Opening Our Heart in the Face of Fear II

Radical Acceptance:  Enhancing your Life with the Heart of the Buddha (pp 161-197)

Also Refuge, An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha by Thanissaro Bhikkhu ( and The Decision to Become a Buddhist by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (

‘So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever known,

if a restiveness, like light and cloud shadow passes over your hands and over all that you do.

You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand;

it will not let you fall.”

from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926)  Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist

Taking Refuge

One way to find the safety of belonging with others is to follow the Buddhist practice of taking refuge.   “We discover a place to rest our human vulnerability, and a sanctuary for our awakening heart and mind.  In their shelter, we can face and awaken from the trance of fear.”  p. 174

“They go to many a refuge, to mountains, forests, parks, trees, and shrines: people threatened with danger. That’s not the secure refuge, that’s not the highest refuge, that’s not the refuge, having gone to which, you gain release from all suffering and stress. But when, having gone for refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, you see with right discernment the four Noble Truths — stress, the cause of stress, the transcending of stress, and the Noble Eightfold Path, the way to the stilling of stress: That’s the secure refuge, that, the highest refuge, that is the refuge, having gone to which, you gain release from all suffering and stress.”  Dhammapada, 188-192

The three refuges are the Buddha, the dhamma and the sangha.

The Buddha (Buddham saranam gacchami:  I go to the Buddha for refuge.)

There are three aspects of the Buddha:  the physical, the good practices that he followed, and the essence of his work (release from ignorance, craving, attachment, karma, and attaining awakening).  These are in ascending levels as the following comparison demonstrates:

“The sages of the past used the term ‘Buddha-ratana,’ comparing the Buddha to a jewel. Now, there are three sorts of jewels: artificial gems; gemstones, such as rubies or sapphires; and diamonds, which are held to be the highest. The aspects of the Buddha might be compared to these three sorts of jewels. To place confidence in the external aspect — the body of the Buddha or images made to represent him — is like dressing up with artificial gems. To show respect for the practices followed by the Buddha by giving rise to them within ourselves is like dressing up with rubies and sapphires. To reach the quality of deathlessness is like dressing in diamonds from head to toe.”

The Dhamma (Dhammam saranam gacchami:  I go to the Dhamma for refuge.)

The Dhamma, on the external level, refers to the path of practice the Buddha taught to his followers. This, in turn, is divided into three levels: the words of his teachings, the act of putting those teachings into practice, and the attainment of awakening as the result of that practice. This three-way division of the word “Dhamma” acts as a map showing how to take the external refuges and make them internal: learning about the teachings, using them to develop the qualities that the Buddha himself used to attain Awakening, and then realizing the same release from danger that he found in the quality of Deathlessness that we can touch within.

The Buddha’s teachings were written down over 500 years after his death.  The complete discourses of the Buddha are called the Tipitaka (three baskets) or the Pali Canon.  The Pali Canon is not a single-volume scripture, but an enormous set of scriptures containing as many as 84,000 textual units. The version in Thai script is conventionally printed in 45 volumes, signifying the 45 years of the Buddha’s ministry, with as many as 22,379 pages (in the Siamese official version) or approximately 24,300,000 letters.

The Dhamma is the teachings and we can take refuge in what it imparts to us by study and experience.  The first of teaching was the discourse called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta —Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion.  “Setting the Wheel in Motion” means that once insight has been transmitted, the influence of the dhamma has been inaugurated in the world.  The Buddha addressed five disciples after which one of whom, the monk Kondanna attained the first stage of awakening through this transmission.

The basic path is contained in the Four Noble Truths which includes the Eightfold Path.  These eight factors can be reduced to three categories — virtue, concentration, and discernment — called the middle way, the heart of the Buddha’s teachings

The Sangha (Sangham saranam gacchami:  I go to the Sangha for refuge.)

“The third refuge is sangha. During the Buddha’s lifetime he taught that the sangha—the community of monks and nuns—was an essential support on the path of spiritual awakening. Traditionally, sangha has meant all those walking the path of dharma, the path of spiritual freedom. They too woke up in the middle of the night feeling frightened and alone. They too felt the quaking fear of loss and the terrifying certainty of death. When we know that others before us have broken the painful patterns of fear, our faith that we too can awaken deepens. When we attend a meditation retreat, our fellow practitioners and teachers are the sangha that offers safety and support as we face our fear. As Buddhism has been integrated into the West, the meaning of sangha has come to include all our contemporaries who in various ways are consciously pursuing a path of awakening. We are held by sangha when we work individually with a therapist or healer, or when a close friend lets us be vulnerable and real. Taking refuge in the sangha reminds us that we are in good company: We belong with all those who long to awaken, with all those who seek the teachings and practices that lead to genuine peace.  Radical Acceptance (pp. 177-178)

How do you take refuge?

Taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha is an intention to follow the path. By reciting homage either in Pali or English, we are stating our intention.  The homage is repeated three times for clarity.  Pāḷi is the beautiful language of the early Buddhist scriptures. It is based on an Indian dialect that was spoken in the area where the Buddha did most of his teaching, and therefore must be very close to the language that the Buddha used during his 45 years of teaching.

Excerpts from The Decision to Become a Buddhist by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (Please read the whole article)

“By taking refuge, in some sense we become homeless refugees. Taking refuge does not mean saying that we are helpless and then handing all our problems over to somebody or something else. There will be no refugee rations, nor all kinds of security and dedicated help. The point of becoming a refugee is to give up our attachment to basic security. We have to give up our sense of home ground, which is illusory anyway. We might have a sense of home ground as where we were born and the way we look, but we don’t actually have any home, fundamentally speaking. There is actually no solid basis of security in one’s life. And because we don’t have any home ground, we are lost souls, so to speak. Basically we are completely lost and confused and, in some sense, pathetic.

These are the particular problems that provide the reference point from which we build the sense of becoming a Buddhist. Relating to being lost and confused, we are more open. We begin to see that in seeking security we can’t grasp onto anything; everything continually washes out and becomes shaky, constantly, all the time. And that is what is called life.

The discipline of taking refuge in the buddha, the dharma and the sangha is something more than a doctrinal or ritual thing: you are being physically infected with commitment to the buddhadharma; Buddhism is transmitted into your system. At that particular point, the energy, the power, and the blessing of basic sanity that has existed in the lineage for twenty-five hundred years, in an unbroken tradition and discipline from the time of Buddha, enters your system, and you finally become a full-fledged follower of buddhadharma. You are a living future buddha at that point.”

The Verses


(Introduction: preliminary homage)

Namô Tassa Bhagavatô Arahatô Sammâ-Sambuddhassa (3x)

(taking of the Three Refuges)


Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.

Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.

Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.


Dutiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.

Dutiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.

Dutiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.


Tatiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.

Tatiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.

Tatiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.


English Translation: The Three Refuges

Homage to the Triple Gems, Homage to Him, the Blessed One, the Exalted One, the Fully Enlightened One.

I go to the Buddha as my refuge.

I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.

I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.


For the second time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.

For the second time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.

For the second time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.


For the third time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.

For the third time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.

For the third time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.  Can you experience the benefits of taking refuge?  If you want to make an intention to follow the path, repeat the verses either in Pali or English.  It’s as simple as that.


  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice with concentration and mindfulness.

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