From “The Three Refuges”, a published talk by Ajahn Sumedho:
I think it is very important to reflect on the significance of the Refuges, or the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Sometimes in the Western world these Refuges are seen as merely traditional, and relegated to a ceremony which only traditional Buddhists perform, not fully appreciating that they are pointers to the reality of the moment. In Pali we chant: Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, Saṃghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi. [I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dhamma, I take refuge in the Sangha.]
(Pronunciation note: in Pali, the “m” with a dot under it is pronounced “ng”. The “a” with a line over the top has twice the duration of an “a” with no line.)
What does this mean? At one level, when the question is asked, “How does one become a Buddhist?”, the answer is: by going for refuge. That is, whether there’s a ceremony or not, whether the words spoken are in Pali or English, out loud or silently to oneself, we become a committed follower of the Buddha’s path when our heart has decided that we’re going to rely primarily on the example of the Buddha, and on his teachings (the Dhamma), guided by those who have practiced the path (the Sangha).
It may be revealing to ask ourselves what we use as refuges now; where do we look for comfort and security? Is our physical strength our refuge? Our intellect? Our relationship with family? The beauty of our physical environment? Our views and opinions? Our ideas about who we are? All of these things change in unpredictable ways throughout life.They cannot provide a reliable refuge.
How are we to understand the concept of refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha? I’ll be offering some ideas about that in the next few posts, but one aspect is that we try to remember that our actions and words matter more than anything going on around us. These are our superpowers, the methods by which we mold and change our world. The Buddha is not a deity that will take care of us if we pray hard enough. It’s up to us to create the change by living fully in the present with all the awareness and wisdom we can muster.
Going for refuge also means reviewing our goals. Does some part of us believe that if only we had the right/best job, partner, grades, home, car, accomplishment, recognition, etc., we’d be content and feel secure? Why is it that people who seem to have every material advantage are still anxious and dissatisfied? Perhaps they’ve chosen a refuge that can’t provide the security of a peaceful heart.