Tara Brach writes:
As a teacher I’m often asked: What does it mean in Buddhist practice when you agree to “take refuge” in the Buddha? Does this mean I need to worship the Buddha? Or pray to the Buddha? Isn’t this setting up the Buddha as “other” or some kind of god?
Traditionally, there are three fundamental refuges are where we can find genuine safety and peace, a sanctuary for our awakening heart and mind, a place to rest our human vulnerability. In their shelter, we can face and awaken from the trance of fear.
The first of these is the Buddha, or our own awakened nature. The second is the dharma (the path or the way), and the third is the sangha (the community of aspirants).
In the formal practice of Taking Refuge, we recite three times: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.” Yet, even though there is a formula, this is not an empty or mechanical ritual, but a practice meant to expand our understanding and intention.
With each repetition, we allow ourselves to open ever more deeply to the living experience behind the words. As we do, the practice leads to a profound deepening of our faith: The more fully we open to and inhabit each refuge, the more we trust our own heart and awareness. By taking refuge we learn to trust the unfolding of our lives.
via Taking refuge in the Buddha | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation.