The Theosophical Society in America

The Three Refuges

The View from Adyar

By Radha Burnier

Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2005 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Burnier, Radha. "The Three Refuges." Quest  93.6 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2005):225-227.

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The word "Buddha" not only refers to a historical figure of great spiritual eminence; it denotes a state of enlightenment, of boundless wisdom and love, and other spiritual attributes of the highest order. Such enlightenment or wakefulness transcends the normal state of human consciousness, and is entirely beyond its illusions, confusion, and self-created tensions. Without labeling ourselves as Buddhists or in any other way, we can all say "I take refuge in the Buddha," that is, the principle in enlightenment, knowing that the mind freed of its limited ideas and foolish desires, is awake to the truth of life.

Similarly, we can take refuge in the dhamma (Skt. dharma), a word that is difficult to translate. Let us say, in order to be simple, that it is the great cosmic order manifesting in everything that exists, and which give birth to a sense of beauty in the mind of humans. Taking refuge in the dharma means recognizing the wisdom teaching, a teaching that explains the pine natural order. This natural order exists at different levels. Ever since Newton's discovery, we have accepted that at the physical level there is a mutual attraction between all things that have mass, in proportion to the distance between them, the density, and so forth. This same law exists at other levels also, though we live without the knowledge of how it works at the psychological and spiritual levels. It expresses itself as the longing for love, which every creature experiences.

Every child needs love and thrives on the love that its mother pours upon it. It is like sunshine at an invisible level, helping inner growth. Every creature totally deprived of love becomes twisted inwardly. All creatures need not only to receive love, but to give it. In a shadowy form, it explains even the universal desire to be appreciated. No doubt there is egotism and vanity in that desire, but it is also a natural response to a person who sees the good within another. When someone is truly appreciative, supportive, and respectful of another person's goodness, vibrations are created in whose ambience there is inner expansion. Love is one of the most important factors in the progress of inpiduals.

Love is not a personal feeling, not sexual passion; in its purest sense, it is part of the natural order of the manifested universe. Therefore, even at the seemingly inert level of material objects, there is mutual attraction and a need to come together. According to the law of correspondences, it appears at a superior or deeper level as a need for relationship, friendship, or love. Does not the average good human being feel happy in giving a gift to another? The object that is given and received matters little. But the feeling which it is a symbol—wanting to give and not only to receive—does have value. It is the need for warm, harmonious, affectionate interaction. At the deepest spiritual level, it becomes pure love, a kind of radiance from within one's soul which does not ask for anything and which give spontaneously, without decision-making by the mind. It is a wonderful thing to take refuge in Law, especially the Law of Love.

Passing on to the third refuge of Buddhists—refuge in the sangha, or religious community—we again see a broader meaning. The sangha need not refer merely to a community of monks; there is another community of Holy Ones and Sages who are linked together in a brotherhood of love and wisdom that is never shaken. This brotherhood has been referred to in all the spiritual traditions of the world by different names. In theosophical literature its members are called Adepts, Mahatmas, Masters of the Wisdom, Elder Brothers, and so on.

They are indeed the elder brother of our humanity. Each of its members has gone through the struggles of the ordinary person in the world, a struggle which is basically one through which the pine human has to overcome the animal nature within. In The Mahatma Lettersit is said that an Adept becomeswhat he is; he does not come into existence in an arbitrary manner. In incarnation after incarnation the resistance of the different bodies—the physical, emotional, and mental—is broken down until the true inner inpidual, sometimes called the "wisdom self," triumphs and gains complete mastery of all the vehicles it uses. Hence the word "Master" refers to those who have reached a state of perfection, with no contradictions, illusions, or limitations clouding their consciousness.

This is not just fancy. It is only logical that as the evolutionary process steadily takes place over millennia, there are some who are ahead of others, just as in a flowing river some part of the water is nearer to the sea than the rest, although all will eventually reach the ocean. Those who are ahead know the difficulties of the spiritual path and have also valuable advice to give on how to proceed. By putting ourselves in tune with them we derive great benefit, for understanding does not necessarily come through words, but also through the development of finer faculties which harmonize us with all of life.

Taking refuge in the great brotherhood of sages does not mean that we become dependent on them or expect to receive favors. As we have already glimpsed into the universality of the cosmic order, we realize that inner progress takes place only when the right conditions are created for producing any given result. Hence, we do not ask any favors or seek rewards from the members of that holy brotherhood of realized human beings. Yet, by seeing ahead and recognizing the marvelous destiny that awaits every human being who conquered the selfish nature within and risen to a state of perfect love and wisdom, we uplift our own consciousness.

The three refuges thus provide guidelines to all people irrespective of their affiliation to a particular religious tradition or philosophy.