Article: What does it mean to ‘take Refuge’?

“One of the oldest and most important acts that any practitioner in the Buddhist tradition can perform is to ‘take Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha’.

The followers of the Buddha in every age and every country have always taken Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, for it is central to every Buddhist tradition. We are able to take Refuge, the same Refuge that the first followers of the Buddha took, now in this country, because we are heirs to his lineage, the inheritors of the teachings that lead to Awakening that have been preserved in the Buddhist traditions down the ages.

In Buddhism taking Refuge is often talked about in two slightly different, but closely related ways. The first way is to talk about taking Refuge as an ongoing spiritual practice, something that one could do every day and which could deepen and deepen. The second way is to talk about taking Refuge as a formal action performed in a ceremony, normally just once in one’s life.

We need to begin by clearing up what we are taking Refuge in. Traditionally, one takes Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha – sometimes called the ‘triple gem’ or ‘three jewels’, and their meaning can be explained on many different levels according to circumstances.

In order to perform the action of going for Refuge, we need something to direct our action towards. We need something to set in the place of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha at centre of the mandala of sacred space that we are creating. The custom is to use a Buddha image to represent the Buddha and a text of the teachings to represent the Dharma. The Sangha is present in the person who is going to give the Refuge and any other practitioners present at the ceremony.

At the same time, we need to be careful that we do not forget what these representations of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in the world, present before our eyes, stand for. They stand for the real Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That is to say, the Buddha as the one who is totally Awakened, Dharma as Nirvana, our eternally present Awakened Heart and its unfolding as we traverse the path of peace, and the Sangha as those Bodhisattvas who have Awakened and can guide us on the path.

However, Gampopa in the Jewel Ornament of Liberation book, quotes the Ratnagotravibhaga, explaining that ultimately there is actually only one Refuge, the Buddha: “The inexhaustible Refuge, the permanent Refuge, the eternal Refuge, the most elevated Refuge is one and one only. What is that? It is the Tathagata, the Arhat, the totally and utterly perfect Buddha”.

This is because the Buddha is Reality itself, the ultimate nature of the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha, the Awakened one is none other than the Reality that we are all going to Awaken to. The Endless Compassion Vision of Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity when that is fully realised.

So what does ‘Buddha’ mean here? The clue to this is to understand that, although the word ‘Buddha’ has a very strong and narrow resonance for us as meaning a person, in the Buddhist tradition it also has a strong cosmic or impersonal aspect. It is taught that in some profound and mysterious way, this one reality, Buddha, has both a personal and an impersonal aspect. In its impersonal aspect Buddha is the true nature of reality, the primordially Awakened world of Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity that is the only world that there ever really has been; the world that we Awaken to.

Terms that suggest this aspect are Truth, Reality, Nirvana, Paramarthasatya, Primordial Ground, Dharmakaya, and Dharmata. In its personal aspect, Buddha is our true nature, our primordially Awakened Buddha Nature, the Awakened being that we will become. Terms that suggest this are our true Self, the Indestructible Heart Essence, the Awakened Heart, the Awakened One. In the Discovering the Heart of Buddhism course the words Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity are used for this true nature, because they convey something of both the personal and the impersonal aspects of Buddha.

So the ultimate Refuge, the ultimate meaning of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, is Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity, which can be called just ‘Buddha’.

Having discussed what we are taking Refuge in, we now need to investigate what it means to ‘take Refuge’. There are two slightly different aspects to consider. On the one hand, to take Refuge is to orientate oneself decisively towards Awakening and away from the domination of the ego-mandala; this emphasises oneself and one’s inner process.

On the other hand, to take Refuge is to place oneself under the protection of the Awakened mandala and to invoke its power; this emphasises something ‘other’ than ourselves, something coming to us from beyond our individual sense of self.

An important part of taking Refuge is aligning ourselves with the mandala of Awakening and committing ourselves to the process of stepping out of the ego-mandala and its games. We can see this when we think about what it means to take Refuge in Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity or Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. All our talk about how much we like Openness or Buddha is just so much hot air if we carry on pandering to our ego-mandala and its petty preoccupations.

But the world as interpreted by our ego-mandala seems to be the only world that we know. Deep down our ego-mandala feeds us the fear that without the grasping, solidifying and smoothing over that it is engaged in, everything would crumble and we would not exist. To take Refuge in Openness or Buddha is to be willing to step off the cliff of the solid world created by our grasping into an uncertain space.

This uncertain space actually is Openness or Buddha, and so to take Refuge in it means that we are willing to trust it over and above our ordinary solid world. This requires tremendous courage, true inner confidence, because our ego-mandala is terrified of this space and is stirring up a tremendous fear reaction. So to take Refuge in Buddha or Openness is to trust that everything will not fall apart if we let go of grasping, to take Refuge is to step into the space of whatever waits for us when we let go.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

This is an excerpt from the book Taking Refuge & Bodhisattva Vows by Lama Shenpen Hookham and available here.


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