How does one initially become a Buddhist?
Any person can be a Buddhist. One does not have to be "born" into Buddhism, nor do one's parents have to be Buddhists. One can be of any race, country, socio-economic background, gender, etc. People wishing to identify themselves as Buddhists typically participate in a ceremony known as taking refuge in the Triple Gem. This is the simple act of reciting the refuge verse three times before a monastic. The refuge verse expresses an individual's confidence in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha as a means to alleviating suffering and attaining enlightenment. In accepting the path of the Triple Gem, one also agrees to observe the Five Precepts or rules which engender good conduct.
The meaning of taking refuge in the Triple Gem.
All Buddhists following the proper practice should take refuge in the Triple Gem as their first step. By taking refuge, one declare that he is a disciple of the Triple Gem. Triple Gem is the collective name for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem means "go to" and "rely on" the Triple Gem, to ask for help and get deliverance from sorrows. It is like children who feel safe in the protection of their parents. Old people find confidence if they go about with a walking stick. Sailors need the compass so that they will have a safe passage, and the people walking at night require bright street lights so that they can see which way to go.
The Triple Gem is also like a compass to us. We rely on it to find a safe harbour on the big ocean. Continual recitation of the refuge formula can bring about the support of the Triple Gem. We can overcome life's misery to find our true self, a haven in this life and in the future.
Buddha is the Pali word for the Fully Enlightened One. Out of deep compassion, the Buddha taught people the way to end suffering and to gain enlightenment.
Dharma refers to Buddha's teachings to overcome desire, ill-will and ignorance in order to liberate people from the cycle of birth and death. The Dharma includes the Tripitaka (the sutras, vinaya and sastras) and the Twelve Divisions of the Mahayana Canon.
Sangha is the Pali word meaning "group harmony". Sangha here refers to the monks and nuns in the community. The two main characteristics of the monastic community are:
- all members in the monastic community try to end attachments as their common goal.
- to achieve group harmony, members are required to strictly observe the following rules:
1. Unity in thoughts.
2. Equal rights for all members of the community.
3. Equal financial standing for all members.
4. Promotion and the sharing of common interests.
5. Being kind and courteous to each other in words.
6. Considerations and goodwill to others.
As a result, the monastic community provides an ideal environment for individual cultivation as well as forming an important base for the teaching of Dharma to the wider community.
In another word, the Buddha is the Saviour, the Dharma the truth and the Sangha the teacher. These are the basic and essential requirements for one's cultivation. As an example, a patient needs the diagnosis of a good doctor (the Buddha), for the treatment of some serious illness we require correct medicine (the Dharma) and to recover we need people to give us assistance (the Sangha). In the same way, we have to rely on the help of the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha for our cultivation.
"Gem" normally describes precious stones. In our endeavours strive to be liberated from the distress of this life, the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha are the most precious Gems we have.
A person might have made countless offerings in the shrines but without actually taking part in the refuge ceremony, one is regarded only as an interested bystander of the Buddhist way. This is likened to being an unregistered student who is allowed to attend classes unofficially as an observer.
One taking refuge should also have the right understanding and the right view. As well as having strong beliefs in cause and effect, and "to practice all virtues and cease all evil deeds." Only by this way can we discover the real benefits of the Dharma and uphold our beliefs.
-From the book, Entry Into the Profound: a first step to understanding Buddhism and the booklet, The Significance of Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem & the Five Precepts published by International Buddhist Association of Australia Incorporated.