The Buddha offering us the Lotus - the refuge of the heart.

I was able to mostly resurrect my computer recently, which included partial recovery of the Dharma Drum chanting audio files. So, I’d like to post some information about the chanting of the Three Refuges in the Chinese liturgical setting; something I find very meaningful and of great spiritual importance.

The Three Refuges, for those who are unfamiliar with Buddhism, are the basic objects and sources of faith for a Buddhist. The three are: the Buddha, his Teachings (the Dharma), and the community of practitioners (the Sangha). These are also called the Three Treasures, the Three Jewels or Gems.

They are called “Refuges” because, by relying upon them, we are offered protection in the spiritual life. This protection, it is important to keep in mind, is spiritual protection manifesting as a peaceful and settled mind, regardless of what may be happening to the body. Though many pious Buddhists do do this, the teaching of the Three Refuges is not necessarily meant for us to request, expect, or pray for favors or a change in outer conditions; indeed such conditions are often beyond our ability to affect, let alone change. Rather, as settled mind comes from knowing that there is something to be relied upon, and that this “something” can be found within our own heart. It is always there. And through this reliance, we find assurance and peace in our lives.

This type of refuge-taking is not unique to Buddhism, as anyone who has religious faith is basically practicing the same thing. It is just that in Buddhism, the teaching is very clear and very important.

This taking refuge (or receiving refuge, as some say) in the Three Refuges is common and essential to all Buddhist traditions. To formally become a Buddhist, this is basically what a person does: takes refuge either in a formal setting, or by oneself in front of an image of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Along with taking refuge comes an understanding of what a Buddhist does and how a Buddhist behaves. The basis of this active-side of faith are the precepts in Buddhism, most commonly seen in the Five Precepts, which are present in some form in all Buddhist schools.

Another reason why taking refuge is vital is that, not only is it the starting point for a traveler along the Buddhist path, but also, when one understands what taking refuge in the Three Treasures fully means, one sees that this act itself contains the entirety of the Buddhist path. It is a complete practice, when perfected and penetrated to its core (to our core, really).

The taking of the Three Refuges feature prominently in many Buddhist ceremonies, and the Chinese liturgy is no exception. I believe all the ceremonies I’ve attended thus far in Taiwan (and at home at MABA), the Refuges are chanted at least once, usually towards the end of the service, confirming and re-dedicating ourselves in our practice.

I’ve made a short audio file of the usual way the Refuges are chanted here at Dharma Drum Mountain, if you would like to listen. I’ve also included the Chinese and very a rough English translation just below. (Sorry about not the cleanest of formatting.)

The Three Refuges (audio file) 三皈依 sān guī yī:

自 皈 依 佛 當 願 眾 生 體 解 大 道 發 無 上 心
zì guī yī fó dang yuàn zhòng shēng tǐ jiě dà dào fā wú shàng xīn
I go to the Buddha for refuge, wishing that all sentient beings accomplish the Great Way, and bring forth the unsurpassed Bodhi mind.

自皈 依 法 當 願 眾 生 深 入 經 藏 智 慧 如 海
zì guī yī fǎ dang yuàn zhòng shēng shēn rù jīng cáng zhì huì rú hǎi
I go to the Dharma for refuge, wishing that all sentient beings deeply penetrate the source of the teachings, with wisdom as profound as the ocean.

自 皈 依 僧 當 願 眾 生 統 理 大 眾 一 切 無 礙
zì guī yī sēng dang yuàn zhòng shēng tǒng lǐ dà zhòng yī qiē wú ài
I go to the Sangha for refuge, wishing that all sentient beings come together in a great assembly, without any hindrances of any kind.

(For what it is worth, I find the last of the refuges is difficult to render into poetic and concise English.)

Something I find interesting in this chant is that the characters for “taking refuge” (皈依 – guī yī ) mean something like to “depend upon,” “comply with,” to “turn towards,” and to “rely upon.” They provide very helpful nuances of meaning to understand what we call “taking refuge” in English, indicating the internal qualities of the mind that help perfect the taking of refuge.

There are other “formulas” for taking refuge, including the traditional Pali one that dates from the time of the Buddha (here’s the text, and here’s the audio for the traditional Pali chant). However, as you might see from the Chinese text above, the Chinese version of the Three Refuges includes a wish that this act of taking refuge benefits sentient beings (眾生 zhòng shēng, literally “numerous lives”), not just for ourselves. This is very characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism, which places great emphasis on generating deep and empathetic compassion for all beings, using our precious human life to benefit as many as we can.

This compassion and this benefit does not necessarily mean what we think it does. Rather, based upon the emptiness and mutual interdependence of all things, compassion is an inevitable, natural, and necessary part of any spiritual life lived truly. Indeed, it is not emotional or even much noticed by many practitioners; it is just how they live.

You may also notice from the audio file, as it was pointed out to me a few months ago, that the melody of the chant sounds almost melancholy, tinged with a slight sadness almost. The way it was put to me by my teacher, Venerable Ji Ru at MABA, is that because, in taking Refuge, we let go of what the world considers to be a refuge (money, experiences, family, accomplishments, pleasure, etc.), this can generate a sense of loss of the familiar and the wished-for. However, this giving up of seeking a lasting refuge in things that are necessarily unsatisfying (if nothing else because they are impermanent), means that we also turn towards the source of lasting happiness when we take refuge in Buddhism. This source of lasting happiness, according to the Buddha, is the spiritual life – our life – lived to bring forth the very end of any and all suffering, for ourselves and others. This “end” is really the result of bringing the causes of suffering, stemming from our own ignorance of how things are, to an end.

I find this teaching on the affective tone of the chant helpful and very interesting, if nothing else because it helps explain why we naturally take refuge with a longing in the heart. So, keep in mind that Taking Refuge is a very joyful practice, though in ways that are a bit counter to the current of the world.

Here is a nice video of the chanting of the Three Refuges at the Fuyan Buddhist Academy here in Taiwan. The melody is slightly different from the audio file above, but the movements of the assembly are the same: one full bow after each refuge.

Here are some other sources for information on the Three Refuges, for anyone who would like to read more:

A nice, fairly straightforward introduction to Taking Refuge (website)

Going for Refuge and Taking the Precepts, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (pdf file) – a long, valuable essay.

The Threefold Refuge, by Nyanaponika Thera (pdf file) – also long and very valuable.

I find the chanting of the Refuges a wonderful and deeply inspiring practice. As I said, the refuges are included in just about every service, so we do them quite often. There are other, slightly different versions, but the one linked to and described above is by far the most common in Chinese Buddhist ceremonies. The Refuges were also the first thing I could memorize in the morning and evening liturgy, so I can chant the words without needing to fumble around with a book, for which I am grateful.

Thank you for reading. As always, I hope you all are well.