Looking for Refuge in All the Wrong Places
In Buddhism, taking refuge is no longer expecting external things to bring ultimate or lasting happiness.
We may hear vast amounts of teachings and yet still not have a deep sense of what the dharma is as an inner refuge. The relative dharma, as it might be called, is like the finger pointing to the moon, but it is not the moon. To take refuge in the dharma is to absorb its true meaning, beyond the concepts and ideas, and to then open to a deep inner taste of our innate nature.
There is a famous story told of the Indian scholar Naropa, revered as one of the greatest, most knowledgeable debaters at the University of Nalanda, near Rajgir, India during the late tenth and early eleventh century. One day Naropa was walking outside the monastery when an old woman came up to him and asked him if he understood the dharma. Being a somewhat self-assured monk with great knowledge of the dharma, he said, “Yes, of course.” “But do you understand the meaning of the dharma?” she asked. When he replied, “yes,” she fell to the ground laughing, so amused was she by his arrogance. The old woman was in fact an emanation of Vajrayogini, and she told Naropa he needed to go and search for a teacher known as Tilopa, who would really teach him the meaning of the dharma.
Taking refuge in the dharma is a deepening process; it may begin with the teachings and methods of practice, but gradually it must deepen beyond this relative form. When we experience the essential pristine nature of mind, then we have tasted ultimate dharma. As a refuge, the primordially pure, empty nature of mind is an incomparable resource. When we have emotional difficulties, or are suffering in some way in our life, to rest in the nature of mind can transform our experience totally. Once we are able to practice like this, then we are truly taking refuge in the dharma.