Most people who are not born into a Buddhist culture or family become Buddhists through an evolving personal commitment to the teachings and practice of Buddhism. Often that starts by reading a book, having a conversation, or learning to meditate, and eventually the decision to continue studying and practicing in this direction brings them into a center or group.
In general, a person’s practice and dedication to the teachings is fundamentally all it takes to be a Buddhist. However, all the major schools offer a formal ceremony to mark the transition. In it, a student acknowledges their commitment to and faith in the Buddha’s path of practice by taking refuge from the vicissitudes of life in three sources of shelter. These are the Buddha—the human embodiment of enlightenment; the dharma—the teachings of the Buddha; and the sangha—the community of practitioners. (Originally the term sangha referred to monks and nuns only, but today many Buddhists include lay practitioners in the definition, and Western practitioners understand sangha to mean the people they meditate and study with.) Together the three refuges are known as the three jewels or the triple gem, because they are so valuable.
The ceremony of taking refuge is presented somewhat differently in each of the various Buddhist schools, and it may be held for a single student or for several at once. It is not a requirement for anyone, but many beginners find it to be a personally meaningful part of deciding to “be a Buddhist.”
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