When I introduce Buddhism to people, some of them will ask ‘How powerful is Buddha? If I take refuge in Buddha, will he override all other gods and spirits?” For these people, taking refuge is like joining a spiritual gang. (Not being sarcastic here) Therefore, you want to be affiliated with the most powerful spiritual boss and be protected against all other spiritual beings.
It is useless to explain properly what refuge is all about; or Buddha being a teacher of Gods and men or any of those blah blah blah….That kind of Dharma message will not register in their mind because they are simply not interested. This is because their mind had already been conditioned to think that the spiritual realms are structured like our social or ecological system. Big fish eats small fish?
They are just looking for a mighty God-like figure to protect them from all the misfortunes in the world. Some believe they are plagued by black magic or haunted by malevolent spirits. Some encountered a bad patch in life and are simply lost; All these people are desperate for a quick spiritual fix to give them that confidence to live their life again. In such instances, an assurance that Buddha is almighty is more useful and I think there is no falsehood in that claim too.
These potential beginners to Buddhism needed the narrative that Buddha is that almighty spiritual boss. Without such a narrative, they will miss the opportunity to learn Dharma; when they miss that opportunity, they will never learn to be spiritually independent again. In this context, the refuge ceremony can become a very powerful and meaningful ritual. This is because it offers people hope of starting their life afresh.
For example, when a person believes that he is haunted by evil spirits; he wants to be assured that Buddha is almighty and will be there to watch his back. If he believes that someone had placed a curse on him, he needed assurance that his refuge master (the monk presiding over the refuge ceremony) or the Buddhist community is more powerful than that shaman who cursed him. In such cases, it is more beneficial to share stories of Buddhist mysticism with them.
Therefore, bigger temple with giant statues works better. Grand complex refuge ceremony works better. More people attending the refuge ceremony to “witness” and welcome the new “recruits” gives them better assurance and confidence. It is simply a psychological need that requires satisfaction.
- Refuge in the Triple Gems offers that psychological assurance that a huge unseen benevolent force is there to protect you. This is psychologically soothing for someone in distress.
- Getting a Buddhist name is like a “spiritual rebirth”; because henceforth I am a Buddhist with a new Buddhist name. Psychologically, it is like a new identity.
- Receiving the precepts gives us a new direction or purpose in life. For many people, the idea of giving up liquor seems inconceivable and is a huge leap in their lifestyle.
- Teachers usually prescribe simple religious duty such as chanting mantra every morning, or making offerings of incense to Buddha every morning. (depending on the teacher) Such religious duty helps to add a new purpose in life and helps to refocus a scattered mind too.
In the hand of an authentic and skillful Buddhist teacher, the refuge ceremony can be life changing because, not only does it offers hope of starting life afresh; it also offers the disciples a rare opportunity to study and practice the Dharma.
May all be well and happy.