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The Three Refuge: Objects of Worship or A Process to Finding Inner Peace and Wisdom?

Symbol of the Triratna, Asoka period (circa 268 – 232 BCE), one of the earliest form to represent the Triple Gem (Triratna)

Here is something to think about. Do we look at the Triple Gem (Pali: Ti-ratana; Sanskrit: Triratna - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) and consider them as objects of worship, or can we use them as points of connections in our spiritual journey?

I ask this because if you go to any temple, and just watch parents teaching their young children to pay homage to Buddha, you will hear them say: "Go, 拜拜Buddha" or just "拜佛". This practice goes back generations earlier when our great, grandparents or even parents basically pray to Chinese deities (拜神). So the tradition just got carried on.

And thus the Buddha becomes a "God like being", and we "pray" to him for blessings, good luck and what have you. The Dharma is represented by a scripture, almost always regarded as a "holy book". And veneration of the monk is synonymous with folding palms and paying respects to the Sangha.

Why do I describe these as items of worship? That's because most Buddhists are actually just doing that. They go to temple, make offerings (flower, oil lamp, incense), make a donation, prostrate to statues and monks or nuns and - I do admit - these things make them feel good. Some may take in the peaceful surrounding offered by the temple, which at least offer them an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Nevertheless, many just stop there. These acts of worship are just things they do at the temple. Once outside the "holy place", the feeling of veneration, mindfulness and calm is tossed and gets lost in the chaos and turbulence of mundane life.

Now think: Instead as items of worship, what if we replace the thought of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as spiritual dots linking one to another on one's spiritual path? In Steve Job's famous Stanford University Commencement address in 2005, he said, "You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever."

The Buddha is a figure from the past. The Dharma that we are learning today came from the past but has continued on to be relevant till today. The living Sangha are the ones entrusted to keep the Dharma flowing, so that its light can continue to shine for generations to come. Can you see now how the "dots" of the Triple Gem connect? When we see the flow of the dots like this, linking the past to the current, how do we then regard the act of taking refuge in the Triple Gem?

Once the dots are defined as "a process of linking" between an ideal (Buddha) to a manual of methods and teachings (Dharma) and a support group of dedicated individuals living the spiritual journey (Sangha), then the Three Refuge no longer become objects of worship. They are but a process of spiritual linkages which one gets involved as they walk the path.

So with this premise, the refuge becomes a process of "Trust, Direction and Support".

The First Refuge: "Trust" in the Buddha

The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was an enlightened being who attained complete awakening and liberation from suffering. Taking refuge in the Buddha signifies placing our trust and faith in his teachings, his wisdom, and his ability to guide us along the path to enlightenment. By seeking refuge in the Buddha, we acknowledge the inherent potential within ourselves to awaken and transcend suffering.

The Buddha serves as a beacon of inspiration, reminding us that the path to enlightenment lies within our own hearts and minds. We draw upon his teachings of compassion, mindfulness, and wisdom to cultivate a deep understanding of ourselves and the world. Through meditation and self-reflection, we can tap into the reservoir of inner peace and wisdom that resides within us, gradually uncovering our own awakened nature.

The Second Refuge: The Dharma as our Life's "Direction"

The Dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha — his profound insights into the nature of reality, suffering, and the path to liberation. Taking refuge in the Dharma involves a commitment to study and understand these teachings, applying them in our daily lives to transform our thoughts, words, and actions.

The Dharma provides a roadmap, a direction for living a meaningful and compassionate life. It offers us invaluable tools to navigate the challenges we encounter, helping us cultivate qualities such as mindfulness, loving-kindness, and equanimity. By integrating the Dharma into our lives, we learn to let go of attachments, embrace impermanence, and develop a deep sense of interconnectedness with all beings.

The Third Refuge: Sangha "Support"

The Sangha represents the community of practitioners who have embarked on the path of awakening. Taking refuge in the Sangha means seeking support, guidance, and inspiration from fellow practitioners who share our aspirations for spiritual growth and liberation. By engaging with a spiritual community - and not just monks and nuns, but also lay men and women - we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who can offer encouragement, insight, and a sense of belonging.

The Sangha plays a vital role in our journey, providing opportunities for collective meditation, study, and discussion. Through the collective wisdom and support of the Sangha, we find strength in our practice and overcome obstacles along the way. In times of doubt or hardship, the Sangha serves as a reminder that we are not alone, fostering a deep sense of unity and interdependence.

Trust, Direction and Support as Transformative Power

When seen like this, taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is to take refuge in trust, direction and support. The refuges becomes a process of one taking transformative steps on the path to spiritual awakening. By cultivating trust in the Buddha, gain direction through understanding the profound teachings of the Dharma, and engaging with the supportive Sangha, we embark on a journey that leads to inner peace, wisdom and liberation from suffering.

In a world filled with uncertainty and constant change, seeking refuge becomes essential for our emotional well-being and spiritual growth. Buddhism, with its profound teachings, offers a refuge that transcends the boundaries of time and space.

The Three Refuge is a cornerstone of Buddhist practice, providing solace, guidance, and a pathway to inner peace and wisdom. By taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we embark on a transformative journey that leads us to a profound understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

May we all find solace and inspiration in the Trust, Direction and Support provided by the Three Refuge as we continue our journey towards greater peace, wisdom, and compassion.


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