In the Therav?da Buddhist Tradition the followers before performing any rites and rituals, chanting, recitation of suttas etc. Usually take refuge in the triple gems (tiratana), namely: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sa?gha. The sentences they utter are:
buddha? sara?a? gacch?mi
I go for refuge in the Buddha
dhamma? sara?a? gacch?mi
I go for refuge in the dhamma
sangha? sara?a? gacch?mi
I go for refuge in the sa?gha
Most of the times the followers recite the verses habitually or as a tradition without pondering on their meanings and significance. While they are still young, they recite them by following their parents. When they grow up, they recite them as a tradition. When they become old, they still do the recitation as a habit. And thus they do the recitation in their whole life without understanding the underlying meaning of the triple gems. Therefore they do not benefit from the recitations.
During the Gotama Buddha’s time, Indian people would take refuge in the triple gems and became disciples of the Buddha after listening to his teachings carefully and understanding them thoroughly. In other word, an individual would request the Buddha to accept him as his disciple after becoming after the Dhammic eye had arisen in him as a result of listening to the Buddha’s discourse. In other cases, some took refuge in the triple gems after having comprehended the Reality of Nature as dependent co-arising, the three universal characteristics of the phenomenal existence and the working of karma. A basic intellectual understanding of the meaning and practical significance of the triple gems should be acquired before we take refuge in them.
The teachings of the Buddha serve a practical purpose. The phrase used to explain the nature of his teaching is ‘sandi??iko’ – it is visible (here and now). But with lack of wisdom we do not see it or receive the benefit from his teachings.
While taking refuge in the Buddha, we have to have some understanding about who or what Buddha is. Most people say that Buddha is none other than the Prince Siddhattha who was born and raised into the Royal Family of Sakyan, got married with Yasodhara, had a son named Rahula, renounced the home-life and became Buddha under the bodhi tree at Budh Gaya after six years of meditation. That is ok, but not the complete answer to the question what a Buddha is. The term Buddha is derived from the root √budh (to know). Therefore a Buddha is one who had known or understood the reality as it is (yath?bh?ta?). Taking refuge in the Buddha means vowing to become wise, and finding out the Buddha-nature within oneself. It is not just mechanically worshiping the statue of the Buddha, offering various kinds of foods, flowers etc. and in return asking for something else. The ordinary or common Buddhists usually do such thing. In return for their offerings to the Buddha they ask for better health, wealth, son or daughter (if they do not have one), some even ask for the death of their enemies. And when their desires are not fulfilled they say the Buddha is blind to their wishes. They stop going to temples and turn themselves into other belief systems which, they think, can fulfill their desires.
We now understand why the Buddha after attaining the enlightenment did not want to preach the Dhamma to the humanity. Because the Dhamma that he realized was abstruse, profound, difficult to perceive and subtle. The teaching of the Buddha is for wise and intelligent people, not for the foolish. For the foolish people the Buddha is misunderstood as the all-knowing God. But in reality Buddha is just a super human being (uttari manussa). And this potentiality of becoming a super human is present in every sentient being. The only thing is that they do not know how to discover it from within. And therefore we need to follow the Buddha’s teachings, that is, the Dhamma. We read in the Buddhist literature and history that many of his disciple attained enlightenment after following the instructions given by the Buddha. And therefore they were called anubuddha-s.
Next when we take refuge in the Dhamma, it means we are committed to uphold his teachings. Why? Because his teaching has a practical purpose. If it is properly followed it brings peace to the individual as well as to society. The Dhamma in brief refers to the thirty seven factors of enlightenment (bodhipakkhiyadhmm?). It includes 1) four frames of mindfulness, 2) four right exertions, 3) four bases of power, 4) five faculties, 5) five powers, 6) seven factors of awakening, and 7) the noble eightfold path [to have a clear understanding see: Wings to Awakening by Bhikkhu Tanissaro]. The instructions on how one should practice the Dhamma are found everywhere in the Canon. We have to remember that the Buddha is only the shower of the path and we have to walk on the path if we want to get its benefits. The Buddha also says one indeed is one’s own master (attano n?tho), one’s own refuge (atta sara?a). Who else can be his refuge ? Even at the time of his great demise the Buddha says “all conditioned things are impermanent; work out your salvation with diligence”. Therefore the abovementioned sayings of the Buddha reveal that the happiness and suffering are all in our hand. If we wish to get happiness we have to follow the instructions given by the Buddha.
Etymologically, the word ‘Dhamma’ is derived from the root ‘√dh?’ meaning “to hold, support etc. It also means ‘law’, ‘duty’, ‘nature’, ‘characteristics’ etc. In the case of taking refuge in the Dhamma it means undertaking certain responsibilities or duties. Buddhism always emphasizes that one should understand his position and should perform his duties honestly accordingly. Of course the underlying principle is that the work has to be beneficial not harmful to oneself and others. So taking refuge in theDhamma means performing one’s own duties perfectly. If everyone follows this noble principle then a peaceful environment would prevail in every family, society and even country.
We do not take refuge in the Sa?gha wishing them (the enlightened monks) to come back and help us get rid of our suffering state. But instead taking refuge in the Sa?gha is imitating the spirit of cohesive living of the monastic community. The members of the community of monks are wise because they learn the Dhamma. They adhere to Vinaya. Thus, they are able to live together peacefully. Therefore, the meaning of taking refuge in the Sa?gha is to live in unity and harmony helping each other in a living community like the members of the monastic community.
From the above discussion we now understand that taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sa?gha actually means becoming wise, performing one’s duties perfectly and living together happily. Thus by truly taking refuge in the Triple Gems we learn to create a peaceful environment and lead a happy living.