In the time of the Buddha there was a girl called Uposatha at Saketa, which lies in Kosala region in Central India. She lived by the teachings of the Buddha and became a Stream-winner. When she died she was born in Tavatimsa heaven. There she lived in a magnificent palace. One day the Venerable Moggallāna while on a tour of the deva worlds met her. The monks in those days were perfect in higher knowledge and had acquired supernatural powers. They could travel to deva worlds or look towards them with their deva-sight or listen to them with their deva-hearing. But today there are no monks known to possess such powers. We cannot go to the deva worlds. Even if we managed somehow to get there, we would not be able to see them. Let alone those devas in the higher planes, we cannot even see those devas in this world of men, such as guardians of trees and guardians of treasures.
Well, the Venerable Moggallāna often toured the deva worlds by his supernatural powers It was his intention to get firsthand reports from the devas interviewed as to how they had got there, what good deed they had performed to deserve the good life there. Of course, he could learn of their stories without going to them. But he wanted their stories as told by themselves. As the elder went there, be came near to the palace of the goddess Uposatha, who saluted him from her palace. Moggallāna asked her, "Young goddess, your splendour is like the brightness of the planet Venus. What good deeds have you done to deserve this splendour and good life?" The goddess answered:
"I was a woman, by name Uposatha at Saketa. I listened to the Buddha's teaching, was full of faith in his religion, and became a lay disciple who went to the Three Gems for Refuge."
Putting your faith in the three Gems, the Buddha, the Law, and the Order, is "going to the refuge." You do this by repeating the formulae: "I go to the Buddha for refuge, I go to the Law for refuge, I go to the Order for refuge."
The Buddha knows all the dhamma. Having himself realised Nibbāna, the end of all sufferings like old age, disease and death, he taught the Dhamma so that beings may enjoy the bliss of Nibbāna like him. If one follows the teaching of the Buddha, one can avoid the four lower states and be freed from all suffering. Believing this, you go to the Buddha for refuge. When you are ill, you have to put your faith in the physician. You must trust him. "This doctor is an expert. He can cure me of my illness." In the same way you put your trust in the Buddha knowing that you will be saved from all suffering by following his teachings. But these days some do not seem to know the significance of the formulae. They repeat them because their parents or teachers make them repeat. This is not the right thing. You must know the meaning, think of it in your mind, and repeat the formulae slowly. If you cannot do it often, try to do it, at least once in a while.
When you say "I go to the law for refuge," you are putting your faith in the teachings of the Buddha - teachings on the path, - the fruit and Nibbāna. You are acknowledging your belief that the practice of these teachings will save you from the four lower states and from all the suffering of the round of rebirth.
When you say "I go to the Order for refuge," you are putting your faith in the brotherhood of the holy ones, who, by practising the dhamma as taught by the Buddha, have attained or are about to attain the Path and Fruition. You are acknowledging the belief that reliance on the Order will lend you freedom from the lower states and the round of rebirth.
A man who has gone to the Three Refuges is called in Pāli an upāsaka, and a woman an upāsikā. Being an upāsaka or upāsikā amounts to doing a good deed that will send you to the deva worlds.
"Those who have gone to the Buddha for refuge
will not go to the lower worlds.
Leaving human bodies, they will fill deva bodies."
D. ii. 204; S i. 25
The goddess Uposatha had done other good deeds, too. She continued: "I was full of morality. I gave alms. I kept the Sabbath."
Those who do not know Buddhism make fun of keeping the Sabbath and often say, "You fast and get starved. That's all." They know nothing about good and bad deeds. They do not know how by overcoming the desire to eat, which is greed, good consciousness is being developed. But they will know how fasting can be good to sick people. They praise it then. They understand current material welfare only. They are totally ignorant of mind and after-life. To observe the Sabbath is to prevent bad things from coming up and develop good things like restraint, and long suffering, day and night. "The holy ones, the Arahats, live avoiding for ever bad things like killing, stealing, sex, falsehood, strong drinks, eating at improper times. I will follow their example for one day and honour them by so doing." The ariyan good folks think like this when they keep the Sabbath. When you feel hungry, you control yourself and try to free yourself of the defilement of hunger. It is a noble act. As noble acts arise in your mind, it gets purified. It is like fasting and cleansing your intestines when you are sick. Since your mind is pure, when you die, a pure continuity of consciousness goes on. This we say "being born a man or a deva."