A personal meditation practice is the foundation of Buddhism, but do we need more? Essentially we make the journey alone, but many people find that committing themselves to the three jewels—Buddha, dharma, and sangha—helps take them further. These three make up the lineage, philosophy, and community of Buddhism, and their purpose is to deepen and expand our practice.
When we embark on the meditative journey, we may enter through many different gateways. We may begin to practice meditation as a way of finding a little more calm in the midst of a chaotic life, to find respite from our turbulent mind. We may begin to meditate to find a way to meet adversities with greater understanding and balance. We may be drawn to meditation through experiences of joy—glimpses of stillness, intimacy, and connectedness—that inspire us to question whether such moments could be more than just accidental encounters. Both sorrow and joy can bring us to a point where we acknowledge the urgency of finding ways to be more at peace with ourselves, to be kinder, and to be more present in all the moments of our life.
Practicing with sincerity, persevering through the peaks and valleys that are part of every spiritual path, we begin to discover that practice does indeed bear fruit. A steady mind begins to be more accessible, we are less prone to be reactive or judgmental, and greater sensitivity and mindfulness allow us to feel more connected to the present moment and to our surroundings. Our capacity to be delighted by life’s beauty is awakened, as is our ability to meet hardship without being overwhelmed.
But this is not the end of the journey. Rather, the journey has now truly begun.
As our practice deepens, our eyes open to possibilities beyond composure and balance. We open up to the possibility of an unshakeable liberation, a timeless wisdom, and being intimately part of a wider community of people who treasure compassion and integrity. We may be inspired to bind ourselves more deeply to the path and to those around us.
At this point, we may begin to ask ourselves not only what meditation practice is but what it means to live a meditative life. To help us accomplish this, we look beyond our personal practice and seek the support of what are known in Buddhism as the three jewels. These are the Buddha, or other living embodiment of enlightenment; the dharma, the philosophy and teachings of Buddhism; and the sangha, the community of realized beings and of our fellow practitioners. As so many others have before us, we may decide to take refuge in the three jewels as a way of continuing to open to the deeper possibilities we have glimpsed. This is an important step on the journey and one we will repeat many times over. So what does it mean to take refuge and what do the three jewels really mean?
I take refuge in the BuddhaIn monasteries around the world these three lines are chanted daily, and many meditation retreats here in the West begin with a recitation of this formula. We might see these as quasi-religious sentiments or statements of belief that seem irrelevant to our own life and spiritual practice. But the great power of taking refuge is that it opens our eyes to the whole of the teaching, not just the parts we find convenient. Taking refuge can also help us find the capacity to meet hardship compassionately—and with steadiness—rather than with flight and denial. But before that can happen, we need to come to understand what we commit to when we make these statements. Taking refuge in the three jewels (also known as the triple gem or the three treasures) is a commitment born of reflection and investigation.
I take refuge in the dharma
I take refuge in the sangha
“Taking refuge,” a good translation of the original Pali, literally refers to the act of returning to a place of sanctuary or shelter to find safety, peace, and protection: a child finds refuge in the arms of a loving parent; we find shelter from a storm beneath the branches of a tree; we return home to a caring relationship for sanctuary and peace.
Taking refuge in the three jewels is an inner journey, coming home to what is true. It is a profound act of devotion and inner commitment to a clear mind, an open heart, and a way of engaging with life that is pervaded with integrity, respect, and compassion. If our commitment is profound, we give ourselves unreservedly to a life of wakefulness, to bringing all that is truthful and healing into every aspect of our life. If our devotion is wholehearted, we align our thoughts, words, and acts with the teachings that lead to liberation.
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