Going for refuge and taking the precepts is the cornerstone of all the Buddhist paths. It usually becomes a turning point in a person’s life. One where they work toward an ideal – this ideal being shown to us through

  • The Buddha – a human being that showed us the actualization of minds potential
  • The Dharma – the teachings that guide us there
  • and the Sangha – our friends that help us on the way.

Going for refuge and taking the precepts are an active and conscious act – a choice by us where we consciously make the decision to start to really show up in the world as a blessing and minimize the ways we burden others and the world.

To help us do that we use as guiding lights or ideals the Triple Gems of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

The Buddha walked around a lot.

He would go around from city, to village, to town – all over the countryside, making known the Dharma or truth that he had discovered.

He spoke form his heart.

He had an uncanny knack of truly being able to see people clearly. He would pierce through all the walls that we throw up to protect ourselves and would be able to see and know our hopes and fears, our biases, our pain and then he would speak directly to you.

The Dharma would emerge in the moment. The Buddha would speak from the depths of his spiritual experience and would connect that to you in a way that would leave most people he encountered speechless.

It was a heart-mind transmission.

The Master Sangharakshita put it this way,

The Buddha would speak from the depths of his spiritual experience. He would expound the Truth and show the Way leading to Enlightenment, and the person to whom he was speaking would be absolutely astounded and overwhelmed. In some cases he might not be able to speak or do more than stammer a few incoherent words. Something had been revealed to him. Something had burst upon him that was above and beyond his ordinary understanding. For an instant, at least, he had glimpsed the Truth, and the experience had staggered him.

And then in response to that Heart-Mind transmission the individual would go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

The Meaning of Refuge: The root meaning of refuge is – “shelter or protection from danger or distress, hiding place or to flee back to,” It also means “To seek asylum.” The word asylum refers to “a place of refuge, a sanctuary” and it’s interesting to note that the word asylum is Latin for “sanctuary” taken from the Greek asylon which means “refuge, fenced territory,” and if used as a (asylos) means “inviolable, safe from violence,”

What is it that we need to take refuge from? Samsara. From the world that is lost in the great forgetting. And even from ourselves. We take refuge from the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion.

In this topsy turvy world we need something stable to rely on. We need something that we can point to and say,”That over there, that’s safe.” We need a safe harbour.

And we need to realize that we need it.

In Buddhism that safe place is the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

The Buddha: was a human that showed us our true potential
The Dharma: are the teachings shared by the Buddha and realized teachers that help us guide us to awakening
The Sangha: helpful friends that support us on the way

Sangharakshita on the Three Jewels

Sangharakshita said that,

The Buddha: When we go for Refuge to the Buddha it’s as though we say, “That is what I want to be. That is what I want to attain. I want to be Enlightened and develop the fullness of Wisdom and Compassion.” Going for Refuge to the Buddha means taking the Buddha – taking Buddhahood – as our personal spiritual ideal, as something we ourselves can and want to achieve.

The Dharma: The Dharma is not to be identified with this or that particular teaching. According to the Buddha’s own express declaration the Dharma is whatever contributes to the spiritual development of the individual. When his maternal aunt and foster mother, Gotami, asked him for a criterion by means of which she could distinguish between what was his teaching, his Dharma-Vinaya, and what was not, he replied,

“As for the teachings that promote the qualities of which you may know, these qualities lead to
dispassion, not to passion;
to being unfettered, not to being fettered;
to simplifying, not to accumulating;
to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement;
to contentment, not to discontent;
to seclusion, not to entanglement;
to aroused persistence, not to laziness;
to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome.
You may definitely hold, ‘This is the Dharma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”
[AN VIII.53]

So we see that the Dharma are teachings that will eventually lead to: Equanimity, Freedom, Simplicity, Modesty, Contentment, Release, Persistence and Helpfulness

When we go for Refuge to the Dharma we commit ourselves to the path of higher evolution. We commit ourselves to whatever helps us to develop spiritually – to whatever helps us to grow towards Enlightenment.

The Sangha: Sangha means ‘Spiritual Community’. Primarily this is the community of all those who are spiritually more advanced than we are: the great Bodhisattvas, the Arhants, the Stream Entrants, and so on. Together they form the Aryasangha, the ‘noble Sangha’, the Spiritual Community in the highest sense.

Secondarily, it is the community of all Buddhists, all those who go for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

In the case of the Aryasangha, Going for Refuge to the Sangha means opening ourselves to the spiritual influence of the sublime beings of whom it consists. It means learning from them, being inspired by them, reverencing them.

In the case of the Sangha in the more ordinary sense, that of the community of all Buddhists, it means enjoying spiritual fellowship with one another and helping one another on the path.

Sometimes you may not need a highly advanced Bodhisattva to help you. All you need is an ordinary human being who is a little more developed spiritually than you are, or even just a little more sensible.

Only too often people are on the lookout for a great, highly developed guru, but that is not what they really need, even if such a person was available. What they need is a helping hand where they are now, on the particular stage of the path which at present they occupy, and this kind of help can generally be given by an ordinary fellow Buddhist.

Four Foundational Factors of Freedom

In the Raja Sutra the Buddha shared four foundational factors that lead to freedom when we’re starting out on the path.

There is the case where the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with firm confidence in the Awakened One – The Buddha:
They think to themselves, “Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, endowed with understanding and conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine and human beings, awakened, blessed.”

There is the case where the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with firm confidence in the Dharma:
They think to themselves, “The Dharma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here and now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.”

There is the case where the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with firm confidence in the Sangha:
They think to themselves, “The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well…who have practiced straight-forwardly…who have practiced methodically…who have practiced masterfully — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.”

There is the case where the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with firm conviction in the subduing of unwholesome states and the development of a wealth of virtue:
They think to themselves, “I am working diligently at the subduing of unwholesome states and the development of a wealth of virtue. My thoughts, words and deeds are agreeable to the noble ones. Whatever virtue there is, it is unbroken, faultless, unspotted, unblemished, productive of freedom, well-obtained, well-undertaken and praised by the wise.”

Faith & Going for Refuge

Faith Meaning: Great trust or confidence in something or someone

In Pali (the original language of the Buddhist texts) the word for faith is saddha. While sometimes translated as “confidence” or “trust,” the literal meaning of saddha is “to place your heart upon.”

Our hearts are squishy, tender and vital to our survival. To entrust it to someone or something means that we know and have faith that it will be kept safe. That it will be protected from harm.

When we place our heart upon the Three Jewels we entrust them with our most important treasure. We give it over knowing well that we have found a safe and secure place for our fragile and tender heart. A place that will protect us. That will guide us. That will show us how to take care of this delicate and essential piece of ourselves.

We look at the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and say, “I see that you are wiser than me, stronger than me, further along than me. I see how you live, how you speak and how you think. I’ve felt the power of potential and possibility emanating and radiating from you and I want that for myself.

I, as I am right now cannot be trusted with this precious heart. Sentient beings lost in samsara cannot be trusted with this precious heart. This world lost in greed, hatred and delusion cannot be trusted with this precious heart.

But in the midst of all that madness I have found you – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – a safe harbour from the storms of samsara.

So please, keep this tender and precious heart of mine safe and show me how to heal it, how to nurture it and how to unlock its radiant lustre and power so that it may be a shining light for others as you have been for me.

Sharon Salzberg shared a story from a Pali Sutra to help explain faith in the Buddhist tradition:

We experience faith on many levels. In a classical text entitled “The Questions of King Milinda,” a monk named Nagasena uses an allegory to illustrate this. A group of people gathered on the edge of a flooding stream want to go to the far shore but are afraid. They don’t know what to do until one wise person comes along, assesses the situation, takes a running leap and jumps to the other side. Seeing the example of that person, the others say, “Yes, it can be done.” Then they also jump.

In this story the near shore is our usual confused condition, and the far shore is the awakened mind. Inspired by witnessing another, we say, “Yes, it can be done.” That is one level of faith. After we have jumped ourselves, when we say, “Yes, it can be done,” that is quite another level of faith.

Patrul Rinpoche said that, “Just as taking refuge opens the gateway to all teachings and practices, it is faith that opens the gateway to taking refuge. As the first step in taking refuge, therefore, it is important to develop a lasting and stable faith. “

The Four Kinds of Faith *
Faith itself is of four kinds: bright faith, eager faith, confident faith, grateful faith

Bright Faith: Bright faith is the faith that is inspired in us by thinking of the immense compassion of the Buddhas and great teachers. We might experience this kind of faith on visiting a temple containing many representations of the Buddha’s’ body, speech and mind, or after an encounter with a great teacher or spiritual friend we have just met personally or whose qualities or life-story we have heard described.

This type of faith opens us up briefly and changes something in us. It gives us a flash of insight or softens our heart for a moment. It stirs within us a longing – a desire to discover a potential that we can now feel within us. This type of faith is not stable and does not last.

Eager Faith: Eager faith is our eagerness to be free of suffering and to experience happiness. Our eagerness to engage in positive actions when we hear and actually see what benefits they bring to ourselves and others; and our eagerness to avoid negative actions when we understand what harm they cause to ourselves and others.

Confident Faith (Mature Faith): Confident Faith or mature faith arises in us after we’ve seen the actual effects of practicing the dharma in our own very lives. We’ve tasted the chocolate. We’ve seen some results. This type of faith is anchored by or own experience. It’s rooted in our own hard-won insights on and off the cushion. is anchored in our own experience of the truth, centered in the deeper understanding of the nature of the mind and body that we come to in meditation practice.

Confident faith is the faith in the Three Jewels that arises from the depth of our hearts once we understand their extraordinary qualities and the power of their blessings.

Grateful Faith: This is the faith and reverence that arises when we think of all that the Buddha’s Bodhisattvas, masters and teachers of the past, present and future have given to us. All they have sacrificed for us. We now really see and know that the only true safe-harbour is the Three Jewels. If we have a teacher we help them with a humble and grateful heart knowing how rare and precious they are. We hold dear to us our new family – the sangha. And we cherish all the 84,000 different teachings seeing how they’re all special and different types of medicine for the many afflictions that arise for countless sentient beings.

In the book “The Words of My Perfect Teacher” Patrul Rinpoche said that,

“It is the total trust in the Three Jewels alone that comes from the knowledge that they are the only unfailing refuge, always and in all circumstances, whether we are happy, sad, in pain, ill, living or dead.

Faith, then, is like a seed from which everything positive can grow. If faith is absent, it is as though that seed had been burnt.”

The sutras say:

In those who lack faith
Nothing positive will grow,
Just as from a burnt seed
No green shoot will ever sprout.

Faith is the most precious of all our resources. It brings an inexhaustible supply of virtues, like a treasure. It carries us along the path to liberation like a pair of legs, and gathers up everything positive for us like a pair of arms. The compassion and blessings of the Three Jewels are inconceivable, but nevertheless their ability to reach into us depends entirely on our faith and devotion. If you have immense faith and devotion, the compassion and blessings you receive from your teacher and the Three Jewels will be equally immense.

If your faith and devotion are just moderate, the compassion and blessings that reach you will also be moderate.

If you have only a little faith and devotion, only a little compassion and blessings will reach you. If you have no faith and devotion at all, you will get absolutely nothing.

Without faith, even meeting the Buddha himself and being accepted as his disciple would be quite useless, as it was for the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta.

It is also upon faith alone that actual realization of the absolute truth, the natural state, depends. It is said in a sutra:

“O’Sariputra, absolute truth is only realized through faith.”

As you develop a faith quite beyond the commonplace, by its power, the blessings of the teacher and of the Three Jewels will enter you. Then true realization will arise and you will see the natural state as it really is. When that happens you will feel an even more extraordinary and irreversible faith and confidence in your teacher and in the Three Jewels. In this way faith and the realization of the natural state support each other.

Padmasambhava said that, “The faith of total trust allows blessings to enter you. When the mind is free of doubt, whatever you wish can be achieved.”

Samantabhadra’s Declaration on the Power of Faith
An enthusiastic ode to faith can be found in the massive Avataṃsaka Sutra, where, to the delight of all the Buddhas, the bodhisattva Samantabhadra proclaims the following verses in a great outpouring of a bodhisattvas’ faith:

Deep faith, belief, and resolution always pure,
Bodhisattvas honour and respect all Buddhas …

Deeply believing in the Buddha and the Buddha’s teaching,
They also believe in the Way traversed by buddhas-to-be,
And believe in unexcelled great enlightenment:
Thereby do bodhisattvas first rouse their will.

Faith is the basis of the Path, the mother of virtues,
Nourishing and growing all good ways,
Cutting away the net of doubt, freeing from the torrent of passion,
Revealing the unsurpassed road of ultimate peace.

When faith is undefiled, the mind is pure;
Obliterating pride, it is the root of reverence,
And the foremost wealth in the treasury of teachings …

Faith is generous …
Faith can joyfully enter the Buddha’s teaching;
Faith can increase knowledge and virtue;
Faith can ensure arrival at enlightenment …
Faith can go beyond the pathways of demons,
And reveal the unsurpassed road of liberation.

Faith is the unspoiled seed of virtue,
Faith can grow the seed of enlightenment.
Faith can increase supreme knowledge,
Faith can reveal all Buddhas …
Faith is most powerful, very difficult to have;
It’s likened in all the worlds to having
the wondrous wish-fulfilling pearl.

Three Different Types of Motivation in Going for Refuge *

There are three different levels of motivation for taking refuge with this sort of faith.

The Motivation of Fear & Happiness
There are those beings who fear the suffering of the three lower-realms (animal, hungry ghost, hell) and take refuge with the hope to be reborn in one of the three higher realms (heavenly, demi-god, human)

The Motivation of Personal Happiness and Freedom
There are those that have the knowledge that it doesn’t matter which realm they are born into all of them are still part of samsara which means there’s no freedom from suffering so that motivates them to take refuge with the aim of personal nirvana and to be free from all of samsara’s sufferings.

The Motivation of an Open Heart
Seeing how all beings are lost in the great forgetting, whipped by the winds of karma, lost in the ocean of samsara and undergoing an unimaginable variety of torments motivates them to take refuge with the idea of establishing all sentient beings in the unsurpassable and omniscient state of perfect and complete Buddhahood.

Different Layers/Types of Refuge *

  • One takes refuge in the Buddha as the teacher, in the Dharma as the path, and in the Sangha as companions along the way.
  • One takes refuge by offering body, speech and mind to the teacher, and asks for help and support from the Bodhisattva’s and spiritual beings from the lineages
  • One takes refuge in the rapid path whereby one uses the channels as the nirrnanakaya, trains the energies as the sambhogakaya and purifies the essences as the dharmakaya.
  • The ultimate and infallible refuge in the indestructible natural state is based on the primal wisdom inherent in the refuge.That wisdom’s essential nature is emptiness;
    its natural expression is clarity;
    and its compassion is all-pervasive.Taking refuge here means to realize in one’s own mindstream, with total confidence, the great inseparability of these three aspects of primal wisdom.

Going for Refuge – Seeing a New Possibility

As we prepare to go for refuge we may have discovered that something has shifted in us. That we’ve begun to see the fleeting changing nature of samsara – everything changes and nothing stays the same aside from the clear light nature of Mind – but we’ve also discovered another aspect of impermanence – that because all things change that means that we too can change. That anyone can change. That each and every one of us has the potential to be a true blessing to the world.

You can start to see the possibility for all of humanity to awaken because you’ve experienced it firsthand in your own life.

As you grown in wisdom, peace and compassion
Then your home begins to be filled with that energy
As your home is infused with awakening – so will your family be influenced by that power
When the family is wise, peaceful and compassionate then the community changes
As the community becomes wise, peaceful and compassionate then the country changes
As the country becomes wise, peaceful and compassionate then the world changes
So as you grow into your own inherent potential you are actually growing the whole world

Sangharakshita said,

This is what you see when your Dharma eye opens. You see not only the fact of impermanence, the fact that everything changes, but also the possibility of human growth and development, the possibility of the transformation of ordinary humanity into Enlightened humanity or Buddhahood.

When that kind of Insight is developed, and your Dharma eye opens, something tremendous happens. To use another traditional Buddhist image, you ‘enter the stream’ – the stream that leads directly to nirvana. Your whole being now flows irreversibly in the direction of Enlightenment. This is the ‘real’ Going for Refuge, the ‘Transcendental’ Going for Refuge’.


  • (Slightly Adapted from the Words of my Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche)