Taking Refuge

A Buddhist takes refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The first word to think about here is this word “refuge.” What does it mean? What is “taking refuge”? To take refuge is to seek the protection of good as a defence against evil. It can be a physical cave, a city, or a relationship with a person or authority. In all cases there must be actual protection in order for a thing to be a refuge. Otherwise, it is simply a lie. So what does it mean then to take refuge in this sense in the Buddha? For one thing, the Buddha died long ago, and made it clear he was not coming back. Remember, the protection must be real. Two possibilities present themselves: either the Buddha continues to exist in some transcendent sense and is able to confer actual protection (cf. the Third Jewel), or the Buddha was referring to something else. Possibly it is meant that we should study his example, as a spiritual hero who has attained realization. Studying his example may include seeking to understand him personally, or getting to know his mind, insofar as it can be known from the writings passed down to us. This can be taken very far. It is easy to see this in the worship of the charisma of a teacher. This can range from “spiritual friendship” (the etymological meaning of “lama”) to regarding the teacher as the actual Buddha. One may also worship the Buddha nature in oneself, and identify oneself with the Buddha, including visualization during meditation. Buddha, as the quality of fully realized sentience in itself, is also the fundamental nature of reality and the self. All this is implied in the First Jewel.

The Second Jewel is taking refuge in the Dharma. The Buddha also said that after his death the Dharma is to be regarded as the Buddha. The Dharma is the teaching of the Buddha, but the Buddha made it clear that it is also primeval, the original and true spiritual way that is ultimately coterminous with the nature of reality itself. Taking refuge in the Dharma means that we redress the ignorance that is the ultimate cause of suffering, more fundamental even than desire, and we take refuge in the Dharma by eschewing lying, striving ever towards the truth, not evading or avoiding truth, eschewing authorities, and discovering the truth for oneself primarily by the study of Dharma books and listening to Dharma teachers, and independent reading and reflection, but also by a personal commitment to view reality objectively, rationally, and scientifically and without attachment. All this is implied in the Second Jewel.

The Third Jewel is taking refuge in the Sangha. The Sangha is formally the community of monks, but it is also the community of all beings, the community of all Buddhists, and the community of all superior beings, including the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhants, and perhaps some god-beings who have converted to Buddhism. We take refuge in each of these in different ways, primarily by following the precepts, but the ultimate refuge can only be taken in the community of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arhants. All of this is implied in the Third Jewel.

From the foregoing we conclude that the highest vibration of the Three Jewels is represented by the following:

• I take refuge in the universal and innate Buddha sentience that is the fundamental reality of mind.
• I take refuge in the power of truth of the primeval way.
• I take refuge in the community of ultimately enlightened beings.

He who takes refuge is a refugee. A refugee is always in a state of flight, escaping from the evil that threatens them. The evil that threatens the Buddhist refugee is desirous attachment, the evil itself being karmic bondage and rebirth. Existence can never be redeemed. However deep one look into existence, one finds ever self-proliferating violence, chaos, conflict, and suffering. There is no world, the Buddha says, in which the preconditions of suffering are not fundamental, for what world is devoid of change? It is this flux or continuous change that frustrates attachment and creates suffering. On the other hand, attachment creates these worlds for, where there is perfect detachment, there is no desire for rebirth, and therefore rebirth itself ends, once all existing karma is expiated. In this way, existence is an illusion or a delusion. Existence is created by the mind, and can be destroyed by the mind. This is the answer to the question of why we cannot create a perfect society of perfectly enlightened beings, and so redeem existence? If this is possible, it cannot be on the plane of change.

Still, human beings continue to labour and to build. The scriptures teach that humans are in a unique situation to appreciate dharma, neither too distressed nor too blessed to be too involved in other positive or negative actions respectively with no time or intention to develop the thirst for transcendence. But human beings themselves have large groups that are either too poor or too rich to appreciate dharma, paralleling the general condition of higher and lower beings.

When sangha and society are the same, such a society can be said to be relatively dharmic, i.e., as enlightened as possible within the human state. Shambhala is a city like this, and like Shambhala such a society will spontaneously produce many enlightened beings, as well as spiritual culture and a proliferation of the high arts and the best qualities in people generally. Creating such a society should be the next step in human secular evolution, as the present stage draws close to its conclusion. Ironically, Buddhism, with its long history of poverty, may become the true religion of technocracy.

Some people long for the end of samsara, whereas others who criticize Buddhism say that Buddhism is nihilism because once all beings are enlightened, existence will cease. However, where the scriptures refer to the end of samsara they are referring to the end of desirous attachment and rebirth, for samsara is beginningless and therefore must also be endless. Samsara itself is none other than the principle of differentiation, the original and originating principle that is one polarity of the whole and therefore inherent. Therefore, samsara is beginningless in time and infinitely differentiated. Since the ultimate principle of differentiation is the karmic agency itself, there are an infinity of beings caught in an endless cycle of transmigration, illusory though it may be, but experienced for all that.