How Does One Become a Buddhist?

All Christian denominations, new or old, emphasize the importance of baptism. It is only after baptism that one formally becomes a Christian. For many Christian sects, the beliefs behind this ritual are similar to those of some Indian religions that superstitiously claim that bathing in a sacred river can cleanse one’s sins.[1]

If one wants to become an orthodox Buddhist disciple, one must take refuge in the Three Jewels. The significance of this ritual is very much the same as that of a royal coronation, the inauguration of a president, or the admission of a new member to a political party. It is an expression of loyalty from the bottom of one’s heart, a zealous promise, a prayer out of admiration, a new life, and a pious taking of sanctuary. Therefore, Buddhism stresses the importance of taking refuge. Without taking refuge, even if one believes in and worships the Buddhas one remains a noncommitted student of Buddhism, an auditor who never registered for classes. This ritual functions to solidify one’s faith and commitment.

In the ritual of taking refuge, a monk or a nun is invited to witness and lead the recitation, which goes as follows:

“I, (name), pledge to the end of my life to take refuge in the Buddha, to the end of my life to take refuge in the Dharma, and to the end of my life to take refuge in the Sangha (recite three times).

“I, (name), having taken refuge in the Buddha, would rather lose my life than take refuge in Māra or in deviant spiritual teachers.

“I, (name), having taken refuge in the Dharma, would rather lose my life than take refuge in outer paths or deviant teachings.

“I, (name), having taken refuge in the Sangha, would rather lose my life than take refuge in deviant groups following outer paths.”

The ritual, simple but solemn, is designed to cause one to wholeheartedly take sanctuary in the Three Jewels, to rely on and revere the Three Jewels, and to bring forth pure, staunch faith and confidence. The first jewel is the Buddha, the second is the Buddha’s teachings, and the third is the community of monastics who spread the Buddha’s teachings. Taking refuge in these three can lead one to the jewels of peace of body and mind in the short term and liberation from samsāra or even to Buddhahood in the long term. That is why the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are called jewels, and why having faith in Bud- dhism is called “taking refuge in the Three Jewels.”

  1. The Zengyi ahan sūtras, scroll 6, “Lìyˇang 利養” chapter, records the following incident: A brahmin urged the Buddha to go bathe at the banks of the Sundaravati River to cleanse his sins. The Buddha told him he should cleanse his sins by not taking what is not given, by not killing, by not lying, and by treating all people impartially (T 125: 2.574c10–24). Author. The “Lìyˇang 利養” chapter corresponds to the Pali Vatthūpama Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya no. 7. Trans.


Orthodox Chinese Buddhism: A Contemporary Chan Master's Answers to Common Questions. (2007)
by Master Sheng Yen | Translated by Douglas Gildow and Otto Chang. | ISBN 978-1-55643-657-4


Lists of errata, suggested changes and comments by Douglas Gildow