What does the concept of safe harbor or refuge mean in Buddhism?
The notion of taking refuge in a faith is unique to Buddhism. Quite simply, the Buddha, his teachings under Dharma and the Sangha or Buddhist community – termed the Three Jewels in Buddhist scriptures – offer any seeker shelter from the woes of life. The concept is often explained using the analogy of illness with the Buddha as physician, Dharma as medicine and the Sangha as nurse. Taking this further, the individual seeking refuge is the patient – to get well, he/she must take the prescribed medicine, which means practicing the Buddha’s teachings.
At a deeper level, the idea of seeking safe harbor implies that the individual has a degree of understanding about life’s difficulties and suffering. Also, taking refuge doesn’t mean trying to escape from problems in one’s current life. Rather, it is about avoiding suffering in future lives and possibly releasing oneself from the endless cycle of rebirth.
Seeking refuge in the Buddha is about letting go of the shackles that hold us back from enlightenment. His teachings, through the principles of Dharma, show us how to develop and strengthen the inherent ability to release ourselves. The Sangha is a spiritual community that shares the desire to let go of suffering. Support, encouragement and shared experiences from its members helps one find the way out of pain and suffering. Seeking shelter in the Three Jewels is a serious commitment that is undertaken with vows.
Chief among these is the vow to never harm another sentient being.
Depending on varying traditions, other vows may include not killing, not stealing (in the sense of not taking what is not offered as well as not paying taxes), not indulging in sexual misconduct (adultery), not lying and not imbibing intoxicants (alcohol or any substance detracting from mental clarity).
In Buddhist philosophy, making this commitment leads to a steady accumulation of virtue as the individual lives out his time by upholding his vows.