“I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”– The Triple Gem
The Triple Gem is also known as the Triple Refuge and is one of the most important teachings in Buddhism, often taken as a vow by individuals wishing to enter a Buddhist community. The term “gem” is used to emphasize the great value and preciousness of this teaching as it points us to a life that is likewise experienced as precious. In order to understand this teaching, however, we must understand its key words. We must understand what refuge means, and we must understand what Buddha, Dharma, Sangha mean in their deepest context. So too, we must also understand what the pronoun “I” means, for in Zen it is the most profound of koans (a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation). We must understand who this “I” is and what is this “I” that needs refuge, and having found refuge, what is the transformation of our understanding and experience of “I”?
Let us begin with the word, “Refuge.” A dictionary definition tells us that refuge is “shelter or protection from danger or distress.” It is to where we can return for peace and a sense of well-being and psychological safety. In our discussion, the danger and distress from which we seek refuge is the instability and confusion of our own minds and human society. It is the distress that comes from our frustration with failing to find stable happiness and security in actions and beliefs we are told will lead to happiness and security. The refuge is the peace and well-being available to us when we recognize that what we seek we already possess. We only have to learn to look sufficiently deeply within rather than continuing our habit of looking outside ourselves in our social roles, our possessions and in other people.
So what does it mean to seek refuge in the Buddha? Let us begin by understanding that “Buddha” means “awakened” in the Pali language of ancient India where Buddhism was born. So we are taking refuge in some kind of awakening – and awakening means to move from a state of unconsciousness into consciousness. This is the essential journey and purpose of Buddhist practice. We are to move gradually from what is really a state of semi-consciousness, physically awake but psychologically unconscious to our full potential, into realizing that beyond what we have been conditioned to believe concerning who we are and what the world is about, beliefs filled with insecurities, we are capable of a relationship with life that is vibrant and secure beyond any surface conditions.
2500 years ago in Northern India, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama dedicated his life to understanding the nature of the unnatural emotional suffering that humans experienced in the face of life’s challenges as well as why humans behaved in ways to create unnecessary suffering. In this way, he was truly more a psychologist than a religious figure, and a truly great psychologist he was. Instead of examining others, whom he could only superficially observe, he looked deep within himself, through meditation, so deep that it was no longer Siddhartha looking at Siddhartha, rather, awareness, pure consciousness, was looking at Siddhartha, and not only at Siddhartha, but the entire human dilemma.
He employed the impersonal observational power of awareness to examine the human condition from within, and in this way, he was very scientific. He “awakened” powers of consciousness that are inherent in all humans but lie dormant under layers of identification with the form and idea of who we are. He awakened into being consciousness itself, impersonal and with vast capacities for understanding and insight. This is Buddha. Siddhartha the personality, like all personalities, was filled with insecurities and conflicts, but Siddhartha found refuge in Buddha, awakened consciousness, and so can any human.
Siddhartha made many discoveries, but foremost, he had discovered his true nature as awareness, an unshakable and silent “I” capable of incredible insight and wisdom. He was able to see how this psychological form known as Siddhartha was the product of conditioning, literally the physical, family, cultural and personal conditions that influence a person’s understanding of themselves and the world. He was able to see how it is that humans mistake themselves for this separate physical and psychological form completely overlooking their most fundamental experience, that of consciousness, which has no personalized quality to it. In this sense, the conditioned personality of “I” that is vulnerable to instability in the face of life’s conditions finds refuge in the “I” of awareness, invulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.
He was able to see how we cling to this physical and psychological form for identity and how unreliable and unstable this identity is, resulting in great anxiety and desire for greater reliability and stability that we search for in the external world of forms, chasing after desires, fleeing from fears and shaken by personal doubt. It was like waking up out of a hypnotic dream to see clearly the full potential of who and what we are as human beings, and for this awakening, Siddhartha became known as “Buddha” – the awakened one.
So the refuge that is the Buddha is the realization of the truth of who we are as awareness, capable of seeing how we create our own danger through mistaken attribution of identity to that which is inherently unstable and unreliable, our own psychological conditioning. It is realizing our usual state of consciousness is this projected state of conditioned images, much like an opaque screen covering over the clear light of true consciousness. To be awake is to turn this around and shine the clear light of pure consciousness upon the images projected and see them for what they are and become free of their hold. This was the lesson of the Buddha’s first teaching called the Four Noble Truths.
Dharma is the Sanskrit word (Dhamma in Pali) that means “truth” or the teachings that lead to understanding the truth of the nature of the way life is. We can have faith that the truth that leads to safe refuge from unnecessary suffering in our personal life is attainable because Siddhartha, the Buddha, showed the way and there are countless individuals through the ages that have attained this enlightenment following the path the Buddha demonstrated. These teachings and practices are practical and attainable and there is both a historic and present day community practicing this path. This community is known as the Sangha. We are not alone.
Dharma is the Universe as it is – vast and mysterious yet comprehensible in the unfathomable intelligence and insight of the silent mind of consciousness, for consciousness, co-manifesting with form, is the Universe. We are apertures of consciousness in form through which the Universe experiences itself, and likewise, form can intuit and begin to comprehend the infinite Universe, as ancient mystics did, as Siddhartha did, as modern quantum-field scientists are beginning to do. We can let go of fear as we understand ever more deeply the Dharma of infinite unity of which we are expressions. Buddhism’s teachings and practices, specifically meditation and mindfulness open this door.
The Sangha is available to us both immediately, in the many teachers, groups and communities that are engaged in meditation, study and application of the principles of awakening, and in the abstract through books, both Buddhist and otherwise, written by people who have seen the nature of suffering rooted in ignorance and point us encouragingly toward our own search for truth. Non-Buddhist examples would be Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, Meister Ekhart, Galileo, Copernicus, Rumi, Voltaire, Kant, Emerson, Thoreau, Krishnamurti, Teilhard de Chardin, Albert Einstein, Abraham Heschel, Ramana Maharshi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Eckhart Tolle. The list can go on and on including any author or personality that has been a source of inspiration leading a person to know they are not alone in their questioning and search for answers into the human condition.
Sangha can be found in Nature-based cultures like Native American or the ancient Druids that lived believing in balance and the wisdom and infinite connectedness of the natural world. It may even be found in writers of fiction or artists and musicians who wrestle with the human condition and from whom inspiration and solace is to be found. The Sangha of awakening is everywhere to be found. It may have been a supportive teacher, a kindly neighbor, a wise friend. The refuge, the safe place for us to return and find encouragement for us to explore the truth of who we are and what it is to be a human being is all around us. Even the birds and squirrels, the trees, the mountains, the waters and clouds can speak to us as family and reveal their secret of unity and peace.
It is true that society, our human interactions, and even our own minds can be places of emotional, even existential danger and distress. Look to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The Awakening, the Way and the Community of humanity and Nature evolving into wisdom, compassion and insight await us as truly effective refuges from ignorance and the ego-based shallowness, indifference, materialism, even cruelty and exploitation of our contemporary world, as well as the confusion of our own minds.
Embrace these gems and discover the “I” that can see and know peace, wisdom and unity. These refuges can sustain and guide us into finding balance for the personal and insecure egoic “I” that struggles with the world through the realization of the ultimate “I,” the spark of consciousness that is our primary experience, that knows there is no separation from the world. This is the “I” that knows we are the world arising in awareness moment to moment and that ultimately there is no struggle, no obstacle, no suffering, just life, and we are that life. Engage life fully, resist nothing emotionally, take nothing personally, deeply appreciate the wonder that is life, while working to bring our personal and communal experience into deeper compassion, effectiveness and wisdom. This is the Buddhist Way. This is the Triple Gem.