Buddhism may be an ancient tradition, but it’s a difficult one to categorise from a Western perspective. Is it a belief based religion? Or a practice-based psychology? Many of the trappings and rituals may make it look similar to some of the more orthodox Christian denominations. But there is no Creator or omnipotent deity in Buddhism, much less a requirement to believe in such a being.
Within Buddhism you find the same bewildering variety of lineages, groups and adherents as in other traditions, sometimes seeming scarcely to bear any resemblance to one another.
Fortunately, there is a definition which Buddhists, no matter what their particular flavour, agree applies to each one of us: A Buddhist is someone who takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
The concept of taking refuge operates on different levels. In everyday life we may talk about how the captain of a yacht sought refuge from the storm in a harbour. How a woman left a violent partner for a woman’s refuge. In Britain, a traffic refuge is an island on a road where pedestrians can wait in safety. Refuge is a state or place where we are safe from danger or difficulty.
As Western urbanites, we may feel under little day-to-day physical threat. But the refuge being referred to here is much more wide-ranging in scope. We all face the prospect of ageing, sickness and death. If you accept the notion that a subtle element of mind continues after death, there is the even more worrisome danger of rebirth – where, exactly, might your karma propel you?
As well as these headline, existential dangers, is the simple reality of our daily experience. Our minds – “like tissue paper” as our lama, Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden used to say – blow this way and that. Up one day, down the next. Frustrated, elated, depressed, calm, anxious, bored beyond measure. How can we optimise the positive feelings, minimise the negative, and move to a state of greater equanimity? How can we find a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives? If it were possible to transcend the constant ups and downs and attain enduring wellbeing, how might we set about doing that?
Taking refuge places the emphasis on behaviour rather than stated beliefs. An example sometimes given is that of the man who walks past the umbrella stand beside his front door, directly outside into the pouring rain, and as he stands there getting soaked through, he shouts, ‘My umbrellas are fantastic! I have wonderful umbrellas!’
Taking refuge is something we are encouraged to do, rather than shout about. The most wonderful umbrella is functionally worthless if we don’t actually use it.
What are we taking refuge in? The Buddha refers to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, a normal human being who evolved in his practice to experience increasingly subtle states of consciousness, and ultimately enlightenment. We might liken him to a gold medal winning Olympian who then became a coach, motivating and guiding others who wish to copy him.
The Dharma are his teachings. Part of Buddha’s genius was his recognition that different folks require different strokes. Far from being a “one size fits all” tradition, there are a vast array of different, authentically Buddhist practices. Ultimately, all of them take us to a state of transcendence.
The Sangha are the community of fellow Buddhists. This term has a variety of definitions, sometimes applied only to monks and nuns, or only to more advanced practitioners. But generally speaking, we refer to our fellow practitioners as members of the Sangha. Including them in our refuge recognises the critical importance of our fellow travellers on the path. As with any practice-based activity, it’s always useful to know someone who is a few steps ahead of you, who can offer advice based on experience and perhaps offer help and support.
The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are sometimes described as being like a doctor, medicine and the nurse. All three are helpful in our recovery from the universal malady of dissatisfaction. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as the three jewels, or triple gem.
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