Be an Island

1. Taking Refuge: A Kind of Love Affair

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    1. Taking Refuge

         A Kind of Love Affair

Taking refuge in the Enlightened One (Buddha), the teaching (Dhamma), and the community of enlightened disciples (Sangha) has a deep significance. A refuge is a shelter, a safe place. There are very few safe places in this world. In fact, to find a totally safe shelter anywhere in worldly life is impossible. Physical shelters burn down, get demolished, disappear. Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha is not a physical shelter but a spiritual one, a haven protected from the storm. On the ocean the storms, winds, and waves make progress difficult. When a ship finally reaches the shelter of a harbor, where the water is calm, it can come to anchor. This is what it means to take refuge in Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha.

We feel that we have finally found the place where we can come to rest: the teaching that promises, without a shadow of a doubt, that there is an end to suffering, to all the ills besetting mankind. The teaching, the Dhamma propounded by the great teacher and perpetuated by his Sangha, shows us the way. “Sangha” here means those who become enlightened through the Buddha’s teaching, not necessarily those who wear robes. When we accept that promise by realizing the possibility of an end to suffering and by trusting in the Dhamma’s efficacy, taking refuge is very meaningful.

Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

To the Buddha I go for refuge.

Dhammaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

To the Dhamma I go for refuge.

Sanghaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

To the Sangha I go for refuge.

It is essential to understand the meaning of the Pali. Otherwise we are 4repeating words in a foreign language just like parrots, who don’t know what they are saying.

When we feel that taking refuge is a reality for us, our hearts open up in devotion, gratitude, and respect toward Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha. We feel grateful that cessation of suffering is available; we feel devotion to the path, which promises an otherworldly reality; we feel appreciative of those who made propagating the path their life’s work.

Taking refuge can become the most important thing in our lives. Everything that we do can be done for Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha. I can carry stones for Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, and they weigh nothing. But if I carry stones because somebody tells me to carry stones, they’re heavy and the work is tiring. It is not difficult at all to perform tasks for the highest ideal that promises another level of being once we have seen that the reality in which humanity lives is unsatisfactory and are willing to let go of it.

Most of us gladly take refuge — with utter devotion, gratitude, and respect — in someone who has reached the most elevated consciousness possible and is able and willing to explain the path in such a way that we can actually follow it.

When we feel gratitude, devotion, and respect, we have love in our hearts. Love and respect go hand in hand with the spiritual path. These two feelings are appropriate and essential for any relationship we may have, but even more so for the spiritual path, which is the closest relationship we can have because it concerns our own being. Heart and mind must both be engaged. The mind understands and the heart loves, and unless that fusion happens, we may limp along on one leg. The integration of intellect and emotion helps us walk ahead steadily.

Unsteadiness in our practice will again and again bring dissatisfaction into our hearts and also skeptical doubt: Am I doing the right thing? What’s this all about? Why don’t I do what everybody else is doing? Skeptical doubt arises because a lack of emotional connection to our practice leaves us shaky. We need to be solidly grounded and have both heart and mind wholeheartedly involved in all our actions.

In this human world we are beset by troubles, difficulties, and constant fears for ourselves and our loved ones. Finding a refuge, a safe place within all that anxiety, is so rare and valuable that most people cannot fathom its importance.


We call Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha the Three Jewels, or the Triple Gem (Tiratana), because they are of the utmost value. The jewels are not the physical bodies of the Buddha and the Sangha but the transcendence that they represent, the nibbānic consciousness, overriding all human desires and foibles.

Being able to take refuge is not only rare but denotes excellent karma. But such a wonderful opportunity will bear fruit only if we take refuge with our hearts and not just with our mouths.

All of us have at least once in our lives been in love, and we can remember the feeling, especially if the love was reciprocated. It felt marvelous, didn’t it? The same exhilarating emotion can be ours if we love Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, because we meet all three within our hearts. This can be a perpetual love affair, and whatever we do, we do for the ones we love, which becomes an easy task. Energy becomes natural and doesn’t have to be aroused over and over. It arises from certainty and direction, from a heart fully connected to all we do.

The Buddha promised that we can come to the end of every bit of suffering that ever was in our hearts, and that we can reach the end of all anxiety, fear, and worry, the end of even the smallest niggling feeling that something isn’t right. When we enter the path leading to the final elimination of all dukkha (suffering), we enter a relationship that can purify us totally and that will eventually make us part of the Enlightened Sangha. If taking refuge is understood in this way, we derive great benefit from it.

The same chants that encourage gratitude, devotion, and respect also help us memorize the teaching, leading us thereby to wisdom and insight. Here I give the English translation of the Pali original.

        Homage to the Buddha:

        Indeed the Blessed One is thus:

        The accomplished destroyer of defilements,

        A Buddha perfected by himself,

        Complete in clear knowledge and compassionate conduct,

        Supremely good in presence and in destiny,

        Knower of the worlds,

        Incomparable master of those to be tamed,

        Teacher of devas and humans,


        Awakened and awakener,

        And the Lord by skillful means apportioning Dhamma.

        Homage to the Dhamma:

        The Dhamma of the Blessed One is perfectly expounded,

        To be seen here and now,

        Not a matter of time,

        Inviting one to come and see,

        Leading inward,

        To be known by the wise each individually.

        Homage to the Sangha:

        The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples has entered on the good way.

        The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples has entered on the straight way.

        The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples has entered on the true way.

        The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples has entered on the proper way.

        That is to say:

        The four pairs of humans, the eight types of persons,

        This Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples is fit for gifts,

        Fit for hospitality, fit for offerings, and fit for reverential salutation,

        As the incomparable field of merit for the world.

Wisdom has three stages. The first one is knowledge acquired by hearing or reading. We reach the second stage when we make this knowledge our own by taking its guidelines to heart and trying to actualize them through thought, speech, and action. As we do this more and more, our thoughts, words, and deeds are purified, and the third and highest stage of wisdom arises.

We have all seen statues or pictures of the Buddha. Nobody knows what the Buddha really looked like, for in those days there were no cameras, and no drawings of the Buddha were made either. The statues and pictures we see depict each artist’s idea of beauty and compassion.

We can make our own Buddha statue in our minds, according to how we visualize perfection and beauty. We can let golden rays emanate from it, make it the most wonderful thing we can possibly imagine, and carry it 7around in our hearts. This will develop love for ourselves and also help us to love others, since we see that they might be carrying the same beautiful statue around in their hearts. Even if they speak differently and look different from us, they still carry the same beauty in their hearts.

Unless we practice loving feelings toward everyone we meet, day in, day out, we’re missing out on the most joyous part of life. If we can actually open our hearts, there’s no difficulty in being happy. Anyone who has a successful love affair has a happy heart.

When we love the Three Jewels it is the kind of love affair that cannot disappoint us. Our lover does not run away or pick someone else. And since we haven’t yet discovered the depth and profundity of the loved one, new horizons open up all the time. When we become enlightened, the whole consciousness of our beloved, the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, will be available to us, and we cannot possibly be disappointed.

This is a kind of transcendental relationship, not dependent upon a human being who will eventually die and who is imperfect. It is a relationship with perfection itself, which is difficult to find in the human or any other realm. We are extremely privileged to have that opportunity. Yet we must also turn our perception toward our imperfect inner reality and recognize clearly what the Three Jewels mean for us. Then loving devotion will arise and fill us. When we see the greatest beauty and purity, the greatest wisdom, we cannot help but love their expression.

We have a lot to be grateful for, and it is our own good karma that has made it possible to be here at this moment. The Dhamma protects the Dhamma practitioner. We are protected because our reactions are dependable and we have found the pathway to freedom. This is the only safety we can find.

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