Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Many people these days are reading books about Buddhism, practicing Buddhist meditation, and applying Buddhist principles in their work and personal lives. If you are one of those who is interested in the dharma, you may come to a point where you want to decide whether you really are a Buddhist or whether you are not.
The formal decision to become a Buddhist is marked by the refuge ceremony, in which you take refuge in what are known as the three jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (the community of Buddhist practitioners). Some people who take the refuge vow wonder afterwards if they made the right choice, so it’s important to consider seriously whether becoming a Buddhist is what you want to do with your life. Taking refuge is not a temporary situation. Once you take the refuge vow, it’s supposed to last forever.
Taking refuge is about how we are going to lead our lives. We take refuge because we have looked everywhere for a place we could be content, where we could reduce our anxiety. But when we looked at our world, we realized that there is no place for us to find harmony, or to understand the nature of things.
Taking Refuge in the Buddha
We take refuge in the Buddha because we are taking the same journey as he did. The Buddha lived in a palace and had good food and drink. If there had been movies then, he would have watched them all. He did everything there was to do, yet he realized that something was still not quite right. So like the Buddha, we ask, “Where is our life taking us?” and, like the Buddha, we look inside to understand the mind.
When we take refuge in the Buddha, we take the Buddha as an example. The Buddha is not a god—this is not a theistic situation where Buddha is better and we are worse, or he is the boss and we are the servants. In fact, Buddha is us. We are Buddha, but we have not yet realized our full buddhahood.
The Buddha realized that there is really no self. When he looked at the self, that self we hang on to so tightly, he realized that it does not really exist. From a greater point of view, he not only saw beyond personal ego, he also overcame the notion of external phenomena altogether. The Buddha realized the egolessness of both self and other. He actually overcame the whole world of duality—samsara and nirvana, existence and non-existence, eternalism and nihilism.
So we look at the Buddha with respect and appreciation for showing us how to live our life. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we take shelter from confusion, chaos and suffering. We are overcoming our discursiveness and our conflicting emotions. It is very personal. Nobody else can identify that thought for you; nobody else can deal with that emotion for you. You have to work it out for yourself.
When we talk about taking refuge in the Buddha, we mean the qualities of the Buddha that are inherent within us. The Buddha possesses wisdom, compassion and power: wisdom so we know what we are doing, compassion so we have a soft heart and care about others, and power so we can continue the journey. We call that buddhanature. We are taking refuge in our intrinsic enlightenment.
Taking Refuge in the Dharma
This leads us to the dharma, which is the second aspect of taking refuge. What’s important is not so much who the Buddha was but what he expressed—the truth, the dharma. The Buddha’s message that there is no self was “a fearless proclamation of the truth.”
When we begin to meditate, we discover that we’re always thinking about things such as who we know, where we’ve come from, what we’re going to do. We realize that our idea of who we are is all in relationship to other. We have created this individual identity in relationship to other.
So at a certain point, when our mind begins to relax and our thoughts begin to disappear, we may become a bit frightened. Our sense of boundary begins to dissolve. There is no one to talk to. There is no one there. We realize we’re just holding on to an idea of who we are; we are holding on to a conceptualization. In fact, everything we engage in is conceptualization. The process of meditation helps us realize the truth of the dharma. So can we be that fearless? Can we look at what is there—or what is not there?
When we take refuge in the dharma, we are not following some prescribed path. We really have to look inside our own mind, and the dharma helps us to do that. Truth is constant, so the dharma provides some stability in our life. The dharma acts as our protection; it protects our mind and it protects our heart.
Taking Refuge in the Sangha
Finally, we take refuge in the sangha, the people who are on the path with us. Those who are in the sangha are warriors, because they are trying to overcome samsara. Members of the sangha support one another and care for one another. They are not perfect, but they inspire us because they are people who want to deepen their practice of mindfulness, awareness and compassion. The sangha is also a container. When we practice together, the sangha helps our discipline. We realize that there are other people around who are going through the same thing. That gives us a feeling of encouragement.
We are talking about taking a special path. But this path has been traveled by great practitioners before us, and it is now up to us to travel it. We must understand this is completely possible; there is no reason at all that we cannot travel this path. Yes, we all have our own individual situations or karma—some of us tend to be a little bit more lazy, some of us tend to be more uptight. We all have various tendencies. But the truth remains the same. It is unchanging within us.
That is the beauty of the dharma: it is completely available. We don’t need any particular credentials in order to understand it. On the other hand, we do need to hear, meditate and contemplate. We do need to understand what we are doing. We do need to correct our misunderstandings.
Taking refuge does not mean that we take Buddha’s words as the unquestioned truth. We must question the words of the Buddha. We need to ask, “Is this real? Does this actually work? Does it make sense?” The Buddha didn’t say, “I am going to save you.” He said, “You have the ability to make your situation better. You have all the capabilities. It is up to you.” Ultimately, that is the truth in which we are taking refuge.