generosity of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha:

 « Such, indeed, is that Blessed One; Exalter, Omniscient, Endowed with knowledge and virtue, Auspicious, Knower of world, a Guide incomparable for the training of individuals, Teacher of gods and men, Enlightened and Holy ».

 « Well expounded in the Dharma (Doctrine) by the Blessed One; to be self-realized with immediate fruit, to be but approached to be seen, capable of being entered upon, to be attained by the wise, each for himself. »

 « Of good conduct is the Order of the Disciples of the Blessed One, of upright conduct is the Order of the Blessed One, of dutiful condit is the Order of the Disciples of the Blessed One. This Order of the Disciples of the Blessed One, namely, these four Pairs of Persons, the Eight Kinds of Individuals is worthy of offerings, is worthy of hospitality, os worthy of gifts, is worthy of reverential salutation, is an incomparable field of merit to the world. »

 According to Majjhima Nikaya, in Bhayabherava Surra, it mentions the story of Brahmin Janussoni who became a Buddhist, we read it for understanding about the Tisarana. «After listening to the Buddha’s Discourse called «Fear and Dread», the Brahmin Janussoni becomes a lay follower of the Buddha, by taking the threefold Refuge. The words used by him differ slightly from the usual formula in so far as in the latter the words «The Lord Gautama are replaced by the Buddha». Buddha-ghosa’s comment, here slightly abridged runs as follows:

 « I go for refuge to the Lord Gautama ». This means, the Lord Gautama is my refuge and my guiding ideal. I am going for refuge to the Lord Gautama. I resort to him, follow and honour him, in the sense of his being the Destroyer of Affliction and the Provider of Weal. Or, I know and understand him to be of such a nature. 

 « I go for refuge to the Dharma ». The word « Dharma », i.e. the Doctrine or the Law, is derived from the verb « dharati », to keep or to bear. In accordance with that derivation, the dhamma may be regarded as refuge, because it keeps, upholds and supports the beings by way of preventing their fall into the states of war, by way of enabling a life according to instruction (as given by the Dhamma) by way of attainment of the Path and by realization of the Extinction (of suffering).

 « I go for refuge to the Sangha ». The Sangha is (here) the community of (holy) monks which is united by the communion of right view and virtue. That is to say, the Sangha is the Group of the eight Noble Beings, those in possession of the Path of Stream-Entry, the Fruition thereof, etc.

 This is the meaning of refuge in the Pali texts.


According to Mahayana Buddhism there are three kinds of the three Precious Ones :

a) One underlying essence – three Precious Ones ;
b) To go out of the world – three Precious Ones ;
c) The world to dwell and control – three Precious Ones.

A. One underlying essence of three Precious Ones:

1) One underlying essence Buddha, that is, the Buddhas and human beings are the same as Buddha-nature. Mind, Buddha and the living these three are without differentiation, i.e. are all one.
2) One underlying essence Dharma, that is, the Buddhas and human beings are of the same Dharma-nature, compassion, equal and wisdom.
3) One underlying essence Sangha, that is, the Buddhas and human beings are of the same (its) own nature purity, to blend, unite, harmonize.

B. To go out of the world three Precious Ones:

1) To go out of the world Buddha, that is, the Sakyamuni Buddha, Amitabha Buddha and the Buddhas in the ten directions, the three periods. The Buddhas were already released from all the hindrances of passion and had attained the Buddha’s nirvana.
2) To go out of the world Dharma, that is, the mian Doctrines of the Buddha. These Doctrines have vitality guide livings release from all the sufferings, such as four noble Truths, the twelve links in the chain of existence, the six paramitas and so on.
3) To go out of the world Sangha, that is, the holy monks, the image in the monks’ assembly room, in Northern Buddhism that of Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, in Southern Buddhism that of Kassapa, Subhuti, etc.

C. The world to dwell and control Three Precious Ones:

1) The world to dwell and control Buddha, that is, the relics of the Buddha, and images of Buddha were molded from metal, wood, clay and so on.
2) The world to dwell and control Dharma, that is, Tripitaka, Tipitaka, San-Tang, writing or printing on the papers, on the clothers or on the leaf of trees, etc.
3) The world to dwell and control Sangha, that is, the pure Bhiksus really practices the Doctrines and Laws of the Buddhas.


After we understand the meaning of ‘to refuge Triratna’, of course the Buddhists have to practice what they know. Practicing ‘to refuge Triratna’ through the phenomenon or affair, that is, the respectful, to follow orders. It is called ‘to refuge Triratna in phenomenon’.

1) Practicing of the refuge Buddha:
Everyday Buddhists must remember Lord Buddha always, study the doctrine of Buddha, to look up to with reverence the Buddha’s images, and follow the footstep of the Buddha for the whole life.
2) Practicing to refuge Dharma:
Everyday, Buddhists must recite Sutta, vinaya and Abhidhamma. In the morning and in the evening Buddhists have to pray for them and for others, search for the Buddha-Dharma of the Blessed Ones. Every Buddhist has three resolves of the Awakening of Faith.
(a) To Perfect the bodhi of faith, i.e. in the stage of faith;
(b) To understand and carry into practice this wisdom;
(c) The realization, or proof of or union with bodhi.

3) Practicising to refuge Sangha:
It is said that, « following footstep Lord Buddha, Buddhist ought to respect Sangha ». Person practices to refuge Sangha, whenever they see all Bhiksus who embodies Buddha’s teaching, they must respect them, as representatives of the Buddha.

 In Brief, worship Lord Buddha, recite Sutta, practice Vinaya, study Abhidhamma, and respect the pure Sangha, that is called to refuge Triratna in phenomenon.


The noumenal in essence and in knowledge, ‘to refuge Triratna in noumenon’ is returning in our Buddha-Dharma-Sangha. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is explained that if Buddhists go for refuge to the outside Triratna only, and forgetting goes for refuge to the inside Triratna. Like that, Buddhists cannot become the enlightenment.

1) I go refuge to the myself Buddha, that means, I return to and rely on my Buddha nature. Yes! Every person has ‘Buddhata’ and can become the Buddha. That is what Sakyamuni taught. Erroneous thinking like the sky was overclouded, whereas Buddha-nature like the full moon. The cloud can cover but it cannot annihilate the moonlight.
2) I go refuge to the myself Dharma, it means every person must come back to the Dharma-nature. In our mind, there are the Dharma-nature: compassion, wisdom, equality, patience, zeal and progress. We should manifest these natures and follow them. That is we return to and rely on our Dharma-nature.
3) I go refuge to the myself Sangha. Here is obeying the master in our consciousness. That is the character of pure and concord of every person. The outside Sangha group is the incarnation of the concord inside. For a long time we were blindfolded, we did not know the master of us. Lord Buddha taught, « One’s own body is Buddha ». Each person has own characteristics, i.e. the Order purity.

In fine, we must return in our Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, that means, the enlightenment, knowledge, compassion, equality; pureness, concord. Thus, it is called, « To refuge Triratna in Noumenon ».


According to the Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, the refuge-taking ceremony is very important. After people understand the meaning and benefit of the refuge Triratna, they must know the rite of them:

1) First of all people have to clean their body and mind. To take refuge is the important rite of Buddhists. It is the beginning to go on the right way, therefore, they cannot do simple. When man wanted to take in refuge Triratna, before the days to start the refuge-taking ceremony, that man keeps the body and the mind very clear. Afterwards he goes to the abbot and asks permission to take the vows and be ordained. This takes place in the reception room of the abbot, where temporary seats have been arranged for him (in the middle) and the two assisting elders, the confessor and the examiner on each side.
2) To resolve: the time to coming to refuge, all Buddhists kneel down in front of Triratna heartily the will of the resolve: 
Buddham saranam gacchami: I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
Dhammam saranam gacchami: I go to the Dharma as my Refuge.
Sangham saranam gacchami: I go to the Sangha as my Refuge.

Second time, they recite:
Dutiyam pi Buddham saranam gacchami. For the second time, I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
Dutiyam pi Dhammam saranam gacchami. For the second time, I go to the Dharma as my Refuge.
Dutiyam pi Sangham saranam gacchami. For the second time, I go to the Sangha as my Refuge.

Third time, they recite :
Tatiyam pi Buddham saranam gacchami. For the third time, I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
Tatiyam pi Dhammam saranam gacchami. For the third time, I go to the Dhamma as my Refuge.
Tatiyam pi Sangham saranam gacchami. For the third time, I go to the Sangha as my Refuge.

Then, the Teacher of the discipline says, « Tisaranaggahanam Paripunnam » i.e. Taking is refuge Tiratana is complete! Buddhsts says, « Ama Bhante », Yes, Venerable!

 Thus, the ceremony of taking refuge was complete, from then, the Buddhists must remember the vows in front of Triratna (three jewels), and they will stick to these masters with a deep and never changing reverence and affection.


1) It is not wandering off in the sin ways:
As we know in the above introduction which mentions that people are living in the midst of desire, hate and stupidity. They cannot find any good means in order to be free from the above sufferings. It is a pity for human beings’ life on this Jambudvipa world.

We would like to free ourserlves from the darkness of this world, and return to the way of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That is to go to Refuge in the Triratna. On the other hand, we have to eddy around in the births and deaths, transmigrate in the three realms and the six ways. Thanks to the enlightenment of Lord Buddha, the truth of the Doctrine and the conduct of the community, we may be released from all sins in the past and the present life. As regarding the benefit of refuge, Venerable Nyanaponika Thera wrote, « The fruit of the Supramundane Refuge, in the sense of beings its karmic result (Vipaka-phala) are the four-Fruitions of Monkhood (Samanna-phala), vis the Fruition of Stream-Entry, etc. The fruit in the sense of advantage or blessings mentioned in the following scriptural passage, « it is impossible, O monks, that a person endowed with insight (ditthisampanno, i.e. Stream-Entrerer, etc.) should regard any conditioned thing as permanent, enjoyable, or an Ego ; that he should take life of his mother, his father or a Saint ; that, with a thought of hate, he should shed the blood of the Blessed One ; that he should cause a split in the community of monks ; that he should choose another teacher. There is no possibility of that ».

« But the fruit of the Mundana Refuge is only the attainment of favourable rebirth, and the attainment of property and enjoyment ».

2) To keep a resolve forever:
It is said that, « I respect Lord Buddha as I know him who is the Enlightened One ; I venerate the Doctrine as I understand it which can hemp people go to on the right way ; I love and admire the Buddhist Monks, as I know them, who are representative of Lord Buddha. Like that it is enough meaning. What for, do I must go for Refuge to the Triratna?

Truthly speaking, those who say so, they do not understand the value of psychology, the resolve in front of other men. When make a vow near a respected person, then we forget it. At this time our mind feels sorrow and twinges of conscience. If we promise, necessarily we have to remember for a whole life. On the contrary, we scorn ourselves. In particular that promising and resolve celebrated in the serious setting in front of Lord Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Above it has to be a witness of the Buddhas; below it has to understand clearly of the Sangha. There are Buddhist friends and relations who are to be present all around. The vow in those circumstances, we can never abjure.

This, we already know the value of the ceremony of taking refuge. For the new Buddhists, we try to celebrate that ceremony with all our might in all seriousness.

 Before concluding this essay, we quote some suttas in order to elucidate our point more clearly. « With regard to the first Refuge, in the Buddha, the Master himself said shortly after His Enlightenment:

 « Like me the conquerors will be
 Who have attained to the defilements’ end » (Ariya-Pariyesana Sutta)
 Before his decease: « Be ye islands unto yourselves, be ye a refuge to yourselves! Take no other refuge! The Dharma be your island, the Dharma be your refuge! Take no other refuge (Maha-parinibbana-Sutta)

 In the commentarial literature it is said, « The Dhamma is called self (atta) because, in the case of a wise one, the Dhamma is not different from himself and because it pertains to his personal existence. » (Tika to Maha-Sati-patthana-Sutta)

 The third Refuge, the Sangha, being the Community of Holy Disciples, is the great and inspiring model for emulation. The actual foundation of that Refuge is the capacity inherent in all beings to become one of the Eight Noble Beings who form the Sangha of the Refuge. We turn now to the third subject of the knowledge implied in Taking Refuge, i.e. to the ultimate nature of the Threefold Refuge ».

 We have seen Buddhists ought to take refuge in Triratna. But we do not forget both in Refuge, that is inside and outside of Triratna as the above explanation. Those who want to take Refuge, first of all, they must try to celebrate the ceremony of Taking Refuge in order to mark the first step of them on the way of the emancipation. That ceremony is like the party to bid farewell to the man who will receive a new duty. But when we go on the new way, we have to try to reach the main aim. After it is done (to Refuge), we do not follow the footsteps of the Buddha, do not practice the Doctrine, as well as do not obey the advice of the Community. If we do, thus we do cheat ourselves and others too. That is a very dangerous thing. On the other hand, we take Refuge and practice exactly as the vows. It is sure that we are certainly to reach the other shore, i.e. Nirvana.

 « In making an actual and intelligent use of that threefold devotional Road of the Ancients, we shall preserve the most popular religious practice in the Buddhist world, the Going for Refuge, from becoming state and ineffective. We shall be able to turn it into a strong, life-giving current of devotion that will carry us one day to the Isle of Final-Peace, to Nibbana, where refuge and refuge are merged into one. »

Hail, from us all who are on earth
Or up in the air, to Him the Enlightened One,
Who is adored by all Gods and Men.
By this adoration may all beings be Happy and Blissful!

       Ratana Sutta

Minh Quang posted March 1, 2002

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