Traditonally, Refuge (Pali: Ti Samana Gamana) is a ceremony in which one formally becomes a Budddhist or adopts the precepts and teachings of Buddhism. Sometimes it marks an ordination. Most people probably view refuge as essentially a religious ceremony, but there are different ways to think about it. Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance, says that refuge is not an expression of faith, it’s a practice.
However one sees refuge, I don’t think it needs to always be a formal thing. You should be able to take refuge anywhere, anytime, and as many times as you want. You can go for refuge this moment.
Take refuge in the
Buddha as an example
Dharma for a path
Sangha for companionship.
I don’t remember where I found that but I thought it sounded great. The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are called the Three Jewels, the Three Treasures, the Triple Gem. The Buddha represents potential for liberation, happiness, enlightenment in all people. Dharma is the teaching, but it can also be phenomena, truth or anything in life.
We constantly enlighten ourselves by taking refuge in the Three Jewels of our own true nature, our own minds. Buddha means enlightenment, dharma means truth, and sangha means purity.
– Hui-neng, The Platform Sutra
I like the word community for sangha. Historically, the sangha has usually referred to the monks and nuns, and everyone else as more or less an afterthought. But there is the “Fourfold Assemby” of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. Personally, I don’t care for sangha with distinctions. I suspect that they were layered on after the Buddha’s passing. I am really uncomfortable with the idea that the monks come before everyone else.
It seems more in keeping with the Buddha’s democratic spirit that each individual in the community be equal. But if anyone comes first, it should be the people. Sangha, to my way of thinking, should always be about the people.
You can be a refuge yourself. Shantideva wrote,
Those desiring speedily to be
A refuge for themselves and others
Should make the interchange of “I” and “other”
And thus embrace a sacred mystery.
In Tenzo kyokun, “Instructions for the Cook”, Dogen uses cooking as an analogy, and says, “Not only do we have the fortune of being born as human beings but also of being able to cook meals to be offered to the Three Jewels.” I like to turn that around and think of the Three Jewels as food, take-out food to be exact. We take refuge, but then we should take our refuge with us, to share with others. Refuge can be thought of as shelter, sanctuary, asylum, a haven, but it is also sustenance and nourishment, a provision we carry along as we fare on the path.
Let’s go for refuge together right now:
We take refuge in the Buddha
We take refuge in the Dharma
We take refuge in the Sangha
We take refuge in the Three Jewels within ourselves