When I became a Buddhist — well, more accurately, when I realised that a Buddhist was what I already was — I took the first chance to do the ritual which marked that officially, to “take refuge”. It was a ceremony in which several of us stated our allegiance to the practice of Buddhism. It took the form of a promise made for ever, which you then renew every day. This is taken to be the distinguishing criterion for being a Buddhist. For me it was a statement of my certainty and commitment.
This could so easily be misunderstood as meaning: “I believe in Buddhism”, as a religious creed: “It’s the belief I have chosen”. However, the phrase “taking refuge”, or “going for refuge” seems a curious way to put it, and it’s always translated that way, so what does it actually mean?
money, power, beliefs
It literally does mean taking refuge from life’s sufferings and uncertainties, and if we consider our usual responses to our fragile changeable life, we soon see that we habitually take refuge in all sorts of things: the protection of money, in power or powerful people, in beliefs or stories, in more of what harmed us in the first place… in fact, in nothing dependable. This is bound to be the case when we don’t recognise anything as being dependable in this respect.
That is the realisation of Buddhism, that there is something dependable to take refuge in. Not an all-powerful cosmic being, not a historical inspiring figure, not a path of psychological improvement, not a technique of hiding from your own feelings, not the dispensation of a priest — no, something ultimately dependable.
What is real? What is not?
“I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha” means I depend upon reality. My protection is reality, the discovery of what is real, and those who show and follow the way to this discovery.
OK, what is not real then? What is not real is what we think, what we believe, what we assume. We frankly admit as Buddhists that these things can be deceptive — in fact that our suffering comes from being deceived by them. This is a long and gradual discovery, but it leads towards an enduring certainty.
From our starting position of being habitually dependent upon these unreliable mental frameworks, it does seem that we would be throwing away everything we know, everything we think we are, virtually our whole world. All our ‘knowledge’ about ourselves and the world is in the realm of thinking. What would be left seems infinitesimal, insignificant, and impossible to rely upon as a refuge.
a pack of wolves
Buddhism is a complete turnaround of our whole universe: the nearer we get to awakening to the truth of our situation, the more we realise that our habitual way of thinking is a “pack of wolves in sheep’s clothing”, it’s insubstantial, illusory, and impossible to rely upon as a refuge. Correspondingly we see that reality beyond thinking is everything, it is infinitely vast, uniquely significant, and utterly reliable. It is what we ultimately are.
Buddhism is not a philosophically suitable belief to hold, a way to improve personality or a psychological trick to sidestep suffering. It is an unimaginably vast undertaking, a complete allegiance to truth and discovering truth: its scope cannot possibly be appreciated when we enter upon this journey. But once we glimpse what is dependable and what is not, there is no alternative, no better response. In fact, no other response is possible. We take refuge in truth beyond conception, deeper than we can imagine, in whatever inspires us or leads us faithfully towards that truth, and in those who are showing the way through their own lives and teaching: refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Our guiding principle, our life’s path, is now to take this refuge more fully, more consciously and more deeply.