In an ancient Buddhist text, King Milinda asked: how someone of evil conduct could be saved by the Buddha simply on the grounds that he had taken refuge in him and had unwavering faith in him. The monk whom he had asked replied: “A stone, however small, will sink into the water, but even a stone weighing hundreds of tons, if put on a ship, will float.”
Saints teach that our soul is pure spirit, too subtle to be perceived by our senses. Its source is none other than the supreme creative energy, also known as Shabd.
For eons our soul has been moving from body to body, life after life, bound by karma, the fundamental law of cause and effect. Our soul reaps the consequences of all past-life actions, having been separated from its source for untold ages. Maharaj Charan Singh reiterates in Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III:
There is a block of karmas between the soul and the Father. That is why we are separated from the Father. That layer of karma doesn’t let the soul go back to the Father.
Through the ages we have become burdened with the effects and impressions from the many lives we have lived, but we are ignorant of the binding nature of the deeds we have committed.
In truth everything is moulded and determined by our karma. From the first moment we existed, those first steps and actions we took determined our destiny. And still we continue in our ignorance, moving from life to life, not knowing who and what we are, why we are here, and why we suffer.
This human condition is summarized thus in the book, Buddhism: Path to Nirvana:
We are caught in a snare of endless suffering. Yet we do not seek light. We have become so utterly blind and ignorant that we know not who we are, where we have come from or whither we have to go, although in our delusion, we may think of ourselves as intelligent and wise, able to work our way out. We are thus not only ignorant, but also ignorant of the fact that we are ignorant.
Mired in such ignorance, how can we fully comprehend the true imperishable reality which is our soul, this tiny drop lost in such a vast ocean of chaos?
According to the mystics, underlying everything we think we are is a deep, primal longing of the soul for union with its true source. Only when we fully understand this and are initiated by a true living Master, can we achieve this spiritual goal. Essentially, this is the only reason we are given a human birth and our only purpose for being here.
What we really want is to experience the sacred, the holy. However, we are still weighed down like the heavy stone the opening quote refers to. This stone sinks deep into the phenomenal world unless lifted up onto a safe ship and carried across to a far shore.
The ship’s helmsman, the Master, gives us the technique and tools to leave this world of false impressions. He connects us to him, taking us up into the safe ship of Shabd.
This weighty stone of endless lifetimes of accumulated karma that we have been carrying is easily lifted by him. Instead of sinking we begin, with his grace and love, to float to our place of refuge, our true destination, realizing that we are in actual fact a soul wrapped in our dense human covering.
Once we have been ‘saved’, we realize how crucial this is. But how and why is ‘taking refuge’ the only way to achieve it?
In Buddhist teachings there is the principle of taking refuge in the triple jewel –the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. For us this means taking refuge in the Master, in the path and in the sangat, our spiritual community. How do we accomplish this?
The term ‘taking refuge’ means to come under the protection of someone or to seek a safe haven or sanctuary. We need to remember that we are exiles from our true home, attempting to traverse this world, which threatens, tempts, delights and overwhelms us at every step.
Even if we wanted to, we cannot control our mind and its addiction to the senses. If we want safe passage on the long spiritual journey to our true home, we need to take refuge in one who can guide us and knows the way: the Master. Rumi is quoted in the book Essential Sufism, “Whoever travels without a guide needs two hundred years for a two-day journey.”
We think we are searching for God, but the mystics teach that in actual fact, the yearning for the divine comes from the Lord. The Lord draws us back into himself through his gift of a true living Master. Maharaj Charan Singh said: “We need the company of the mystics so that we can be filled with love and devotion for the Father, mystics who can lead us back to the level of the Father.”
Taking refuge refers to an attitude and approach to the path – it concerns how we manage the control of our minds; how well we hold and direct our attention towards the Master. We take refuge by remembering him and by practising obedience.
We need to implicitly follow his instructions. When refugees are given shelter they go humbly, and gratefully accept their circumstances. This should be our attitude when we take refuge in the Master and the teachings.
At the time of our initiation the Master, being pure Shabd, projects his Shabd form into us. He knows our weaknesses, our receptivity, and our capacity for spiritual experience. He is even more eager than we are for us to take refuge in him. In Spiritual Perspectives we read that “… we will only get when and what he wants us to get, but we must make the effort by doing the spiritual practice.”
Taking refuge in the Master is to remember him throughout the day, leaning inwards by means of simran to feel his presence within and by holding him foremost in our mind with absolute focus during meditation.
But what if we fail in meditation? He says: ‘Bring me your failures’. So we bring him our failures and take his refuge.
And we take refuge in the dharma, which in our case is the teachings, the Sant Mat way of life. We take refuge in the dharma by adhering to the principles of our path.
The teachings of the Saints are simple. There is one Creator or Lord. The way to find the Lord is within our own bodies. We need a true Master to show us the technique of meditation that will connect us to the Shabd. Spiritual practice must become an integral part of our life – it is meditation that fosters our faith. To take refuge in the teachings means we must uphold the four principles which we have promised to obey, the most important of which is daily practice of meditation.
The sole purpose of this path is to return to our true spiritual home. Meditation is our redeemer. Ultimately, this is our refuge from the dangers within ourselves: the depredations caused through superfluous thinking. In time and with his grace, we comprehend: the less I am, the more he is. And we take refuge in him.
When we take refuge in the third jewel, the sangat, we receive strength and encouragement to persevere with our practice through being in the company of like-minded people. Doing seva along with each other we build an atmosphere of love, harmony and remembrance of the Master and the Lord. Seva is an opportunity to consider the divine in each of us. This is how the Master sees us. He never exposes our faults and shortcomings. The sangat is a community in which we can all take refuge by treating each other with love, tolerance and forgiveness.
Our helmsman awaits us – his compass is truth. We have been lifted aboard his ship of Shabd, our karmas safely stored in the hold. The wind is high and the tide is right. Let’s take refuge with him – our destination, home!