All in all, the act of going for refuge occurs on three levels: external, internal, and—beyond external and internal—the level of nibbāna. These three levels can be summarized in two different ways: in terms of what they protect you from, and in terms of what they depend on to protect you.
In terms of what they protect you from: The first level protects you from the unskillful actions of others; the second level, from your own unskillful actions; and the third level, from the results of all actions, skillful and not. After all, even skillful actions don’t last forever. They can provide long-term happiness, but long-term isn’t forever. Only when you’ve reached the dimension beyond time are you totally free from the vagaries of time. Only then is your happiness totally secure.
In terms of what the three levels depend on: In the first level, you learn to choose others you can reliably depend on. In the second level, you learn to make yourself reliable so you can depend on yourself. In the third level you abandon both “self” and “others,” for you’ve found something that, because it’s unconditioned, doesn’t need to depend on anyone or anything at all.
Once your happiness is secure in this way, you can engage in the world without being exposed to its dangers—for your mind is free from the dangers it used to pose for itself. And you pose no dangers to the world. Because you don’t need others for your happiness, your relationships with them can be pure. In fact, now that you are a member of the noble Saṅgha, you can offer them an external refuge as well, in the example of your thoughts, words, and deeds.
In this way, the act of going for refuge is a gift not only to yourself. It’s a gift—an offering of safety and protection—that extends to everyone in every direction.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, Beyond All Directions, (pdf) p.11.