Question: Must one go through the Threefold Refuge ceremony to be a proper Buddhist? Why is it so important?
Answer: It is best to do so formally though it is not an absolute must. It is important because to go through the short and solemn ceremony sincerely expresses a deep commitment to the Triple Gem. This helps to create a strong karmic imprint in the mind. It increases affinity with the Triple Gem not just in this life, but life after life. There will be stronger possibility of encountering the Triple Gem time and again.
Question: Is being mindful to practise the Dharma not enough?
Answer: It is possible to be very mindful of refuge in the Triple Gem and to practise the Dharma without going through the refuge ceremony, but to go through the ceremony is itself a mindful Dharma practice that helps to strengthen our mindfulness of the Dharma for better practice. It sets a firm foundation of commitment in our consciousness. As such, traditionally, since the Buddha’s time, taking refuge formally marks the moment one becomes a serious Buddhist. As the ceremony is very simple yet meaningful, why not go through it?
Question: Is the choice of the monastic presiding the refuge ceremony important?
Answer: As long as the monastic is generally a respectable one with right understanding and practice, and has enough seniority as a monastic, he or she can represent the Sangha to facilitate a proper refuge ceremony. It is not a must that one takes that monastic as one’s personal teacher for life. One can still learn from many other Buddhist teachers, lay or monastic. One does not literally take refuge in a monastic, but in the pure Triple Gem of all Buddhas, the Dharma and the Arya Sangha (enlightened monastic and lay practitioners) on the whole.
Question: What if that monastic later turns out to be immoral, thus effectively not a true monastic? Does this nullify the refuge ceremony?
Answer: If one’s taking of refuge was proper and sincere, one’s refuge is still true and intact. However, if it disturbs one’s mind sufficiently (excessively), that one’s ‘refuge master’ is now problematic, one can take refuge again through another master.