Going for Refuge

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

 The act of going for refuge marks the point where one commits
 oneself to taking the Dhamma, or the Buddha's teaching, as the
 primary guide to the conduct of one's life. To understand why this
 commitment is called a "refuge", it is helpful to look at the
 history of the custom.
 In pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one's
 allegiance to a patron-a powerful person or god-submitting to the
 patron's directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger
 in return. In the early years of the Buddha's teaching career, his
 new followers adopted this custom to express their allegiance to
 the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, but in the Buddhist context this
 custom took on a new meaning.
 Buddhism is not a theistic religion -- the Buddha is not a god-and
 so a person taking refuge in the Buddhist sense is not asking for
 the Buddha personally to intervene to provide protection. Still,
 the Buddha's teachings center on the realization that human life
 is fraught with dangers-from greed, anger, and delusion -- and so
 the concept of refuge is a central part of the path of practice,
 in that the practice is aimed at gaining release from those
 dangers. Because both the dangers and the release from them come
 ultimately from the mind, there is a need for two levels of
 refuge: external refuges, which provide models and guidelines so
 that we can identify which qualities in the mind lead to danger
 and which to release; and internal refuges, i.e., the qualities
 leading to release that we develop in our own mind in imitation of
 our external models. The internal level is where true refuge is
 Although the tradition of going to refuge is an ancient practice,
 it is still relevant for our own practice today, for we are faced
 with the same internal dangers that faced people in the Buddha's
 time. We still need the same protection as they. When a Buddhist
 takes refuge, it is essentially an act of taking refuge in the
 doctrine of karma: It is an act of submission in that one is
 committed to living in line with the belief that actions based on
 skillful intentions lead to happiness, while actions based on
 unskillful intentions lead to suffering; it is an act of claiming
 protection in that one trusts that by following the teaching one
 will not fall into the misfortunes that bad karma engenders. To
 take refuge in this way ultimately means to take refuge in the
 quality of our own intentions, for that's where the essence of
 karma lies.
 The refuges in Buddhism -- both on the internal and on the
 external levels -- are the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, also known
 as the Triple Gem. They are called gems both because they are
 valuable and because, in ancient times, gems were believed to have
 protective powers. The Triple Gem outdoes other gems in this
 respect because its protective powers can be put to the test and
 can lead further than those of any physical gem, all the way to
 absolute freedom from the uncertainties of the realm of aging,
 illness, and death.
 The Buddha, on the external level, refers to Siddhattha Gotama,
 the Indian prince who renounced his royal titles and went into the
 forest, meditating until he ultimately gained Awakening. To take
 refuge in the Buddha means, not taking refuge in him as a person,
 but taking refuge in the fact of his Awakening: placing trust in
 the belief that he did awaken to the truth, that he did so by
 developing qualities that we too can develop, and that the truths
 to which he awoke provide the best perspective for the conduct of
 our life.
 The Dhamma, on the external level, refers to the path of practice
 the Buddha taught to his followers. This, in turn, is divided into
 three levels: the words of his teachings, the act of putting those
 teachings into practice, and the attainment of Awakening as the
 result of that practice. This three-way division of the word
 "Dhamma" is essentially a map showing how to take the external
 refuges and make them internal: learning about the teachings,
 using them to develop the qualities that the Buddha himself used
 to attain Awakening, and then realizing the same release from
 danger that he found in the quality of Deathlessness that we can
 touch within.
 The word Sangha, on the external level, has two senses:
 conventional and ideal. In its ideal sense, the Sangha consists of
 all people, lay or ordained, who have practiced the Dhamma to the
 point of gaining at least a glimpse of the Deathless. In a
 conventional sense, Sangha denotes the communities of ordained
 monks and nuns. The two meanings overlap but are not necessarily
 identical. Some members of the ideal Sangha are not ordained; some
 monks and nuns have yet to touch the Deathless. All those who take
 refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha become members of the
 Buddha's four-fold assembly (parisa) of followers: monks, nuns,
 male lay devotees, and female lay devotees. Although it is widely
 believed that all Buddhist followers are members of the Sangha,
 this is not the case. Only those who are ordained are members of
 the conventional Sangha; only those who have glimpsed the
 Deathless are members of the ideal Sangha. Nevertheless, those
 followers who do not belong to the Sangha in either sense of the
 word still count as genuine Buddhists in that they are members of
 the Buddha's parisa.
 When taking refuge in the external Sangha, one takes refuge in
 both senses of the Sangha, but the two senses provide different
 levels of refuge. The conventional Sangha has helped keep the
 teaching alive for more than 2,500 years. Without them, we would
 never have learned what the Buddha taught. However, not all
 members of the conventional Sangha are reliable models of
 behavior. So when looking for guidance in the conduct of one's
 life, one must look to the living or recorded examples provided by
 the ideal Sangha. Without their example, we would not know (1)
 that Awakening is available to all, and not just to the Buddha;
 and (2) how Awakening expresses itself in the varied aspects of
 everyday life.
 On the internal level, the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha are the
 skillful qualities that we develop in our own minds in imitation
 of our external models. For instance, the Buddha was a person of
 wisdom, purity, and compassion. When we develop wisdom, purity,
 and compassion in our own minds, they form our refuge on an
 internal level. The Buddha tasted Awakening by developing
 conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and
 discernment. When we develop these same qualities to the point of
 attaining Awakening too, that Awakening is our ultimate refuge.
 This is the point where the three aspects of the Triple Gem become
 one: beyond the reach of greed, anger, and delusion, and thus
 totally secure.
Bhikkhu Thanissaro, "Refuge: an Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma & Sangha", Metta Monastery, California, 1996