How to be a Buddhist

How does someone become a Buddhist?

In Buddhism, when we want to formally become a Buddhist, there is the act of Taking Refuge.  This is when we set our intention towards find a real place of safety, a real place of security and a place of true happiness for ourselves.  So with Taking Refuge, we recite:
  • I go to the Buddha for Refuge (the Awakened One)
  • I go to the Dharma for Refuge (the Teachings of the Buddha)
  • I go to the Sangha for Refuge (the Enlightened Disciples of the Buddha)

At first, we just recite these phrases just because everyone else is doing it – so we have no clue what it means.  Now, we will go through the actually meaning of Taking Refuge under the Buddha – setting forth the intention to be a disciple of the Buddha.  This way, when we recite these refuges it will actually mean something quite moving to you.

So what does Taking Refuge really mean?

A refuge is a safe place – a place of solace, a place that you can rely on and return to in times of need.  But what can you really rely upon in this world?  Who or what will be there for your times of need?

Let’s look at where we usually look for security and safety in our lives – to see if these places are really worthy of being a refuge:

  • Money?  It’s nice to have money – as you can buy whatever you like with it.  So we need a certain amount of it to keep us happy.  But money can come and go.  Even if you’ve saved up lots of money, if something major happens, you can easily lose it all.  You may lose your job – even though you’ve given the company many, many years or loyal service – all in the name of cost cutting.  If you run a business, you may lose your premises or maybe you’ll get cashflow problems and can’t pay your bills.  And even if you’re rich, you will still have worries to deal with – sometimes more than the average person – like having to look after your businesses, having to keep watch of your shares all the time just in case they drop by 10% in 1 day!  And rich people still have health problems to deal with eventually – it’s all part of life.
  • Friends?  Friends are nice to have too.  But friends can’t always be there for us if something happens to us and we need continued care.  They too have their own lives and families to take care of.  And sometimes friendships can be unstable – so much so that a friendship of many years can be destroyed by a few minutes of misunderstanding.
  • Family?  Sometimes, we think, “If I could only get a beautiful wife, then I’ll be happy” or “If I could only find a loving husband, I’ll be secure”.  And after we get married, we might also think, “Our kids will take care of us when we get older”.  But all of these things are not certain.  Now your family are certainly the most likely people to take care of you in times of sickness and poor health to the best of their ability.  But sometimes too they could be too busy with their own lives.  As Ajahn Sumedho has mentioned – if you go around expecting people to always be good to you, always to say things that are pleasant to you, never say bad things to you and always do what you want – it’s a bit silly.  It just ain’t gonna happen.  Even your closest family and friends wouldn’t be able to be held to such a high standard!
  • Good health?  It’s very important to look after the body and mind.  So you try to control your body by eating healthy foods, exercising and keeping fit.  But sometimes, with life, you can get too busy – and you slack off a bit – and if you’ve been quite fit and you slack of for just 2-3 weeks, your fitness can be gone!Elite athletes can slack off for a few months and they can get fat and lose their cardiovascular fitness and strength.  And if you are really fit and exercise everyday – things can still happen to the body that’s out of our control.  Even the fittest people get old and their fitness declines with age.  Even the fittest people can have things happen to their bodies that need medical treatment.  Why?  Because the body really belongs to nature – it doesn’t belong entirely to us.  We can control it to a large extent, but sometimes, things just happen to it that we didn’t expect.  So it follows nature’s course dictated by genetics and whatever happens to it via environmental factors.
All of these things are worth having.  All of these things will give us great enjoyment in our lives.

All of these things are external to us – so they parts of them we can’t control:

  • We can control whatever we can
  • But there are many elements that are out of our control.

All of these things are uncertain – anicca.  They are subject to change.  So if something is uncertain, subject to change and ever at the mercy of external, uncontrollable influences – how can they really be relied upon?  They can’t!  The big question regarding relying upon all these external things is – why seek stability within that which is inherently unstable?  Because anything unstable is not fit to be relied upon.

How to find true safety

What can we really rely upon in our own times of need?  What can we carry with us, always?  Whatever we can turn to and use whenever & wherever we want, at any place and any time – that would be a real refuge.

And the refuge can’t be external to us either.  Because anything external to us would be outside of our control.  And anything that’s outside our locus of control – we would be subject to its whims and whatever it wants to do.  The best that we can do is respond to situations as they arise or prepare in advance on what sorts of scenarios you would be expecting – but sometimes, you just can’t predict these sorts of things.  Why?  Because these things are uncertain.

So a real refuge has to be inside of us or be an ingrained part of us – to basically be us – to be part of our real self.  If it’s external to us – that’s not a real refuge because external things are beyond our control – they are unpredictable, subject to change and uncertainty.  For a real refuge, we need certainty.
In the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, the Buddha gives us this way of thinking when he reflects on what things are not fit to be us:
If something really is us – if something really is your self – then it would not lead to affliction. 
Because you would have full control over it anywhere, anytime – and you would be able to command it any which way you wanted to. 
Here, the Buddha uses the body as an example of something that is not the real self:
Bhikkhus, form is not-self. 
  1. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and
  2. One could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’


(Nanamoli‘s translation from
When is it that we suffer?  When something external, starts afflicting you – changing things around (anicca) – and you can’t control it – that’s when we suffer.
In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, when the Buddha’s physical body was just about to pass away, the Buddha told Ananda to:
  • Take self as your island, to take self as refuge
  • To take the Dharma as your island and refuge – with no other refuge.

Now what did the Buddha mean by self?

  1. Well, he could’ve meant just be self reliant as Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests… but why would the Buddha, at the end of his physical life, teach us to take refuge in our ordinary mind & body (the psychophysical self of the 5 skandhas) which which he repeatedly taught was not our real selves?
  2. The other possibility is that the Buddha meant for us to take refuge in your True Self, the Buddha Nature – because this is the real Buddha:
  • This True Self of ours is not born.
  • Because it is not born, it is not subject to change. It is unchanging.
  • Because it is not subject to change – it is not subject to uncertainty and impermanence.
  • And being not subject to impermanence – it does not die
  • So this True Self of ours is eternal, everlasting.

And because our True self is unconditioned – it is unborn, unchanging, eternal and does not die – therefore it is something that is worthy of being our refuge.

The True Self is also the Dharma (the Ultimate Truth of things) – because these 2 are synonymous.

Who was Buddha?

He was a man who discovered the Ultimate Truth of all existence.  He was able to see into the core of his own being – where he discovered the eternal “primal, bright, essence of consciousness” – where there was total freedom from suffering, the highest happiness – the Buddha Nature, Bodhi Nirvana, the True Mind, the True Self.

He lived ~2500 years ago.  However, that Buddha who lived back then can’t really be our real refuge as his physical body has already passed away.  His teachings can point us in the right direction though.  He taught us to seek the real Buddha inside of ourselves – that’s should be our real refuge, because that Buddha is always with us and we can always turn to and rely upon that Buddha inside ourselves!

What is Buddha?

The word “Buddha” means “Awakened One” or “One who knows” – it means that which is awake, aware, wise, compassionate and free from delusion inside all of us:

  • That is the real Buddha.
  • That is the real refuge.

So the Buddha meant – take refuge in the real, unchanging, everlasting Buddha inside your selves – that is the real you.

What is Dharma?

And what is meant by taking refuge in the Dharma?  How does taking refuge in the Dharma help us find real security in this world?
  • The Dharma means the Buddha’s teachings.
  • On a deeper level, the Dharma means the Ultimate Truth.
And if we look around to see what it is that doesn’t desert people – til the end of their lives – the thing that comes closest is their knowledge and skills – their skills that they have practiced over and over again that can come out automatically, without having to think.  It’s a bit like when you learn how to ride a bike when you were a kid – even though you get older and haven’t ridden the bike for years or even decades – you can still call upon that skill whenever you want.

So the Buddha gave us his teachings, the Dharma – which we learn and put into practice.  The important thing here is to develop some real skill in the Dharma practices:

  • Find one practice that you like and
  • Practice it over and over and over again until you develop some real skill in it

This way, you will actually know how to use it and can call upon it whenever you want – especially in times of need.

Why practice over and over again?  Because it’s what Professor Richard Davidson calls – it develops “well worn paths” in the mind – and enriches the neuronal connections in the brain for doing that particular task.  Experts at anything are said to have 10,000 hours of practice – this is why they can call upon their skill at anytime, anyplace – and they don’t even need to think.
The same principle applies when learning the Dharma.  By practicing and practicing and practicing it – then we develop some real kung fu in that particular Dharma method.  Then you can head confidently into battle with when life’s sufferings come your way.
Don’t be like some Buddhists who just show off their flowery forms of kung fu to impress people – but when they get attacked, they don’t know how to defend themselves.  You want some real kung fu that you can call upon whenever and wherever you want – so that when suffering comes – you can confidently defend yourself, no problems!

Key Points

So that’s taking refuge in the Buddha and taking refuge Dharma – which is really just taking refuge in different aspects of the same thing – your real Self, the Buddha Nature:

  • You’ve got to practice, practice and practice – so that you can call upon some real skill in the Buddha’s practices – so that you can overcome suffering whenever it arises.
  • And the better your skill – the deeper you’ll see into the real Dharma – the Ultimate Truth, the real nature of your own Buddha!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s