Get Your Buddhist Membership Card: Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem

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I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.

What does it mean to be called a “Buddhist”?  And what exactly do you have to do to “become” a Buddhist?

Both of these questions have an easy answer, and also a more complex one, which I will cover in this article.  If you are interested in taking the next step and becoming an “official” Buddhist, you will learn how to start your journey today!

This article is part of a series on the basics of Buddhism.  Click here to view more.  

The Buddhist Membership Card

We do not have actual “membership cards” in Buddhism (darn!).  However being a Buddhist does allow you the opportunity to get access to some exclusive [Dharma] doors! (that is a bit of Buddhist humor which you will understand after you become a member)

However if you do want a membership card, here is my gift to you…a do-it-yourself “Buddhist Membership Card”!  Although this card will not get you into any trendy clubs in a Las Vegas hotel, and won’t even get you a discount on your meal, it can be used by you to remind yourself of the commitment you made to becoming a Buddhist.  Click the image below to get a high quality PDF you can print out complete with instructions.

Speaking of membership cards, I always think of the song “Signs” by the Five Man Electric Band.  At about 2:10 minutes into the song (video below) they sing “the sign says you gotta have a membership card to get inside“.  While that is true for most ‘clubs’, Buddhism does not actually require you to “be” a Buddhist to get inside!  But more on that later.

Taking Refuge:  Becoming an Official Buddhist

Alan Peto’s group photo for the Five Precepts ceremony in 2017 at Hsi Lai Temple

When we talk about “becoming” an official Buddhist, we are specifically talking about taking “refuge” in the Triple Gem.

The Triple Gem consists of the most important parts for any follower of Buddhism to always abide in.  That consists of the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (the monastic community).

But why “Triple Gem”?  This is a bit of Buddhist symbolism, and teachings of the Buddha.

  • “Gem” refers to something precious, which is a great analogy for the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha.  These three things make up the core of our Buddhist faith, so they are precious to any Buddhist.
  • The Buddha, on his deathbed, told his followers to be a refuge to themselves and not anyone else.  We follow that today with the Triple Gem.  When we take refuge in these three things, we are not going against the Buddha’s last words, but recognizing that we have the Buddha’s wisdom within us as well (Buddha-nature) to realize Nirvana.  However we are often clouded to this fact, and need external forces (the Triple Gem) to help guide us towards realizing our true nature (Nirvana/Buddha-nature).  The Buddha is our teacher, the Dharma is his teachings which becomes our ‘life raft’ that gives us all we need to get to the ‘other shore’ (essentially saving us from the endless cycle of rebirth by helping us realizing our true nature), and the Sangha is the community of monastics that continue to provide us direction and teachings to help us grow, and in turn we support the monastics so they can continue in their practice.

Wow, that’s a lot…I know.

The most important thing to know about taking refuge in the Triple Gem is that it means you want to become a Buddhist because you want to realize Nirvana.  Why do you want to realize Nirvana?  Because you are tired of being a prisoner in this self-created prison that causes nothing but suffering.

Taking refuge is a starting point – a commitment.  You want to walk the Noble Eightfold Path which leads you to Nirvana.  By officially taking refuge, you are not making a commitment to a god or deity, but to yourself.  Just “being into” Buddhism is not enough, you have to show faith, dedication, and commitment by taking refuge.  If you don’t make a commitment (taking refuge), you are passive in any sort of practice of Buddhism, which also means you have nothing to hold yourself to (which ultimately leads to a passive practice that yields no results).

If you are ready for that commitment, the Triple Gem refuge is your starting point on the path and often a Buddhist temple will help you prepare for it.  You should not “just take” refuge, but understand what it means by attending Buddhist classes, talking with monastics, and wanting to be a Buddhist.

An example of what you may recite at such a ceremony is as follows:

  1. I take refuge in the Buddha, wishing that all sentient beings understand the Dharma and make the supreme vow.
  2. I take refuge in the Dharma, wishing that all sentient beings study the sutras diligently and obtain an ocean of wisdom.
  3. I take refuge in the Sangha, wishing that all sentient beings lead the masses in harmony without obstruction.

The ceremony can vary greatly depending on your school of Buddhism, and the temple and monastic performing it.  For very large Buddhist temples and organizations like the one I took refuge under (Fo Guang Shan at Hsi Lai Temple), there is a well established process and structure that is followed worldwide.  We are able to wear robes (as shown in the picture below), and even receive a certificate showing we have taken refuge in the Triple Gem.

In Fo Guang Shan, the actual refuge you recite might go like this:

I, disciple (your name), for the rest of my life, take refuge in the Buddha, the incomparably honored one. I, (your name) for the rest of my life, take refuge in the Dharma, honored for being away from defilements. I, (your name) for the rest of my life, take refuge in the Sangha, most honored among sentient beings.

(Repeat three times.)

I have taken refuge in the Buddha. I have taken refuge in the Dharma. I have taken refuge in the Sangha.

(Repeat three times.)

What Is a Buddhist?

Monastic and Laypersons. CC0 Photo by reginaphotos on Pixabay

So all this talk about becoming an “official Buddhist” sounds really great, right?  Here is the kicker:  “Buddhist” is just a made up word, and the Buddha never used it.

That is not to say the word and meaning of “Buddhist” is pointless, just that calling ourselves “Buddhist” is also just another thing to help us along the path towards Nirvana.

As humans, we like to identify with things and religion is one of them.  As Buddhists, the term identifies us as followers and practitioners of the Buddha and his teachings.  To non-Buddhists, it identifies us as following a certain lifestyle and/or set of beliefs and actions.

Regardless, the one thing I have always loved is that everyone is actually a Buddhist.  What this means is that if we trace back to the Buddha’s first words after his enlightenment (“Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments”), we realize that everyone is actually capable of being just like the Buddha (which we call Buddha-nature).  This means that anyone can be enlightened and realize Nirvana regardless of calling themselves a “Buddhist”.

For example, the Buddha was not a Buddhist!  Yet that is an extreme example as each age has its own Buddha, and we are in the age of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings.  Each “Buddha” has gone through countless Kalpas of work as Bodhisattva’s to reach that level.  They may have never called themselves “Buddhist” like we do in this era, but they were still following the path.

It is a wonderful thing to know of a Buddha’s teachings, because without it we are like a ship lost in the middle of a dark ocean without seeing a lighthouse.   In our 21st century world, we have endless resources, teachers, and information about the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha which we refer to as “Buddhism”.

To take refuge in the Triple Gem, we are offered a wonderful opportunity that rarely happens:  the ability to have the teachings of a Buddha so readily accessible to us, and a community of practitioners (monastics) to help us (so we can eventually become a monastic in a future rebirth) and for us to help them (since it is a rare opportunity, and they have the fortunate conditions to become a monastic).

We may never have such an “easy” opportunity to follow the Buddha’s teachings in the future, so let’s seize the opportunity!  Taking the Triple Gem Refuge is one easy, but significant, thing we can do towards ending our imprisonment in samsara (the cycle of birth and death)!

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