For many years I did not understand how anyone could take refuge in the Buddha. Taking refuge in Dhamma I could understand, as I could see Dhamma printed in Pali texts, and could hear it when it was recited, or when taught by a meditation instructor—or could practice it, and see others practicing it. Also, I could understand taking refuge in the Sangha; I might not be sure if this or that person was a member of the Ariya Sangha (the ranks of those who have at least glimpsed enlightenment), but at least I could take refuge in the community of monks, especially the wise ones. But taking refuge in the Buddha made little sense to me.
For one thing, the man has been dead for approximately 25 centuries. He is presumably not continuing to be reborn in Samsara, and thus is not even in a heaven realm right now. And according to orthodox Theravada, only the present moment is real; the past no longer exists. So taking refuge in the Buddha would be essentially taking refuge in somebody who no longer exists, who just doesn't exist.
But let's assume that the Abhidhamma philosophy is mistaken on the issue of time, and that the past, in its own way, is just as real as the present (which is a theory I am inclined to accept anyhow). If so, then the Buddha still exists in a way…but I have never met the man, have never seen him, have never heard his voice, and simply do not know him. I don't even know what he looked like, since there are no uncontroversial photographs of him of course, and the statues and paintings all look different from each other. Even the similarities in the images are not reliable, since I consider it unlikely that, for example, the Buddha had a large knob on the top of his head. Plus he was a monk, and probably shaved his head; plus he was an Indian man, and if he had hair on his head, he very probably had hair on his face too.
The situation is reminiscent of a Sutta in which the Buddha makes fun of monotheists who adore a god they've never encountered. He compares them to a man madly in love with the most beautiful woman in the world, yet he's never met her and has no idea what she even looks like, much less what her personality is like. Taking refuge in the Buddha struck me as a rather similar case.
To complicate matters, the details of his life story, and also what he actually taught, are obscured by centuries of accumulated legends, mythology, and editorial tinkering with the texts by ancient monkly editors. The whole story of his having been a royal prince, for example, is likely to be an unlikelihood, since the historians claim that the city-state of Kapilavatthu was a kind of oligarchic republic, governed by a quasi-democratic council of aristocrats or high-status elders. It is very difficult to know, perhaps impossible to know, what the Buddha was really like, or even precisely what he taught, even if he, and the past in general, actually exist somehow. Taking refuge in the Buddha seemed like taking refuge in a ghost, or in a guess, or in a figment of an unenlightened imagination.
Some Mahayana Buddhists have an easier time of taking refuge in Buddha, since many of them consider the Buddha to be a kind of God presently living in some kind of high heaven realm, and not only take refuge in him but pray to him also, rather like Christians adoring and praying to Jesus, God the Son, sitting on the Throne of Glory in Heaven, surrounded by hosts of worshiping angels. But for Theravadins the Buddha was a man who attained Nibbana, i.e. complete enlightenment, and so no longer exists in this or any other world. He has blown out, like an extinguished flame.
It is true that many Theravada Buddhists also not only worship the Buddha, but pray to him also. I once knew a Burmese doctor who prayed to the Buddha frequently. I asked him why he prayed to the Buddha, since the Buddha no longer exists and couldn't hear him, and he replied that Lord Buddha could look into his future (our present) and see the fellow praying. But, technically, even a fully enlightened Buddha cannot see into the future, since technically the future just doesn't exist yet; the best he could do is to predict that the good Burmese doctor would exist, and would pray to him, and also predict what he would most likely pray for. The whole idea of taking refuge in Buddha (let alone praying to him) struck me as a kind of emotional, devotional thing, largely based on religious sloppy thinking.
One idea that would occasionally, momentarily arise is that we take refuge in the Buddha by honoring and trying to follow what he taught—but of course that's Dhamma, the second refuge, not the first. So that doesn't work. Being a Westerner who thinks too much and doesn't just follow along with what other people are doing, I couldn't make sense of the situation.
Then, just a few years ago, during my attempted reentry into American society (i.e. after I had been a monk for more than twenty years), it occurred to me that I could take refuge in the Buddha by taking refuge in the very idea that a human being can become enlightened. The Buddha represents the possibility of enlightenment, "in the present way of things," in this very life.
I think some Buddhists have done Buddhism a great disservice by practically deifying the Buddha, turning him into a kind of manifestly superhuman being. It is human nature to glorify our objects of respect and magnify them into something as adorable as possible, so this is very understandable; but one of the most important things the Buddha taught (and probably what Jesus taught also) is thereby de-emphasized—he taught, essentially, "I am a human being, and I attained this state, so you as human beings can do it too. You can be like me if you really want to." Even the Theravada Buddhists, though constrained to admit that Gotama Buddha was a specimen of Homo sapiens, have bestowed upon him not only great superhuman psychic accomplishments but also some very strange physical traits that set him very much apart from the rest of the human race, for instance a claimed physical height of seven or eight meters. (On the other hand, although I consider it a mistake to deify the Buddha, I also consider it to be a mistake, very probably a much bigger one, to follow a common Western academic approach and degrade the Buddha into little more than a brilliant, charismatic, and humanistic social reformer, with "enlightenment" being either a relative term or a quaint Indian myth. Using monotheistic mystical jargon, an enlightened being has merged his or her spirit with the Spirit of God, or Reality, even though he or she as an individual being is a person, not a deity.)
So the Buddha, in addition to being a quasi-historical figure and the founder of my "religion," is for me a shining example of the possibility of enlightenment. What he taught to help others become enlightened also, or at least to get as close to that state as possible, is Dhamma, the second refuge. And all the people (and other beings) who sincerely try to follow his instructions for the sake of this enlightenment (or at least for getting as close to it as possible) are the Sangha. If you have other interpretations that work for you, that's fine. But if you do take refuge in the Three Treasures I suggest that you think carefully about what you are taking refuge in. "Religious sloppy thinking" may help you to feel good, and give you a feeling of satisfaction, but it may keep you at the level of taking refuge in a figment of an unenlightened imagination. And, as I've already mentioned, that never made sense to me. Although, in a sense, this entire world is a figment of our imagination.