Taking Refuge


Ever since I began studying Buddhism, I’ve struggled with the concept of taking refuge. I’ve heard several teachers humorously refer to the idea of taking refuge in the “wrong” things: like Facebook, a pint of ice cream, binge watching tv, etc. That concept was easy enough to understand. When I’m stressed out, I often seek refuge in these places myself. But the idea of taking refuge the “right” way tripped me up for years. Until I heard Tara Brach speak about it in her recent podcast, Refuge in Truth, Love, and Awareness. Today, it finally snapped into place.

Coming from a highly ritualized Christian background, I always thought of Taking Refuge with capital letters, as if it were some sort of ritual, like taking vows, or a declaration of faith, steeped in tradition, ritual, and ceremony. I believe it can be that, but I’m not very interested in ceremony right now. I’ve always been something of a solitary practitioner anyway; I enjoy community, and even crave it at times, but in the end I always end up walking my own path. In Brach’s reflections on the Three Refuges she explicitly states that you can make this ritual your own in whatever way resonates with you. Of course, the beauty of Buddhism, to me, is the fact that you can choose whatever path works best for you. Want a community steeped in tradition and ritual? Great, there are plenty to choose from. Want to practice alone? Great, you can do that too.

Let this practice be a fresh and creative ritual, one that aligns your life with what most matters. – Tara Brach

The core of Refuge is to take refuge (or find peace) in “The Three Jewels” — The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Dharma was the easiest one for me to understand. That is the teachings, which is where I’ve primarily been taking refuge since I began studying Buddhism. In the Buddha’s day, to study Dharma, you needed to seek out a teacher, listen to his talks, and follow his teachings. In the Internet Age, you can find dozens of podcasts and have them delivered to your Smart Phone. I know that, because I have. I primarily study the Dharma through podcasts. I’ve found several teachers and communities that resonate deeply with me: Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, the Insight Meditation Society. There are many others as well, Secular Buddhism, Audio Dharma, Buddhist Geeks, Dharma Punx, Thich Nhat Hanh, Krishna Das are just a handful of the others I’ve listened to.

For a while, Sangha tripped me up too. Strictly speaking, I think Sangha does literally refer to a monastic community of men and women dedicating their lives to Buddhism. So for someone choosing the monastic tradition, I assume Taking Refuge would be a highly ritualized vow-taking ceremony. But most of us cannot dedicate our lives to a true monastic tradition. Instead, we listen to Dharma podcasts on our way to work. Or at least, I do. But for someone like me who wants to follow Buddhist tenets without the dedication to a monastic life, Sangha means community. And community can be a physical space where you meet with people following the same or similar paths. Or it can be the people you collect in your lives who, no matter what name they call their spirituality by, hold similar beliefs about what it means to be lovingly present in the world. My path has taken me from the Roman Catholic churches to earth magic, from the energy of New Age belief systems to Vedanta, and from the temples of the LDS faith to Buddhism, and one thing that I have believed and had reinforced along every side road I’ve taken is that they are all different ways of getting to the same place, different ways of describing the same elephant.

The last thing that I’ve finally come to understand is the Buddha. I have a couple statues of the Buddha that inspire me as a physical representation of what I believe, but I don’t believe any Buddha or The Buddha is any kind of God. I’m not going to bow to the statue. I have never understood why an all-powerful being with the ability to create whole earths and choirs of angels would need to have his ego fed by the exultations and prostrations of mere mortals. Part of that could be my rebellious nature. I do not wish to bow to anybody. I even deliberately chose marriage vows that did not include the word “obey” because I refused to promise to obey anybody, so why should I bow to the Buddha? But as Tara Brach spoke, even though she spoke of different sentiments altogether, I thought of the altars I’ve seen in the houses and photos of other Buddhist friends, and I realized the Buddha in Taking Refuge does not refer to any one singular being. Even for myself the statue does not represent a Being who I revere. For me, the Buddha is the Teacher. Wherever you may find that teacher and whoever he or she may be.

So I take refuge, or find peace, in my Teachers: Tara Brach, Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg. But I also find peace, and have found peace, in other teachers along the way: the Dalai Lama, Thomas S. Monson, St. Francis of Assisi, among others.

I find peace in the Teachings, the dharma talks I listen to from some of those teachers and others, like the Insight Meditation Society. The teachings that help me understand how the Christian ideal of “turning the other cheek” is no different than the Buddhist ideal of staying present with the moment, even if it’s unpleasant, and not “biting the hook” as Pema Chodron says — not reacting out of anger, but choosing to respond out of love. The teachings around meditation — something others could call prayer. The teachings about how to live from a place of love and become loving-kindness — something others might call being Christ-like.

And I find peace in the Community, the people I know who have also chosen to dedicate their lives to living from a place of love. The people who, like myself, struggle every day, but continue to strive anyway.

And the beautiful thing about Buddhism, like any faith, is that my understanding of it continuously evolves. Concepts I understood at the most basic level a few years ago, I have a deeper understanding of today. And perhaps a few years from now, I’ll have a deeper understanding of taking refuge too. And that’s okay, because it’s all part of the path.