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Taking Refuge

Truth comes as a conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving a friend. – Rabindranath Tagore

What phrase is used most often in Hollywood movies? Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with killing. Researchers went through thousands of movies looking for phrases. They didn't notice one instance of the words, “taking refuge.” Probably, it didn't even occur to them to look. The phrase doesn't fit easily on the English tongue. We seldom use it.

The most common phrase they found was, “Let’s get outta here.” Doesn’t that sound American? It was the pioneer solution to difficulty: “Let’s get outta here. Let’s move west.” Today we see it in the politics of saying “no”: no taxes, no incumbents, less government, “I don’t like him.” We’ve become experts of what we don’t like. “Let’s get outta here.” But we don’t seem to know as much about what we do want. Or perhaps the phrase merely reflects the conditioned mind’s desire to be where it's not.

“Getting outta here” is the opposite spirit of taking refuge. Getting out is escape. Taking refuge is going into a place of shelter, comfort or restoration. Getting out is a call to action. Taking refuge is a call to rest and being.

Though we don’t use the phrase “taking refuge” in our speech, we do it in our action. For example, on Friday evenings I often feel tired from the week. I’d like to spend time with my family, but don’t have much energy to put into it. So we sometimes go to the movies. It is a place where I can relax from the strain of doing anything meaningful. It is comforting and enjoyable. It is a refuge.

I used to take refuge in Hostess Snowballs. For those unfamiliar with this treat, it is a near-cousin to the Twinkie. It is made of devil’s food cake, marshmallow, coconut and enough preservative so that it can sit on the shelf unchanging for weeks. In the good old days when I was a kid, they came two to a package: one white, the other bright pink. I loved them. When I ate one, it felt like a special treat and I felt special to have it. They gave me great pleasure. I took refuge in Hostess Snowballs.

I maintained my love of them into adulthood. By the time I got married, I was well aware that Snowballs were not a politically correct food. So I bought them secretly. Somehow my wife could tell when I’d had one. Perhaps it was the gleam in my eye. Probably it was the pink in my beard.

My point is that we can take refuge in almost anything. Some people take refuge in their work or staying busy, others in weekends or vacations. Some people look for security in money, in conservative political beliefs, in liberal ideals. Some turn to religion for comfort and inspiration. Some turn to gardening, aerobics or meditation.

It seems to be a natural human instinct. When we are tired, frightened, lonely or stressed, we look for something to give us comfort, strength or rejuvenation.

I can take refuge in eating a lot. My taste buds get pleasure. I get temporary relief from my craving. But my stuffed belly is really not comfortable, the logy feeling in my mind isn’t great and the long-term health effects are bad. Taking refuge in over-eating is not particularly skillful, though most of us do it from time to time.

I can take refuge in getting back at someone who has done me wrong. I may get some satisfaction: “sweet revenge” we call it. I get some relief from my anger and indignation. But in the long run I may quietly regret hurting the person and he may decide to get back at me for getting back at him. Revenge is not an intelligent refuge.

So the question is not “Do I seek refuge?” We do it all the time. The question is, “What do I seek refuge in? Are my refuges effective and useful?”

I’m sure you can think of many refuges that are better than the ones I have mentioned. The Buddhist tradition speaks of three that are particularly sustaining: the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

I first encountered these twenty years ago when I began training in Theravadan Buddhist meditation. At that time, I was vaguely uncomfortable with these words. In the years since, I have become enthusiastic for what they can do for meditation and everyday life.


Buddha Refuge

The first refuge is in the Buddha. When I first heard this some two decades ago, I thought, “Oh no, this sounds like a cult.” But taking refuge in the Buddha does not mean accepting Buddha as your savior as a Southern Baptist turns to Jesus.

Shortly after his enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama was walking down a road. An ascetic saw him and was taken by the compassion and clarity he emanated. He could feel by Siddhartha's presence that he had accomplished something remarkable. The ascetic asked, “What has happened to you? Who are you?”

Siddhartha replied, “I woke up.” The Sanskrit root “budh” means “to wake up.” He described himself as “Buddha” or “one who has awakened.” The name stuck. He became known as “The Buddha.”

But he insisted that anyone could do what he’d done. Enlightenment is inherent in all of us. It is our natural state. It is who we are. We just have to uncover it, to realize it.

So taking refuge in the Buddha means taking refuge in our own Buddha nature, in the aliveness and clarity that is our essence. A Christian might call it taking refuge in the Christ within. Quakers call it the God within or the Light within. We have all the resources we need.

Taking refuge in your Buddha nature is reverse Calvinism. John Calvin (the 16th century theologian) saw human nature as essentially depraved. He said our only hope was intervention of external divine powers. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Calvin said we are all wretches. Siddhartha Gautama said we are all Buddhas. We may not feel it. We may not realize it. But we can rely on it. We can take refuge in it.

Zen Buddhists are perhaps the fiercest in their insistence that we are enlightened. In my first interview with the Korean Zen Master, Seung Sahn, he said to me, “There it is!” meaning a moment in which I was fully enlightened. I could feel the clarity, the sweetness, the spaciousness. He was right! I was enlightened! Then he said, “You’ve lost it.” He was right again. My everyday mind had closed in and covered that wonderful aliveness.

I realized that all of us must have many such moments of complete clarity. But we are so caught up in self-images, story lines and personal histories that say we are relatively wretched that we do not even notice these moments.

Seung Sahn’s gift to me was his capacity to recognize a moment in me and help me know that it was true.


Why Do Anything?

Well, if we are already enlightened, if we already embody Christ, then what’s the fuss? Why meditate? Why work on ourselves? Why engage in spiritual practices? Why not just sit back, put our feet up and enjoy the ride?

If we knew our true nature through and through, we would just savor life. But we don’t really get it. There was an episode of the original Star Trek series that illustrated our predicament.

The series featured Captain Kirk, a human, and his first officer Mr. Spock who was half human and half Vulcan. Vulcans were devoted to logic. They used mental discipline to augment their intellect and suppress their emotions.

In one episode, Kirk and Spock got caught in an alien force field. It formed an energy barrier around them. When they were relaxed, the field grew weak and transparent. If they pushed against it, it got a little stronger. If they threw themselves against it, it became dense and powerful. The more they fought it, the stronger it got. Finally they realized that their prison was only as strong as their effort to be free of it. If they just saw that they were free, they could move out without effort. If there was any doubt in their mind - if there was even a flicker of concern - that was enough to feed the force field.

Kirk couldn’t get out. He intellectually understood that they were free. But he still desired to get away from the alien apparatus. He thought he would be a little freer if he could “get outta here.” That hedging was enough to keep him trapped. Spock, with his greater internal discipline, could see that they were free and harbor no doubts. He simply walked out.

This is a wonderful allegory for our situation. We are free, we are enlightened, we have Buddha natures, God dwells within us.

The only place we can experience this well-being is in the moment, since the present is the only place we can actually experience anything. But if we think we would be freer, happier or more peaceful in a future moment after doing some more “spiritual growth,” then we feel less free, happy or peaceful in this moment. We are trying to get outta here. We feel enchained relative to what we think we could be. Like Kirk, we are trapped by the belief that we are trapped.

It is a ghastly-wonderful paradox. The concept of freedom is not enough. We have to experience it. This is not a word trick. This is how life works. Before we can feel liberated, we have to feel liberated. In order to be free, we have to know that we are already free.

Woody Allen once said, “I don’t believe in heaven, but I’m going to take a change of underwear just in case.” We say, “Ah yes, I know I’m a Buddha, but I need to change myself a little just in case.” Since we are equivocate, we need help. We don’t need help changing anything essential. That is not the problem. But we do need help in seeing the essentials more clearly. This brings us to the second refuge.


Dharma Refuge

The second refuge is the dharma. “Dharma” means “law.” Taking refuge in the dharma means taking refuge in the truth of how things are. We may not always see clearly. We may not know the truth. But we can take refuge in knowing that whatever the truth is, it will serve our highest best interest. It is a kind of reverse paranoia - the universe is not out to get us, it is out to support us.

Buddhists don’t see truth as something obscure or hidden. It is not a relic buried in the wilderness waiting for us to dig it out. It is not even a package that got shoved under the couch and forgotten.

Truth is out in the open. It is before us all the time. The Buddha said our problem is ignorance. In his language the word does not have the negative connotations English gives it. The root word is “ignore.” The truth is before our eyes and we ignore it. The problem in finding it is not the nature of truth, but the nature of the mind trying to see it. We are blinded by opinions, stances, desires and other forms of confusion. Therefore, our task is to learn to see more clearly and simply. Taking refuge in the dharma implies a commitment to being as mindful as we can. We are humble enough to keep looking with fresh eyes.

For example, many people seem to think that happiness comes from collecting pleasant experiences. But, as we know, the barest objective observation reveals that nothing lasts. Pleasantness comes and goes. Unpleasantness comes and goes. Health waxes and wanes, spiritual communities change, relationships shift. Most people are like Kirk - they understand this without really getting it.

As our minds get clearer and less cluttered, impermanence becomes more obvious. We stop holding on to good times or pushing away difficulty. We don’t do this because of divine reward or punishment or even because it is a wise strategy. We just recognize that grasping and shoving are pointless. Nothing lasts. As we hold on or push away less, our lives lighten up. There is more ease and well-being.

Dharma specifically does not refer to a set of beliefs about the truth. It is not a Contract with America. It is not a liberal manifesto. It is not a New Age metaphysic. It is not a stand on abortion, war, welfare or ecology. It is not a belief in impermanence, reincarnation or the Ten Commandments. Taking refuge in the dharma is not accepting Buddhist doctrine the way a good Catholic accepts the teachings of the Holy Church.

When asked how he achieved enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama said, “This is what I did. But it doesn’t help you with your problem. You have to see it for yourself.” He cautioned against accepting anybody’s beliefs or opinions, including his. Beliefs are pale and feeble compared to seeing. You can believe the grass is green. But once you see the grass, the belief is no longer relevant. You know.

Dharma specifically does not refer to a set of wants. We don’t take refuge in what we want to be true. At times a therapy client will tell me, “I don’t want to look at those feelings; let’s not go there.” If I know he is deeply committed to his growth, I will say, “What you want is not relevant. The only thing that is important is what is true.” Wants do not liberate us. It’s the truth that makes us free.


Bad News

Truth is not always easy to take. An old spiritual joke says, “Self knowledge is bad news.” As our minds get clearer and more penetrating, we see all the little things we’ve been trying to ignore. Perhaps we see how we engage in conversation a little longer with someone we find sexually attractive or how we cut short someone who has nothing we want. We see our little coveting, greed, spitefulness, petty gripes, selfishness and all the rest. Our egos can take quite a pounding.

As an abstract principal, we may understand spiritual work destroys inflated egos. We support this 100%. But we’d like our egos to get destroyed without getting bruised or shaken. It doesn’t work that way. Our self esteem can get battered. Spiritual work can be quite discouraging. We can become harsh with ourselves or disheartened. For this reason, we need the third refuge, the sangha.


Sangha Refuge

“Sangha” literally means “gathering of monks on the path.” A looser translation is “those who are consciously working on their spirituality.” For all his emphasis on self-reliance, the Buddha said one of the greatest assets for spiritual work is the company of like-minded people.

We are social creatures. We are near cousins to monkeys. Monkeys live in moderately-sized troops. They don’t want to be swallowed up in a large mass. They don’t want to be nameless heads of cattle. Monkeys retain a sense of individuality. People who observe them in the wild quickly recognize different quirks of personality in the animals. But monkeys are not loners. They live in groups where they groom, comfort, feed and take care of each other.

We share a common evolutionary heritage with monkeys. Our social patterns are much the same. We naturally seem to want to live in a group that is small enough to appreciate our individuality yet large enough to give us some sense of belonging. We need our meditation groups, our support circles, our friends, our families, our spiritual communities, our clans and tribes.

This does not mean that we will always find the support that would serve us best. It just means that the need for support is part of our genetic heritage. Life is easier if we acknowledge this and deal with it intelligently. We are a gregarious species.



These are the three refuges that I have come to appreciate so deeply: the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. I take refuge in the light within. I take refuge in the truth of how things are. I take refuge in the community of seekers.

One of the reasons “taking refuge” is not a common phrase is that culturally we do not support the process. Life has its rhythms: ebb and flow, expansion and contraction, going out into the world and seeking refuge from it. Our society supports only half of the cycle. When the economy expands, we say, “Great.” When it contracts, we say, “Uh oh.” When we feel open we say, “Good.” When we feel closed we say, “What’s the matter with me?” When we feel pro-active, we get a pat on the back. When we feel inward or contemplative, we get labeled “depressed.”

But we cannot expand without contracting any more than we can breath in without breathing out. There are times when we dare, risk and challenge. And there are times when we get weary or stressed and look for comfort, support or nurturance.

Since we take refuge often, we might as well do it consciously. Where do you turn when you need sustenance and support? How much do you trust your Buddha nature to guide you? How much are you willing to look openly at the truth of where you do turn? How effective or ineffective is your refuge taking? What support is available from fellow seekers?

Joseph Goldstein perhaps summed up the three refuges when he wrote, “Be gentle with yourself. You are the truth unfolding.”

If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. – Sengstan

(Presented to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, February 24, 2002.)

Copyright 2002 by Doug Kraft

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Doug, April 12, 2020