Dear fellow practitioners, today we are going to conduct the Initiation Ceremony of the Triple Jewels, which are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. I would like to clarify what taking refuge in the Triple Jewels means since there have been growing misunderstandings in modern times. In order to reap the true benefits, we must first settle these misunderstandings.
What is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Buddhism is not a religion but rather the most profound and wholesome education based on forty-nine years of Buddha Shakyamuni's teachings for all sentient beings. As I recall, in 1923, Mr. Chin-wu O-Yung spoke at the University of Zhong-Shan. The title of his lecture was "Buddhism is Neither a Religion, nor a Philosophy, but the Essential of the Modern World." This lecture was an insightful breakthrough that shook the contemporary Chinese Buddhist world.
Since Buddhism is an education, what exactly are its objectives, methods and principles? Its educational objective is to help sentient beings understand the truth of the Dharma which is defined as (1) the teachings of the Buddhas (2) duties, laws and doctrines or (3) things, events, phenomena, everything. Simply put, the truth of the Dharma addresses the causes that initiate all the phenomena of life and the universe. Life refers to ourselves while the universe refers to our living environment. Therefore, the educational content of Buddhism directs us to gain clear understanding of our living environment and ourselves.
Nowadays, the formal educational system only subscribes to a partial understanding of the universe, which has yet to be proven. Moreover, we are still discussing and investigating this limited part, not yet knowing enough to draw the correct conclusions. Unfortunately, even religions cannot provide comprehensive and satisfactory explanations of life as a whole, and are only confined to a limited area of the truth. Therefore, the profound and extensive educational content of Buddhism is essential for every sentient being.
The boundary of our living space is not restricted to a city, a region or even just the planet earth. There are galaxies in outer space, comprised of innumerable planets, on which exist advanced life forms that are much more intelligent than human beings. All these galaxies are also our living environment. Furthermore, apart from the space dimension, there is also a time dimension, which extends from the past through the present and into the future. Thus, the environment in which we live consists of an infinite magnitude of space and time.
Our current formal education does not cover such an extensive discussion of this infinite living space and time. Even the well-respected Confucianism only involves a single lifetime, ranging from birth to death and ultimately to a strong relationship that links us to our ancestors. The teachings of Confucius barely touch on the heavenly beings or ghosts but instead focus on how to behave as an honorable person. In contrast, Buddha Shakyamuni clearly and precisely described the Four Sage Realms, which are Buddha, Bodhisattva, Pratyekabuddha and Sound-hearer. Apart from the Four Sage Realms are the Six Realms of Reincarnation of heavenly beings, Asuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. Levels of awakening rank these Four Sage Realms and the Six Realms. For example, Buddhas have the most awakened minds while beings in the hells have the most deluded minds. By combining the Six Realms and the Four Sage Realms, we have the Ten Realms. These comprise our existing living space and it is essential for us to clearly understand them.
After we understand the truth of life and the universe, our thoughts, viewpoints, speech and behavior would naturally differ from before. In the past, our deluded mind and erroneous viewpoints led to incorrect actions, thereby creating bad karma, which is the future retribution resulting from one's thoughts, speech and action. According to the fundamental Law of Cause and Effect, unavoidable consequences will result from creating karma, as good results come from good karma and bad results come from bad karma. One creates one's own destiny; no one can step in to bear the consequences of our actions.
As we can see, thoroughly understanding the truth of life and the universe will bring us infinite benefits. Once we understand and deeply believe in the Law of Cause and Effect, we will not create any more bad karma. If we do not create any more karma, then we will not have to bear the consequences or fruits, thus achieving what the Buddha frequently referred to in the sutras as surpassing the Ten Realms. From the Cause and Effect point of view, the Four Sage Realms are the results of diligent cultivation and attainment, while the Six Realms are the consequences of good or bad deeds. The Six Realms can be further categorized into the Three Good Realms of humans, Asuras and heavenly beings and the Three Bad Realms of hells, hungry ghosts and animals.
After understanding karma and its consequences, we will refrain from creating any more karma or at least not any bad ones. By applying the above concepts to our daily lives, we will obtain what everyone wishes for: a happy life, pleasant family, successful career, harmonious society, prosperous nation and peaceful world. Only the Buddha's education completely provides the solution to humanity's search for true happiness. Clearly understanding this, we realize that this education is essential for everyone. Since this education encompasses infinite space and time, it surpasses differences in nationality, race, political affiliation and religion. In other words, it is for all sentient beings in the Nine Realms below that of Buddhas.
There are several examples in the sutras about different religious followers who learned the Buddha's teachings during Buddha Shakyamuni's time. The Flower Adornment Sutraand the Earth Store Sutra, tell respectively of a Hindu priest and a daughter of a Hindu priest who, by adhering to the Buddha's teaching have attained the level of Bodhisattva. From these examples, we understand that the Buddha's education indeed transcends religious beliefs and that any religious followers can benefit from it.
The educational system founded by the Buddha is similar to our contemporary educational system. For example, becoming an Arhat is equivalent to earning a University Bachelor's degree and becoming a Bodhisattva is equivalent to earning a Master's degree. Buddhahood, the highest degree, is equivalent to a Ph.D. Followers of any religion can attain these stages of enlightenment. Is it necessary to abandon one's religion and learn the Buddha's education to obtain enlightenment? Definitely not. If one were to go to school or study abroad to pursue knowledge and advancement, one need not change nationality or religion. In other words, the purpose of studying does not conflict with nationality, religion, etc.
Therefore, Buddhism is an education. Titles such as Arhat, Bodhisattva and Buddha are nothing but "degree" names. Regardless of our differences, we shall achieve these degrees equally as long as we diligently follow the teachings. Thus, the Initiation Ceremony of the Triple Jewels is to formally enroll one into a school where Buddha Shakyamuni teaches the objective, methods and principles of attaining enlightenment.
Since Buddha Shakyamuni established Buddhism, we acknowledge him as our original teacher. Actually, there is only one teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni, for all Buddhists. Bodhisattvas such as Manjusri (symbolizing wisdom), Samantabhadra (symbolizing great vows) and Avalokiteshvara (symbolizing compassion) were all the Buddha's earlier students. Today, we too are the Buddha's students. These Bodhisattvas are our schoolmates, seniors who studied before us while we are freshmen. As they are seniors and have the ability to teach us, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Arhats are not objects for worship but rather someone we can respect and learn from.
What is the ultimate goal of the Buddha's education? The sutras teach us that it is Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi. This very important and well-respected phrase is transliterated from Sanskrit in order to keep its original pronunciation. It means the highest, proper and complete enlightenment. Simply said, it can be interpreted as the ultimate, perfect wisdom. Whoever obtains it will be able to intuitively know and sense every aspect of the true reality of life and the universe. Obtaining this wisdom and ability is the ultimate goal of all the Buddha's students.
The Buddha teaches us that the ultimate perfect wisdom is innate. The Avatamsaka (Flower Adornment) Sutra states, "Every being possesses the same wisdom and virtuous capabilities as Buddhas." Why do we not have this wisdom now? It is because of "wandering thoughts and attachments." This statement clearly reveals the two causes of how we temporarily have lost our original capabilities. Wandering thoughts and attachments are not within our basic nature; therefore, they can be discarded. Like dispersing the clouds to let the sun shine through, we remove wandering thoughts and attachments from our mind and cultivate virtue to restore our Buddha Nature, thus completely recovering our innate abilities.
In practice, how do we cultivate? Formally taking refuge in the Triple Jewels is the initial step as it symbolizes asking Venerables, monks or nuns, to pass on ways of Buddhist cultivation. Taking Refuge means to find a shelter that we can return to and rely on or what Buddhists call "Return to the other shore." In practice, from where do we return and upon what do we rely? We return to and rely upon the Triple Jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
In the first step, we return to and rely on the Buddha. "Buddha" is a Sanskrit word meaning awareness and understanding. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are returning from our deluded state of mind and relying upon an awakened, understanding mind. Participating in the Initiation Ceremony and accepting the Buddha's teachings are the first steps of the awakening in becoming aware of the importance of learning his education.
The Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Master Hui-Neng, used a different approach in explaining the Triple Jewels. He did not use the words "Buddha, Dharma and Sangha" for fear of promoting misconceptions in the Triple Jewels for future generations. He was afraid that as Buddhism was passed from generation to generation, if he used these words, people would form erroneous views, automatically thinking of a statue for the Buddha Jewel, a sutra for the Dharma Jewel and a Buddhist monk or nun for the Sangha Jewel. These are not what we should return to.Actually, we should take refuge in our Self-Nature Buddha. A Bodhisattva stated, "The Self-Nature Awareness is innate." Therefore, what Buddha Shakyamuni meant in taking refuge in the Buddha is not to seek protection under his wing, but to return from our delusive mind and rely upon the innate Self-Nature Buddha. It is essential for one tounderstand the importance of returning to one's Self-Nature.
In the second step, we take refuge in the Dharma, returning from deviant views by relying upon proper views and understanding. Dharma is the proper comprehension and viewpoint of life and the universe. The Dharma Jewel is the infinite, innate wisdom of Self-Nature also referred to as the Prajna Wisdom. Relying upon our Prajna Wisdom to correct our erroneous thoughts, speech and behavior is the meaning of taking refuge in the Dharma Jewel. Among the Three Jewels, the Dharma is the primary one we should rely on. In this day and age, Prajna Wisdom will be our primary concern.
However, our innate wisdom cannot be restored in a short time. Then what should we follow? Sutras are records of the Buddha's teachings that describe the truth of the universe. Before our Prajna Wisdom has been fully recovered, we follow the teachings in the sutras and use them as a guideline. If our thinking coincides with the sutras, then our comprehension is correct. For example, the Buddha teaches us to respect and take care of our parents and teachers, to be compassionate by not killing and to practice the Ten Good Conducts. People may wonder in this modern age why we should be following what the Buddha taught three thousand years ago. We do so because the Self-Nature Prajna Wisdom is everlasting and unchanged; those who obtain it have the capability to know everything in the past, present and future within the infinite universe.
However, we must beware of fraudulent sutras. It is easy for us to encounter fake sutras, especially in a modern world that promotes freedom of publication. Essentially anyone can publish books. In ancient times when sutras first came to China, each sutra had to undergo a strict examination by experts, followed by the emperor's official seal to prove its authenticity. Even the sutra commentaries of ancient patriarchs underwent scrutiny from highly accomplished monks and scholars of that time before receiving the Emperor's approval for distribution. Nowadays, no one regulates or enforces this process. Therefore, we need to be careful in verifying the authenticity of a sutra by checking for its listing in the Dragon (Chien-Long) Canon of the Sutras. This Canon of thirty-eight volumes was compiled under the decree of Emperor Chien-Long in 1738. Previous canons were meticulously certified by the most accomplished monks and scholars of their time and thus also serve as reliable references.
In the third step, we take refuge in the Sangha Jewel. Used here, Sangha does not mean a group of monks or nuns. There are two representations, purity of mind and harmony in life. First, Sangha refers to living in a way that keeps our minds far away from temptations while maintaining the purity of our six senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and mind object. In the modern world, people suffer from pollution of mind, spirit and body. Even the earth's ecological system is off-balance. There are holes in the ozone layers that are "pollution" of the skies. Almost everything from the skies and the earth to their inhabitants are contaminated in one way or another. Today, everyone is aware of environmental pollution. Governments are also promoting environmental protection to ensure better living conditions. However, how effective are these protection programs? It is questionable. The problem comes back to what the Buddha revealed, that the environment, the dependent variable, changes with our minds, the independent variable. If the impurities in our mind cannot be eradicated, our environment will never reach a state of purity. Therefore, if we want to improve the external environment, we first start internally by purifying our mind. Taking refuge in the third Jewel, the Sangha, thus means returning from pollution and relying upon purity of mind.
Second, the Sangha represents harmony in living. Having observed the sufferings resulting from the disharmony between peoples, countries and even religions, the Buddha taught us the Six Principles of Harmony. The Six Principles are the essential guidelines that all Buddhists need to observe. When we take refuge in the Sangha, we are returning from pollution and disharmony and relying upon Purity of Mind and the Six Principles of Harmony. Thus, the guidelines for cultivation are:
(1) Taking refuge in the Buddha - awareness without delusion,
(2) Taking refuge in the Dharma - proper viewpoints without deviation,
(3) Taking refuge in the Sangha - purity without pollution.
These are the primary disciplines in practicing Buddhism from the beginning of cultivation to the attainment of Buddhahood.
The main purpose behind taking the Three Refuges is to cultivate practicing awakening, proper thoughts and viewpoints, and purity. From now on, if people ask us what we are cultivating, we can answer that we are cultivating the Three Refuges. What are we learning? We are learning to achieve the ultimate, perfect wisdom that comes from perfecting these Three Refuges. What are the methods we use for cultivation? There are innumerable methods available depending on the ability and condition of each individual practitioner. Methods are not fixed, but flexible. However, we must remember that our learning objective always remains the same; awakening, proper thoughts and viewpoints, and purity.
For Pure Land practitioners, the main cultivation method we use is chanting Buddha Amitabha's name. This method is advocated by Mahasthamaprapta (Great Strength) Bodhisattva in the Surangama Sutraand by Samantabhadra (Universal Worthy) Bodhisattva in the Avatamsaka (Flower Adornment) Sutra.
In addition to chanting Buddha Amitabha's name, we follow the Five Guidelines to help us in our daily cultivation. First, we advocate Confucius' Five Virtues of Gentility, Kindness, Respectfulness, Thriftiness and Humility. We use these Five Virtues to cultivate our body and mind. Practicing them provides the foundation for our cultivation. The first level is comprised of the Three Conditions that are described in the Visualization Sutra. The First Condition includes (a) being filial and respectful to one's parents and teachers, (b) being compassionate and not killing any living beings and (c) practicing the Ten Good Conducts. The second Condition includes (a) following the Three Refuges, (b) observing precepts, laws and customs and (c) behaving in a proper and dignified manner. The Third Condition includes (a) generating our Bodhi-Mind, (b) deeply believing in the Law of Cause and Effect, (c) reciting and upholding Mahayana Sutras and (d) encouraging others to advance on the path to Enlightenment. The Buddha told us that the Three Conditions are the causes that brought all the Buddhas of the three times and the ten directions to Enlightenment. Therefore, we cannot do without this important step in our practice.
Proceeding upward from the Three Conditions, we advance to the second level which is the Six Principles of Harmony. The First Principle of Harmony is to share the same viewpoints or goals. There will be no conflict in the world if we all share the same thoughts and viewpoints. This principle tries to create a common understanding for all sentient beings. This common understanding is based on our Self-Nature and not on Buddha Shakyamuni's opinion. He taught us how to cultivate and explore our own innate wisdom, virtues and capabilities. We are not imitating him; rather we are rediscovering our inborn potential. His education is truly extraordinary.
The second principle is to observe the same precepts. Practicing the precepts includes cultivating an attitude of following society's laws and customs. Once everyone shares the common viewpoints and is able to follow the law, society will be peaceful and prosperous and world peace will naturally ensue.
Another important principle is to share benefits equally. In modern society, it is beneficial not to have a big difference in wealth between people but to try to close the gap between the "have's" and the "have-nots." Equal sharing of wealth consequently settles the conflicts over wealth. Sharing benefits equally with others is a deed of wisdom and a real cultivation of good fortune. The reason people do not have equal wealth comes from the different seeds that they have previously planted. If people did not plant the same seeds, how can they expect to harvest the same fruits? The Buddha taught that those who harvest more should share with those who harvest less. Then, the sharing behavior becomes the seeds that will benefit one more later. According to the Law of Cause and Effect, poor people need to cultivate more good fortune to receive better harvests in the future. In addition, the wealthy need to share their possessions in order to remain wealthy in the future. Only by doing so will the world become peaceful. This true merit comes from learning the Buddha's teachings.
Pure Land practitioners, as a foundation, cultivate the Confucian Five Virtues that are basic for all humanity. From here, we advance to the Three Conditions and the Six Principles of Harmony that are the important basis before practicing Buddhism. Then the Three Learnings are the foundation before practicing Mahayana Buddhism that includes the Six Paramitas. Finally, we practice the Ten Great Vows of Samantabhadra (Universal Worthy) Bodhisattva to attain Buddhahood. It is not difficult to remember these five guidelines. Combining this solid foundation with chanting Buddha Amitabha's name will assure us of obtaining what people have always pursued, a harmonious family life, a successful career and a peaceful society. Now that we have a clear understanding of what we are learning and sincerely want to follow the teachings, we need to practice diligently toward accomplishing our ideal goal. Consequently, one returns and relies on one's Triple Jewels of Self-Nature.
In addition to the abstract form of the Triple Jewels of Self-Nature, there are the physical forms seen as Buddha's images, sutras, monksand nuns. Making offerings to the Buddha's image serves two purposes. First, it honors our original teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni. Every time we look at the image, we remember the great teachings he passed on to us. Second, it is to remind us to emulate the Buddha. When we see the Buddha's image, we remind ourselves to strive for awakening and not to be deluded. Sutras serve the same purpose by reminding us that we have taken refuge in the Dharma and need to reflect upon our viewpoints and comprehension. Similarly, seeing a monk or nun, representing the Sangha, can remind us of the importance of maintaining purity of the six senses and harmony with others. Therefore, attending the physical form of the Triple Jewels greatly benefits us because they constantly remind us of the path to awakening.
Some practitioners attend the physical forms of the Triple Jewels at home. The Buddha's image symbolizes the Buddha Jewel while the Bodhisattva's image represents the Sangha Jewel. When we honor the Three Sages of the Western Pure Land, Buddha Amitabha symbolizes the Buddha Jewel, and Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattvas symbolize the Sangha Jewel. Furthermore, Buddhist sutras symbolize the Dharma Jewel. These three remind us of the treasures of Self-Nature within us.
Of all the Buddhist sutras, the Infinite Life Sutra is what I recommend the most. Although not too lengthy, the text completely encompasses the Buddha's teachings. Thus, it is well suited to modern practitioners. The full title of this sutra is The Buddha Speaks of the Infinite Life Sutra of Adornment, Purity, Equality and Enlightenment of the Mahayana School. This title fully reveals the objectives, principles and methods of cultivation in the Buddha's teachings. "Infinite Life" in this sutra's title embodies the most important of all the other infinities, including infinite wisdom, abilities, virtues, wealth, etc. Without infinite life, one could not enjoy all these other infinities. The infinity of our natural potential is what Pure Land practitioners seek and the virtues and capabilities of our innate Self-Nature are infinite. Furthermore, infinite Dharma originates from Self-Nature. Thus, the immeasurable unbounded existences of the Ten Realms are created by the Self-Nature.
The word "Adornment" in the sutra's title represents truth, goodness, beauty and wisdom, qualities that are not a true reality in this world. They exist within the Self-Nature and will be found when one seeks within.
The principles of cultivation are also expressed by "Purity, Equality and Enlightenment." Purity represents the Buddha Jewel; Equality represents the Dharma Jewel; and Enlightenment represents the Buddha Jewel. These three concepts are also equivalent to the Three Learnings, and cover the Buddha's forty-nine years of teachings. Purity stands for self-discipline and the Vinayas (Precepts); Equality stands for the Concentration and the Sutras; Enlightenment stands for the Wisdom and the Sastras (Commentaries).
If we have a busy lifestyle and do not have time to study numerous Buddhist sutras, we can start from this Infinite Life Sutra. Once thoroughly understanding it, not only will one understand Buddha Shakyamuni's teachings but also the teachings of all the Buddhas, because all these teachings come from the Self-Nature.
The Buddha Speaks of the Infinite Life Sutra of Adornment, Purity, Equality, and Enlightenment of the Mahayana School expresses the essence of all sutras. Practicing according to the teachings in this sutra fulfills the requirements of taking refuge in the Triple Jewels!
Today, I have explained to everyone the meaning of taking the Three Refuges. We will begin the Three Refuges Ceremony by sincerely and respectfully repeating the oath three times in front of the Buddha, vowing to be willing to become Buddha's student and to learn from him. I, Venerable Chin-Kung, will be the witness and initiation teacher. Please remember that one does not take refuge in the monk conducting the ceremony, but rather in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, thus becoming students of the Triple Jewels.
The following is a simple yet solemn initiation ceremony. Everyone will receive a certificate of the initiation with an oath extracted from the Book of the Precepts by Dharma Master Hong-I. We use it for commemoration and simplicity. Let us stand in front of the Buddha's and Bodhisattva's images with our most sincere, pure, compassionate and respectful heart. Repeat after me, "I solemnly pledge to be a student of the Triple Jewels. From now on, I will cultivate according to the Buddha's teachings, will seek rebirth into the Pure Land and will help all other sentient beings to understand the truth of the Dharma."
What is Taking Refuge?
Taking Refuge means to return and rely. From where do we return from and upon what do we rely? When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are returning from our deluded state of mind and relying upon an Awakened, Understanding mind. When we take refuge in the Dharma, we are returning from deviant views and relying upon proper views and understanding. When we take refuge in the Sangha, we are returning from pollution and disharmony and relying upon Purity of Mind and the Six Principles of Harmony. Taking refuge in the Triple Jewels restores the complete wisdom and abilities of our Self-Nature. We will attain purity, equality, honesty, contentment, compassion and overall, true happiness.
Buddha is a Sanskrit word meaning Awareness and Understanding. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we vow to return from blind faith and delusion and rely upon Understanding and Awareness as a way of life. We are not relying upon the statues or Buddha-images, but rather the spirit of understanding and awareness they represent.
As students of the Pure Land Teachings, we learn to rely upon Buddha Amitabha's lessons on wisdom and compassion. The name "Amitabha" stands for Infinite Light and Infinite Life. When we follow his teachings, we will attain wisdom, happiness and longevity.
This is taking refuge in the Buddha.
Dharma means Right Understanding and Views. Delusion has obstructed us from seeing the true face of people and the reality behind matters and objects. This has caused us to look at life and the universe in a distorted and deviant way. When delusion is cleared and our minds are pure to an extent, we give rise to wisdom. With wisdom, we are able to see all people and matters completely and clearly. When our hearts are pure, we can see the past, present and future. Only when we have clearly seen the whole can our viewpoint and understanding be considered right.
The Buddha's mind is pure without the slightest pollution and therefore sees everything clearly and entirely. We can rely upon the sutras, which are the recorded teachings of the Buddha, because they speak entirely of the truths the Buddha has seen. They teach and show us the way to attain Purity of Mind, to see life and the universe most clearly and become just like the Buddhas.
As students of the Pure Land Teachings, we should rely upon the five Sutras and one commentary of the Pure Land as guidelines of practice:
1. The Buddha Speaks of the Infinite Life Sutra of Adornment, Purity, Equality and Enlightenment of the Mahayana School.
2. The Amitabha Sutra
3. The Visualization Sutra
4. "The Chapter of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva's Conduct and Vows," from the Flower Adornment Sutra
5. "The Chapter on the Foremost Attainment of Great Strength Bodhisattva through Buddha Recitation,"from the Surangama Sutra
6. "Vasubandhu Bodhisattva's Report on the Way to Reaching the Pure Land."
This is taking refuge in the Dharma.
Sangha means purity and harmony. Today's world is full of pollution; pollution of mind, spirit, views and body. Even the earth and atmosphere are hazardly polluted. The Buddha taught, "The environment changes according to our state of mind." We would do well to return from all these pollutants and rely upon Purity of Mind, for it is the key to saving our Earth.
There is also great disharmony in our world today, among spouses, families, friends, societies and countries which has brought us much suffering and many disasters. The Buddha taught us to rely upon the Six Principles of Living in Harmony to establish harmonious relationships between others and ourselves.
As students of the Pure Land Teachings, we rely upon wisdom and compassion as our way of treating others and dealing with affairs.Great Strength Bodhisattva represents wisdom. His choice of the Buddha Recitation method of practice is wisdom in its highest form. Guan Yin Bodhisattva represents compassion; when we help introduce the Pure Land Teachings to others, we are practicing the compassion of Guan Yin Bodhisattva.
This is taking refuge in the Sangha.
To the Buddha I return and rely, returning from delusions and relying upon Awareness and Understanding.
To the Dharma I return and rely, returning from erroneous views and relying upon Proper Views and Understanding.To the Sangha I return and rely, returning from pollution and disharmony and relying upon Purity of Mind and the Six Principles of Harmony.