One becomes a Buddhist lay disciple by means of two steps: Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels and undertaking the Five Precepts. By going for refuge one makes the solemn commitment to accept the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha — as the guiding ideals of one’s life. By taking the Five Precepts one expresses a determination to bring one’s conduct into accord with these ideals. Both steps are usually undertaken in a ceremony conducted by monks and nuns in a Buddhist temple. Although the ceremony might seem short and simple, it marks a dramatic turning point in one’s life, opening the way to all future progress in the practice of the Dharma.

The Three Refuges

Going for Refuge is traditionally regarded as “the door of entrance” to the Buddha’s teaching. By this act one formally acknowledges the Buddha as the Fully Enlightened One, the supreme spiritual teacher in the world; one turns to the Dharma, the truth and path taught by him, as one’s source of guidance in right understanding and wholesome conduct; and to the Sangha, the community of noble disciples, as one’s immediate guides and inspirational models in walking the path. From ancient times to the present day, the Going for Refuge has functioned as the entranceway to the dispensation of the Buddha, giving admission to the rest of the teaching from its lowest levels to its top. All those who embrace the Buddha’s teaching do so by passing through the door of taking refuge, while those already committed regularly reaffirm their conviction by repeatedly making the same threefold profession:

Buddham saranam gacchami
I go for refuge to the Buddha.
Dhammam saranam gacchami
I go for refuge to the Dharma.
Sangham saranam gacchami
I go for refuge to the Sangha.

As slight and commonplace as this step might seem, especially in comparison with the lofty achievements lying beyond, its importance should never be underestimated, as it is this act which imparts direction and forward momentum to the entire practice of the Buddhist path. Thus, after making the first profession of refuge in the presence of monastics at the Initiation Ceremony, one should make it a point to repeat the Going for Refuge formula three times at least once a day, early in the morning, or even better, both in the morning and at night.

The Five Precepts

The Buddha’s teaching is not a system of salvation by faith but a path to enlightenment and liberation from suffering. The path unfolds in three main stages: moral discipline (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (pañña). These three divisions of the path rise up each in dependence upon its predecessor — concentration upon moral discipline and wisdom upon concentration. The foundation for the entire path, it can be seen, is the training in moral discipline. As the foundation for the path, moral virtue is internalized by observing precepts prescribed as guidelines to good conduct. The most basic ethical code found in the Buddha’s teaching is the Five Precepts (panchasila):

  1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life;
  2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given;
  3. I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct;
  4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech; and
  5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from liquors, wines, and other intoxicants, which are the basis for heedlessness.

The Five Precepts function as the core of the training in moral discipline. They are intended to produce, through methodical practice, an inner purity of will and motivation that comes to expression in wholesome bodily and verbal conduct. Like the Three Refuges, the Five Precepts should also be renewed each day as part of one’s daily recitation.

The Eight Precepts

In Buddhist countries, on Buddhist holidays it is common for lay Buddhists to observe a more stringent code of discipline consisting of eight precepts. These are modeled upon the ethical code of a novice monk or nun, but are generally taken for only a 24-hour period. The first five of the Eight Precepts are identical with the regular Five Precepts (see above), except that the third is changed to read: “I accept the training rule to abstain from all sexual behavior.” This requires abstinence even from actions like hugging, kissing, holding hands, etc. The additional three are as follows:

  1. I accept the training rule to abstain from food at improper times.
    This means that no solid food (including milk and milk products) should be consumed between twelve noon and dawn of the following day (roughly 6 am). After twelve noon, one may drink any beverage such as tea, coffee, cocoa, fruit juices, etc. A plain vegetable broth, without the pulp, is also permissible. Precept-holders should eat a more substantial lunch than usual (but without stuffing oneself!). With a little determination to resist the force of habit, one will find this suffices for the rest of the day.
  2. I accept the training rule (a) to abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music, and shows, and (b) from the use of jewelry, cosmetics, and beauty lotions.
    Part (a) means that one refrains both from participating in such activities and attending performances at which they take place. Part (b) excludes personal ornamentation. On a liberal interpretation, the precept should not prohibit women from wearing earrings permanently secured on their ears or, if they so wish, from wearing their wedding bands. It does exclude perfumes, makeup, and other toiletries, but not deodorant or skin lotion needed to counter a dry-skin condition.
  3. I accept the training rule to abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds and seats.
    During this day one should avoid sitting in especially soft, high, or luxurious seats. The typical American bed would not count as “high and luxurious,” but if one wishes to be extra scrupulous one might sleep in a sleeping bag, mat, or rug spread on the floor.

The Eight Precepts, if undertaken, should be observed until the following dawn. At dawn, one verbally relinquishes them — either to oneself or to another person, preferably before a Buddha image — and then undertakes the usual Five Precepts.