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Buddhism and Me: The Three Refuges 
6th-Dec-2011 08:00 am

1. Introductory post

Do not accept any of my words on faith,
Believing them just because I said them.
Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns,
And critically examines his product for authenticity.
Only accept what passes the test
By proving useful and beneficial in your life.

- Gautoma Buddha


A picture of a beaded bracelet, with a close up of three beads near (but not at) the end.


The first set of three beads on my bracelet represent the Three Refuges – but that bothers me because I always thought the plural of refuge is refugia. That’s what I get for being a scientist first and a person second. They can also be called the Three Graces or the Three Jewels of Buddhist Practice and they are the supporting foundation on which practice can be built: The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

For me, this is the ‘faith’ element of Buddhism. The places I go to when the path becomes difficult and I start to wonder if it’s even worth it. A place of safety and reassurance, that I go to in times of suffering (and, as I’ll discuss at a later date, there is always suffering) and doubt.

The most important article of faith for me is that of the Buddha nature that everyone has inside: it’s not a case of being fundamentally good or bad, as every human being has the potential of works of great good and great evil, but every human being also has the potential to Awaken and become free of fear, hate, delusion and other unhealthy mental states.

I am on this path of Buddhism to become closer to that freedom to find the peace that I’m sure is in me somewhere. The three refuges are a safety net for those times I doubt that it is even possible. They are where I go to reinforce my faith that I have a Buddha Nature and I can get to it if I work on it.

My favourite metaphor is the mind as a mirror. When fully clean I will be able to see wonderful things reflected in the mirror, but I have spent my life smearing grime on the mirror in the forms of unhelpful mental states: fear, hate, delusion, depression, anxiety, doubt, anger, to the point at which I don’t even know whether there’s a mirror under there. Before I get to the job of cleaning that mirror and obtaining a pure mind, sometimes I just need to have faith that there’s a mirror under there.

And so:

I go for refuge in the Buddha

“Buddha” means “one who has awakened,” and is a description that could be applied to many people. The Buddha refers to Siddhattha Gotama: a man who realised enlightenment, obtained freedom from suffering, and spent 45 years of his life teaching this freedom to other people. There’s a lot of mythology and parable surrounding his life, but the fact that he existed, taught and founded Buddhism is indisputed. And to me, at least, the mythology doesn’t matter

He is both a role model and a teacher: he represents both a person that actually cleaned their mirror, and the person who codified the mirror-cleaning process.

Going for refuge in “the Buddha” may also imply going for refuge in my own Buddha Nature; in the fact that I have this beautiful thing inside me that I can bring out into the light if I work on it. And because I can see the effects in myself; I’m in a lot more peaceful a place than I was years ago when I started down the Buddhist path. By working hard on a little part of my mirror and making it a little bit cleaner, I can support my faith that it is possible to get it cleaner.

I go for refuge in the Dharma

The Dharma is the collected teachings of the Buddha – the laws he described (in Buddhism, ‘laws’ are more like scientific laws: “this is how the world works” than prescriptive laws: “This is how you must live”) and the instructions he gave his followers on how to live a skilful life. It can be as specific as the records of what he actually said, or as general as what can be observed in the world: the natural laws of human nature that can be readily observed in our day to day interactions.

In the mirror analogy, the Dharma is the cleaning manual the Buddha left us. The technique that I’m using to clean my mirror, translated by someone into a language I understand and supported not just by later annotations, but also by my own practice. There’s no point in following an instruction manual unless you firstly understand it and secondly, can see through following it that it’s producing what it said it would.

I go for refuge in the Sangha

Hooray, the one I am least equipped to talk about, because I have so far not made much of an effort in constructing my own Sangha.

The Sangha is community, and can often be taken on many levels: the community of Bodhisattvas that have obtained their own awakening, the monastic community that have dedicated their lives fully towards the Practice, or just the Buddhist community of lay-people who live according to the Dharma. They represent the community of people who provide co-support and models for my own living.

And I don’t really have a Sangha because I’ve never worked up the courage to actually join a meditation center, for a variety o0f completely silly reasons. I do have some friends who are on a similar path (some who told me they were after seeing my last post on the subject, which was a delightful discovery), but I do not participate in an actual faith community, like I should. However, I still know that if I wanted extra support in my practice, I would be better off finding myself a community in which I can find support in my practice instead of, as I have been doing for these past five years, listening to podcasts and making up my own interpretation.

Still, it’s a start.

Three Refuges Links

Buddha Net

Buddha Mind

View on Buddhism


(This Podcast has been and remains my primary entry point into the Dharma)

100 Going for Refuge

205 Taking Refuge


Next: The Four Noble Truths

This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.

6th-Dec-2011 02:54 pm (UTC)
I love the passage you opened this with. I wrote it on a candle for my Confirmation (in retrospect, this may have been a hint, it occurs to me) and at various points my life have had it printed out and on my wall in my room in easy sight.
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