[Taking of the] Threefold Refuge [in the] Triple [Gem of Buddhas, Dharma and Saṃgha, with receiving of the] Five Precepts [of not killing, not stealing, not having sexual misconduct, not having false speech and not taking of intoxicants, is] as beginners’ door[s for] entering [the] Buddha’s teachings.
[Note 1: Taking the Threefold Refuge and receiving of the Five Precepts is the ceremonially formal way for beginners to express sincere commitment to be proper Buddhists, who are willing to sincerely learn and practise the Buddha’s teachings accordingly. Becoming true Buddhists in this way ensures that the Triple Gem will be encountered life after life. This itself is a good enough reason to go through these ceremonies.
Note 2: As such, unless there are obstacles, which should all be overcome, for becoming true Buddhists, there should not be refusal to take refuge and commit to these fundamental precepts. If one feels not ready yet, one should work towards being ready, with even more diligent learning and practice. Usually, those already interested in Buddhism, who resist receiving refuge and precepts, have yet to understand their precious value, while those who do will readily receive them. To the extent that commitment is lacking, benefits from the Triple Gem will also be lacking.
Note 3: While it is best to take refuge and receive all Five Precepts together swiftly in a single ceremony, it is also alright to take refuge first, and/or some of the precepts first, while steadily working towards commitment to all of them in good time.
Note 4: As the Five Precepts summarise the essence of all precepts to be perfectly observed later, they are basic yet comprehensive when expanded in depth for finer practical observation. Observation of precepts is the foundation of the Threefold Learning (And Practice) of Precepts (for ‘Moral Conduct’), Concentration and Wisdom – which leads to Buddhahood when perfected.
Note 5: Even for the dying, if there is enough time, it is best to invite a monastic to conduct the refuge-taking and precepts-conferring ceremonies. Only when there is lack of time or access should a layperson guide in these ceremonies instead.]
Cultivation [of] other Dharma Doors, all must rely [upon] these, [to] then enter, furthermore, [if in this] present [or the immediate] life, [to be] liberated [with the] utmost simple, utmost easy, utmost complete, utmost sudden [and] inconceivable Pure Land Dharma Door.
[Note 6: If there is not enough time to conduct the above ceremonies, sincere mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha’s name (i.e. Āmítuófó’) can also express taking of refuge in the Triple Gem, as his name represents all Buddhas, with this practice representing the essence of all Dharma teachings, and him being a qualified leader of all Saṃgha communities collectively. This is part of the inconceivable nature of the Pure Land Dharma Door – in terms of its simplicity and easiness. If born in Pure Land which guarantees liberation without dying first, there will be liberation in this present life. If reborn after death, there will be liberation in the immediate life.
Note 7: The taking of refuge marks the actual beginning of the spiritual path, with refuge-taking ever deepening with progress on the path, until one becomes the Triple Gem, being a Buddha personally, who is one with the Dharma, who is part of the Saṃgha, who leads it too. This path is swiftest through Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land. This is also part of the inconceivable nature of the Pure Land Dharma Door – in terms of its completeness and suddenness. In terms of the Threefold Learning, sincere mindfulness of Buddha also observes all Precepts at the same time, while training for Concentration, and awakening Wisdom (by aligning to Buddha-Nature with Buddha’s blessings), thus illustrating its complete nature.]
Not examining oneself [on the] three karmas [of body, speech and mind, by] not upholding [the] Five Precepts, [one is] then without again attaining [a] part of [this] human body, furthermore, [if] desiring [to] attain [a] lotus flower’s transformed birth, [to be] complete [with a] body of excellent forms [and] bright light.
[Note 8: The First, Second and Third Precepts guard the body from unwholesome deeds, the Fourth Precept from unwholesome speech and the Fifth Precept from loss of mindfulness, that might lead to breaking of all previous precepts.
Note 9: This present human rebirth was attained through adequate observation of the Five Precepts in the immediate past life, while failure to do so in this life will lead to loss of human life in the immediate next life, to fall into the lower realm of hell-beings, hungry ghosts or animals. Since a Pure Land rebirth is loftier than a human rebirth, there should ideally be purer observation of the precepts in time, for reaching a higher grade of birth in Pure Land.
Note 10: One who had not been observing the precepts well, if at all, should have sincere repentance, especially when approaching the end of life, coupled with sincere mindfulness of Buddha for birth in Pure Land. Continual mindfulness can also express such repentance. Doing so will connect to Buddha’s blessings for dissolving negative karma, to avoid falling into a lower realm, and still qualify for reaching Pure Land.
Note 11: With sincere mindfulness of Buddha, due to the Buddha’s great Other-Power, the Master taught that it is easier to attain a Pure Land rebirth, than to attain a human rebirth, the latter of which, without any sincere mindfulness of Buddha, depends on Self-Power only.
Note 12: As the Master taught, ‘[In the] next life becoming human [again], compared [with], when approaching [the] end [of this] life [being] reborn [in Āmítuófó’s Pure Land, the first is] more difficult, [if with much negative karma from breaking the Five Precepts, and inadequate positive karma from observing them well, while] seeking birth [in Āmítuófó’s] Western [Pure Land], compared [with, in the] next life becoming human, [the first is] even easier [due to much abundant blessings from Āmítuófó for dissolving negative karma, and supporting this rebirth adequately].’ (来生做人，比临终往生还难… 求生西方，比求来生做人尚容易。) ]
Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yìnguāng
Third Reply Letter To Layperson Gāo Shàolín
Namo Amituofo : Translation and notes by Shen Shi’an
Why Is It Easier To Reach Pure Land Than To Retain Human Rebirth?
Is It Better Not to Observe Any Precepts?