Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, guest editor Cyndi Lee explores what it means to take refuge. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
When Gelek Rimpoche gave refuge to me in 1990, I didn’t quite realize what had happened. He wasn’t the kind of teacher who made a big deal out of taking refuge.
What I did know was that Rimpoche was kind, and that when I was around him, I thought, “I’ll have what he’s having.” What he was having is what he was giving: straightforward teachings about profound experiences that are available to all of us. He told us that we could dedicate our lives to the benefit of all beings, that we could become awakened in this lifetime. My friends who’d introduced me to Rimpoche, all of whom were his students, were people I greatly admired and trusted. Why shouldn’t I believe what he was teaching?
Rimpoche had not just given me confidence in him. He had also given me confidence, in his subtle and skillful way, in the sangha (the community), and the teachings that they all sought to live by (the dharma). Without knowing it, I had taken refuge in Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Taking refuge is both a sort of Buddhist rite of passage (the first time) and something a Buddhist might do again and again throughout her life and practice.
Many years later, my life fell apart, and Rimpoche held me close as I cried on his chest like a little child sobbing in her mother’s arms. As I gathered myself together, he said matter-of-factly, “You know, this is just samsara. You can’t take it personally.” Rimpoche may have been my refuge, but that didn’t mean he was going to let me wallow in my own suffering. He was showing me that I had to be my own refuge, too.
When I told this story to a non-Buddhist friend, she noted that “refuge” made her think of “sanctuary,” which made her think of a bird sanctuary. That seems right to me: a really good, effective bird sanctuary is not just inviting to birds but actually magnetizes them to go there for refuge. It will offer them bathing bowls, water drips, and bird feeders full of their favorite seeds. The flowers and trees are specifically picked to make birds happy. Bird lovers, who have contributed to the causes and conditions for transforming this corner of nature into a refuge for birds, are allowed to enter. But, they remain quiet and subtle in their movements, respecting the purpose of the refuge. Over time, the birds learn that they can be safe, free, and happy there.
I liked Rimpoche’s hug better, I’ll admit, than his sobering lesson on my suffering. But both were forms of refuge. Refuge has multiple forms, and multiple meanings. As with the bird sanctuary, refuge can suggest a sense of going inward. It can be the escape or avoidance we want when we’re vulnerable, sad, or angry. But refuge, in Buddhism, is a commitment — a practice — to returning to our own wakefulness, wisdom, and caring.
True refuge isn’t really a place or a person unless that place is the goodness inside you, and the person is you. Taking refuge is not about escaping from difficult mind-states. It’s about being able to trust that you have the resources within you to fully inhabit your life.
For this Lion’s Roar Weekend Reader, I’ve picked three articles meant to help you consider what refuge might mean to you. Thanks for reading.
—Cyndi Lee, guest editor
Cyndi Lee is a teacher of meditation and movement, and the author of several books including Yoga Body, Buddha Mind and May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind. Her new online course, “Taking Refuge In Your Body,” is available at learn.lionsroar.com.
Essentially each practitioner of Buddhist meditation makes the journey alone, but many find that committing themselves to the three jewels — Buddha, dharma, and sangha — helps take them further. These three make up the lineage, philosophy, and community of Buddhism, explains Christina Feldman, and their purpose is to deepen and expand our practice.
Taking refuge in the three jewels is an inner journey, coming home to what is true. It is a profound act of devotion and inner commitment to a clear mind, an open heart, and a way of engaging with life that is pervaded with integrity, respect, and compassion. If our commitment is profound, we give ourselves unreservedly to a life of wakefulness, to bringing all that is truthful and healing into every aspect of our life. If our devotion is wholehearted, we align our thoughts, words, and acts with the teachings that lead to liberation.
Ray Buckner shares how Buddhist practice can help us diminish fear by facing it directly with honesty, clarity, and compassion.
The more I meditate, the clearer I can see how my present doubts stem from life-long struggles with traumatic, fundamental beliefs about my basic goodness, or lack thereof. Listening to my body and thoughts with a raw, kind attention, I can see with clearer precision the hatred toward who I am; the anger and judgement toward my body and mind; regret about the life I’ve lived and doubt about my capacity to embody a confident and full heart in the future.
Ultimately, by opening to my fear and self-hate with honesty, clarity, and compassion, their power lessens.
Taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, says Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, involves taking a leap forward with a deep sense of trust in our own basic nature and the natural wisdom of all phenomena.
The Buddha, dharma, and sangha are the real activity of compassion that has been passed down through many generations. They point to how real people seek real truth in a particular time and place. At the same time, the three treasures are timeless: they are free of changing times and conditions; they reach everywhere. To take refuge in the three treasures, says Master Dogen in his classic Shobogenzo, is to unreservedly rely on them. The only way we can do this is to have profound trust and faith in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. To depend on them to that degree, they have to be worthy of our trust. This means that we must also have that depth of trust in ourselves, for the three treasures are nothing other than our real nature.