The Three Gems

A famous Buddhist prayer is known as the Three Gems:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

In everyday terms this means, "I take refuge in the spirit of the Buddha, in his teachings, and in the Buddhist community." I’ve always loved this prayer and, over the years, have often found myself silently repeating a Christianized version as I sit in my meeting.

Like many Quakers I’ve been discouraged by the direction the United States has been taking over the past several years. However, as events have unfolded and the United States has invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq, I’ve experienced a renewal of my activism, and an increased awareness that I have a role to play in defending democratic process. This has impacted my spiritual life, and my Quaker practice has deepened. Recently, as I sit in my meeting, I find myself silently repeating a version of the three gems that was quite different from anything that I contemplated in the past,

I take refuge in the Spirit.
I take refuge in the meeting.
I take refuge in democracy.

As I’ve reflected on this rewording, it has occurred to me that this Quaker version of the three gems may provide solace to those who ask how they will endure the difficult period that the United States and the world are passing through.

The notion of taking spiritual refuge is an ancient human tradition. At first this was physical refuge. A few years ago I saw the cave drawings at Font-de-Gaume, near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne valley in southwest France. Over 12,000 years ago, our ancient ancestors went deep into the Earth to find a place of sanctuary. They consecrated their retreat with mystical drawings.

Since the ministry of Jesus, Christians have treated their churches as places of refuge where, at least for a brief interval, they can separate themselves from the everyday world. No one who has visited the great cathedral at Chartres can escape the notion that it provided a special sanctuary for those who built it in the 12th century, and for all those who have worshiped there since. Within the Christian tradition, there is a related notion that churches and meetinghouses provide physical protection for those who must take refuge in times of crisis.

The idea of taking refuge is deeply embedded in religious tradition, the history of Christianity, and the practice of Friends. Yet, we do not often examine what we mean by this notion apart from the idea of physical sanctuary. I believe that there are three interlocking concepts.

Taking refuge in the Spirit is at the heart of Quaker practice. When Friends speak of seeking the Light, listening for the Inner Voice, they usually mean that they have a deep confidence that the Spirit speaks to them, individually. Early in Quaker history, Margaret Fell spoke movingly of individual revelation: "As you have received the Light from Christ Jesus, the fountain and fullness of all Light and Life, so abide in the Light, dwell in the Light, walk in the Light, have your being and habitation in the Light." However a believer arrives at one’s understanding of the Light, it is this concept—the notion that an individual can receive direct divine instruction—that distinguishes Quakers from many other Christians who believe that God, rather than speaking to individuals, speaks through the Bible or the Church in the form of ordained ministry. Describing this seminal belief of Friends, Rufus Jones observed, "The key that unlocks the door to the spiritual life belongs not to Peter, or some other person, as an official. It belongs to the individual soul, that finds the Light, that discovers the Truth, that sees the revelation of God and goes on living in the demonstration and power of it."

Because of our belief in individual revelation, Quakers find the Light or the Spirit as a source of continuing information and strength. Many of us believe that the Light helps us find our way in four somewhat different situations: when we are troubled, when we seek to do what is right, when we seek to know the truth, and when we seek inspiration.

Friends often talk of turning to the Spirit when they are beset by personal travail: for example, when there is a death of someone close, an illness, or a trying personal experience. We pray, meditate, or otherwise wait on the Light, which brings both instruction and nourishment.

Sometimes we are beset by a problem that is neither physical nor psychological, but moral: what should we do in a particular situation. Most of us encounter these concerns fairly frequently in our adult lives; for example, a loved one has cancer and is in a painful slide to death. We ask ourselves: Should we honor their request to bring a quick end to their suffering by stopping all forms of nutrition? Many Quaker men have faced a dilemma with regard to the draft. Should they cooperate with the military authorities or take the role of a conscientious objector? Should a woman have an abortion? We seek the Light when we face these or other moral travails.

Often in our lives we are challenged to know the truth. We are presented not with a moral dilemma, but with a life challenge. Which of various possibilities represents the truest choice for us? Which opportunity speaks to our authentic self? Again, we seek the Light when we are confronted with these dilemmas.

Finally, all artists need a source of inspiration. (I’m using artist in the broadest sense, meaning all those who seek to demonstrate their individual creativity, in whatever manner—from cooking and gardening to sculpture and architecture.) The creative process needs nourishment. When our inner artist is blocked, we can turn to the Light for a renewed sense of direction.

In my experience, taking refuge in the Spirit is a process that is available throughout the week, whenever we pray or meditate or take a break from the everyday world and ask for divine assistance. This notion of our continued access to the Spirit is referred to throughout the Bible, as in Psalm 71:1, "In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion.

Although the idea of taking refuge in the Spirit is widely shared among Friends, the notion of taking refuge in the meeting has, I think, somewhat less currency. Contemporary Friends often see their meetings as places they go to on Sundays, and then have little contact with other Friends during the rest of the week—unless, of course, they happen to be a member of the Ministry and Oversight Committee.

An important development in the Religious Society of Friends was the notion that the meeting serves as a psychological container for individual leadings. This mechanism was developed early in the history of the Religious Society when some Quaker leaders engaged in extreme acts; for example, John Perrot used his "pastoral" position to gain favor with women, in effect arguing, "The individual Friend should act according to his own leadings no matter what others may hold, even if one’s leadings are exactly the opposite of the agreement of Friends." This idiosyncratic religiosity verged on Christian anarchism; it took the Quaker mystical concept of direct experience of God—standing in the Light—to an extreme where it could be used to justify any individual behavior. In Perrot’s behavior, Quakerism careened toward Ranterism, the individualistic radical movement of the era.

In 1666, when Quaker leaders discussed this problem, there was no central structure guiding the various Friends meetings. In response, Quaker elders adopted the principle that the religious practice of individual Friends was subject to the overview of the monthly meeting. This has since become a central organizing theme of the Religious Society: In the words of Howard Brinton, "Individual guidance [is subordinated] to the sense of the meeting as a whole." The meeting serves a normative function with regard to the behavior of its members. "The Society of Friends escaped anarchism because its members realized that [the Inward] Light was a super individual Light, which created peace and unity among all persons who responded to it."

Contemporary Friends experience the guidance of the meeting in several different contexts. If we have a particular leading, we can take this to Ministry and Oversight; while this process is usually reserved for membership, marriage, and, during war times, draft counseling, any participant in meeting can request that a clearness committee be assembled to help them sort through a particular life challenge or transition. In my experience, I have asked for a clearness committee once or twice; and I have, quite often, gone to close friends within the meeting to seek counsel. I’ve always been deeply nourished by the support offered on these occasions.

Finally, there is the third of three gems— taking refuge in democracy. Based upon our belief that there is that of God in each participant, that the Spirit delivers Truth through diverse voices, Quakers are blessed with a vital form of democracy. We don’t talk about this very much, but it is one of the distinguishing features of our religious tradition. We practice both participatory democracy in our practical affairs in meetings for business, as well as spiritual democracy in our meetings for worship.

Political scientists make the distinction between two forms of democracy: participatory and representative. The former is the classic form of democracy practiced in the golden age of Athens, where all citizens deliberated and then voted. As large as the Roman Empire became, in its democratic period it still practiced participatory democracy when citizens assembled in the forum in Rome. In more recent times, representative democracy has become the Western norm, where citizens elect representatives who deliberate and vote for them in legislative bodies.

Quaker meeting for business is one of the few exercises in participatory democracy that most people in the United States can experience. (Other examples are New England town meetings and well-managed corporate "brain-storming" sessions.) Meeting for business exposes participants to the raw elements of democracy, and, usually, imbues them with a new appreciation of the vitality of the process. The Quaker form of participatory democracy has several distinctive elements. There is an emphasis on what might be termed "deep" equality, because we believe so strongly that each person carries that of God within, and we value individual input to collective decision making. For this reason, well-run meetings for business take great care to ensure that diverse views are heard and, most importantly, that each participant is treated with dignity.

Gandhi famously said about Satyagraha, the philosophy of the force of peace that is at the heart of his conception of nonviolence, that its essence is the notion that the process is as important as the product. In other words, the way we do things is as important as the results themselves. This can also be said about the Quaker form of consensus practiced in meeting for business and throughout the Religious Society of Friends. We seek true unity in our deliberations, not mere numerical majority or even unanimity. The underlying ethic of deep equality provides the spiritual impetus to care for our process; thus, we seek to unite, in our hearts, in common cause.

Because we take such care in our process, Quaker proceedings are notoriously—some would say maddeningly—slow. As one becomes familiar with the ways of Friends, one learns to live with this, and to trust that the sometimes tedious process will, in the end, result in a much better product than if matters had been rushed.

There is, I believe, a direct and indirect consequence of learning the Quaker process for reaching unity. The direct consequence is that many of us become skilled at facilitation and adept at mediation, which in the final analysis involves deep listening to all sides of a difficult issue. Because of these skills, Quakers are often sought out as trusted intermediaries.

The indirect consequence is that seasoned Friends, over time, become aware of the value of being part of a society that is open to everyone, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, rigidly disciplined or "loosely wrapped." The essence of our process is an understanding of the value inherent in deep listening to each member of our community. This, I believe, gives us a visceral appreciation for participatory democracy, as time and again we experience that an otherwise silent voice holds the key that unlocks our deliberation and brings us to unity.

One of the many blessings that we have as people in the United States is our participation in democracy. When we hear talk of voting irregularities, or dirty politics, it makes us fear for the continuance of the process that is so integral to the well-being of our country. Because of the tradition of Friends, our connection to the formation of the United States, and the vitality of our deep democracy, Quakers are in a unique position to comment upon and, in many instances, to help safeguard democracy in the United States. For many of us, this is, in fact, a spiritual process: we see ourselves caring for the sacred torch of freedom.

At the heart of Quaker practice lie these three gems. We take refuge in the Spirit, confident that we will be nourished and guided in good times and bad. We take refuge in the meeting, secure in the belief that we will be counseled and supported. Finally, we take refuge in democracy, not only with our trust in the wise process that guides the Religious Society of Friends, but in our faith that this is the best and fairest way to conduct human affairs, to find true wisdom, and to provide liberty and justice for all.

Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett is a writer, activist, and member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, Calif. FCNL published a pamphlet ,Finding Safety in an age of Terrorism, based on a speech by him on September 11, 2003. Some of his political articles may be found at