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皈依佛竟,宁舍身命,终不皈依天魔外道。
皈依法竟,宁舍身命,终不皈依外道邪说。
皈依僧竟,宁舍身命,终不皈依外道徒众。

– 皈依文

Taking refuge in the Buddhas completely,
rather to give up life, to the end
never taking refuge in heavenly demons’ external paths.

Taking refuge in the Dharma completely,
rather to give up life, to the end
never taking refuge in external paths’ evil teachings.

Taking refuge in the [Arya] Sangha* completely,
rather to give up life, to the end
never taking refuge in external paths’ followers’ assemblies.

– Threefold Refuge Verse

* Community of monastic and lay Buddhadharma practitioners
with attainments of various levels of enlightenment before Buddhahood

In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the ceremonial taking of the Threefold Refuge (in the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha) is usually conducted with committing to the Five Precepts (of not killing, stealing, having sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicants). However, in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, there is skilfully compassionate leeway given to those not ready for the precepts yet. It is permitted that those new to Buddhism first take refuge, as they learn more about committing to the precepts in time to come. Just as there is sense in taking refuge and the precepts together by default, there is sense in considering them separately too, as we shall see…

Imagine coming across one who claims to be a ‘proper’ Buddhist, as in having taken the Threefold Refuge formally… who nevertheless frequently kills, steals, has affairs, lies and drinks to a drunken stupor. When reprimanded, he excuses himself by saying, ‘Hey! I haven’t committed to any precepts yet!’ Surely, we will feel disturbed, and even label him as a superficial Buddhist, or not a true Buddhist. This is because we naturally expect Buddhists to not just be Buddhists in name, but good Buddhists too. It turns out that the Five Precepts being observed well is a basic and rather universal way through which we instinctively gauge goodness, even of non-Buddhists. (There are more advanced precepts such as the Eight, Bodhisattva and monastic ones.)

Above is why it is sensible that even new Buddhists should try to commit to the Five Precepts. Even if truly not ready yet, it is the trying that is already part of Buddhist practice. Yet, it is also sensible not to insist all new Buddhists to take up the Five Precepts straightaway. This is so as the taking of refuge is more urgent than taking the precepts. Proper taking of refuge firmly sows a seed of spiritual affinity with the Triple Gem, which given the right conditions in future, will bear the fruit of enlightenment. Even if one abides by the Five Precepts strictly, yet, with no connection to the Triple Gem, it will be extremely difficult to advance beyond basic morality to realise wisdom necessary for enlightenment.

Interestingly, some hesitate to take refuge because they somehow personally think it is a must to commit to the Five Precepts well. This hints of their Buddha-nature or innate potential for goodness and purity rearing its head. Their line of thinking is that since they are not ready for the precepts, they are not ready for refuge. While it is good that they are morally demanding on themselves, paradoxically, they might also not be motivated enough to learn more about the precepts, so as to actually live up to them. Good roots, or capacity for goodness should be nurtured diligently, so that they bear good fruits in thought, word and deed! Since a process is needed for practice to make perfect, why not start now?

Related Article:
Must The Five Precepts Be Taken With The Threefold Refuge?https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/zeph/conversations/messages/684

皈依佛戒皈依非佛。
皈依法戒皈依非法。
皈依僧戒皈依非僧。

– 三‘戒’文

To take refuge in the Buddhas
is to commit to the ‘precept’
to not take refuge in non-Buddhas.

To take refuge in the Dharma
is to commit to the ‘precept’
to not take refuge in non-Dharma.

To take refuge in the Arya Sangha
is to commit to the ‘precept’
to not take refuge in non-Arya Sangha.

– Threefold ‘Precepts’ Verse

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One Response to “Should Refuge And The Five Precepts Go Together?”

  1. MV Chinese Theravada Buddhism-1answered December 22, 2016

    Re: According to Sutta Nikaya we find many sutta mention by the Buddha, three refuges and five precepts are taken togther. These four or eight are the main pillar to support one to the Path of the First Stage of Enlightenment.

    Reply: Four or eight ____? Is there mention by the Buddha that the refuges MUST go with the precepts?

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