Why we do what we do: The first Buddhist step on the journey to enlightenment is taking refuge, called śaraṇaṃ in Sanskrit and chabdro (སྐྱབས་འགྲོ་) in Choekey. It is the most fundamental Buddhist practice which is said to distinguish the Buddhists from others. It is considered as the foundation on which the entire Buddhist spiritual system rests and the door which opens the path to enlightenment. Taking refuge refers to seeking refuge in the Three Jewels or konchosum (དཀོན་མཆོག་གསུམ་), the three positive forces which can help one escape from the cycle of existence and realise the end of suffering.
In the general Buddhist system, taking refuge does not entail submitting oneself with blind faith to a higher power such as divine deity and forsaking one’s efforts and responsibilities. One takes refuge in the Buddha (སངས་རྒྱས་) by accepting him as the teacher, his teachings or dharma (ཆོས་) as the path, and his followers or the sangha (དགེ་འདུན་) as companions on the path. Such acceptance is based on confidence and conviction in the Three Jewels gained from proper study and examination. One must gain adequate knowledge and understanding of the Three Jewels in order to accept the Buddha as one’s teacher or guide, his teachings as one’s way of life and his followers as one’s cohort.
The Buddha, in mainstream Buddhism, is a person who has eliminated all negative tendencies, emotions and actions, fully actualised the positive qualities of the mind such as wisdom, compassion, clarity, power, etc., and reached perfect enlightenment. His teachings include the doctrines, which he taught, and the experience gained from practical application of such doctrines. The followers are the people who are practising the Buddha’s teachings and are on their path to enlightenment. In Mahāyāna and Vajrayānā expositions of the Three Jewels, one finds much more elaborate accounts of the Three Jewels. In Vajrāyāna, other triads such as lama (བླ་མ་) or guru, yidam (ཡི་དམ་) or tutelary deity and khandro (མཁའ་འགྲོ་) or spiritual expeditors are also added as objects of refuge.
The practice of taking refuge is initially carried out with a lama officiant who administers the vow of refuge. The person taking refuge is made to recollect the Three Jewels, make prostrations and then repeat some words after the officiant. After receiving the vow of refuge, one must abide by the dos and don’ts associated with the refuge vow, such as abstaining from harming other sentient beings. People continue the practice of taking refuge by reciting verses while going around stupas or doing prostrations. The following stanza is a very popular prayer for taking refuge in the Himalayan Buddhist world:
I take refuge in the lama. I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the sangha.
The external Buddha and sangha show the path and help one on the path to enlightenment but it is dharma, which, if adopted properly, will actually bring about freedom from suffering. Thus, the dharma is the most effective object of refuge. When one reaches nirvāṇa through practicing dharma, such state of enlightenment is where one finds the real refuge or protection, free from the afflictions and problems of the world.
Taking refuge orients us to the spiritual goal of enlightenment beyond this ordinary existence. It is the first step in our conscious process of moral and spiritual evolution in order to realise an inner state of liberation and peace. Confidence and refuge in the Three Jewels are necessary conditions for realising this goal.