Taking Refuge

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


5 thoughts on “Taking Refuge

  1. “You can be a refuge yourself”: It follows that if you take refuge, you should be willing to give it — but I never thought of it that way before.

    David, how about the “e-sangha”? Is it a positive addition overall to the concept of refuge?

    1. E-sangha: helpful, but limited. It can never replace face to face, heart to heart encounters.

      I did a 3 part post on the subject of sangha, only the last part dealt specifically with online sanghas. Here, here and here

      1. Interesting series of posts, and I recommend them to any lurkers out there. Click the links.

        I’ve been a lone rhinoceros for a terribly long time. Not entirely “lone,” because my spouse is on the path with me, but still. We’re not “joiners,” and most sanghas I’ve looked at have been far more structured & formal than I like. But these days I’m hungry for some kind/any kind of sense of “sangha.” Not an optimal situation; I’m grabbing at anything that comes in front of me, including Buddhist-oriented blogs, and the chances of a wrong step increase dramatically if desire takes over. As I’ve done for about 30 years, I’m just trusting my intuition to sort out what’s right and what’s wrong. (There’s a “Bag Mind” program out there that looks interesting, but I don’t have the cash to check it out.)

        For a long time, my sense of “refuge in the sangha” has been the knowledge that there are innumerable sentient beings out there who are on the same path as I am, more or less. While I look for a face-to-face sangha I can comfortably be part of, the virtual sangha at least provides some comfort.

        1. I think the two key words for sangha are community and companionship. It’s a practical matter more than anything else. “The path” is difficult to travel alone. We need the encouragement and companionship of others, even if it is just practicing together and sharing thoughts and experiences.

          I’d stay away from Big Mind, besides the $ the guy who runs it has been involved in a few controversies lately. In fact, my rule of thumb is stay away from anything that is operated as a business and/or costs you more than you can reasonable afford. You’re not supposed to charge for dharma anyway, that’s why when many of these people start their money-making operations they move out of their traditions and cloak whatever it is their selling in secular garb.

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