What does it mean to “take refuge”? This phrase is typically associated with the Buddhist ritual in which one takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. But actually, it is quite applicable to any type of spiritual practice, because we are always “taking refuge” in something-- whether we know it or not. We take refuge in that which we most fundamentally trust. A young child will take refuge in her parents. An adolescent will take refuge in his peer group. As adults we may take refuge in our family or spouse, in our social roles, or in our possessions. But virtually always we take refuge in the mind: we take refuge in our beliefs and our perceptions. Our identity and our sense of reality are rooted in these beliefs and perceptions.
When we engage in a spiritual practice it is crucial to identify where we are taking refuge. What is it that we most deeply trust? Do we always trust the mind? Do we always believe the teacher? Do we always believe the ancient texts or scriptures? What is our guide for knowing what is true and what is real?
In the Buddhist tradition of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, it usually means taking refuge in our own Buddha nature, taking refuge in the dharma practice, and taking refuge in the community of dharma practitioners. In Christian traditions in can mean taking refuge in Christ (or in our own Christ nature), in the Gospel, and in the Church. In a Twelve Step recovery program it can mean taking refuge in one’s Higher Power, in working the Twelve Steps, and in regular attendance at meetings.
The archetypal pattern for the Refuges (in any form) is that of an internal ideal/ authority (that may be epitomized in some human being-- living or historical), a set of teachings, principles and practices, and a community of practitioners that can provide both support and accountability.
Spiritual practice involves turning to a source of truth beyond the conditioned mind. This source may be purely internal or it may also be reflected in some external exemplar; but in any event it must be able to trump the reactive patterns of the conditioned mind, else we will inevitably succumb to the resistance that arises when we engage in a spiritual practice. It can be very helpful to have an external authority-- i.e. someone whom we trust and who can provide guidance when we lose touch with our own internal authority. This person is not intended to replace our own internal authority, but to guide us back into it.
Ideally, the teachings and practices followed are relevant to the full spectrum of developmental levels from beginner through advanced practitioner, otherwise the practice is of benefit to only a narrow segment of practitioners: beginners may find themselves unable to relate to the teachings and experienced yogis will find themselves limited or stifled by the limitations of the practice. It is also very helpful if the practice has a broad spectrum of applications in our life so that one can engage the practice as frequently as possible; otherwise the practice is relegated to a ritual that one performs outside the mainstream of one’s everyday life.
The community (sangha) is of great importance in spiritual practice for many reasons. Humans are social beings and we rarely make significant changes in isolation-- we need the support of others. We need the support of the community when we hit the “hard spots”-- as we inevitably will. We need to hear from those that have “been there” and have journeyed the path before us and can give us the needed assurance and encouragement. We also need the community to hold us accountable. It is incredibly easy for us to fall into self-deception; the ego is very wily and seductive. The cultural paradigm in which we live does not support spiritual practice, and without a community to reinforce our practice it is very easy to succumb to our embedded cultural conditioning.
Whatever your spiritual practice is, be clear on where you take refuge. In what do you trust most deeply? What is your highest ideal or authority? What teachings/ principles/ practices do you follow? Do they work for you? What is your spiritual community? Does it support you as you need? Does it hold you accountable as necessary?
In this era when spirituality is often unassociated with a formal religious tradition it is particularly important for us to provide for ourselves that which has historically been provided by the structures and forms of a tradition. Today in the West we are involved in some grand experiment that integrates spirituality and the secular world in a way never before seen. We are sailing in uncharted waters; I encourage you to stay awake and to enjoy the journey!