People who are unfamiliar with Buddhism are curious if, like most other major world religions, there is some sort of 'confirmation' or other religious ceremony before one can call themselves Buddhist. However, Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy, with deep psychological analysis of the human condition as well as devotional practices many people associate with a religion. Given these two aspects, what does it mean when a person calls themselves a Buddhist?
There are many different types of Buddhism but the commonly accepted "minimum requirements", so to speak, are Taking Refuge and Observing the Five Precepts.
In this context, refuge means literally means a form of psychological shelter. For the Buddhist, the only true shelter from the problems of life is with these three refuges: the Buddha, the Dhamma (Dharma in Sanskrit) which are the teaching of the Buddha, and the Sangha, the monks and practitioners who practice the way of the Buddha rightly. These three ideas together are referred to as the Triple Gem, the Three Treasures or the Three Jewels so as to inspire the practitioner to cherish them and keep them dear.
Taking refuge in the Buddha means that the practitioner believes that spiritual enlightenment is possible and that the Buddha accomplished this feat. By taking refuge in the Buddha, the practitioner is acknowledging that the Buddha is his or her supreme teacher and seeks to learn from his example.
Taking refuge in the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, the practitioner makes the strong determination to follow the advice of the Buddha and believes that doing so will surely lead them to a more peaceful life and eventually to ultimate freedom from suffering, as it did for the Buddha himself.
By taking refuge in the Sangha, the practitioner acknowledges the many benefits that come from being surrounded by positive influences and especially by the community of monks and nuns who can serve as our guides and teachers.
Observing the Five Precepts
The five precepts are a set of guidelines the Buddha put forth as the minimum standard of moral conduct for a lay (non-ordained) practitioner. The precepts are not like commandments in the sense that you will be punished by a higher authority if you don't obey: Buddhism doesn't have anything like that. Instead, the precepts should be looked upon as suggestions for improving our lives. The actions the precepts steer us away from are never for the benefit of ourselves or others.
1. To abstain from killing living creatures
2. To abstain from taking what is not given
3. To abstain from sexual misconduct
4. To abstain from false speak
5. To abstain from taking intoxicants which cause heedlessness
These two practices, Taking Refuge and Observing the Precepts, are more like vows than prayers. They are practices which can inspire the kind of faith necessary to walk the spiritual path. But they are also commitments to improving our minds, developing compassion and ultimately, inner peace.