The act of going for refuge marks the point where one commits oneself to taking the Dhamma, or the Buddha’s teaching, as the primary guide to one’s life. To understand why this commitment is called a “refuge,” it’s helpful to look at the history of the custom.
In pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one’s allegiance to a patron—a powerful person or god—submitting to the patron’s directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger in return. In the early years of the Buddha’s teaching career, his new followers adopted this custom to express their allegiance to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, but in the Buddhist context this custom took on a new meaning.
Buddhism is not a theistic religion—the Buddha is not a god—and so a person taking refuge in the Buddhist sense is not asking for the Buddha personally to intervene to provide protection. Still, one of the Buddha’s central teachings is that human life is fraught with dangers—from greed, anger, and delusion—and so the concept of refuge is central to the path of practice, in that the practice is aimed at gaining release from those dangers.
Because the mind is the source both of the dangers and of release, there is a need for two levels of refuge: external refuges, which provide models and guidelines so that we can identify which qualities in the mind lead to danger and which to release; and internal refuges, i.e., the qualities leading to release that we develop in our own mind in imitation of our external models.
The internal level is where true refuge is found.
Although the tradition of going to refuge is an ancient practice, it is still relevant for our own practice today, for we are faced with the same internal dangers that faced people in the Buddha’s time. We still need the same protection as they.
When a Buddhist takes refuge, it is essentially an act of taking refuge in the doctrine of karma: It’s an act of submission in that one is committed to living in line with the principle that actions based on skillful intentions lead to happiness, while actions based on unskillful intentions lead to suffering; it’s an act of claiming protection in that, by following the teaching, one hopes to avoid the misfortunes that bad karma engenders.
To take refuge in this way ultimately means to take refuge in the quality of our own intentions, for that’s where the essence of karma lies.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Treatises book, Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma & Sangha, “Introduction.”