People threatened by fear
go to many refuges:
To mountains, forests,
Parks, trees, and shrines.
None of these is a secure refuge;
None is a supreme refuge.
Not by going to such a refuge
Is one released from all suffering.
But when someone going for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
Sees, with right insight,
The Four Noble Truths:
The arising of suffering,
The overcoming of suffering,
And the Eightfold Path
Leading to the end of suffering,
Then this is the secure refuge;
This is the supreme refuge.
By going to such a refuge
One is released from all suffering. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
This could be the most important set of verses about the idea of refuge. When one “takes refuge” in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, one becomes a Buddhist. There may or may not be a ceremony; it can be done in the privacy of one’s own home, or anywhere. At some point it becomes clear that the solutions to our problems can’t be found in trying to rearrange circumstances in the world but might be found by rearranging the relationship between our minds and the world.
Before we reach that point, we are likely to try out many creative solutions to address what we consider problems for us. We test various strategies to avoid aging or becoming ill, but inevitably old age and illness come. We try to inject glamour or power into our lives through various means. We try to influence or change the people we work or live with, or with whom we are in relationship. Once in a while, these strategies work, at least to some degree, but on the whole, if they provide relief it is only temporary.
When we come face to face with the limitations of our power to influence the circumstances of our lives, where do we turn? Some people turn to prayer or make efforts to tap into the supernatural. Others withdraw from society and flee to a simpler lifestyle. And yet, aging still comes, people still disappoint us; there is no protection from dukkha. But by investigating the nature of dukkha, its origins, when it is absent, and what causes its absence, we may come to understand how reality works. Investigating our direct experience is the starting point of the path towards wisdom.
Taking refuge in the Buddha (or the principle that awakening is possible), the Dhamma (acceptance of the laws of nature and karma), and the Sangha (the community of people on the path to awakening), can give us reliable comfort. We give up the idea that things should be to our liking and accept and understand them just as they are. Gravity is true; people both delight and disappoint us; if we hurt others, we hurt ourselves; we can’t control much beyond our own words and actions. This is a world we can live in and strive to understand and accept.