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Ratana Sutta – True Refuge
For a complete understanding of this sutta within the context intended by an awakened human being, please read the suttas linked at the end of this article. ([x])
Everything the Buddha taught was taught in the context of Dependent Origination and the ongoing stress, suffering, and distraction that results from ignorance of Four Noble Truths. 
His first teaching was taught to describe the results of this common ignorance and the singular path the Buddha taught to recognize and abandon ignorance. [2,3]
Refuge is a place or state of mind that is a protection or a shelter from hardship or danger. Refuge is a place or state of mind that is a source of comfort and peace.
True refuge is found in:
1. The Buddha
2. The Dhamma
3. The Sangha
Nearly all schools of Buddhism refer to “The Triple Refuge” or taking refuge in “The Three Jewels.” In modern Buddhism By Common Agreement, the meaning of true refuge is often altered and adapted to allow for non-specific culturally and individually influenced “dharmas.” This then intentionally avoids the effective refuge found in the Buddha’s Dhamma and ignores recognizing the ignorance that is the Heartwood of the Buddha’s Dhamma. 
The teaching known as the “Jewel Discourse” or the “Ratana Sutta” was given in the city of Vesali at a time of widespread famine and spreading disease. There were many dead bodies as the conditions overwhelmed the ability to properly dispose of bodies. The local citizens sought out the Buddha’s help, who was nearby in Rajagaha.
My comments below are in italics.
Samyuttta Nikaya 2.1
At that time the city of Vesali there was widespread famine and spreading disease. There were many dead bodies as the conditions overwhelmed the ability to properly dispose of bodies. The local citizens sought out the Buddha’s help, who was nearby in Rajagaha. The Buddha arrived in Vesali a short time later with a large number of monks, including Ananda. Just before the Buddha’s arrival, torrential rains helped the situation somewhat by cleansing the landscape of rotting corpses and clearing the air and water.
Prior to his presenting this discourse, he instructed his attending monks to walk through the city and do what they could to ease the physical suffering of the citizens and to individually present this teaching. At the formal teaching the Buddha then presented a way to bring true refuge from the stress and suffering of the world and to put an end to all dukkha:
“May all beings assembled have peace of mind. May all beings assembled listen mindfully to these words. May you all radiate goodwill and loving-kindness to all who offer help and understanding to you. Understand this: “There is no more precious jewel, no more refuge, no more comfort, than the Buddha. As woodland groves in the early heat of summer are crowned with blossoming flowers, so is the sublime Dhamma leading to the calm and peace of nirvana. The peerless and excellent awakened one, the teacher of true understanding, the teacher of the Noble Path is the Buddha, The one who has awakened.
Here the Buddha is not teaching worship of himself. The Buddha often referred to himself as the “Tathagata,” the one who has gone forth. The Buddha had gone forth from distraction and ignorance, stress and suffering, to well-concentrated wisdom. He liberated himself from clinging to all objects and views. Through his own efforts, Siddartha Gotama awakened to become a Buddha. The Buddha is here offering himself as the example of one going forth and actually developing the Eightfold Path. This also establishes the qualification for teaching an authentic Dhamma. 
Taking refuge in the Buddha is understanding that all human beings can go forth from ignorance and attain wisdom and Right Understanding. There is great protection and comfort in understanding that liberation and freedom is possible for all human beings who wholeheartedly develop the Buddha’s Dhamma.
“There is no more precious jewel than the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma. Understanding this brings true liberation and freedom. The Buddha, calm and mindful has experienced the cessation of clinging and desire. The Deathless state of nirvana has been attained. The Buddha teaches the Noble Eightfold Path that unfailingly brings concentration, liberation, and freedom. There is no more precious jewel than the Buddhadhamma.
The Buddha is describing that there is a precious jewel in taking refuge in the path of liberation and freedom. In this setting in Vesali, the Buddha is teaching that once practical needs have been taken care of to turn one’s attention to being mindful of the actual teachings of the Buddha and his emphasis on the Eightfold Path – the Heartwood of the Dhamma.
“There is no more precious jewel than the Sangha. Understanding this brings true liberation and freedom. The virtuous ones who bring the Dhamma, they are the Jewel of The Sangha. Those with steadfast minds, free of clinging, they are the jewel of the Sangha. Those that understand with wisdom The Four Noble Truths, they are the jewel of the Sangha. Those that gain true insight and abandon self-delusion, doubt, and indulgence in meaningless rites and rituals, They are the jewel of the sangha. Those beyond despair and evil-doings, They are the jewel of the sangha. Those whose understanding arises from the support of the sangha, who can no longer conceal the truth from themselves due to the sangha, they are the precious jewel of the sangha. Those whose karma is extinguished, the future of no concern, with rebirth ending, due to the support of the sangha, this is the precious jewel of the sangha.
End Of Sutta
The example of the Buddha’s life, the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma, along with the support of a well-focused Sangha, provides true refuge from the suffering of distraction and ignorance arising from ignorance of his Dhamma. Being mindful of the three jewels concentrates the mind to what is of utmost importance.
A well-focused sangha informed and guided by the Buddha’s Dhamma continues the true refuge taught here. Much of modern Buddhism By Common Agreement no longer provides this true refuge. This sutta also shows the responsibility that Dhamma practitioners have in maintaining the authentic teachings of an awakened human being if they would hope to establish a true refuge of and for the Buddha’s Dhamma. [5,6]
Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels is taking great comfort in understanding that awakening is possible for any human being. The example of the Buddha’s life shows that.
There is great comfort in realizing that the way of liberation is a path accessible and integrated by anyone, the Eightfold Path. 
There is also great comfort in knowing that we do not engage in the path of liberation and freedom alone. The Buddha often said that the most important aspect of practice is the sangha. The support and commitment that we gain from each other often provides the encouragement and strength to continue, even when difficult times interfere. 
Holding in mind the Three Jewels provides continual direction for one’s mindfulness.
Taking refuge in the Buddha, The Dhamma and the Sangha also provides a framework for mindful expression of joy and freedom.
This article is an excerpt from The Truth of Happiness
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
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