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 ».
I. TO DETERMINE THE MEANING.
(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
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
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
(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
« 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.
II. THE THREE KINDS OF TRIRATNA, TIRATANA
According to Mahayana Buddhism there are three kinds of the three Precious
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
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
3) The world to dwell and control Sangha, that is, the pure Bhiksus really
practices the Doctrines and Laws of the Buddhas.
III. TO REFUGE TRIRATNA IN PHENOMENON (OR PRACTICE)
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
IV. TO REFUGE TRIRATNA IN NOUMENON (OR THE ABSOLUTE)
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
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 ».
V. THE CEREMONY OF TAKING REFUGE :
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
Tatiyam pi Dhammam saranam gacchami. For the third time, I go to the Dhamma as
Tatiyam pi Sangham saranam gacchami. For the third time, I go to the Sangha as
Then, the Teacher of the discipline says, « Tisaranaggahanam Paripunnam »
i.e. Taking is refuge Tiratana is complete! Buddhsts says, « Ama Bhante »,
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
VI. THE BENEFIT OF REFUGE IN TRIRATNA
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
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
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
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!
Minh Quang posted March 1, 2002