From The Three Refuges, a published talk by Ajahn Sumedho:
… As a Refuge to take in order to see and realize the truth, you can regard Buddha as ‘that which is mindful’, pure intelligent awareness. Taking refuge in the Buddha is not a sentiment of the mind but a recollection and remembrance that right now, that which is aware and knows the truth, is Buddha. It is not something that is mine, but when I am mindful – when I allow my life to be increasingly more mindful – that is refuge in the Buddha. … You don’t even identify with Buddha; you take refuge in that pure awareness that is possible for all human beings.
The word “Buddha” means “awake”. This does not mean that only the Buddha was awake and the rest of us are asleep, but that when we are awake, we are “buddha”. Ajahn Sumedho is even more direct about this point. When we are dwelling in awareness, as opposed to our fantasies and wishes, and we know the truth of the present, then that is Buddha. That is the Buddha, the “awakeness”, that we take refuge in.
When we think of a refuge, we might think of a storm cellar or an earthquake-proofed building. But this is different. Taking refuge in the Buddha is not like going to a place of physical safety. It’s acknowledging that there is no stable, reliable place we can retreat to where we’ll be safe from all harm. If the first of the Buddha’s truths is fact, that dukkha is an inevitable part of every life, then seeking ways to avoid it entirely is a fool’s game. The only security we can develop is internal: our willingness to face and accept whatever comes, without looking away, without panicking, with courage and with compassion.
In the traditional Pali chant of homage to the Buddha, one descriptive phrase says that the Buddha is the “supreme trainer of persons to be tamed”. During his life, the Buddha taught both through the example of his impeccable behavior and demeanor, and also through direct instruction to the many and various people that he encountered. Whether we accept that the Buddha was a supremely gifted teacher or not, we have to start with the question of whether we ourselves are tame-able. Do we want to be trained? Are we willing to submit to the (self-) discipline required to bring awareness to this moment, just as it is, again and again?
Another way we can take refuge in the Buddha is simply to remind ourselves that the potential to fully awaken to the truth of how things are exists in every human being. Sometimes it may be very hard to see, in ourselves and in others, but we can have faith that it is not a hopeless case. We can clarify and refine our understanding to an extraordinary degree, if we are interested and teach-able.