The Triple Gem gets its name because they are precious and priceless.
(from Anguttara Nikaya 11.12)
Buddhists take “refuge” in the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. It is called “Gem” because of their immense value. Refuge simply means taking comfort in the Triple Gem to assist you on the Path. It is something that “keeps us going” by giving us support and encouragement.
The first part of the Triple Gem is Buddha. This refers to the historical Buddha in our time who lived about 2,600 years ago. It also refers to the Buddha inside all of us, which includes Buddha-nature, our capacity for enlightenment, and the basic goodness in all people.
Taking refuge in Buddha should not be misunderstood as worship. The Buddha was an enlightened one who is worthy of the highest respect, but this does not necessarily mean worship, especially in the typical use of God-worship. At many Buddhist temples Buddhists can be seen bowing and making prostrations to Buddha statues. This is out of respect and not the same type of worship that is done in other religions to a higher being. In many Asian countries people greet each other with bows. They are not worshiping each other, just showing respect, in the same way people shake hands to greet.
The Dhamma refers to all of the teachings of the Buddha. This gives us comfort and solace as we learn the Dhamma and its wonderful and time-less message. Even the Buddha had refuge to go to; for him, it is the Dhamma. After enlightenment the Buddha said, “Let me then honor and respect and dwell in dependence on this very Dhamma to which I have fully awakened.” Anguttara Nikaya 4.21
Sangha originally referred to the community of monks and nuns, but gradually became known as the entire Buddhist community of monastics and lay people. In North America and Europe there are hundreds of thousands of people who practice Buddha-Dhamma and read Dhamma books, but do not belong to any Buddhist community. This is a difficult way to practice as it is easy to think you may be the only one in your State or country who practices Buddha-Dhamma. You may become sluggish in your meditation and eventually stop practicing altogether. But when you have the support of other like-minded individuals in a sangha, you stay motivated and on-course.