The first step in becoming a Buddhist is to take refuge. At least to take refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma. Usually people take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, these are called The Three Jewels. Sometimes, additionally they take refuge, in some Tibetan traditions, in the Guru, as well as The Three Jewels. In the Amida Shu we take refuge in Amida Buddha, The Three Jewels and the Pure Land. In any case, whatever the precise form, taking refuge is the first step.
The Buddha gave the practice of taking refuge as his first ever teaching, before he even set out the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path he gave refuge in Buddha and Dharma to two merchants that he met on the road. They were called Trapusa and Bahalika. Trapusa and Bahalika were the first two Buddhists in the world. So, taking refuge is the first step.
Taking refuge is also the last step. As you proceed on your path with the Buddha's guidance, little by little, more and more, step by step, you come to understand more and more deeply just what taking refuge means.
Taking refuge is actually the real core of Buddhism. It's the only practice that all Buddhist schools have in common. Not all Buddhists meditate, not all Buddhists use the same scriptures, not all Buddhists have the same ceremonies or procedures, but they all take refuge. Not all Buddhists even keep the precepts, but they do take refuge.
Taking refuge is the central theme. Taking refuge is a matter of surrendering your personal power and accepting the enlightenment, the grace, the power of the Buddha, letting it into your life. It's like letting a light into your room, into your darkness. Sometimes we say that, you know, in spirituality everything comes from within, but this is not really true. If everything came from within there would be no point for you listening to this podcast, you'd just have to listen to yourself, but clearly, Buddhism has been transmitted. It has been transmitted from generation to generation, from teacher to teacher, from teacher to disciple, and so on; and what is transmitted fundamentally is refuge, is the Other Power of the Buddha entering one’s life so as to transform one.
It's like the planting of a seed. In Buddhism we have a term tathāgatagarbha. Tathāgatagarbha is the seed that the Buddha plants within the person; and this seed grows bit by bit and produces, eventually, a new Buddha in the future. Taking refuge in Buddha and Dharma now is the way to sow the seed, or allow the seed to be sown, that will one day manifest as a Buddha in the world, in one way or another.
Buddhism has many teachings, much wisdom, many practices. All of them come back to the act of taking refuge. So, in a sense, all Buddhists are refugees. We say that there is a big refugee problem in the world: many people who have had to leave their homes and go and live in camps. Sometimes, eventually, they find a safe place. A refugee is somebody who is on the way to finding a safe place. Somebody who takes refuge in Buddha and Dharma is finding the safest place of all, the place that is eternally safe, the place that will never let you down.
This is the meaning of refuge, it's the centre of all our concerns as Buddhists. As we go along the path we learn more and more what it means, but the first step is a ceremony of taking refuge that was first established by the Buddha when he met Trapusa and Bahalika just after his own enlightenment.
Thank you very much
Namo Amida Bu