Buddhist refuge is unusual in that it does not offer placation. No mollifying parent will murmur, ‘There, there – it will be alright.’ It will not be alright at all – it will simply be as it is, and how alright that is depends on how I perceive it. Buddhist refuge encourages us to let go of blame, justification, and self-pity, and to take responsibility for how we feel. Refuge does not sticky tape over the true cause of our condition. Refuge addresses the root of our unhappiness. Taking refuge in an authentic spiritual path offers an accurate perspective for understanding dissatisfaction. It offers methods by which dissatisfaction can be liberated. If we are in the right frame of mind, with an open minded group of people, hearing appropriate teachings being given by an inspirational teacher, at a time in our lives when we are ready to engage in spiritual practice – the commitment of refuge is possible.
It is important to engage in preparation and familiarisation with Dharma before entering the commitment of refuge. Gain as much experience of Dharma as possible through hearing and reading teachings, attending courses and retreats, and meeting people who follow the methods of Dharma. A feeling of confidence develops through this. I feel inspired by the teachings. I aspire to the qualities of the great Lamas about whom I hear. I aspire to the qualities of the great Lamas I may possibly meet. I gain a little experience of meditation and feel a glimmer of the benefits that are possible through such practice. I start to recognise certain types of experience as my non-dual nature sparkling through the fabric of my distortion. I find I come to like and appreciate the people who practise, and feel that they could become my friends. I respect them and recognise that they are trying to be good people, living their lives honestly and kindly. They live their practice with energy and enthusiasm and I feel encouraged to emulate their disposition.
My view opens a little and I start to see the possibility of a different perspective on life – a subtle and gentle shift that offers great potential. It is at this point that I decide to take part in the ceremony of refuge and commit myself to the path of Dharma as my chosen route – out of the experience of dissatisfaction, and into the experience of utter and complete satisfaction.
At first I may believe that to take refuge is to find a method of safety and a place of protection. I may feel cradled by my Buddhist friends. I may feel protected from the inconvenient realities of my daily life by my interpretation of Dharma view and practice. There can be a tendency to adopt a ‘Buddhist personality’ – I could confuse authentic involvement with floating in a supercilious pseudo serene manner, deluding myself into thinking that emotional suppression is the practice of renunciation or transformation. I may numb myself to the excesses of joy and pain so that I can dwell in a twilight world of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘morality’ where I feel safe. Authentic refuge however has no time for such charades. Authentic refuge is a sparkling and spunky environment, in which we recognise that refuge is the refuge of no refuge and the security of no security. It is the understanding that there is no person or place which can protect me from the distortions of my own mind. It is the understanding that my neurotic patterning will continue to dictate my response for the foreseeable future.
I am therefore, continually in danger – but gradually space and choice become evident. When we have refuge we understand that our personality is the raw material of the path of transformation. We understand that we cannot subdue personality into a grey approximation of realisation. We cannot by this means, hope to discover the electricity of vajra arrogance, vajra irritation, vajra obsession, vajra paranoia and vajra incomprehension.
Refuge is the knowledge that our lives will continue to be as they have always been: a mixture of success and failure, praise and blame, gain and loss, hope and fear, meeting and parting… Refuge recognises that these highs and lows are both meaningful and meaningless.
The only way we can be liberated from conditioned perception and conditioned response—and from the confusion which arises from our attempts to separate emptiness and form—is to aspire to the realisation of non-duality. Such aspiration cannot be achieved by withdrawal into cosy complacency. Such aspiration cannot be achieved by the cultivation of safety. It can only be reached through courage and boldness, freedom and responsibility. We have to know—at the core of our being—that realisation is possible. We have to know that practice—living with integrity, energy and honour—can bring us to the point where the recognition of non-duality is feasible. We have to know what it means to be a warrior – and to live as one.
This confidence can only remain alive through practice. Refuge has to be held and nurtured. We do not hold refuge simply by taking part in a ceremony, and by receiving a refuge name. If we never engage in practice, then we cannot say that we really hold refuge. Practice has to be our lifeblood. It is possible never to have taken part in a ceremony but to hold refuge as a lived reality day-by-day through our attempt to live the view. Living the view is refuge. Refuge is recognising that the frustration and irritation we experience are just as much opportunities for realisation as joy and love.