The fundamental aim of Buddhism is Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Traditionally Buddhists express this aspiration by ‘Going for Refuge’ to the Buddha, his Dharma (teaching) and the Sangha (spiritual community) – or the Three Jewels, as they are called.
The Buddha is seen as a ‘Refuge’ not because he will help us to escape life and its difficulties, but because his example and teaching represent practical and reliable responses to our sorrows in the face of life. They can help free us from attachment to ‘false refuges’ — those mundane things we look to for happiness and security, but which are ultimately incapable of providing them. The Buddha’s vision and example are fundamental.
In seeking to follow the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment, Buddhists try to understand all the teachings that express his wisdom, from the whole of the Buddhist tradition throughout time. These are collectively known as the Dharma, and are revered as the best guide to reality there is.
Of course, if we are to practise the Dharma we need the example of others who have done so before us. And we also need the guidance of personal teachers who have a more experienced perspective than our own, as well as the friendship of fellow practitioners. Taken together, all ‘Dharma farers’ of the past and present who offer these kinds of supports are known as the Sangha or spiritual community, and Buddhists also give central importance to this aspect.
So the defining act of a Buddhist life is to go for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha: it is the act by which one becomes a Buddhist, and every day around the world millions of Buddhists chant the Three Refuges, committing themselves to living out these ideals.
Although this is a common and vital teaching across the whole Buddhist tradition, it is not necessarily the case that all Buddhists actually do make the Three Jewels the central element in their lives and practice. Around the path to Enlightenment taught by the Buddha numerous religious forms, institutions, and cultural practices have developed over time. While these may well be means through which individuals can follow the Buddha’s path, Sangharakshita
suggests that sometimes the forms have become unhelpfully fixed as ends in themselves. His own take on this is that what matters more for Buddhists who want to make progress on the path is inner commitment.
So our community sees our task as Buddhists today being to discern what in the Buddhist tradition genuinely does support Going for Refuge, and then to put it into practice in our own lives. This is the task Sangharakshita has set himself in his own exploration of the Buddhist path. He believes Going for Refuge is what unifies Buddhists of all schools, that it is, in fact, what makes one a Buddhist at all.
Listen to a comprehensive set of talks on the theme of Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels.
The Buddhist Centre: buddhism for today