All of Buddhism flows from the Buddha’s awakening. This is so important that the title “Buddha”, meaning “One Who is Awake”, comes from bodhi, the Buddhist word for awakening. Often, because Buddhism is a path by which others may experience this awakening, this goal is what is emphasized in Buddhist teachings. In practice, however, for many Buddhist practitioners ‘going for refuge’ can involve a change of heart and mind as consequential as awakening itself.
There are two modern meanings of the English word ‘refuge’ that highlight the value of sarana, the Buddhist word for refuge. The first is a place where people can find safety from danger. The second is an area, like a wildlife refuge, set up to protect animals seen as valuable or endangered. In Buddhism, going for refuge includes both these meanings: it is a way of protecting ourselves from danger as well as safeguarding what is most valuable or beautiful within ourselves.
The practice of going for refuge is as ancient as Buddhism. It began with those people who, meeting the Buddha, were so moved that they spontaneously declared their dedication to him and his Dharma or teachings. In time, some of his disciples also experienced awakening. The community of those who awakened became the third refuge, the sangha. Together, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are known as the triple refuge. Because of the great value people find in them, these have come to be called the three treasures or the triple gem.
Sometimes the triple refuge refers to the historical Buddha, the Dharma he taught, and the Sangha of practitioners who have followed in his footsteps. This can be called the external refuge. Other times the triple refuge refers to inner qualities that give rise to a Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. As these are inner states or capacities we all have, this can be called the internal refuge.
The external refuge is important because it is difficult to rely completely on oneself. It is helpful to have the Buddha as an example of what is possible. Few people on their own can understand the full potential they have for spiritual transformation. Learning the Dharma teachings protects us from taking paths not helpful for our freedom and awakening. It can also save us from the difficulty of discovering for ourselves the practices and teachings that do help. Being connected to a Sangha is a way to learn from others who are on the path of practice.
The internal refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is what the Buddha referred to when he encouraged people to take refuge in oneself. In the last days of his life he said, “You should live being your own refuge with no one else as your refuge. You should live with the Dharma as your refuge with no other refuge.” The first sentence suggests each person must walk the path of practice for oneself; no one can walk it for us. The second sentence suggests that the Dharma is found in oneself, in one’s own capacities.
The internal refuge in the Buddha is our capacity to experience the peace of non-harming and non-attachment. It is the possibility of uprooting the fear, hate, delusion and greed that is the source of our suffering. It is our own ability to mature spiritually. To take inner refuge in the Buddha is to have confidence in our potential for spiritual growth and transformation.
The internal refuge in the Dharma can be described in many ways. One powerful way is to understand it as having non-harming as one’s refuge. The Dharma is not an abstract principle or reality. It arises from how we are and what we do. When we dedicate our lives to not harming, the Dharma flows through our lives, allowing us to practice with the Buddha’s teachings and to live harmoniously.
The internal refuge in Sangha encompasses our own capacity for goodness, such as our kindness, compassion and generosity. The path of non-harming and awakening does not depend only on our efforts to practice; we also need to be supported by those wholesome feelings, motivations, and attitudes that we are capable of but often overlook. To take inner refuge in the Sangha is to have confidence in our inner capacity for goodness, even when it may not be evident.
In relying on the triple refuge a person understands that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are reliable. They can sustain us in difficult times. They encompass values, practices, insights, and realizations that not only protect us from self-destructive behaviors, they also help us to live wisely. They help bring forth the best qualities in our heart.
Some people look to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for refuge when what they had been relying on no longer supports them. Changes in work, finances, relationships, health, and society can be stressful when our well-being depends on these being a particular way. Sometimes when they realize that what they were expecting would bring them lasting happiness is not able to do so, when all else fails, they turn to taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Some people approach going for refuge as a firm, courageous, and enthusiastic commitment to a life based on spiritual freedom and compassion. It is a commitment that simultaneously energizes one to act in new ways while encouraging a deep relaxation. So many unnecessary things can be let go when one trusts that the Dharma path provides meaningful and profound support. Going for refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha protects us from danger as much as it nourishes the growth of what is most beautiful within us.
Going for refuge is a choice to orient oneself by what the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha represent. It could be as simple as “I now orient my life to being very careful with my speech so that my speech is honest.” It could be the dedication, “I will try to live without harming others.” For some, it may involve a radical, even revolutionary, change in how they live their lives as they dedicate themselves to the path of liberation, wisdom and compassion over all other possible dedications.