I think it is very important to reflect on the significance of the refuges, or the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. These refuges are sometimes seen in the western world as merely traditional — and may be relegated to a ceremony which only traditional Buddhists like to have — not fully appreciating them as pointers to a reality of the moment.
We chant: Buddham saranam gacchami, dhammam saranam gacchami, sangham saranam gacchami. If you hear Sri Lankan chanting, it is more melodious. And if you go to an Indian temple, they can really get off on Buddham saranam gacchami with tablas and sitars and everything, and it has a good rhythm.
But as a real refuge to take in order to see and realise the truth, you can look at the Buddha as that which is mindful, the pure intelligent awareness. Taking refuge in the Buddha is not a sentiment of the mind but a recollection, a remembrance that right now that which is aware and knows the truth is Buddha. It is not something that is mine, but when I am mindful, when I allow my life to be increasingly more mindful, that is refuge in Buddha; and that is a conscious experience within a form, a human form, such as we all have.
Rather than identifying with the conditioning of the mind or the body, you get beyond the body itself — not a man or a woman, no nationality, no quality—you do not even identify with Buddha. You take refuge in that pure awareness that is possible for all human beings…
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First published in the Buddhism Now May 1993