Why We Take Refuge

Everyone takes refuge in something. Often it’s in relationships, locations, or activities that offer the body or mind a sense of security and protection. Even neurotic or unhealthy habits—like eating too much chocolate or giggling compulsively—can function as a protective shield to ward off feelings of anxiety or vulnerability.

Ask yourself, “Where do I look for happiness? Where do I seek security and comfort?” In love, in social status, or in the stock market? Our car may break down, our company may declare bankruptcy, or our partner may walk out. Our perfect health will surely deteriorate and a loved one will surely die. The stock market goes up and down; reputations go up and down; health, wealth, and relationships—all these samsaric refuges go up and down. When we place our trust in them, our mind goes up and down like flags flapping in the wind.

One Frenchman told me that his own Tibetan teacher had discouraged students from ordination. This really surprised me. He explained that his teacher had said, “Most Westerners who put on Buddhist robes take refuge in their robes, not in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha.” I assured him that this was not limited to the West.

We live with a sense of lack that we long to fill. The monkey mind habitually tries to merge with something—particularly another person— in order to alleviate our pervasive sense of insufficiency. Yet samsaric refuges are inherently impermanent, and if we rely on permanence where none exists in the first place, then feelings of betrayal and anger compound the loss.

Emotions can also become refuges. Responding with anger and self-righteousness and looking for something to blame can become a habitual place to hide. If anger reassures your identity, you may return to that state for shelter, the same way someone else returns to their home. Perhaps your habit is to become overwhelmed by confusion and to ask others to come to your rescue. Chronic helplessness can be a refuge, a way of pulling back from the world and from your responsibilities. Before taking refuge in the three jewels, it’s helpful to know the refuges you already depend on, because this examination might really inspire you to turn in another direction.

Taking refuge doesn’t protect us from problems in the world. It doesn’t shield us from war, famine, illness, accidents, and other difficulties. Rather, it provides tools to transform obstacles into opportunities. We learn how to relate to difficulties in a new way, and this protects us from confusion and despair. Traffic jams do not disappear, but we might not respond by leaning on our horns or swearing. Illnesses may afflict us, but we might still greet the day with a joyful appreciation for being alive. Eventually we rely on the best parts of our being in order to protect ourselves from those neurotic tendencies that create dissatisfaction. This allows for living in the world with greater ease and without needing to withdraw into untrustworthy circumstances in order to feel protected.

Outer and Inner Refuges

We work with two kinds of refuge: outer and inner. With outer or relative refuge, we see the Buddha, dharma, and sangha as being outside of ourselves. This duality definitely offers more reliability than conventional refuges, but with limited benefits. As long as the Buddha is somewhere other than in our own heart and mind, we won’t see the true buddha—the empty clarity of our own pure awareness. The inner refuge helps us make the leap from the buddha outside to the buddha inside.

With inner or absolute refuge, the duality between outer and inner dissolves. Ultimately we rely on ourselves, on our own buddhanature, and on our own awakened qualities. Purification is the process of making these qualities more accessible so we can integrate them with our daily life. With practice, we recognize in ourselves the very buddha in whom we take refuge. This is the essence of practice.

Wanting to take refuge is itself an indication of buddhanature. We take refuge to be happier, to be free from suffering, and to feel more secure and stable. Why do we say that this wish itself reflects buddhanature? Because we never accept suffering as the normal or natural human condition. Whatever the degree of our unhappiness, this longing arises to be free of it. Where does this longing come from? How can we account for our deep sense that liberation from dukkha is possible? The answer is our own intrinsic wisdom. Nothing else explains why we intuitively know that our unhappiness is off balance, that it’s not our true self, and that it can be alleviated. Our buddhanature does that. It’s like an internal compass that keeps our direction set toward contentment, no matter how much anguish or pain we endure.

Some people interpret buddhanature as a kind of object. It almost takes on the quality of material matter, and our metaphors might contribute to this misunderstanding. When we speak of buddhanature as a diamond or as an internal compass, it might sound like a physical organ, such as the heart or lungs. But it’s not like that. It’s more like mustard oil that thoroughly suffuses every particle of a mustard seed, but becomes evident only when the seed is pressed and the coarse matter eliminated. The oil was never separate from the seed, nor did it occupy a specific location within the seed. We obtain oil through refinement, or we might say through purification, yet what we get was always there.

Excerpted from the Summer 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.