The Three Refuges

At the beginning of meditation retreats, there is a tradition of taking refuge in what are called the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.  We can take refuge in them any time we feel beseiged by doubts or fears.

As a refuge, the Buddha refers not only to the historic figure of the Buddha, but also to every person’s innate capacity to develop compassion, wisdom and mental clarity.   The Buddha represents our essential luminous nature.

Inside each one of us we have the potential to awaken.

The dharma refers to teachings of the Buddha and other sages that we can apply to our daily lives.  It also signifies the  “truth,” or the ultimate reality of “the way that things really are” in life.

The sangha refers to a spiritual community that supports the inner quest of each individual on the path towards increased consciousness and enlightenment.

Every human being is born and dies alone.  Regardless of the beliefs we have about life, it’s a journey that we start and end alone.  Taking refuge in the Buddha supports us on this journey.

When we are defenseless babies, we depend on other people to take care of us.   It would be ideal to receive only loving and nutritious support during child hood, so that each youngster could develop self–respect and feel relaxed in the world. Unfortunately, most children don’t receive sufficient nutrition physically, emotionally or mentally.

But no matter how difficult our childhood has been, we can use Metta practice to direct loving kindness towards ourselves in the present moment.

When we take refuge in the Buddha, we practice accepting our infantile part and releasing judgment or criticism.  Meditation practice can nourish our confidence, wisdom, and healing instincts.

During meditation, we observe the characteristics of our personality and the kind of thought patterns that we have. We note plans, memories, desires, aversions, and doubts. We practice letting go of thoughts without identifying with them. Gradually in this process, we learn to accept ourselves just as we are.  Our practice is a process of offering friendship to ourselves.

It helps to take refuge in the Buddha, when we leave what feels safe and familiar in order to assume mature responsibilities in life.  We can treat each scary situation like a lesson and an opportunity to love ourselves better.

Pema Chödrön, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, reminds us that there are obstacles in every life journey.  In mythology, a warrior always confronts threats.  Even though warriors may feel afraid before each battle, they advance into the unknown to fight dragons or demons–which represent unresolved issues in the psyche.  The dragon is just a movie on your inner screen, and he can appear in many forms: the ex-boyfriend who abandoned you, the father who never loved you enough, the person who abused you, etc.

When we confront unfinished conflicts and difficult issues from the past, we usually face waves of fear and resistance.  The first time we leave our secure home base, we wear armor–physical or psychological–for protection.

Eventually we realize that the armor is an illusion that prevents us from feeling fully alive and awake.  In each encounter with a new dragon, we surrender part of the armor, especially around the heart.

With meditation practice, we gradually shed the protection that covers our wisdom and compassion.  Instead of trying to change ourselves into someone better, we rediscover and reconnect with who we really are.

When I say, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” I mean, “I take refuge in the courage to let go of the armor that blocks my capacity to awaken.  I will confront obstacles as consciously as possible.”

Taking refuge in the dharma means to learn from life’s joys and sorrows and from the teachings of the Buddha and other sages.  The Buddha taught, “Free yourself and open to the world.”  The first step in recognizing the truth–how things really are–is to accept the reality of our current situation, just as it is. The goal of life is not to earn lots of money, marry the perfect person or administer important institutions.

Each person has a certain life in which to awaken. If you’re a mother caring for children, that’s your way to wake up.  If you’re retired and facing old age, that’s your path to awakening.  If you’re living alone and seeking a partner, that’s your route to waking up.  If you’re living with a large family and are looking for solitude, that’s your way to awaken.

There is no better opportunity that the situation in which you are right now.  It is unfolding to teach you how stuck or free you are. By accepting how things really are in our daily lives, we can begin to understand greater truths, such as what the Buddha called the “Three Characteristics” of the dharma: the reality of suffering, the impermanence of all things, and illusory nature of the self.

The Tibetan master Trungpa Rinpoche taught, “Daily practice is simply the development of complete acceptance and openness towards all situations, emotions and people, experiencing everything completely, without reservations or blockages….”   For those of us who are not enlightened masters, Trungpa’s description of daily practice seems far from simple.

Because we need allies to encourage and motivate us on the dharma path, we take refuge in the sangha.  Taking refuge in the sangha doesn’t mean that we have a club for like-minded people to criticize those who hold different beliefs.  It means that we take refuge in the company of people committed to facing their dragons and shedding their armor.  With kindness and honest effort, we can support the practice of other people in the sangha.

During my recent retreat at Spirit Rock, I faced some difficult emotions and had a few tearful sits.  I felt held in the compassion of my silent companions, who were dealing with their own painful issues.  Each time I heard someone crying in the meditation hall, my heart was instantly touched.  It was liberating to weep and blow my nose without worrying about disturbing people around me.  I wasn’t embarrassed to emerge with a flushed, puffy face from the meditation hall, because fellow meditators looked at me with caring expressions, knowing that we were all facing our demons together.

Although none of us broke silence to try to console someone who was upset, we created a palpable atmosphere of mutual support in the sangha.

One night, the dharma talk was delayed, and a group of us watched silently from the meditation hall as an ambulance pulled up with flashing lights at a dormitory.  Medics carried out one of our dharma friends on a stretcher, and the ambulance drove her away.  As a witness, I felt as if the sangha had been ruptured.  One person who was an integral part of our intimate community was gone.  Spontaneously, those of us who were watching moved closer together and placed our hands on our hearts.

Jack Kornfield informed us that a meditator in her 80s was suffering from heart palpitations that did not seem serious but that required medical attention.  We all sent Metta prayers to her and were greatly relieved to see her smiling as she drove up the hill in a golf cart the next day.  Our sangha was whole again.

There were times when the meditation hall was absolutely quiet, when ninety people were meditating together in a field of silence and stillness.

Not a cough nor a sneeze nor a creaking chair could be heard. We provided mutual support for accessing states of inner peace.  It was as if there were no separation between me and the community. When we take refuge in the sangha, our ego boundaries melt, and we practice living together peacefully and harmoniously.

We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha to uphold our ongoing dedication to practice becoming increasingly conscious and aligned with what’s true.   Ultimately we are taking refuge in the intention and commitment to awaken and to be kind to all beings everywhere.