Excerpt from “Family Dharma:Taking Refuge: ” by Beth Roth – FULL ARTICLE
In the Buddhist tradition, Taking Refuge means to cultivate an unshakable sense of safety, protection, and belonging. Taking Refuge provides a context for our spiritual journey. We take three refuges, which are often called The Three Jewels or The Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
In the Buddhist tradition, each of the Three Refuges can be interpreted in a variety of ways. By considering these different interpretations, we discover how each refuge resonates for us, what its deeper meaning is, and how it might best serve us in our lives.
The first refuge, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” can mean bringing to mind the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in what is now the border region between India and Nepal approximately 2,500 years ago. This Buddha vowed to discover the end of suffering, and by his own efforts achieved enlightenment. He then spent the rest of his life sharing his realizations with others. We can draw inspiration from this person, a human being like ourselves.
Taking Refuge in the Buddha can also mean taking refuge in another inspirational figure. This could be an historical or contemporary person, a deity, or a mythological being. It is someone who embodies boundless wisdom and compassion, in whose light and presence we feel held and loved. This being offers us a strong sense of connection and belonging, and provides strength and safety with which to celebrate our joy and experience our pain.
Taking Refuge in the Buddha can also mean taking refuge in a very specific quality of ourselves – our true nature, which contains our potential for awakening. Often called our Buddha-nature, it is the capacity to use this lifetime to grow in wisdom and compassion, in order to achieve personal happiness and for the benefit of all beings. As Thich Nhat Hanh interprets this refuge for the Western practitioner, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life.”
The second refuge, “I take refuge in the Dharma” also has a literal and historical meaning, as the Dharma refers to the actual teachings of the Buddha. The Dharma includes The Four Noble Truths that illuminate suffering and the end of suffering; The Noble Eightfold Path that describes how to live wisely and create the conditions for happiness and peace; The Four Foundations of Mindfulness that explain how to cultivate the quality of attention that allows us to be present in our lives; and Karma, often called the law of cause and effect, that shows how all actions have consequences, and helps us to understand that our thoughts, speech and behavior will either give rise to greater happiness or create further suffering.
To take refuge in the Dharma has other interpretations as well. It can mean to take refuge in the truths that have been revealed by our everyday experiences, the laws of nature, or the principles that govern our individual and communal lives.
To take refuge in the Dharma can also mean to take refuge in skillful means, in our capacity to live in harmony with the truths of human existence. One example of skillful means is practicing the art of the Sacred Pause – that brief moment of non-action when we stop all activity in order to fully inhabit time. In this moment we are still enough to feel the body and the breath, and quiet enough to notice thoughts and emotions. This Pause, practiced repeatedly over time, enables us to interrupt automatic pilot mode. We realize we have options. We learn to replace destructive habitual reactivity with healthier, consciously chosen behaviors.
Other examples of skillful means include training in the Five Precepts of ethical conduct to live a life of non-harming, enjoying and protecting nature and the natural world, and practicing lovingkindess meditation for ourselves and others. To take refuge in the Dharma means to trust in our ability to engage mindfully with the entirety of our life. When we take refuge in the Dharma, however we interpret it, we embark on the path that leads to the end of suffering. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and love.”
The Third Refuge, “I take refuge in the Sangha,” also has an historical or literal meaning. In the days of the Buddha, the Sangha was the community of monks and nuns who dedicated their monastic life to spiritual growth through meditation and study of the Buddha’s teachings. In the most fundamental way, taking refuge in the Sangha means to remind ourselves that we are not alone. It is to recognize that we are in good company. We belong to all those who long to awaken, who seek practices and understandings that lead to peace and happiness for all beings. Our Sangha may be our family, our friends, our meditation group, our religious community, our pets, or even our favorite place in nature. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness.” He further explains, “When members of a community live in harmony, their Sangha is holy. Don’t think that holiness is only for the Pope or the Dalai Lama. Holiness is within you and within your Sangha. When a community sits, breathes, walks and eats together in mindfulness, holiness is there… Because the problems facing the world are so great today, …the art of Sangha-building is the most important work we can do.”
Like all spiritual practices, Taking Refuge is a continuous process, a gradual learning. As with breathing practice, walking meditation, lovingkindness practice or living in harmony with the precepts, we take refuge over and over again. We make progress, we slip backwards and sideways, we get distracted, we get discouraged, we get elated, and we begin again. As the practice of Taking Refuge becomes established in our lives, its meaning and significance deepen. Tara Brach describes this process in her book Radical Acceptance. “As with any spiritual practice, developing a genuine sense of refuge can take time. Over the years, taking refuge nourishes a profound and liberating faith in our belonging. The Buddha taught that our fear is great, but greater still is the truth of our connectedness.”