What do you take refuge in? Where do you turn when you have no more answers, when you feel broken and out of your depth? It’s natural for humans to crave a place of refuge, not only during dire circumstances like war, drought, fire, and flood, but throughout our garden-variety human challenges as well. At times we seek physical refuge from dangers that threaten our survival, at times we seek emotional refuge from abuse or loss or heartache, and at times we seek spiritual refuge from the insecurities that are a natural part of life. We are constantly seeking refuge because existence on this planet is rife with uncertainty. Some of us attempt to find refuge in money, houses, and possessions, some by developing an uber-fit body or amassing information. But our homes can be destroyed, our bodies can become sick or injured, our loved ones are vulnerable to death, and any wealth we amass can dissolve in an instant. Even if we have amassed a great fortune and power in the world, we can’t bring it with us as we take our last breath. No matter how carefully we tend our garden in the summer, winter will come, leaving the land dark and bare. As long as we crave permanence in an impermanent world, we need to prepare for refuge from these storms.
I had never thought about the connection between being a refugee and the Buddhist rite of taking refuge until recently. Watching Ukrainians flee their homes, bringing with them only what they could physically carry, makes the idea of refuge much more immediate and real to me. In the morning, the Ukrainian mother made her coffee just the way she liked it, fed her family breakfast, bundled her kids up for school, and got ready for the day. It’s the simplest things that make life feel safe and solid. How quickly all of that can devolve into survival. How fragile we all are.
We take refuge from the reality that life is always changing, that we are aging, that nothing is permanent. We take refuge from the suffering of life we feel, even in the smallest moments, such as a challenging relative or a long line at the post office, to the larger moments of cruelty and danger. We take refuge from the fact that our sense of self is mercurial and unknowable, so we create and maintain who we believe ourselves to be. We live with the anxiety that this delicate, unsubstantial, fabricated sense of self can be exposed at any moment.
Tibetan, Zen, Theravada, and all other Buddhist traditions reflect on the three refuges: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha is a way to orient ourselves toward something bigger than our everyday challenges. Buddhism does not shrink from the inevitable slings and arrows of life. Acknowledging the reality of impermanence and suffering and the insubstantiality of self—anitya, anatman, duhkha—is built right into the bones of the Buddhist teachings. Suffering and the possibility of having the rug pulled out from under us at any minute is not only acknowledged, it has been turned into fuel by the elders to turbocharge our journey toward awakening.
To break it down, taking refuge in the Buddha is about remembering that Siddhartha, a human being just like us, awakened. If Siddhartha can fully awaken, become a buddha, then that possibility is available to us. We take refuge in our own buddha-nature, which is our true self behind all the appearances. Taking refuge in the sangha, or community, we remember that many, many sincere people for hundreds of years across the globe, have walked, and are still walking this path and have left footprints for us to follow. We are not alone. We are all walking toward awakening, no matter how messy it looks. We can lean on one another along the way. Taking refuge in the Dharma, or truth, we remember that truth is present in each moment. Each blade of grass contains truth and wherever we go, the truth of life, of nature, of the Universe, is there to meet us. We can find it in a cool mountain breeze and in a dark bomb shelter. It is everywhere—no exceptions. No one and nothing can own it, squash it, eliminate it, or stomp it out. These are the three rocks upon which we set our footing as we cross the river of awakening.
The second step in AA’s 12-step program is: I came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. This step is an invitation to take refuge is something greater than the small, confused self that can’t see past the problem. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, refuge is taken in God. We may not understand why we suffer but there is something greater than us that does understand. This has been a sturdy rock for many people throughout the ages. Before Martin Luther King Jr. went out to march into certain danger, he led his group in prayer. They became rooted in their personal connection with God. Their faith became stronger than their fear. One can argue that many problems have been created in the name of religion, but there’s no denying that it has also supported many people through challenges they felt they could not bear.
If you are sitting in safety while reading these words, it is a good time to consider the question: what do you take refuge in? What do you turn to when you feel like things are hopeless, like you haven’t a clue about your next step or how to heal yourself, your community, and the world? These are important questions to consider in order to be prepared for whatever life may dole out. While in safety you can build a strong relationship with your place of refuge. It should be portable enough to fit in your pocket so that you can carry it to meetings, by the sink washing dishes, out of a burning building, or on a trek through unknown territory. Remembering that what you take refuge in is your true north, orienting you to a happier way of life and to your inevitable awakening.