After typing yesterday's post, I took a book off the shelf that I'd been carrying around for 8 years and read this. I thought it was a nice bit of syncronicity.
In my tradition, taking refuge is the turning point, the official line you cross when you want to become a Buddhist. Why do we take refuge? We are looking for a source of protection –– protection from those things that might cause us to have a difficult time at death, and a difficult future life. Buddha Shakyamuni cannot reach down from somewhere and snatch us out of a rough spot, or lift us into a heavenly paradise. Only we can help ourselves. So how can we find a source of protection if we are ultimately responsible for ourselves? That source is within us: it is the material we have within us that can be turned into a Buddha, and the Dharma within us that is our own spiritual development. That is what helps us live everyday and what helps us in life after life.
–Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek, Good Life, Good Death