1, 2, 3, 0 or 2 Refuges ?
(Late) Buddhist (schools) scripture states that Gautama left home to resolve his problem, i.e. his disgust of death = mata and the unpleasantness = dukkha it engendered. Gautama had no Tathagata (later called Buddha), dhamma (i.e. law or teaching) or sangha (i.e. a group of like minded) to help him, i.e. in whom he could take refuge (Pali: sarana).
He found refuge i.e. support, i.e. shelter, to wit: sanctuary) only in (him-) self (= atta ??).
Therefore he operated with only 1 refuge.
Having awakened completely (via samma-sambodhi) to the supreme goal (i.e. the deathless = amata), the Tathagata (this is the name he took after he had reached his supreme goal) invited others, specifically the professional (but according to him misguided) itinerant beggars whom he had met earlier, to take refuge in (i.e. trust) him (as guide) and in his law (i.e. dhamma).
The initial 5 converts, therefore, operated with 2 refuges; actually with 2 official and 1 unofficial refuge since they no doubt had trust, firmed up by the Tathagata, in their own (= atta) ability to reach the (in fact, his) supreme goal.
Once a community of followers (i.e. of refugees from death = mata) had been established, newcomers (both professional and lay) were admitted to the sect by taking refuge in the Buddha, the teaching, i.e. the dhamma, and in the community of followers, i.e. the sangha.
So now there were 3 refuges, accession being verbalised as follows:
Buddham saranam gakkhami
“I go for refuge (or, I entrust myself to) the Buddha”
There is a major problem here in that if this refuge had been introduced by the Tathagata it would have been taken either in the Tathagata or the Bhagavat (see Vin. 16.1), certainly not in ‘The Buddha’, who, as mythological figure, was invented centuries later, possibly during the reign of Ashoka. Alternately, ‘buddham’, taken to mean ‘awakening’, is a far more useful goal.
Dhammam saranam gakkhami
“I go for refuge (or, I entrust myself to) the Dhamma”
Sangham saranam gakkhami
“I go for refuge (or, I entrust myself to) the Sangha”
Halfway though his career, however, the Tathagata abolished the 3 refuges. (Vinaya, Mahavagga 28:3)
But then, as he was dying, he changed his mind again and prescribed 2 refuges (Mahaparinibbana sutta 2/33), to wit:
Note, this is Rhys Davids’ 1870 Anglican Christian version
“Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Hold fast as a refuge to the truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.”
The actual version of what the Tathagata is alleged to have said goes:
“tasmàtih ànanda atta dipà
Therefore Ananda own; or self, (or atma?) lamp, light (or island (unlikely))
viharatha atta saranà
abiding own; self, or (atma?) protection; shelter; refuge; remembrance
anañña saranà, dhamma dipà
no other protection; remembrance dhamma lamp; light (or island)
dhamma saranà anañña saranà”
dhamma protection; remembrance no other protection; remembrance
If you are serious about understanding or even emulating the Tathagata’s pilgrimage to his particular goal (i.e. the deathless), why not have a go at rendering the above into readable English. You will then discover that there are two fundamentally different ways of reading this saying but that the Christian rendering seriously contradicts the fundamental assertion of The 3 Characteristics Sutta.
The dying Tathagata prescribed 2 refuges, namely, trust in one’s own (= atta) ability - or the capacity of own-ness = atta (derived from atman) - to attain the supreme goal, and abiding in dhamma as road map.
Note: If the bhikkhu accepts these two refuges, the most he can attain is freedom in the Tathagata’s dispensation ring-fenced by his dhamma. But the true bhikkhu, i.e. the one who seeks absolute homelessness, meaning, therefore, that he does not attach to any dhamma = sankhara (i.e. since all dhammas = sankharas are formed by conditions, hence uncertain effects rather than certain 1st causes), must drop the Tathagata’s dhamma and rely only on (him-?) self (own capacity ?), as Gautama had done. If this bhikkhu succeeds without support (of always conditioned) dhamma, he becomes free (to wit: goes beyond = gata) of supports as such (Pali: tatha), he becomes a Tathagata in his own right.