Question: Some take the Threefold Refuge and receive the Five Precepts without knowing their purposes and really committing to them, while there are some who follow the Buddha’s teachings without taking refuge formally. Which is better? And is it necessary to take refuge and receive the precepts to reach Pure Land?
Answer: It is best to take refuge and receive the precepts with understanding and commitment. (More is explained on this in the ‘Project Rebirth’ class: http://thedailyenlightenment.com/?s=project+rebirth%3A+re) This is so as even if one does not commit to the precepts, misgivings created are still misgivings, giving rise to negative karma anyway. It is better then, to do one’s best to commit to the precepts, although some mistakes might be made occasionally, than to not commit and thus make more mistakes that go unchecked. Here is more on why it is better to commit to the precepts: http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2010/02/is-it-better-not-to-observe-any-precepts
Taking refuge is actually very important as it helps us to formally express and ‘cement’ our commitment to Dharma practice, which creates a powerful imprint on our minds, that perpetuates life after life when done with utmost sincerity. In fact, even after a formal refuge ceremony, many Buddhists chant verses for refuge daily, to further remind themselves to take the Triple Gem as guideposts in their lives. Here is more on whether taking refuge is a must for Buddhists: http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2011/11/is-taking-refuge-a-must-for-buddhists (The answer is beyond a simple yes or no.)
Taking refuge formally through a ritual is not an absolute must for birth in Pure Land for everyone, especially when some are really short of time and opportunities due to karmic conditions. However, when one is truly sincerely mindful of (Amitabha) Buddha on the deathbed, there should be, in the mind, even if not professed physically through a ceremony, absolute faithful trust in Amituofo, which will then be as good as going to the Triple Gem for refuge, as the Buddha also embodies the Dharma perfectly, and is the perfect leader of the Sangha. There is also commitment to the crucial Dharma then, by focusing on the very practice of mindfulness of Buddha. It is also commitment to the Sangha, to meet the assembly of beings of superior goodness in Pure Land.
When one who is dying practises mindfulness of Amituofo sincerely, there will be, in the moment, observation of all Five Precepts naturally, even if not deliberately. This is one of the reasons why practising mindfulness of Buddha is so powerful – as when we practise it with right understanding, we associate everything wholesome and pure with the Buddha, as represented by his name, which we recite. It is therefore impossible to break any precept (by killing, stealing, having sexual misconduct, lying and losing mindfulness through intoxicants) when properly mindful of Buddha. Mindfulness of Amituofo’s name thus keeps us aligned with the Triple Gem and Five Precepts. The more mindfulness there is, the more alignment there is.
For the dying who still have some time, if it helps to give rise to a greater sense of spiritual security and hope, it can be skilful to arrange for a refuge and/or precepts ceremony. However, we should not be rigidly insistent, imagining that one who is dying, who has not taken refuge (or committed to the precepts) formally has no hope to reach Pure Land at all. So long as the Three Provisions of Faith (in Amituofo), Aspiration (to reach Pure Land) and Practice (of mindfulness of Amituofo) are nurtured in time, they are already adequate provisions, which encompass the essence of refuge and precepts. (More on the definition of the Three Provisions: http://purelanders.com/2015/12/30/%E5%BE%80%E7%94%9F%E5%87%80%E5%9C%9F%E4%B8%89%E8%B5%84%E7%B2%AE-the-three-provisions-for-rebirth-in-pure-land) That said, formalised taking of refuge and/or commitment to the precepts in better times is invaluable too, for more firmly ensuring a solid connection to the Triple Gem and purer moral conduct, which is conducive for creating positive karma and peace of mind, to further ensure Pure Land will be more easily reached.