In Buddhist spirituality it is common for a disciple to take a vow called The Three Refuges. The Refuges are languaged as follows: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma; I take refuge in the sangha.
If understood in a religious sense these vows can mean that one takes refuge in the divine nature of the Buddha, in the Buddhist teachings and in the Buddhist community. In a less religious and a more personal sense, to “Take refuge in the Buddha” is to take refuge in one’s own Buddha-nature. In this context, to “Take refuge in the dharma” can mean to take refuge in the practices that awaken our Buddha-nature; and “To take refuge in the sangha” can mean to take refuge in the innate oneness of all beings as we awaken our Buddha-nature.
To take refuge in something means to make it our home--in the deepest sense of that word. Where we take refuge becomes the foundation of every life experience. When we take refuge in that which is real we will be free from suffering, when we take refuge in that which is not real suffering is inevitable.
We are conditioned to take refuge in that which is not real and thus the human condition is one of suffering. Very early in life we are conditioned to take refuge in something outside of ourself. As a child we take refuge in our parents and our family. As we mature the sense of self becomes more internal: we take refuge in the mind. We take refuge in an internalized mental image commonly called the ego or the personality.
The ego is the sense of “me” that I rely upon to survive and to understand the world around me. This ego is grounded in a particular strategy developed for getting me what I needed as a child. A particular strategy may be that of being nice, charming or pleasing to others; or it may be a strategy of being aggressive, domineering or controlling; it may be a strategy of being intelligent, competent and correct—these are but a few of the common patterns that form the core of the ego.
We do need certain skills to survive in this world. These skills are needed to function in the world but this is not who or what we really are; our true nature is much more than our survival skills. When we identify with our survival strategies we are seeking a false refuge and suffering is inevitable.
Spiritual practice allows us to recognize the false refuges that we have taken and release each one in favor of the true refuge. Rather than meet life with a particular mental strategy we meet each life experience with a nonattached clarity of awareness. We meet each experience with Buddha-nature as we let go of our attachment to the old way of being and sit in the clear space of wisdom and compassion.
As we release these old patterns we may experience anger, fear, grief, guilt and shame. Trying to avoid these feelings will keep us attached to the false refuge. The practice is to acknowledge our attachment to a false refuge and then let go and take the true refuge. Even if we are enmeshed in some form of resistance, we meet that experience—as best we can-- with openness, clarity and compassion. We always start right where we are.
Taking the true refuge is not trying to attain a certain experience or accomplish a particular goal; it is holding the intention to return to the present moment and to meet each experience--no matter what it is--with a clear mind and an open heart: meeting each moment with wisdom and compassion. This is what it means to take the true refuge.