When faced with the suffering of civil war or natural disaster, many people seek refuge in Australia. Today, there are many government-assisted safe haven programs throughout Australia that have come to the help of those who need assistance. However, what does a refuge really mean? In the legal context of international human rights law, a refuge is typically a country or region that is outside of an independent international legal system and that offers a state of refuge to displaced persons. Such a zone may be created for political or economic reasons, but has the same effect as a prison. The protection offered to displaced people is not limited to national security issues, but also covers the violation of human rights by others.
The major focus of this legislation is the safety of the individual, to be granted a safe place to live and work. In the case of domestic abuse, a person may be offered a refuge from such harm by a government agency or non-government organization that specializes in the protection of women and children. There are several agencies that provide this service across the country. However, they all operate on similar principles of offering refuges to victims of domestic abuse, and of protecting the victim and ensuring she is able to safely return to her home country. They also provide information on other services that might be available to victims in their home country, if the need arose.
The term “refuge” can also refer to giving up an abusive situation. In this context, however, it normally indicates an official sanctuary from physical harm, rather than temporary protection or safety. For example, when a person who is being harassed takes refuge at a sangha, this is seen as a renaming or a profession of trust, and not a mere refuge. Similarly, when a person taking refuge at the Australian embassy or consulate is being abused physically, or subjected to other severe acts of violence, this is normally considered a renaming or profession of trust, rather than a mere refuge. Of course, it could be argued that both of these situations – refuge and renaming – actually exist in some cases, but the point is that such actions do not amount to “taking refuge in the example of dharma”.
In taking refuge in dharma, on the other hand, victims make a clear commitment to stand up to violence and abuse, whatever form it takes. This is because they understand that their well-being lies at the bottom of the entire structure of dharma. It is through their participation in dharma that they become aware that they have a responsibility for ending violence and other abuses in the world, and thus becoming responsible for themselves, and those they will come in contact with.
In looking at the concept of taking refuge in dharma, we also need to look at how the concept applies to today’s world, where there is much more violence and sexual harassment than in the two thousand and two hundred years before. There are many more crimes in the United States, for example, than in the whole history of the world, including the slave trade and the Jim Crow laws. And while sexual harassment is on the decline in the United States as a whole, it has been on the rise in certain areas (like Los Angeles). A person who lives in a patriarchal society, or who faces daily gender discrimination, is literally taking refuge in dharma in order to protect him/herself and others from violence. This is not “relying” on anyone else, which is an essential feature of taking refuge in dharma. And it’s important to note that the phrase “relying on your own knowledge” was not used in the twelfth century to describe taking refuge in dharma.
As you can see, the concept of taking refuge in dharma doesn’t really exist in the twenty-five hundred years that modern society has advanced. It exists primarily in premodern cultures, especially those where domestic violence is the primary social norm. We need to ask ourselves if we’re really taking refuge in dharma from ourselves and our environment, or in our fellow beings, and this can be an important question to ask all over the world.