We become Buddhists through participating in the ceremony of refuge.
Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels
The first step in practicing Buddhism is taking refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, his teachings and the community of buddhists). Taking refuge means relying on these Three Jewels so that they become the main focus of our lives.
We take refuge when we realize that the worldly objects that we rely on for happiness are not stable and cannot provide lasting freedom from suffering.
We takes Refuge in the historical Buddha, the supreme Teacher who lived in India 2,500 years ago. Taking Refuge in the Buddha also means relying on our own innate potential to achieve the same state of enlightenment as the Buddha.
The dharma is the Buddha’s teaching. The dharma provides the means of achieving the state of buddhahood. Taking Refuge in the dharma means having confidence in your own experiences of the value and effectiveness of the dharma.
The sangha is the Buddhist community, the spiritual companions with you practice the dharma. The sangha also represents beings who have achieved great realisation and spiritual understanding by following the Buddha’s teaching.
The Lama or Guru
While the teacher is important in all levels of Buddhist practice, in the Vajrayana the lama is the living embodiment of the Three Jewels of Refuge. He or she is able to transmit directly to us the liberating teachings of the Buddha and advise us on the path to enlightenment.
By taking Refuge, we start to travel the path and make a connection with the fundamental reality of the awakened state of mind, represented by the Lama and the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).
The Refuge Ceremony
The refuge ceremony begins when we enter the shrine room making three prostrations to the lama and the Three Jewels.
The teacher may then recite various prayers while we sit before him, and perhaps give a brief explanation of some of the points concerning refuge. We recite after him three times the verses of taking refuge in the Three Jewels and ask to be accepted as a lay follower from this day forward.
The lama will then ask three times, “Have you understood the method?” and we answer “Yes,” each time.
The lama will subsequently cut a small lock of hair from our head to symbolize our entry into dharma and will then give us a refuge name. The ceremony concludes with the prayers for dedication of merit and for the increase of auspicious conditions.
These prayers of dedication express the wish that all the benefits that arise out of taking refuge will spread outwards to those around us and ultimately to all sentient beings. Finally, we make an offering to the lama before we leave the shrine room.
Having taken refuge, from then on we repeat the verses of taking refuge in the lama and the Three Jewels at the start of each meditation session and we recite prayers of dedication of merit at its conclusion.
Before we take refuge we should have decided that the Three Jewels – consisting of the Buddha, the dharma (the teachings) and the sangha (community) – provide the best means of refuge, since Buddha’s teaching surpasses that of any other religious teacher. For this reason, once we have taken refuge in the Three Jewels, we should not take refuge in any other religion nor blend Buddhism and other religions.