On Refuge

“Even if you cannot gain concentration, at least you can be mindful. If you are always mindful you may gain concentration. But whether you do or not, perpetual mindfulness is the remedy against depression. If you are always mindful, even when tired or disinclined, you will have no regrets. This is your final refuge; and it cannot fail; but it is not achieved without perpetual effort, and perpetual effort is not easy. Unless you determine on this effort you are lost. This is written in fair weather: read it in foul.”

– Ven. Nanavira Thera

The American Heritage® Dictionary defines refuge as:

  1. Protection or shelter, as from danger or hardship.
  2. A place providing protection or shelter.
  3. A source of help, relief, or comfort in times of trouble.

From the Dhammapada 188-192 [translated by Gil Fronsdal]:

People threatened by fear

    Go to many refuges:

To mountains, forests,

    Parks, trees, and shrines.

None of these is a secure refuge;

    None is a supreme refuge.

Not by going to such a refuge

    Is one released from all suffering.

But when someone going for refuge

    To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Sees, with right insight,

    The Four Noble Truths:


        The arising of suffering,

        The overcoming of suffering,

        And the Eightfold Path

        Leading to the ending of suffering,

Then this is the secure refuge;

    This is the supreme refuge.

By going to such a refuge

    One is released from all suffering.

Joseph Goldstein says in his book One Dharma, “…in their deeper meaning, the refuges always point back to our own actions and mind states. Although there may be many false starts and dead ends as we begin our journey, if our interest is sincere, we soon make a life-changing discovery: what we are seeking is within us.

“In Buddhism, refuge is a metaphor for wakefulness or presence. It is reminder of the basic orientation in Buddhist practice, namely, that suffering comes to end only through being awake and present. … Another way to think about refuge is that you become a refugee. A refugee is someone who leaves a country or homeland because life is no longer tenable there. When you take refuge, you are acknowledging that a life based on habituated patterns is no longer tenable for you. You are prepared to set out into the mystery and rely on awareness, wherever it may lead you.”

                                                                            — Ken McLeod