So what are these "Refuges" we take to call ourselves Buddhists? What do they mean? In Pragmatic Buddhism we phrase the Refuges this way:
I take refuge in the Buddha, the consummating personal element, our inborn contentment.
I take refuge in the Sangha, the consummating social element, our family and friends who support us.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the consummating methods and teachings, our dedication to lifelong learning.
This still doesn't tell us what they mean though. Are we calling on Buddha - and Sangha and Dharma - to save us?
No. Of course not. Let's first look at the word refuge itself. The English word comes from the Latin "to flee back" and refers to a place of shelter. The Sanskrit word "saranam" actually means the same thing though it can also have the connotation of surrender - not in the sense of a conflict but in the sense of giving yourself over to someone or something else. A refuge is a place that you go for a time of calm in a turbulent situation. A safe harbor in a flood. A refuge doesn't do away with the turbulent time or turn back the flood but only allows you the time to gather yourself to face it again. This is an important distinction.
Buddhism is not a religion that offers salvation. No deity is going to free you from suffering. No god is going to bring you back to life in a heavenly kingdom...or at least we live as though this were not going to happen. Much in not only Pragmatic Buddhism but Classical Buddhism as well is not built around statements of absolutes but around advice to live "as if" unprovable assertions are indeed false. Buddhism is a religion - or philosophy if you prefer - of action not belief. This is reflected in the Refuges as well.
When we become Buddhists - and when we repeat the Refuges daily as many of us do - notice that we're not expressing belief in anything at all, we're stating the action that we're going to take. The Refuges are not a creed that one has to believe to be a Buddhist but an action plan. A map for how we are going to deal with storms and suffering in our lives. Buddha does not reach out to offer refuge, we go for refuge to his example. The Dharma is not a sacred text revealing secrets to us but a guidebook for how we should act. The Sangha is not a holy circle that evil will never breach but a collection of travelers banding together for mutual support.
Pragmatic Buddhism takes this a step further by adding descriptions to what we're taking refuge in. We take refuge not just in the historical example of Gautama Buddha but in the Buddha Nature within each of us. We take refuge not just in some specific set of scriptures but in the act of learning and inquiry itself. We take refuge in every person who walks the Buddha Way with us.
None of this absolves us from taking responsibility for our own actions - or inactions. Remember these are not abstract beliefs but concrete declarations. When I am tossed about by the storms of life I WILL settle myself in the stillness of the fact that I have the same attributes as Gautama Buddha. I WILL look for ways out of suffering and strife by diligent study and action and I WILL surround myself with those who will help me even as I help them. Until you commit to action you have not taken the Refuges.