The First Jewel: The Buddha
The Buddha was both a man and a symbol. When you take refuge in the Buddha, you bow in respect to what this man accomplished in his lifetime. When you take refuge in the Buddha, you also bow to what he represents — your awakened nature. The Buddha's example can be a raft that carries you across the river of samsara. He can show you a path, but he cannot walk it for you. In this way, Buddha is neither a god nor a saint. “Role model” may be a better way to think of the Buddha.
Some people, especially in traditional Buddhist cultures, may look to Buddha as a source of salvation. In Tibet he is referred to as Lord Buddha. In the West, however, he is more the hero of an epic story of sacrifice and deliverance from greed, hatred, and delusion. He had everything, then nothing before finding the Middle Way. Through his voluminous teaching over a long career, he has left a detailed path that any interested party can follow. He left a repertoire of methods that can lead to liberation. He was a great yogi and represents the potential for radical transformation, from a life of suffering to a life of liberation.
In the Razor's Edge, W. Somerset Maugham tells the story of Larry Daryl, a modern-day Buddha-like figure who sacrificed wealth and privilege to find a spiritual truth. Maugham says, “He's not famous. It may be that when his life at last comes to end he will leave no greater trace of his sojourn on this earth than a stone thrown in a river leaves on the surface of the water. Yet it may be the way of life he has chosen for himself may have an ever growing influence over his fellow men so that long after his death, perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age, a very remarkable creature.”
The Buddha is famous, of course, and he was a “very remarkable creature” whose sacrifices, insights, and lessons provide a way for every human being to attain a meaningful and lasting happiness, free from suffering. The Buddha might have dwelled in obscurity like Larry Daryl, yet he decided to share his insights with anyone willing to listen. By doing so, he revolutionized humanity and the potential for transformation, compassion, and happiness.
Buddha-nature — the buddha within everyone — is not created but rather revealed. It is present now, but perhaps obscured by your stories of desire and aversion. Buddha-nature is not made; it is not a destination. It is here right now. The Buddha showed humanity this potential.
Practicing the Buddhist path will help to make this buddha-nature accessible and clear. You will go through similar trials as the Buddha did if you commit yourself to these practices. This path is challenging; but anything worthwhile is. When you are struggling to keep yourself on the cushion, you can imagine the Buddha confronting the temptations of Mara, sitting steadfast and resolute. This image can inspire you to keep sitting. If Siddhartha could do it, you can do it! This is what it means to take refuge in the Buddha.
The fat and happy “Buddha” you've seen in Chinese restaurants is not Siddhartha Gautama, Shakyamuni Buddha. He is Budai in China or Hotei in Japan. He is often depicted smiling and laughing. He is more of a folklore figure, but is often mistaken for the historical Buddha.
The Buddha does not ask you to believe in him or to pray to him. Any peace of mind that comes to you comes from your own effort and not divine intervention. He shows you a path that you are free to take all on your own. Buddha is empirical, meaning subject to experimentation and also referring to the information coming from your own experience. There is no blind allegiance; there is only practice. It's as if all Buddhists are from the state of Missouri with its state proclamation: “Show me!”
See for yourself: You, too, can take refuge in the Buddha.
Bearing in mind the Buddha's caution to avoid people claiming to be “enlightened,” taking refuge in the Buddha can also mean finding an appropriate teacher. You might know of a Buddhist who is qualified to teach you the dharma in your community or at special dharma centers around the country. Find yourself a teacher who embodies the teachings of the Buddha. When you find a living Buddha, you witness the compassion and lovingkindness that is possible.