The first time I wandered away from home I was probably about five years old. I remember walking and walking, drawn by the allure of the new, the strange, the great unknown. I was entirely unconcerned that I might not be able to find my way back home or of the potential dangers of a small boy walking in a city alone; losing track of time, past unfamiliar houses, gas stations, manufacturers, corner grocery shops… farther and farther I wandered.
I grew up in Winnipeg, a mid-sized city that sits smack in the middle of the Canadian prairie. It wasn’t Chicago, New York or Toronto, but there was plenty of room for a young boy to get lost. On this occasion, luckily, I had the great fortune to find my way, eventually, back to familiar ground. It was late afternoon, when, a few blocks from my street, a police car stopped and a policeman asked me my name. By the time they delivered me to my door, the day was fast giving way to evening.
At home, waiting to greet me, my foster mom, anger disguising the love that showed itself when she pulled me to herself a little too tightly before pushing me away to begin to lace into me with a well-deserved scolding: Where had I been? Why hadn’t I come right home after the morning kindergarten had finished? What right had I to worry everyone to death? And, if I did anything that foolish again, the only world I’d see would be inside the backyard fence. Unbeknownst to me, the whole neighborhood had been mobilized in a search to find me. Neighbours – many of whom we hardly knew – had been walking, driving, calling out all day.
But now I was home, and it gradually began to dawn on me that home was the place where I belonged, where people cared about me enough to demonstrate their extraordinary love by stopping everything to look for a boy who was just too young and foolish to understand the meaning of `come straight home after school’.
Taking Refuge is a lot like that homecoming. You can spend a lifetime wandering in a kind of dream, a fugue, drawn on by the illusion of happiness through new experiences or the accumulation of material things, only to find yourself further from your goal than when you began: Who am I? Then, suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, you’re home: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.” I take shelter in the arms (the teaching) of the compassionate one, the cool awakening of prajna (wisdom) and the strength of the company of Arhants and Bodhisattvas (community). Many lifetimes have passed, many roads traveled to finally enable you to achieve this human birth and the possibility to finally awaken and to be free.
In all forms of Buddhism, through all ages, the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha are constant and enduring. We may, on occasion (and, I daresay, frequently), find ourselves lost, but the journey home is well-lighted and our neighbours many.
Practicing mindfulness, understanding the teaching and living the Way can be painful, frustrating and difficult. We are bound to get turned around, but the Buddha exhorts us: Therefore, be ye lamps unto yourselves, be a refuge to yourselves, Hold fast to Truth as a lamp: holdfast to the truth as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourselves.
And those, who shall be a lamp unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, and holding fast to the Truth as their refuge, they shall reach the topmost height.
And, that topmost height, our final destination, our true home, Nirvana, our own true, unencumbered selves. But how are we to manage this on our own? When I am sitting in meditation, my legs hurt, I am distracted by a thousand wandering thoughts, I am bored, I fidget and fuss, I can’t wait for the session to end. In my daily life, I want things, I worry, I get angry, I dwell in the past, I long for the future, I am lazy and foolish. I, I, I, I… am lost and alone and cannot find my own way home.
By taking refuge I am relying on the teacher to start me on the way. I am depending on the Dharma to guide me along the way, and I am looking to the community of likeminded others to keep me moving in the right direction. Before I take up the lamp I must be willing to give up something of myself. Strange and mysterious it is that the only thing I need to give up is my idea of self, my own control of my direction, and in so doing discover that which was never truly lost: My own true Buddha Nature, my abiding home.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.