Taking Refuge (Part 1)

An Eastern Approach to Step Three

We made a decision to turn our will and our lives of God as we understood [God].
–Step Three of Alcoholics Anonymous

The 'Awakened Ones' in Buddhism tell us that despite the inevitability of suffering, we are not trapped. There is a path out of suffering to greater peace.

That path, in part, consists of "taking refuge," an Eastern view that corresponds with the third directive of AA–"turning our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand [God]." Taking refuge is a decision to look at meditation training and practice as our "shelter from the rain of problems and pain in life."

The practice of taking refuge has been an ongoing, straightforward practice in the Buddhist tradition for over 2,500 years. We decide to depend on it for the solace we once sought through drugs and alcohol, to let it be the safe harbor we seek in strife or storm. We commit wholeheartedly, realizing "half measures availed us nothing."

Like Step Three in Alcoholics Anonymous, taking refuge is active. We let go of our delusions of control, and instead turn toward three specific spiritual practices, called the "Three Treasures" in Buddhist literature:

Taking refuge in awakening ("buddha"): Taking refuge in buddha is a decision to wake up to our true self. Gautama Buddha, the individual on whose teachings Buddhism is based, called this essence our "buddha nature." He taught that our inner nature can be awakened, leading us to see the path of light and beauty in the world.

Taking refuge in the path of mindfulness, understanding, and love ("dharma"): We take refuge in the dharma when we abandon of addicted ways of "self-will run riot," and instead decide to study the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous and other spiritual teachings.

Taking refuge in community ("sangha"): The third treasure is our relationship with others: our family, friends, and the fellowship of the Twelve Step community. We decide to trust in people again, because we need their help to fully recover from our addictions and codependency.

Let's look more closely at the first of these "jewels"–taking refuge in awakening.

In the throes of addiction or raving codependency, we surely lose contact with our true nature. I believed that, in truth, I was defective. I came from a "bad" family. My father was often publicly drunk. And I made it worse by using drugs and driving my own health into the ground.

Taking refuge in awakening suggests that many of the self-critical or self-important beliefs we hold are simply overlays, clouding and distorting our conscious contact with the "mind in its fullness … obscuring the brilliant qualities of buddha nature, or natural mind." I think of a carnival, with a loud fun house filled with mirrors. First, you're fat. Then, you're thin. Then, you're tall. Then, you're short. In the fun house, we know it's a hoax. When it's our own inner voice, we believe it's the truth.

Taking refuge in our buddha nature doesn't mean we magically turn into a new, holy person. Rather, the process is one of remembering our true nature, recognizing our original face. The wise and kind Tenshin-roshi Reb Anderson, one of the teachers with whom I've had the pleasure to study, says "It’s not something special about you that makes you a 'buddha' (an awakened being). It’s simply being you that is buddha. It is not that you are a virtuous person, so virtuous that you're a buddha, but that being you is virtue."

When we take refuge in buddha, we are not giving ourselves over to a power "out there," separate from ourselves. In a radical turnabout from our addictions, we decide to trust that our deep inner nature is beautiful and true. Chinese and Vietnamese practitioners use the phrase, "I go back and rely on the buddha in myself." In Step Three, we choose to awaken our true self, opening to the light and beauty in us and the world."

Part 2: Taking refuge in dharma and sangha

Author photo of Therese Jacobs StewartThérèse Jacobs Stewart, M.A., L.P., has been a practicing psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and international consultant for more than 25 years. In 2004, she founded Mind Roads Meditation Center, a neighborhood practice center integrating contemplative practices from both East and West and home of the Saint Paul, Minnesota, chapter of 12-Steps and Mindfulness meetings. Her third book, A Kinder Voice, Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans, will be published by Hazelden in May.
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