The disciples of the Buddhist community are divided into two categories: monastic and lay practitioners. Monastic practitioners renounce their family and dedicate themselves to the practice of a pure monastic lifestyle. Lay practitioners, on the other hand, have family and worldly responsibilities but still practice Buddhism.
The household life is the source of many afflictions. With a family, there are relatives who burden one’s thoughts, fame and fortune that influence one’s desires, worldly affairs that distract one’s mind, and calamities that disturb one’s aspirations. As the “Compendium of Buddhist Scriptures” says: “It is extremely difficult to commit evil deeds after renouncing household life, like a ship sailing on land. Conversely, it is extremely easy to commit wrongdoings while living at home, like a ship sailing on the sea. Moreover, it is relatively easy to practice Buddhism after leaving home, like a ship sailing on the sea. However, it is extremely difficult to cultivate merit and virtue while living at home, like a ship sailing on land. Although the ships are the same, their locations make a difference, resulting in varying speed and difficulty in cultivation. Therefore, we should recognize that birth and death are easy to encounter, but the path of goodness is hard to attain. It is better to seek self-enlightenment early on and aspire to leave the secular world.” Thus, leaving home and becoming a monastic practitioner is the best choice for practicing Buddhism.
However, leaving behind loved ones and renouncing worldly attachments to pursue a monastic lifestyle is not something everyone can do. Emperor Taizong of Tang once said: “Leaving home is the path of great men, not something that kings and high-ranking officials can easily accomplish.” This indicates that leaving home is a significant decision that should not be taken lightly. In today’s society, everyone has their own work and responsibilities. If someone can transcend worldly attachments and pursue a monastic lifestyle, they are indeed great individuals. However, if the environment does not allow for it, and one continues to fulfill their worldly duties while also practicing Buddhism, this is also a result of past karmic causes and conditions. Thus, “Compendium of Buddhist Scriptures” also states: “Those who aspire to the path of goodness can live at home and be at peace. Those who value filial piety can honor their parents and be respected. There are also virtuous people who respect and practice Buddhism, and possess integrity, kindness, humility, and honesty. These people have an innate disposition and are no different from those who follow the path.” This refers to lay practitioners who practice Buddhism while still fulfilling their worldly duties.
To practice at home, one must first go through the process of taking refuge before they can be considered a disciple of Buddhism. Taking refuge means to rely on the Three Jewels and observe the Five Precepts.
The Three Jewels and Five Precepts were established by the Buddha himself. In the Sutra of Upasaka Precepts, it is written, “When an individual first begins to cultivate the Way, what should be their aspiration? The Buddha said, ‘First, practice the Five Precepts and then take refuge in the Three Jewels. What are the Five Precepts? The first is to have a compassionate heart and refrain from killing. The second is to be honest and refrain from stealing. The third is to be pure and refrain from sexual misconduct. The fourth is to be faithful and refrain from lying. The fifth is to have a clear mind and refrain from intoxication. What are the Three Jewels? The first is to take refuge in the Buddha, the highest truth. The second is to take refuge in the Dharma, which controls one’s mind. The third is to take refuge in the Sangha, which is like the vast ocean, encompassing all beings.'”
As mentioned above, taking refuge means to rely on the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. We believe in and practice Buddhism, which is the teaching of the Buddha. In the world, the Buddha who established this teaching is Shakyamuni Buddha. The teachings spoken by the Buddha are called the Dharma, which includes the Tripitaka and the twelve divisions of Buddhist scriptures. Those who propagate the teachings of the Buddha are called the Sangha. Sangha means the harmonious assembly of monks who live together, study and practice the Holy Way. Together, these three, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, are called the Three Jewels.
Taking refuge means to rely on the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha like a child relying on their father or a subject relying on their king. We entrust our body, life, and time to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. This is the meaning of taking refuge in the Three Jewels.
Why do those who practice at home need to take refuge in the Three Jewels? In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha said, “Those who take refuge in the Buddha are true Upasakas, who will never again take refuge in any other gods or deities. Those who take refuge in the Dharma are separated from killing and harming, and will never again take refuge in any external scriptures of other religions. Those who take refuge in the Sangha do not seek other religions.”
In fact, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha together represent the entirety of Buddhism, and each one is essential. Taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha is the foundation of practicing Buddhism. As for the Five Precepts, which have been mentioned repeatedly in this text, there are specific ceremonies to take them under the guidance of a preceptor or a master who has received full ordination. Only after taking refuge in the Three Jewels and observing the Five Precepts can one become a formal disciple of Buddhism, called an Upasaka or an Upasika.