In his acceptance of the Three Refuges, the essential point to be stressed is that the aspirant should develop a very fervent desire to behold the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. While maintaining a spirit of self-sacrifice in relationship to the Bodhisattva Dharma, extended to body, mind and even life, one should forge a vow in the following manner:
"I, namely so and so, as a disciple of the Buddha, vow to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha throughout my entire life."
While uttering this vow, one should maintain a spirit of great devotion and solace. When one repeats this vow while prostrating to the Buddha, one comes to feel great awe as if a great mountain had exploded in front of him. One may experience great solace just as a nursing child deprived of milk might experience if suddenly he met his lovely mother and had an overwhelming impulse to surrender himself into her arms. These wholesome emotions, coupled with repentance and joy, are kindled in one's heart. Having experienced skillful mental states such as the above, one states the following:
"I, namely so and so, accept the Three Refuges for the remainder of my life, and, feeling Like a bird who once had lost its nest and has once again returned to its home forest or like an infant who is dependent upon his loving mother, I vow never to stray away at midday (i.e. before the end of my life) and will always hold these Refuges with great devotion."
These Refuges are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, otherwise known as the Three Precious Ones, or the Triple Jewel, precious here meaning valuable and worthy of respect. By taking refuge, as understood here, we are also simultaneously taking refuge in the Triple Jewel within ourselves. This means that our own fundamentally enlightened mind is the Buddha; our speech, used to teach and aid living beings, is the Dharma; and our bodies and behavior are the symbols of the Sangha, the enlightened community of Noble Ones.
We first go for refuge to the Buddha. Buddhameans the Enlightened One, who has fully accomplished Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi,the Perfect Complete Awakening. Therefore, the appellation given to enlightened ones is simply Buddha.This title has been used since the original period of the Buddha's teaching in India. The founder of the Buddhist religion was called Sakyamuni, or sage of the Sakya clan; but after he achieved the Supreme Awakening, he was thenceforth called Sakyamuni Buddha. We go for refuge to Sakyamuni Buddha but, simultaneously, take refuge in all Buddhas of the ten directions and in the three periods of time. Because the epithet Buddhadenotes the attainment of perfect virtue and wisdom, there is complete equality between Sakyamuni Buddha and all other Buddhas. So even though we go for refuge to our original teacher, Sakyamuni, it is reasonable that we also, at the same time, take refuge in all the other Buddhas of the ten directions and the three time periods. Taking refuge voluntarily, one should concentrate all the energy of one1s Dharma practice to realize the perfection of blessedness and wisdom; i.e., one should also harbor no pride whatsoever about one's small storehouse of virtue and wisdom. With feelings of pity and sadness for the unskillful, one should always maintain a sense of reverence within oneself and dwell in delight and peace.
Secondly, we go for refuge to the Dharma. Because all Buddhas depend on the Dharma as their teacher, the Dharma is recognized as the most important refuge. The Buddha was enlightened by and practiced in accordance with the Dharma. After his attainment of Bodhi, the Buddha taught all his disciples to practice Dharma and reap the fruit just as he had. One's heart and mind should incline naturally toward the Dharma, and one should feel as if his whole body were embraced by the Dharma.
Thirdly, we go for refuge to the Sangha, the present superintendent of the Three Precious Ones. In India, Sanghaoriginally meant harmony. The ability of the assembly to harmonize and stay together is called Sangha. When more than four people live together in harmony, the term Sanghacan be applied to describe the situation. According to the Buddhadharma, if disciples leave home to practice (i.e., to become Bhiksus or Bhiksunis) and dwell harmoniously together in a vihara, they are called a Sangha. According to the Theravada teaching, those who have practiced and attained the various stages of liberation and the sanctity of the Three Vehicles make up the Sangha of Arahants and Sages. According to the Mahayana teaching, disciples practicing the Bodhisattva Dharma and attaining its fruit make up the Bodhisattva Sangha. When we go for refuge to the Sangha, we should include all the various meanings of the term in our understanding.
However, in the beginning stages of Dharma study, it is more important that we take refuge in the present superintendent Sangha of disciples who have left home. The transmission of the Buddhadharma in this world depends upon this present Sangha to protect and actualize the Teachings. We take refuge with and depend upon them to learn the practice path to Bodhi. Therefore, we take refuge to link up with the tradition of Bodhisattva Dharma practice and initially are not so concerned with which teacher is the wisest and who has developed the highest wisdom and virtue in former lives. We should be primarily concerned with cultivating our own good roots, developing harmony with everyone and universally aiding them to achieve minds concentrated in and focused upon the Buddhadharma.
One who takes refuge should understand that the Buddha is all-virtuous and worthy of all respect and that the Buddha-Mind represents the incomparable field of bliss and blessings in this world. We should understand that the Dharma is a complete teaching that is full of principles explicitly outlining the path to the Supreme Awakening. The Sangha should be understood to be the pure Dharma teacher, excellent in conduct and expedient methods of instruction. In this manner, regarding the Three Precious Ones with deep admiration, we can successfully go for refuge, even to the end of our lives, with full confidence in the practice path. Thus, without recourse to religious or philosophical views, we shall always remain disciples of the Buddha. This, then, is the beginning of the determination to achieve the Bodhisattva Mind in the practice of Bodhisattva Dharma.