We are extraordinarily adept at taking refuge; the problem is that we take refuge in the wrong things. We take refuge from our stress, our emotional problems, and our relationships in anything we find that will temporarily relieve us of discomfort. As we get older, the range of potential refuges available to us becomes more and more sophisticated, but the intention usually remains the same. We take refuge in food, money, our home, the TV, entertainment, alcohol, drugs, sex, even work and relationships; the list is endless. These things are not by nature refuges, but if we desire to relieve our dissatisfaction, stress, and unhappiness, and think, albeit mistakenly, these things will bring us happiness, then in the way we use them, they have become a refuge.
It is disturbing that we are very often unaware that this is what we are doing until we take an honest look at our life and behavior, and it may be only be when our refuges fall apart that we realize how dependent on them we have become. It is equally disturbing to see that most of what we put our energy into, as encouraged by our modern culture, is an attempt to satisfy an insatiable need to consume. Far back in the eighth century, Shantideva recognized that we all seek happiness and yet constantly create the causes for suffering, and it seems we have not changed very much since then.
Those of us involved in the dharma may feel that we are not so caught in this confusion. We recognize the unsatisfactory nature of relentless consumerism and know it will not bring us happiness. Many of us have realized that we do not need to constantly put so much energy into what are usually described as worldly concerns. We have probably already made some attempt to turn our life around and are taking refuge in something we feel will bring us far deeper happiness, namely, the dharma.
Taking refuge has sometimes been called “taking a safe direction,” which offers an interesting twist on the idea of refuge. From a Buddhist viewpoint, taking refuge is turning around in our life and no longer expecting external things to be able to bring us ultimate or lasting happiness. At the heart of Buddhism is the understanding that both suffering and happiness come from the mind. If we change the mind, then we can free ourselves from suffering and experience happiness.
Reaching this understanding, however, doesn’t imply that we abandon our life and stop everything that has held some meaning for us. We don’t immediately give up our work, or relationships, because they are not a real refuge. Rather it means that we don’t hold them with so much expectation, and we don’t rely upon them as an ultimate source of happiness. It also means that we don’t become so upset or distressed when things don’t go exactly as we expected.
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.