The objects of refuge are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
‘Buddha’ refers not simply to Shakyamuni Buddha, but to the state of realisation itself. Buddha is fully awakened, completely free of conditioned response and distorted energy, and has realised the non-duality of method and wisdom, form and emptiness. To seek refuge in Buddha is to recognise the goal of the non-dual state, to have confidence in its reality, and to see the possibility of one’s own awakening to this state.
Dharma is the body of Buddhist teachings. We establish confidence that the teachings and practices handed down to us from the Buddhas, and given to us by the Buddhas who are our Lamas, will make a difference to our lives. We find that we start to change. We may become less aggressive and selfish. We may find it easier to be tolerant and patient and put the needs of others before our own. We may find that we simply feel calmer – more at peace with ourselves and with the circumstances of our lives. Observing and appreciating these changes, we feel confident in continuing to practise.
We start to gain some understanding of what is meant by the security of no security and the refuge of no refuge. It is the warming, open, direct sunlight of awakening in which we can bask. It is the full glare of the excruciatingly clear, bright light in which we are laid bare. There is no hope of a shadow in which we might surreptitiously practise concealment or manipulation. In this piercing beam we recognise that we are fully accountable for our view, meditation, and action. This is no cosy complacency, but a vivid wide-awakeness.
Taking refuge in Dharma is placing our confidence in practice as a place of safety. This is redefining ‘safety’ as the challenge of practice. Once we become practitioners it is guaranteed that at some point practice will become inconvenient. We will wish to take the easy but less honest option; to make the half-hearted response; to indulge in believing that we have no responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves.
But as practitioners, these are no longer available options. As warriors we have to live with honour, boldness, and integrity. We cannot allow ourselves to slip into good-enough mediocrity.
Our security in terms of realisation is absolutely guaranteed if we remain in the domain of practice. But the path of warriorship may be the harder and less comfortable choice. It may be the path that leads us into exposure and danger. The security of practice may be the least secure path in terms of referential personal safety and referential self-protection.
As we attend teachings and practice sessions we get to know other practitioners. This is sangha. These people can be a valuable source of support, encouragement, and inspiration. In times of doubt or trouble, we may turn to these people and their practice orientation. We turn to sangha rather than to conventional solace, such as psychotherapy, our parents, spiritually disinterested acquaintances, the pub, or television. In this way we establish our confidence and refuge in sangha, the community of practitioners.
To take refuge in sangha is to give others permission to view you as a potentially realised being and to take on the responsibility of being viewed by others as a potentially realised being. Pure view is both a practice and a responsibility. It is the practice of actively appreciating the qualities of others and letting go of those aspects that seem less than realised. It is also the practice of actively ensuring that our behaviour and demeanour offers an appropriate presentation for those who are viewing us purely. We do not behave selfishly, petulantly, or aggressively, because this may disrupt others’ practice of pure vision.
The safety of the sangha does not lie in their support of us. Sangha will not back us up whatever we do. Sangha will help us to realign ourselves with pure view whenever we waver from it – merely through their example. Through taking the sangha as our refuge we expose ourselves to the responsibility of unconditional appreciation and commit to abandoning justification.
In Tibetan Buddhism, ‘Lama’ is added as an object of refuge, and placed before Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This is because the Lama is the centre of the mandala of possibility. The Lama introduces the student to the non-dual state through transmission and empowerment. The Lama teaches the student the spiritual practices of renunciation, transformation, and spontaneity. It is through the Lama that we meet the assembly of practitioners.
Ultimately little is possible without the Lama. We may believe that we can learn enough about the teachings and practices through reading and study, but something crucial will be missing and our progress seriously impaired if we never have contact with a Lama as a tangible and communicative example of living the view. It is possible to get stuck in a groove in which we appear to be living the view and practising the path, but in which we are not really continuing to open the spiral of our neurotic patterning. It is a little like getting stuck at sleepy shi-nè, but believing we are at stable shi-nè.7 At a certain point a Lama becomes essential. The Lama will keep guiding us back into an expanding view, and out of the groove of our patterning. The Lama can trip us up as we return to preconception and habitual neurosis. The Lama encourages us to continually renew our connection with view.
7. Sleepy shi-nè is a commonly experienced state where there is no movement in the mind, but there is dullness and lack of vibrant presence. This state can be mistaken for stable shi-nè, which is a sparkling awake experience of presence and emptiness.