The Three Refuges in Jodo Shinshu

- last revised January 2nd 2018 - 

The Three Refuges[1] are:

Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
The first line means to take refuge first and foremost in Amida Buddha who is the central Buddha in Jodo Shinshu. Only through Him can we attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land as He is the only Buddha among all Buddhas who made the Vow of saving everybody, no matter their spiritual capacities.

We also honor and take refuge in Shakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher who showed us the path of Amida Dharma, His main reason for coming into this world.

At our dojo or temple we recite the traditional “Vandana”: NAMO THASSA BHAGAVATO ARAHATO SAMMA SAMBUDDHASA (Homage to Him, the Blessed One, the fully Enlightened One) before reciting the Three Refuges. This is addressed to Shakyamuni Buddha in His position as a messenger and Teacher of Amida Dharma.
To second line means to take refuge in the Dharma about Amida that was preached by Shakyamuni Buddha and further explained by the Masters of our tradition, especially Shinran Shonin and Rennyo Shonin. It is the Dharma contained in the sacred texts of our tradition, the sutras and commentaries, not the books of some scholar or priest. 

By taking refuge in the true Dharma, which is, I repeat, the teaching contained in the sutras and commentaries of the Masters, we indirectly reject false views or opinions that contradict these sacred texts.

We reject such false views held today by many, like the denial of rebirth, of cause and effect, or those regarding Amida as being a symbol, metaphor, fictional character, those who misinterpret the Pure Land as being a state of mind to be attained here and now, etc[2].  

Taking refuge in the Dharma means that we make the vow of putting the Dharma higher than our own unenlightened opinions and ideas. We receive and transmit to others only the teaching left to us by Shakyamuni and the Masters of our tradition.

While we respect all Buddhist methods as coming from Shakyamuni, we follow only the teaching about Amida Buddha and only in it do we take refuge.

The third line means that we take refuge in those who have received shinjin (faith) in the present life and whose future birth in the Pure Land is thus assured.
By taking refuge in them we wish to be like them, we consider them to be our fellow travelers on the path, our brothers and sisters in the Amida Dharma.

Those who haven’t received shinjin yet, should look for the company of those who are firm in shinjin, listen to their explanations, and wish to become persons of settled faith themselves.

We do not take refuge in those who share false views or views that are not in accordance with the words and instructions of the sutras and commentaries of the Masters.

The Jodo Shinshu sangha (community) is composed only of those who fully accept the teaching found in the sutras and commentaries of the Masters and who have received shinjin or sincerely aspire to shinjin. Those who do not have shinjin yet can also become members of the sangha, if they sincerely aspire to shinjin and accept as true the teaching of the three sutras and comentaries of the Masters. However, the object of our refuge is the sangha in its aspect of shinjin (arya sangha), that is, practitioners who already have a settled faith. When those who are not yet established in shinjin wish to enter the Jodo Shinshu sangha, they take refuge in this shinjin aspect of the sangha.

The sangha is the place where the true Dharma is shared and transmitted so that we can receive shinjin and become Buddhas in the Pure Land.

Only in sharing and transmitting the true Dharma does the sangha have meaning. Without taking refuge in the living Amida Buddha and accepting the Dharma about him as it was taught by Shakyamuni and the Masters, there is no sangha.

The three refuges are, as the term implies, a „refuge” but also an engagement or promise that from then on we will forever take refuge in Amida Buddha, we will listen and accept the Dharma about Him, and we’ll become persons who entrust to Him.

How should we look to other Buddhists that are not Jodo Shinshu followers?

They are disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, too, just they follow other Buddhist methods than us.

In accordance with Master Rennyo’s instruction found in his letters, we should not despise those who practice other Buddhist teachings than the nembutsu of faith in Amida Buddha. “Respect but not follow”, is the rule for treating other Buddhist schools and their disciples. After all, Buddhists of all schools are brothers and sisters in the Buddha Dharma and disciples of Shakyamuni.  They are part of the general Buddhist sangha, so to speak, containing all Buddhists, but we specifically take refuge in the sangha of those who have faith in Amida Buddha.

How should we look to other religions?

“Respect but not follow” applies here, too.

Shinran Shonin insisted very much in the last chapter from his Kyogyoshinsho, by quoting many sutras, on the fact that the disciples of the Buddha should not take refuge in non-Buddhist teachings, or venerate any divinities outside Buddhism, should not rely on superstitions, lucky days, propitious or unpropitious times, etc.. Here are a few revealing passages:

“Those who take refuge truly and wholeheartedly, freeing themselves from all delusional attachments and all concern with the propitious or unpropitious, must never take refuge in false spirits or non-Buddhist teachings.”[4]

“Do not turn toward other teachings; do not worship gods.”[5]

“Good sons and good daughters of pure trust must never serve gods to the very end of their lives.”[6]

Also we must not mix the Buddha Dharma with various religious systems from the past or present. Buddhism is the medicine prescribed to us by the Buddha, who is supreme among all the teachers in the three worlds and it is a grave mistake to mix his teaching with those of other paths.

So, we abandon all non-Buddhist teachings and select the Buddha Dharma. Next, among all Shakyamuni’s teachings we choose only the nembutsu of faith in Amida Buddha.

[1] When someone becomes a Jodo Shinshu follower in the Romanian sangha, he/she says these refuges together with Ryogemon (Jodo Shinshu Creed) in front of the altar and in the presence of the sangha.
[2] See chapters “Those who deny the existence of Amida don’t have shinjin”, “Honen Shonin on Amida Buddha”, “Pure Land is not here and now”, “The Pure Land in the teaching of Jodo Shinshu”, from the book Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Teachings and the second part of my book, The True Teaching on Amida Buddha and His Pure Land.
[4] Shinran quoted this passage from the Sutra of the Ten Wheels of Ksitigarbha.
[5] Shinran quoted this passage from the Sutra of the Samadhi of Collecting All Merits.
[6] Shinran quoted this passage from the Sutra of the Vows of Medicine Master Buddha.