The False Refuges

In Buddhist spirituality it is common for a disciple to take a vow called The Three Refuges. The Refuges are spoken as follows: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma; I take refuge in the sangha.

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 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” means to take refuge in the practices that awaken our Buddha-nature, and “To take refuge in the Sangha” means to take refuge in the innate oneness of all beings.

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 becomes the condition of suffering. Very early in life we learn 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. It 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 examples of just a few of the many patterns that may form the core of the ego structure.

We do need certain skills to survive in this world. Although these may be needed to function in the world, this is not the essence of who we really are; our true nature is much more than our survival skills. When we identify solely with our survival strategies we seek false refuges; and suffering is inevitable.

Spiritual practice helps us to recognize false refuges we have taken, let them go and embrace the true refuge. Then we will meet each life experience with awareness and nonattached clarity rather than with a trance-like conditioned strategy. We encounter each experience with the clear mind of wisdom and with the open heart of compassion.

We may experience anger, fear, grief, guilt or shame as we release these old patterns. These are energies that were hidden by the old patterns, we adopted these strategies to avoid these feeling—but they don’t go away. Trying to avoid these feelings keeps us attached to the false refuge. The best practice is to acknowledge our attachment to a false refuge, to be willing to accept the feelings that arise and take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Even if you are enmeshed in some form of resistance, meet that experience—as best you can-- with openness, clarity and compassion. Always start right where you are. Taking the true refuge is not trying to attain a certain experience or to accomplish a particular goal; rather 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 experience with wisdom and compassion.