The recitation of the formula I go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for refuge to the dharma. I go for refuge to the sangha’ (recited three times) is the most fundamental Buddhist practice, the Buddhist correlate to the confession of faith. The practice of taking refuge is said to derive from the days following the Buddha’s enlightenment. He had remained in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree meditating for seven weeks, without eating. A deity informed two passing merchants that a nearby yogin had recently achieved buddhahood and suggested that they pay their respects. They offered him his first meal as a buddha (some honey cakes), which he received in a bowl provided for him by the four gods of the cardinal directions. They then bowed down before him and said,
‘We take refuge in the Buddha and in the dharma.’ (Because the Buddha did not yet have any disciples, there was no sangha.) The Buddha presented them with a lock of his hair and his fingernails and instructed them to enshrine them in a stupa.
The refuge formula itself was prescribed by the Buddha shortly thereafter. After the conversion of his five old friends, all of whom became arhats, the Buddha taught the dharma to the wealthy merchant’s son Yasa and fifty-four of his friends. They also became monks and arhats, bringing to sixty the number of enlightened disciples. The Buddha then sent them out to teach, explaining that a monk could admit a layman into the monkhood if he shaved his hair and beard, donned a yellow robe, bowed at the monk’s feet, and then, sitting on his heels with joined palms, said three times, ‘I go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for refuge to the dharma. I go for refuge to the sangha.’ (This method of ordination was later replaced; see Chapters 25 and 26.)
The Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha are called the three jewels (triratna), because they are rare and of great value. Given the centrality of the refuge formula as the point of entry into the practice of Buddhism and as the sign that distinguishes the Buddhist from the followers of other teachers, it is unsurprising that these three terms, their definition, their relation to each other and the significance of their order received extensive commentary, which often made clever use of true and false cognates, of which Buddhist scholars are so fond. The word dharma is derived from the Sanskrit root Vdhr, meaning ‘to hold’. It is explained, then, that the dharma is that which upholds those who follow the path and holds them back from falling into suffering. Exactly what the dharma is is much discussed, with some holding that the true dharma is only nirvana, others saying that it includes both nirvana and the path to it. Others speak of the verbal dharma, the spoken explication of the path, and the realized dharma, the manifestation of those teachings in one’s mind. The constitution of the sangha is also considered. Although the term is used loosely to include the community of Buddhists, in the refuge formula it is used more exclusively to include those who have achieved at least the first level of the path and are destined to achieve nirvana. The Buddha is mentioned first because he is the teacher of refuge; the dharma is mentioned next because it is the actual refuge; the sangha is mentioned third because it is they who help others to find that refuge.
The three jewels are also explained in terms of similes, as in the selection below. It is drawn from a text called Paramatthajotika (Illustrator of the Ultimate Meaning’), traditionally ascribed to the great scholar monk Buddhaghosa (fourth to fifth century ce), commenting on the refuge formula as it appears in a Pali text called the Khuddakapatha (‘Minor Readings’).
The Buddha is like the full moon; the dharma taught by him is like the shedding of the moon’s effulgence; and the sangha is like the world inspired with happiness by the effulgence of the full moon. The Buddha is like the rising sun; the dharma as already stated is like the web of his rays; and the sangha is like the world rid by him of darkness. The Buddha is like a man who burns a jungle; the dharma, which burns up the jungle of defilements, is like the fire which burns the jungle; and the sangha, which has become a field of merit since its defilements have been burnt up, is like the piece of ground which has become a field [for sowing] since its jungle has been burnt up. The Buddha is like the great rain-cloud; the dharma is like a downpour of rain; and the sangha, in which the dust of defilement has been laid, is like the countryside in which the dust has been laid by the fall of rain. The Buddha is like a good trainer [of thoroughbreds]; the true dharma is like the means for the disciplining of thoroughbred horses; and the sangha is like a mass of well-disciplined thoroughbreds. The Buddha is like a dart- extractor because he removes all darts of [wrong] views; the dharma is like the means for removing the darts; and the sangha, from whom the darts of [wrong] views have been removed, is like people from whom darts have been removed. Or else the Buddha is like a lancet-user because he dissects away the cataract of delusion; the dharma is like the means for dissecting the cataract away; and the sangha, whose eye of knowledge is cleared by the dissecting away of the cataract of delusion, is like people whose eyes are cleared with the dissecting away of the cataract. Or else the Buddha is like a clever physician because he is able to cure the sickness consisting in defilement by underlying tendencies; the dharma is like a rightly applied medicine; and the sangha, whose underlying tendencies to the sickness of defilement are quite cured, is like people whose sickness is quite cured by the application of the medicine. Or else the Buddha is like a good guide; the dharma is like a good path to a land of safety; and the sangha is like [people] who enter upon the path and reach the land of safety. The Buddha is like a good pilot; the dharma is like a ship; and the sangha is like people who have succeeded in reaching the farther shore. The Buddha is like the Himalaya Mountain; the dharma is like the healing herbs that are given their being by that mountain; and the sangha is like people free from ailment owing to the use of the healing herbs. The Buddha is like a bestower of riches; the dharma is like the riches; and the sangha, which has rightly obtained the noble one’s riches, is like people who have obtained riches in the way hoped for. The Buddha is like one who shows a hidden treasure-store; the dharma is like the hidden-treasure store; and the sangha is like people who have found the hidden treasure-store. Furthermore, the Buddha is like a steadfast man who gives protection from fear; the dharma is the protection from fear; and the sangha, which has found complete protection from fear, is like people who have found protection from fear. The Buddha is like a consoler; the dharma is like a consolation; and the sangha is like people consoled. The Buddha is like a good friend; the dharma is like helpful advice; and the sangha is like people who have reached all their aims through following the helpful advice. The Buddha is like a mine of riches; the dharma is like the vein of riches; and the sangha is like people who exploit the vein of riches. The Buddha is like one who bathes a prince; the dharma is like the water for washing the head; and the sangha, which has been well bathed in the water of the true dharma, is like a company of well-bathed princes. The Buddha is like the maker of an ornament; the dharma is like the ornament; and the sangha, which is adorned with the true dharma, is like a party of kings’ sons wearing ornaments. The Buddha is like a sandalwood tree; the dharma is like the scent given its being by that [tree]; and the sangha, whose fever has been quelled by the true dharma, is like people whose fever has been quelled by the use of sandalwood. The Buddha is like the bestower of an inheritance; the true dharma is like the inheritance; and the sangha, which is heir to the heritage consisting of the true dharma, is like a company of children who are heirs to the inheritance. The Buddha is like an opened lotus flower; the dharma is like the honey being given its being by that [flower]; and the sangha is like a swarm of bees making use of that [honey].
From ‘The Three Refuges (Saranattayam)’, in The Minor Readings (Khuddakapafha), trans. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Pali Text Society Translation Series, No. 32 (London: Luzac & Company, Ltd, 1960), pp. 14-16.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.