The Open Heart Project is designed to help you find your unique path with meditation as a support. Whether you are a Christian, Jew, Atheist, or none of the above, meditation provides a powerful foundation from which to explore your world. No one has to be (or pretend to be) a Buddhist to receive this support.
However, sometimes members of the OHP ask me questions about Buddhism, which I love. One of the more regular questions I get is, “What does it mean to become a Buddhist? How do you actually do that?”
When someone decides to become Buddhist, it is called “taking refuge.” (I remember the first time I heard that phrase—more than 15 years ago—and my reaction was to burst into tears. Refuge? There really was such a thing? Bring it.) As it was explained to me, taking refuge is not so much about giving up freedom but about giving up chaos. We spend so much time trying this or that approach to solve our problems and we end up rushing from shiny new possible solution to shiny new possible solution. Committing to the Buddhist path (or any path) means you get to stop running hither and yon. You can relax. There is a Way—however, especially in Buddhism, you are required to bring your own intelligence and personal style into the mix. Yes, the path is 2500 years old and brilliantly laid out, but you still have to make it your own by testing the teachings out against your own experience. What is corroborated, you are invited to keep. What is not, you are invited to leave aside.
There is something very freeing in selecting a proscribed path. It is like finally moving into your own house rather than couch surfing. Sure, there’s a kind of freedom in not having your own domicile, but there’s also a lot of confusion. Your focus has to be on things like, “Where am I sleeping tonight” and “I can’t remember—did I brush my teeth today?” rather than creating your own environment, stabilizing it, and continually beautifying it. When you get your own place, you finally have the freedom to express yourself and build your life as you see fit. Taking refuge, you say to yourself and the world: my home is with the Buddhadharma.
In becoming a Buddhist, you take refuge in three things: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, or community.
Taking refuge in the Buddha is not like taking refuge in a god or in anything outside of yourself. The Buddha was an ordinary being like you and me who was committed to attaining complete enlightenment—and did. We could do this too, exactly as he did. We each have this potential, every single one of us, because we possess this enlightened nature already. So taking refuge in the Buddha, we take refuge in our own brilliance.
Next, we take refuge in the dharma, or the truth. In one sense, we find refuge in the extraordinary and brilliant teachings that have been handed down by the extraordinary and brilliant teachers who have taught Buddhism over the millennia, but beyond this, we take refuge in the truth itself, in the fact that wisdom exists and it is real and available to us.
Finally, we take refuge in the sangha, or community. Usually, when you take refuge it is within a certain community, be it a Zen, Vipassana, Shambhala, Karma Kagyu, or another lineage. There are many. This particular sangha is a refuge because it provides ap place to receive teachings, fellow students to grow and practice with, and encounters both supportive and confusing that serve as a mirror for our growth. However, we also take refuge in the world as our community. We are citizens of planet earth and as such we have a role to play, something to offer, a specific place.
Taking refuge is an incredible step, akin to marriage. Like marriage, it is a ritual best undertaken as an acknowledgement of something that has already taken place. So if you ever wonder, “should I?” Ask yourself: “in my heart, have I already?” If the answer is yes, then by all means, take refuge.
If you would like to learn meditation, please sign up for The Open Heart Project, a burgeoning online community of nearly 4500 awesome and wonderful practitioners.