Practice Guides September 1, 2017

The Triple Gem & the Three Refuges

Sean Oakes

At the opening of many retreats and practice gatherings, we chant the short invocation known as “going for refuge.” The three refuges, which invoke the “Triple Gem” or "Three Jewels" of Buddha, Dharma (Pāli: Dhamma), and Saṅgha, are a grounding and intention-setting ritual, an affirmation of our confidence in the path, and a teaching on what to rely on for support in a challenging world.

The Triple Gem

  1. Buddha, referring both to the historical Buddha (Siddhattha Gotama of the Sakyan clan of Magadha in the 4th century BCE) and to the "Buddha nature" or potential for Buddhahood innate in each of us
  2. Dharma, or Dhamma (Pāli), referring to the specific teachings of the Buddhist tradition, and to the "truth of the way things are" that is present in every experience
  3. Saṅgha, referring to the Buddhist community of ordained and lay followers, and to the "community of all beings" we all belong to

They are gems because they are precious resources in this world. The teachings on refuge emphasize that the comforting things of this world, even great natural places, because they're impermanent, cannot be reliable refuges.

Many people shaken by fear go for refuge
to mountains and woods, to places with beautiful trees.

That is not a secure refuge, that is not the refuge supreme,
nor is it the refuge to come to that liberates from all suffering.

Whoever has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Saṅgha,
and who sees as it really is the four noble truths.

That is a secure refuge, that is the refuge supreme,
that is the refuge to come to that liberates from all suffering. (Dhp 216-219)

The purpose of the refuges is to show the heart that there is a way to the end of suffering, and that there are reliable resources and supports on the path. The refuges keep one safe from the full impact of hardship and misfortune—the "suffering" of the first Noble Truth—by giving us confidence in the path and the community, the feeling of protection, and not being alone.

Going for Refuge

When we chant the three refuges, we are engaging in a ritual of renewing our faith. Like the phrases we repeat in mettā practice, the refuges may sometimes be filled with emotion but can also become rote and dry. For the refuges to deeply support our practice, however, we need to feel them, and that means connecting with how desperately we need a reliable refuge in this world.

In a world marked by impermanence, suffering, and emptiness, physical safety is impossible to guarantee. The inner safety offered by the refuges is grounded in the wisdom of the Buddha and his community, and their direct experience seeking the most helpful conditions for wisdom and compassion to arise. When you chant or speak the refuges, let them touch the part of you that fears pain and loss, and longs for safety and ease.

In some traditions, going for refuge in a ritual way—chanting the refuges in the presence of a teacher—constitutes conversion to Buddhism and/or to that specific tradition. This is not how our lineage uses the refuges. We do not ask anyone to convert to any kind of Buddhism, nor do we think of the refuge ritual in that way. We understand the refuges to be a practice of turning toward the path, and one that is unique to each practitioner, like any other practice. Some practitioners gain great benefit by feeling that they have converted to Buddhism as their faith, while others are content to benefit from the practices and hold the refuges more as reminders of the beautiful resources offered by the tradition and its community for all those who practice.

For more on the three refuges as a central aspect of Buddhist practice, see the practice guide on Faith.

Practice: Chanting the Refuges

Traditionally, going for refuge is begun by chanting the “Homage to the Buddha” three times. Then chant or speak the refuge phrases. If you have a home altar with a Buddha image on it, you might light a candle there, and bow three times to begin and end this ritual.

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā-sambuddhassa (3x)

Homage to the blessed, noble, and perfectly enlightened one. (3x)

Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Saṅghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

Dutiyampi Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Dutiyampi Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Dutiyampi Saṅghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

Tatiyampi Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Tatiyampi Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi
Tatiyampi Saṅghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

I go for refuge to the Buddha
I go for refuge to the Dhamma
I go for refuge to the Sangha

For the second time, I go for refuge to the Buddha
For the second time, I go for refuge to the Dhamma
For the second time, I go for refuge to the Sangha

For the third time, I go for refuge to the Buddha
For the third time, I go for refuge to the Dhamma
For the third time, I go for refuge to the Sangha

After going for refuge, sit in silence for a few moments, letting the heart open, holding with mindfulness and kindness whatever comes.

For a printable handout of the refuge chant, see practice texts.

Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.