In Buddhism there is a very important teaching named “The Three Refuges”, also called “The Three Gems” because of the great treasure contained in this teaching. This teaching is not, however, referring to refuge as being something gone to for the purpose of escape. Rather, it is how we can live in the midst of ordinary life, with the conflicts, sorrows, fears and losses that are within life, from a place of equanimity and balance.
The Gem teaching instructs us to seek refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.” Let me translate. At their simplest level, these words translate as such: “Buddha” is understood as in reference to Buddhism’s fountainhead, Siddartha Gautama. “Dharma” is the teachings and practices of Buddhism. “Sangha” is the Buddhist community. Nothing about Buddhism, however, ought to be taken at the simplest level. A deeper translation explains.
“Buddha” translates literally as “The Awakened One”. Buddhism is about awakening. To take refuge in the Buddha is to look to one’s own awakening, as Siddhartha awakened out of his own social/cultural conditioning, of experiencing himself and the world from within the limited egoic, or “little”, mind of personal thoughts and reactive emotions. Buddhism’s great insight is that the mind of ego is the source of human suffering. This is, in fact, the first teaching of Buddhism.
From this understanding then, the Dharma is the path that leads to awakening, liberation, or healing, from the sufferings of the ego. And Sangha is the community of awakened and awakening beings, those who have, and are, liberating themselves from finding their identity and their relationship to life from within the self absorbed and suffering ego. This path has been traveled successfully by others. You are not alone.
The living Vietnamese Zen saint, Thich Nhat Hanh, gives us a koan that can lead to deeper understanding and a path for living The Three Gems. He points the way by sharing the wisdom, “This moment is a perfect moment. This moment is my refuge.” This moment. Not any other moment. Not some future moment. This moment.
To be fully in this moment is to be free of the egoic mind, for the ego exists only within the storyline of me in time. To the ego, I am my past as held together by my compulsive revisiting it in judgmental thoughts, and I will be my future as compulsively structured and anticipated in judgmental thoughts. To the ego, the present exists clouded by compulsive judgmental thoughts evaluating my standing in and satisfaction with the world. When there is peace, it is fleeting. If this moment is satisfactory, our great fear is that the next moment will not be.
Awaken. You are not your thoughts. The enlightened you is not your story. Life and your experience of life is terribly diminished from within this prison of thoughts, compulsively everywhere except where life, your life, is unfolding. Here in the present moment. The bird sings in the tree. The clouds pass through the sky. Your family and friends need your presence, your full presence, and so do you. This moment, not looking out on life from within your thought prison, but in the realization that your consciousness, free of thoughts about life, is life itself.
Even should this moment be a moment containing sickness, loss, threat to the story of you, to the timeline of you, this moment still contains the bird in the tree, the clouds in the sky, your family and friends. Should this moment even contain the impending ending of your story, as mortal illness threatens your life, this moment also contains eternity, for in truth, in awakening, this moment and eternity are the same. The bird, the clouds, your family and friends, life is in your consciousness, and there is plenty of proof that consciousness is not limited to space, time or even materialization. This moment. Only this moment. Do not lose this gem, this refuge, being unconscious, being asleep. Do not be lost in the thoughts of the ego, frightened that neither you nor life are enough. Awaken! Life is. You are. Life is you. Now. Perfect.