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Buddhism 101 - Be a lamp upon yourself

The Triple Gem


When we wish to become Buddhists formally, the first step is to go to the Triple Gem- the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for refuge. It is an expression of one’s faith and determination in walking the Buddha’s path. Since the time of the Buddha, taking this Threefold Refuge has identified a person as a Buddhist.


Why Take Refuge?

If we observe the world carefully, we will notice much pain, suffering and frustration experienced by all. We will look for a way to end these distressing conditions just as a traveller caught in a storm seeks shelter. If he finds shelter in a strong and safe building, he will call out to the others struggling in the storm to join him in his refuge. Similarly, one chooses to become a Buddhist when he understands who the Buddha is and how the Triple Gem can provide him the way to end suffering. Out of Compassion, he also encourages others to take the same refuge.

The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are called the Triple Gem because they represent qualities excellent and precious like a gem. Once we recognise these unique qualities after careful consideration and are confident that the Triple Gem can lead us towards happiness and Enlightenment, we take refuge in it. Therefore, it is not out of mere faith, but with an open-minded attitude and enquiring spirit that we begin practising the Buddha’s Teaching.


The word "Buddha" means the "Fully Enlightened One", or the "Awakened One". It is the title given to those who have attained supreme and perfect Enlightenment. Buddhists acknowledge the Buddha as the embodiment of the highest Morality, deepest Concentration, and perfect Wisdom. The Buddha is also known to His followers as the "Perfected One" because He has eradicated all Craving, Ill Will and Ignorance, having overcome all unwholesome actions, putting an end to all suffering.

The Buddha is the Fully Enlightened One because He has realised the Truth and sees things as they really are. He knows through His perfect Wisdom, what is good and what is not good for everyone. Out of Compassion He shows us the path leading towards True Happiness.

The Buddha’s exemplary Conduct, perfect Wisdom and great Compassion make Him an excellent teacher. Using skillful means, He is able to reach out to all His followers so that they can understand His Teaching.

The Buddha as a Doctor

Refuge is likened to the doctor, medicine and nurse a sick person relies upon to be cured. We are like a sick person as we are afflicted with many unsatisfactory situations in life. Seeking a solution, we consult a qualified doctor, the Buddha who diagnoses the cause of our illness and the disturbing attitudes and the confused actions we have done under their influence. Then He prescribes the medicine of the Dharma, the teachings on how to gain the realisations leading to Enlightenment.


The Buddha taught the Dharma solely out of Compassion for all who suffer in the cycle of birth and death. The Dharma is therefore taught without any selfish motives. It is well taught and completely good, by nature pure and bright like a light that destroys the darkness of ignorance. When the Dharma is studied and practised, it brings many benefits now and in the future.

The Dharma is the Teaching about the nature of life. This Teaching of the Buddha is contained in the collection of scriptures called the Tripitaka. These consist of the sermons (Sutra Pitaka) taught by the Buddha, the disciplinary rules of the monastic community (Vinaya Pitaka) and the philosophy and psychology of Buddhism (Abhidharma Pitaka).

We get to know about the Dharma by reading the scriptures. We can also learn from the writings and explanations of qualified teachers. Once we have familiarised ourselves with the Dharma through reading and listening, we have to realise its truth for ourselves by putting it into practice. This means purifying our conduct and cultivating Mental Development until the Teaching becomes part of our own experience.

The Dharma as Medicine

We must practice the Dharma, which is like the medicine the Buddha gave us, to attain Enlightenment. It is not enough just to hear the Dharma. We have to actively apply it in our daily lives and in our relationships with others. This means we try to be mindful and notice when disturbing attitudes arise. Then, we apply the remedies enabling us to perceive the situation clearly. If sick people have medicine but don’t take it, they never get cured. Similarly, we may have an elaborate shrine at home and a huge library of Dharma books but if we, for example, do not apply patience when we meet a person who annoys us, we miss an opportunity to practise.


The Sangha that a Buddhist takes refuge in is the community of Noble Ones who have led exemplary lives and attained extraordinary insight into the true nature of things. Their lives and achievements show others that it is possible to progress on the path to Enlightenment.

However, the Sangha also generally refers to the fourfold community of monks (bhikkhus), nuns (bhikkunis), men and women lay followers (though "Sangha" is usually used to address monks and nuns who have renounced the lay life to practice and teach the Dharma full time.) Monks and nuns are respected for their good conduct and experience in meditation. They are also respected for their diligence, mindfulness and calmness. Wise and learned, they are able teachers of the Dharma, like trusted friends who inspire us along the path of Good Conduct.

The lay followers accept the Four Noble Truths and the other teachings of the Buddha and seek happiness and Enlightenment as their common goal in life. They also uphold common moral values. Thus a Buddhist can look to other members of the lay community for help and advice in times of need.

The Sangha as Nurses

The Sangha are like nurses who help us take the medicine of Dharma. The nurses remind us when we forget which pills to take. If we have difficulty swallowing huge pills, the nurses break them into smaller pieces for us. Similarly, the Sangha helps us practise the Dharma correctly when we are confused. Any fellow practitioner who is more advanced than us can be our spiritual friends who help us.

The Journey to Enlightenment

To better understand the idea of taking refuge, imagine a traveller who wants to visit a distant city where he has never been. He will need a guide, a path to follow and even travelling companions on the way. A Buddhist working towards attaining happiness and Enlightenment is like this traveller. The Buddha is his "guide", the Dharma his "path" and the Sangha his "travelling companions."

Taking Refuge

One expresses intention of taking the Triple Gem as as refuge by repeating the following lines thrice:

"I go to the Buddha for refuge.
I go to the Dharma for refuge.
I go to the Sangha for refuge."

These lines can be repeated by one alone before an image of the Buddha or repeated line by line after a monk. A Buddhist may repeat the Threefold Refuge daily to remind himself that he has made a commitment to attain the goal of happiness and Enlightenment through the guidance and inspiration of the Triple Gem.

Benefits of Taking Refuge

Taking the Threefold Refuge is the first step on the path to Enlightenment. Thereafter, through Good Conduct and Mental Development, self-mastery, Wisdom and Compassion is achieved. Even if Enlightenment is not achieved in this life, one who takes refuge in the Triple Gem is more likely to have favourable conditions for attaining Enlightenment in a future life.

Source: Phor Kark See web page, http://www.kmspks.org

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