It was much to my surprise, therefore, when in reading The Life of the Buddha, by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, based on the Pali canon, I found that the Buddha said at one point that one should take refuge in yourself and no one else. How does that gibe with the Three Jewels refuge?
The refuge was recited at the time of the Buddha. People did it spontaneously and then he instructed that people recite the refuge as part of the transmission of becoming a follower of the Buddha, “the going forth and admission.”
When he was older, however, and contemplating death, and when he heard of another teacher dying and being missed, he spoke about the way in which all things rise and fall, the impermanence of all things, and instructed his disciples; “Therefore, each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Dharma his island, the Dharma and no other his refuge.”
He was instructing that people should be aware that they have everything they need inside themselves to be at peace and happy and that the teachings are there to provide support and guidance. We are each our own Buddha, we have Buddha nature inside of us, and it is to that that we should look to for confirmation of the truths of the dharma. We should not look to authorities, such as the Buddha, and we should not even look to the sangha, since both are impermanent.
Thus, when we recite the Three Refuges, the first refuge, Buddha, is not, or not just, the historical Buddha, it is the Buddha nature that is within each of us. When we prostrate ourselves upon entering a zendo before the statue of the Buddha, we are not bowing to the statue, or even to the historical Buddha, we are bowing to the Buddha nature that is within us.
This is possibly one of the least known yet very important teachings of the Buddha. Our only salvation, the end to our suffering, comes from realizing the Buddha within us and taking refuge in it.