The seventh question was, “I would like to know the method of taking refuge in the Three Gems.”
How to Practise the Three Refuges
I am not going to describe the Three Gems in detail because they have been well explained in such books as the Saraṇādivinicchaya. Only the main points will be shown here.
People often think, “If I worship this teaching, it will free me from the lower realms.” If these meditations have the merit needed to avoid the lower realms, then they may be called refuges. Some believe that meditating on this or that teaching will bring enough merit to avoid the lower realms. This kind of worship cannot bring such merit. It is useless. Those who believe in those teachings are not a refuge and are not worthy of respect. They are also not able to find a refuge. You must understand this while taking refuge.
To give a simile: the purified attributes of virtue, concentration, and wisdom are like fertile soil; the Noble Ones possessing those attributes are like a fertile field. Worshipping them is like sowing seed in that field. Here, the volition to worship is the seed. One who is without virtue, concentration, or wisdom, and therefore thinks only immoral thoughts, is like dry, rocky land. Worshipping one like that is just like sowing seed on barren land. The worshipper’s act (however reverential) is futile and brings no merit.
Nevertheless, there are sure ways of earning merit and demerit, modes of conduct that are moral or immoral, and happy destinies or unhappy destinies understood down the ages by the wise (whether bhikkhus, laymen, or recluses). Wrong believers disregard all these merits and demerits and declare that what is meritorious is demeritorious, or that what is demeritorious is meritorious. One with such perverted views is like a burning rock. One who worships such a teacher is like one who sows seed on a burning rock. Instead of gaining merit, the worshipper will be burned.
Taking refuge is of two kinds: by hearsay and by direct knowledge. Taking refuge through blind faith in the noble attributes of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha, but without right view, is by hearsay. It is so called because the act of taking refuge is not complete in so far as the worshipper has not actually “seen” the Buddha, the Dhamma, or the Saṅgha; he has not perceived the teaching; he has not been in contact with the teaching. In common parlance, he has not got the message.
Consider the Buddha’s admonition to Vakkali, the devoted bhikkhu who spent all his time in worshipful admiration of the Buddha, “Vakkali, he who does not see the Dhamma does not see me.” That is why taking refuge in the Three Gems without empirical knowledge of the Dhamma, i.e. insight into the arising and passing away of phenomena, relies on hearsay only. It is not taking refuge with direct knowledge.
Taking refuge with direct knowledge means imbibing the Buddha’s teaching with right view by perceiving the aggregates, the sense bases, and the elements, and their arising and cessation, which alone will destroy the delusion about a “self” and doubts about the Four Noble Truths. This kind of going for refuge is the real refuge, for the worshipper is actually in contact with the Three Gems.
“One understands suffering, its origin, its cessation and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the end of suffering. This, indeed, is a secure refuge, this is the supreme refuge. Taking refuge in this, one gains release from the cycle of existences.” (Dhp. vv.191-192.)
The above stanzas refer to taking refuge with direct knowledge. As for the seven aspects in the five aggregates discussed earlier, each aspect includes taking refuge based on hearsay and taking refuge with direct knowledge, thus making seven pairs.
Let me illustrate the difference between the two. Suppose there are two lepers at advanced stages of the disease. There is also a competent physician who can cure leprosy. One leper lives a hundred days’ journey from the physician. He has never seen the physician, but takes his medicine brought to him by travellers. By taking the medicine faithfully and correctly, eventually he is completely cured of leprosy. The other leper lives in the physician’s house as a dependent. He does not take the medicine because he finds its smell and taste unpleasant. He only enjoys the good food that is plentiful at the master’s table. The result is obvious; his disease worsens day by day. Of the two lepers, only the one who was cured knows, by direct knowledge, the efficacy of the medicine and the true worth of the physician. The other does not know the real worth of the physician or the medicine he administers. He has only knowledge based on hearsay about the greatness of the physician and the powerful medicine he dispenses. The analogy is clear enough.
So, one who is training to acquire the proficiency in the seven aspects referred to above does not need to utter the words of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha. He does not need to go to a pagoda for worship, for these are mere formalities, and not essential, as he or she well understands. It is only for those who fail to practise what the Buddha taught that the utterances and the acts of worship are so important. These “hearsay” worshippers may be Buddhists today, but they may change their religion tomorrow. Those who worship with direct knowledge would rather give up their lives than convert to another religion.
-- Uttama Purisa Dīpanī: A Manual of the Excellent Man by Ledi Sayadaw and translated by Bhikkhu Pesala.http://www.aimwell.org/Books/Ledi/Uttama/uttama.html