Kalu Rinpoche Teaching on Refuge

NOTE: Kalu Rinpoche was one of the great contemporary masters of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This article was taken from a teaching given at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra on the weekend of October 24, 1986. Translated by an excellent translator, Lama Yeshe Gyamtso and edited by Krista Schwimmer. We do not usually post teachings this long as blog posts, but we felt this one was appropriate since it is of such interest to our students.

This will be a discussion of the refuge ceremony, with which some of the older students will already be quite familiar. Still, for those who have not taken the refuge vow or have not had any involvement in the Buddhist path, there is bound to be some question as to what “refuge” is, or what “going for refuge” means–what is the benefit of such a vow and what does it involve? Since people have different levels of understanding, Rinpoche will give a very general explanation. Hopefully, this will bring greater understanding to those already acquainted with the Buddhist path, and a basic understanding to those who are new to it.

Given our situation as Tibetans, the question of refuge and of refugees could seem rather ironic. People may wonder, “What are these people talking about? They are actually the refugees! This does not really apply to us; after all, this is a very rich and powerful nation and we already have everything we could possibly want. Why do we need to take refuge?” But we are not merely speaking about the literal sense of refuge, in terms of a general or worldly protection. Instead, we are concerned with certain existential realities that confront us, and which will continue to confront us.

We all try our best to hide those issues and pretend that we are not aware of them, but no matter what we do in the mundane world, however popular we may be and whatever credentials we may have, certain problems and confusions will continue to confront us. Nor will these confusions be remedied by our ordinary intelligence, our ordinary ability to know and make interpretations of the world. It is possible for us to live our lives quite busily, to constantly experience a flurry of activity, but in the end we must face the fact that it did not bring any lasting meaning or purpose. At that point, all we are left with is a tremendous sense of regret and loss. As death nears, we may begin to feel alone and helpless, but desiring protection and guidance at that time will not help. It is important that we make preparations while there is time and while conditions are favorable.

With this in mind, taking refuge is the beginning of the sane spiritual path. This path offers not only the possibility but the reality of cutting through and transforming our limitations, negative patterns, and confusion. So when we “take refuge, ” we make a genuine link with the path leading towards the experience of sanity. And sanity, in this context, means liberation from the actual and potential confusion and sufferings that beings experience.

As human beings we generally feel some need for protection and seek stability in some form of refuge. Unfortunately there is much ignorance, confusion, and lack of understanding as to what forms would actually serve us best. There may be a particular mountain that seems very stable, a particular lake that seems comforting, or a particular tree that seems to be different or unique, and because these things seem indestructible and beautiful, they may seem to possess that security we seek. We may therefore believe these to be suitable objects of refuge. Of course, they cannot provide any real protection, and we will only become dissatisfied and resort to old habits of paranoia and confusion.

There are others who turn to the evil beings or spirits that inhabit the world around them, assuming that they possess power. By seeking the protection of these forces and relating to them, these people hope these spirits will become friendly and assist them. They view power as a source of protective and beneficial shelter; yet, with evil forces there is no certainty, except that there will be evil consequences. It is like putting your hand in the fire–what results do you expect? Attachment also plays a role in our misguided search, because it is easy to view our attachments as sources of security. For instance, by calling forth a dead relative or ancestor, we may hope that the relationship we had with them will cause them to protect and aid us. This is obviously of very little value.

The point is that everyone senses the need for a form of refuge, either because of attachments or because of some need of power and a feeling of helplessness. As human beings we are so dependent on our surroundings that we feel the need of some form of protection and security, and yet we do not exactly know how to procure this for ourselves. Therefore, we indulge in these different solutions, but to no avail.

It is unfortunate that people seek protection and refuge in these ways. Not only are these objects of refuge inappropriate, they are potentially harmful as well. In order to propitiate these forces, one may mistakenly believe that it is necessary and desirable to make many blood sacrifices and offer the flesh and blood of other beings. Sadly, these confused and harmful notions are widely held in many parts of the world.

People fail to realize that the negative experiences they go through, no matter how confusing or painful, result from their own habitual, negative patterns. In addition, if one chooses to indulge in further harm to others and to oneself, one will intensify existing harmful patterns and tendencies, and increase the serious consequences. This is simply common sense. Therefore, discerning the proper path, the proper objects of refuge, and the proper examples of sanity is clearly very important.

A few wise, intelligent people may have some insight into the experience of sanity and wakefulness, and into the reversal of the patterns of confusion. Looking up to these men or women, we may seek refuge in their teachings. Still, beings relate to things in different ways and on different levels. The teachings and the profound examples they use may be similar to Buddhist teachings, but their attitudes and motivations will greatly differ. Some people are so completely concerned with their own experience that they relate to profound examples of sanity and wakefulness for the sole purpose of their own personal liberation. Without a greater vision or a more spacious motivation, the benefit is also limited. Although such a person may experience some degree of self-liberation, they will lack the depth and ability to adapt or extend the situation of liberation and inspiration to others. Thus, in a very real way these gains are selfish and tainted. The inspiration these examples could have provided, the abilities that could have been developed, are much more profound and all-encompassing than what has been achieved in such a case.

As we have seen, in our search for security there are many possible mistakes we could make and sidetracks on which we could be stuck. In addition, even if we are able to relate to the proper examples and the proper path, there are many limitations which may occur. For this reason, we will now discuss the Buddhist understanding of refuge. This will be done from the perspective of the Mahayana tradition, the tradition of the “greater vehicle.”

The first point of discussion will be on the misfortune of not having had the opportunity or desire to take refuge. In such cases, one has been deprived of the inspiration of proper and perfect examples. In the mundane world, beings are constantly being born, only to die over and over, in fortunate and unfortunate circumstances. All beings are subject to rebirth because of the habitual patterns they have built up. Sometimes we experience less confusion and are able to involve ourselves in limited wholesome activities and attitudes, which then produce beneficial situations for ourselves. And sometimes we experience extreme confusion and paranoia. By indulging further and further, we strengthen our existing habitual patterns. As a result of this, we go through great psychological and physical pain and frustration.

We are continuously captured and bound by the chain of samsaric existence, experiencing the fluctuations of favorable and unfavorable conditions. It is mainly a question of intensity of the ever-present paranoia. And this is precisely because we have not been able to relate to the proper examples or integrate the skillful means of a proper path towards sanity and awakening. Even when we have done something wholesome and have generated some benefit for ourselves, the resulting favorable circumstances do not last and are of no permanent benefit to us.

This is best illustrated by pouring something into a pot without a bottom. However fresh and good the ingredients you pour in, no matter how much you pour in, there will only be the momentary satisfaction of the pouring, because such a vessel will not retain its contents. Nothing beneficial will come of the good you have achieved, because–like the pot–you lack a foundation. This could also be compared to the sowing of seeds. In order to have a fruitful crop, first there must be rich, fertile soil, and then whatever is sown will not be wasted. In our own situation, not being able to relate to the proper objects of refuge is like pouring ingredients into a bottomless pot or sowing seeds in infertile ground. Wandering in confusion, our habitual patterns become heavier and heavier. Consequently, the paranoia and suffering become more intense. That is the misfortune of not having taken refuge or of not having related to proper examples of sanity and awakening.

The second point of discussion will be the benefit of committing oneself to the proper path, and of following the examples of the awakened objects of refuge. To begin with, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, the embodiments of awakened compassion, were ordinary beings exactly like ourselves. They were not higher or better than us, nor did they possess superior qualities that we lack. But by taking advantage of the opportunity to relate to the proper examples, and by sincerely committing themselves to the path that offers tremendous inspiration and encouragement, they became, in time, liberated beings. As a result of their accomplishment, they were able to benefit immeasurable beings with skillful means.

In the same way, we have the opportunity to free ourselves from the chain of cyclic existence by relating to the proper path and the proper examples, just as the Buddhas and bodhisattvas once did. The methods they used are as fresh and as relevant as they were in the past. Once we relate to these proper sources of refuge, then whatever spiritual practices we perform will be meaningful. We become like fertile ground, because there is the possibility and certainty of producing flourishing deeds. Like a pot with a complete bottom, we have the capability of reaching our full potential, because whatever is poured in is retained, even if it is only a drop at a time.

There may be differences in our individual capacities for understanding. But, by laying the proper foundations, we are bound to experience the fruit of the practices we undertake. Once there is a solid foundation, all benefits are retained. In addition, by committing oneself to the Buddhist path one has the opportunity to fully utilize many skillful spiritual means and methods–first by understanding them and then by properly applying them. There are also different levels of the teachings, transmissions, and empowerments that one could receive, but unless one has been able to relate to the awakened objects of refuge, one does not have the ground for such relationships. The same is true if one desires to practice the bodhisattva ideals: the practice of loving-kindness and compassion, the development of the enlightened mind, and the vow to work for the liberation of beings. It cannot be done without the appropriate foundations. One may have good intentions, but not all good intentions are realistic or practical.

As one makes progress in the Mahayana, or bodhisattva path, there exists the possibility of being able to utilize the more advanced practices of Buddhism, the tantric or Vajrayana practices. But even if one sincerely desires to learn about the application of such practices, again, one must first have the proper grounding to be able to fully appreciate and integrate them. Otherwise, it would be like trying to grasp space, which would be quite useless.

In short, these are the benefits of taking refuge, of relating to the awakened examples of sanity, and of seeking awakening for oneself and others. Hopefully we have conveyed some of the importance of seeking involvement with the Dharma.

Since we have discussed some of the possible sidetracks and misconceptions prevalent in the search for security, now we will briefly examine the awakened objects of refuge that are appropriate for our commitment. The awakened objects of the refuge are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the Awakened One; the Dharma, the teachings of the Awakened One; and the Sangha, the assemblage of spiritual friends or teachers who have preserved the unbroken line of the Dharma. These objects are also known as the Three Jewels.

The Buddha signifies complete liberation, complete awakening. As was explained earlier, the historical Buddha was an ordinary being like any one of us. He was only able to attain enlightenment by relating to the correct examples of awakening and strenuously practicing the Dharma. It was not something that just spontaneously happened. Therefore, he is a sign for all of us that it can be done. This is why we relate to the Buddhas as the ultimate objects of refuge and inspiration. Going for refuge to the Buddha means relating to the state of complete awakening and being inspired by our own potential to realize such a state of liberation.

If we relate to the Buddhas as the ultimate objects of refuge, then we relate to the Dharma as the path towards the experience of such liberation. Just as the awakened ones made use of the path and attained enlightenment, we can also make use of the Dharma as the path towards the experience of liberation. Their continuing influence over the centuries demonstrates the profound validity and effectiveness of the path of the Dharma.

Lastly, we relate to the Sangha, the assemblage of compassionate teachers, as the guides on the path towards the experience of complete awakening. Because of our incessant absorption in habitual patterns, we were unable to be contemporaries of the Buddha and to learn directly from him. Or, even if we were around at that time, we were unable to take advantage of his example and his teachings. This is why the great teachers of Buddhism have preserved and maintained the unbroken lineage of the Dharma through literature, practice, and the transmission. Since the Buddha is not physically present, and we cannot understand the teachings or receive transmissions of them by ourselves, we are compassionately given the Dharma by the great teachers. Thus, we relate to them as spiritual friends on the path towards liberation.

In a more mundane sense, one could make an analogy between physical illness and the ignorant condition of samsaric existence, and between good health and the experience of Buddha mind. When we are sick, we long for the experience of good health because we see the possibility of it and are inspired to get better. Therefore the Buddhas, or the awakened ones, can be regarded as examples of complete health, and the Dharma as medicine. We realize we have some kind of sickness and we need treatment, but we are not sure what is wrong with us or how to go about treating it. Therefore, we have need of a physician who can prescribe the right medicines and stages of treatment to follow, and this is how we relate to the Sangha, or spiritual friends. Once we have been cured of our illness and are experiencing good health, we no longer need treatment or a physician. In this way, we can say that the Buddha is the ultimate object of refuge, and the Dharma and Sangha are the temporary objects of the refuge.

In terms of time, there is some difference in motivation between the Hinayana and the Mahayana, although both relate to the same objects of refuge. With Hinayana motivation, one goes for refuge to the awakened objects for this lifetime only; whereas, in the Mahayana tradition, we remain committed to the objects of refuge from that point until absolute enlightenment has been achieved. The problem with the Hinayana interpretation is that it is like taking a very strong bow and arrow, aiming it right in front of your nose, and shooting it. It will not go very far, no matter how strong and straight it is. If one does not achieve liberation in this lifetime, what use is this commitment? With the Mahayana understanding, however, the point is that when we die, the stream of mind continues into whatever birth or stages of evolution that follow. And since the transmission is given to our mind, no matter how many lifetimes it takes to experience perfect liberation, we retain the benefit of the commitment. From rebirth to rebirth, we can thus build on prior accomplishments and go further and further on the path.

The enduring commitment of the Mahayana tradition is like a flower seed. When you plant the seed, it does not immediately sprout, but remains hidden beneath the ground for several days until finally a flower emerges. It takes time, but the seed is not lost; it turns into a beautiful flower. Our situation is very similar because reaching Buddhahood takes time, but it is not wasted time. So taking the bodhisattva outlook in relation to time, we vow to relate to these awakened objects of refuge, these inspirational examples, until we reach enlightenment.

Looking at the motivations for refuge in terms of space, there are also basic differences between the Hinayana and Mahayana outlooks. According to the Hinayana tradition, we relate to the awakened objects of refuge strictly for our own liberation, so it is a very limited space. In the Mahayana tradition on the other hand, the motivation is much more vast, because we relate to these profound examples for the benefit and liberation of all sentient beings, without exception. This demands a very spacious, all-encompassing attitude. In order to be a completely responsible being, capable of true egolessness, it is absolutely necessary for us to be responsible for others as well. Throughout time, we have been caught up in confusion and paranoia because of continual self-gratification and ego-clinging, which still left us extremely dissatisfied. Therefore, we exchange our selfish attitude for the spacious, enlightened attitude of the Mahayana tradition and make our commitment to the refuge with this motivation.

If one chooses to receive the refuge transmission, it must come from an unbroken lineage. This means that from the Buddha down to this day, the literal meaning of the teachings and the practice has to have been immaculately preserved. One should only receive the transmission from such a teacher or lineage, not merely from somebody who knows how to use words well. There is currently a great deal of spiritual materialism in our world, and many dubious teachings have been made by people who know nothing about spiritual endeavors. Unfortunately, those who become involved with these teachings have no idea what they are getting themselves into.

There is an inherent thirst for spiritual wisdom. Unfortunately, people will often follow anyone making claims to spiritual knowledge. There are teachers who will make all sorts of outrageous assertions. For example, they may just rub your forehead against their own, generating some warmth, and then say, “Yes sir, I have laid it on you and given you the transmission, because you felt it.” And there are others who will say, “Okay, you sit there, and I’ll sit here, and you meditate, and I’ll meditate, and everything will be given.” Because of this spiritual consumerism, there is much misuse of the teachings.

This is why it is important that the transmission come from an unbroken lineage, and from a teacher who has been authorized by such a lineage. In Buddhism there are several different lineages and lineage holders. The lineage holder embodies the accumulated spiritual energy and awakening of the lineage. Authorization is needed because, no matter how realized a teacher may be, there are important logistics and appropriate forms involved. Without these, actual transmission is not complete

When one receives refuge, there is a transmission being given directly to the mind. If one merely picks up an idea and claims to have been given a mental transmission, then no benefit would result from it. For instance, if we turn on a light switch, the lamp lights because there is an unbroken wire running from it to the switchboard. An unbroken lineage is like this. But if the wire is broken, the lamp will not light, even if we turn on the light switch. Such is the case when the lineage is broken. These are important considerations one must take into account when contemplating making a lasting commitment.

So, this has been a very brief explanation of the refuge in terms of receiving the transmission. Additional questions, such as how one should relate to these examples in daily life, will be addressed when one formally participates in the refuge ceremony. Hopefully this teaching has given you some idea as to what taking refuge actually means, in terms of attitude and lineage and so forth. In any case, whatever your present or future participation, may this be of some help to you.

WHEN WE TAKE REFUGE for the first time, we officially become a Buddhist. In doing so, we recognize and confirm our Buddhanature, the potential for basic goodness that we all share as sentient beings. When we take refuge, we also acknowledge that our destination is Buddhahood. We are saying we will begin to follow the Lord Buddha who already attained liberation from suffering.

If we are to succeed in our attempt to transform our unenlightened manifestation into an enlightened one, we need the lineage. The teachings of the Buddha that come to us through the lineage emerged through the manifestation of the Buddha’s realization. Because they came from his experiences of wisdom, they are beyond any limitations whatsoever. Teachers of the lineage transmit the Buddha’s knowledge as it has been handed down from teacher to student through the ages. Due to the authenticity of the transmission, the teachings show us what is meaningful in our lives and will lead us to liberation. After the Buddha attained enlightenment, his disciples took refuge in him and from him. These disciples in turn gave refuge to their disciples in a line that has continued up to the present time. I received my first refuge from the Sixteenth Karmapa when I was eighteen months old. Since then, I have been a Buddhist officially.

Refuge means taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha we refer to here is the Buddha who attained enlightenment in India over two thousand five hundred years ago. The Dharma is his teaching and advice. The Sangha is composed of those who receive the transmission of his teachings and blessings, and practice his instruction. We take refuge in Buddha as our ultimate destination. In doing so, we confirm our potential. If we did not possess the potential to become free and liberated from suffering, then it would be useless, impossible, and foolish to try to become liberated.

Since we are all Buddha by nature, however, every one of us possesses the potential for liberation, freedom, and enlightenment. That is quite clear. Nothing is good enough for sentient beings except ultimate limitless liberation. I am one hundred percent convinced that sentient beings will not stop in their search for happiness. They will wander in samsara forever until they finally become fully enlightened. After receiving refuge, we must be able to maintain this transmission, which we do by taking a vow to remind ourselves of our commitment to follow the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The vow we take for the Buddha is that we will always be intent upon liberating and enlightening our potential. The vow we take for the Dharma is that we will do our best to avoid anything that is harmful or negative to ourselves and to others. We must do our best to maintain these vows; however, we must also be realistic about what we are capable of doing.

At the beginning, we might be naive or grow confused about what we are capable of accomplishing. There are always effects from each thing we think, say, or do. We should not worry too much about results, but we should do the best we can. We should try to stay mindful, and remember that we are always capable of improvement. That is our commitment as we take refuge in the Dharma. To take refuge in the Sangha ensures that we will learn from the lineage, and take advice and receive instructions from the Buddha himself. This means we will try to be a good friend to everybody and be a good example. We will try to avoid those individuals who are negative until we think that we will be able to help them. If we sense that negativity coming from others influences us, we will keep our distance and pray for those who need it. We will begin to assist others directly once we are confident that they cannot influence us in a harmful way. This kind of mindfulness and awareness is the commitment we make when we take refuge in the Sangha.

We can summarize these commitments into a simple maxim: we must do our best to make the best use of this precious human life. We can make our lives as positive as possible, directing ourselves in a meaningful way to attain realization. This is the simple way to acknowledge the refuge vow. All of us can make a realistic assessment of what kind of improvement and development and maturity we can attain in this lifetime. We can make a sincere, clear, and confirmed commitment towards that. However, we should not limit ourselves in our aspirations by expecting too little; nor should we limit ourselves by expecting too much too soon. We must pray that we attain enlightenment and lead every sentient being to liberation. We must also remember that true maturity does not happen by accident nor by mistake. No sentient being has become enlightened by mistake. After we take refuge, we must cherish and uphold the refuge transmission that we receive. For that, we make a basic vow to keep the commitment firm. We should be happy and honored and uplifted and always fresh about it.

THE PURPOSE OF TAKING REFUGE is to experience enlightenment, because we would all like to be rid of our confusion, neuroses, and errors. There is not a single being who actually wants to be in confusion.

Since experiencing enlightenment is our goal, the first source of refuge is the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Buddha means that our purpose is to achieve the experience of perfect enlightenment, just as he did. We should understand that the Buddha did not achieve enlightenment overnight–he had to follow the path. He was originally an ordinary being, yet by following the path with diligence and enthusiasm and a sense of tremendous joy, he attained what is called SANGYE in Tibetan: Buddhahood.

In order to achieve enlightenment, we have to follow the path. The path toward enlightenment is called Dharma, so the second source of refuge is the Dharma. Dharma redirects us from what is negative to that which is positive, from the mistaken to the correct. Dharma is also healing–it heals the wounds of the mind. It heals our physical senses. Since Dharma is the path, we need to take refuge in Dharma to accomplish Buddhahood.

As much as we would all like to correct ourselves and to be free from all confusion and suffering and to experience enlightenment, without the Sangha, which means community, such a method as the path of Dharma might not be available in our time. It is because of the devotion of the Sangha that the path taught by Buddha has been passed down from teacher to student, and is still available in our time. Although we want to achieve the perfection of enlightenment, we will have no idea how to begin if we do not first depend on the Sangha.

Sangha members consist of those who are trained in the Dharma and have practiced and perfected some realization of the Dharma. Having that realization, they are in a position to guide the new student on the path with their knowledge of Dharma. Since the realized Sangha assists in our path toward the perfection of our goal, this is our third source of refuge. As beginners, we need to depend on the Sangha.

Understanding the three objects of refuge–Buddha, Dharma and Sangha–we also need to know that there are three ways of taking refuge, which are based on our intentions. The first way is taking refuge with a mundane or worldly aspiration. It is very common all over the world for people to take refuge with the intention of experiencing happiness, success, fame in this lifetime, or a better birth in the next lifetime. Because of lack of information or knowledge of the Dharma, these people do not know how to direct themselves toward enlightenment itself. Not knowing this, they set the goal of temporary happiness in this life and a better life in their next birth. The objects of refuge are the same: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and it is possible that these sorts of temporary goals for this and the next life could be fulfilled. However, these people will not be separated from the cause of suffering, since they have not aspired to go beyond samsara. They have aimed for success, good things in this life, and a better birth, but they are still within samsara, which is a condition to experience great suffering.

An example of the importance of our goal is this: An arrow or a bullet has the power to go a long distance, but if we aim the bow or gun at the ground right in front of us, it will only go a short distance. It is not the fault of the bullet or arrow, but of our aim. When there is the preoccupation with personal well-being in this life and a better birth in the next life, these benefits may be obtained, but enlightenment will not. It is essential that we take refuge with such knowledge of the importance of intention, because obtaining refuge, as well as following the path to the accomplishment of enlightenment, is based on our state of mind.

In the second way of taking refuge, we have a sense of the nature of samsara. We understand that samsara is a choiceless state and that everything in the relative world, including our physical bodies, our friends, and our possessions is subject to impermanence. Although we would like to see everything as permanent, including the youthfulness of our physical bodies, impermanence creeps up on us gradually. As much as we try to avoid it, we cannot totally separate ourselves from this. Similarly, as much as we would like to be friends with those who are close to us, sometimes friendships end. Everything on the earth is impermanent. Seeing this impermanence, we see that what impermanence leaves us with is more suffering. We feel suffering when we see the deterioration of our bodies, things around us, and things everywhere in the universe.

Knowing the nature of samsara and with a sense of the possibility of the state of nirvana, the second form of taking refuge is to do so with the intention of liberating ourselves from impermanence and suffering. The objects of refuge are again the same: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Compared to the first way of taking refuge, this goal is much superior because at least there is the knowledge of working toward enlightenment. Still, it is not the best goal, because it is quite selfish. The practitioner has seen suffering and experienced impermanence, and therefore wants liberation for his or her self alone. This is known as the lesser vehicle tradition of taking refuge. It is called the lesser vehicle because the intention to reach liberation is only for the individual taking refuge. Taking refuge in this way has to do with the influence of the attitudes of those we associate with on the path. Friends–those with whom we associate–are very important, since they have a great deal of influence on our motivation.

The third attitude in receiving refuge is considered the proper way of receiving refuge in accordance with the particular tradition we are following, the mahayana (“maha” means greater). With this attitude, we need to learn to overcome the selfish motive of achieving enlightenment for ourselves alone and become quite courageous.

If we associate with the mahayana Sangha and are surrounded by the mahayana outlook, we may develop this courage. Those with the mahayana outlook are more courageous because they do not strive toward enlightenment for themselves alone, but toward the enlightenment of all living beings. Therefore, we also learn to accept others and all living beings on the path toward liberation.

The qualities that make us a proper recipient and practitioner of the mahayana teachings are, first, self-confidence or courage and second, wisdom. The courage or self-confidence is based on understanding that every living being is experiencing suffering. Whatever suffering we have gone through in the past, tolerable or intolerable, and whatever suffering we are going through now, all living beings suffer in the same way. They may not be experiencing exactly the same kind of pain, but they are always experiencing suffering and unfavorable conditions. All beings, indulging ourselves, try to avoid such pain and its causes but, since we are lacking in wisdom and are subject to confusion, we still always end up experiencing suffering. This is proof that whatever approach we and other beings have used in the past is not the ultimate or proper method.

Knowing that, we should include all living beings in our aspiration toward liberation, not just ourselves. Contemplate that all these living beings, through their confusion, believe they are in the proper path to happiness but, as a result of the confusion, they are not. By really understanding that everyone has suffering and confusion and is trying to overcome those problems, but that all the methods they have used have not brought them liberation, we develop the experience of limitless compassion. From this compassion comes the possibility of having the courage to guide all beings–not one or two, but all–to enlightenment. We should work to develop this compassion and courage.

Having developed that strong compassion, the next aspect is the cultivation of wisdom. Wisdom involves the awareness that giving living beings temporary happiness is not really the solution to their problem. Although it is very important to provide whatever happiness we can for beings, including ourselves, working toward just a temporary benefit is not really a solution. Therefore we must develop aspiration for the enlightenment of all living beings, which is the union of compassion and wisdom. This union of compassion and wisdom makes us mahayana practitioners.

The union of compassion and wisdom enables us to experience the burning away of our own confusion and obscuration much faster. In the absence of such confusion, realization or development takes birth. This relates to the second syllable of SANGYE (the Tibetan word for Buddhahood), GYE, which refers to development of wisdom. The reason the union of compassion and wisdom leads more rapidly to enlightenment is similar to the way a bird flies. It can fly with two wings, but not with one. Similarly, the union of compassion and wisdom enables us to “fly” toward enlightenment. Since we have motivated ourselves to reach enlightenment to benefit and liberate beings, we continue to bring about this benefit in accordance with our goal, and our capacity to benefit beings unfolds immeasurably.

The possibility of working in the proper way toward enlightenment–motivating ourselves in accordance with the mahayana view–is taught to us by our mahayana spiritual friend. As I said, the influence, or association, is important, and spiritual friends are quite helpful. There are also those who, without having to be taught, are naturally filled with compassion–not for themselves, but compassion toward all living beings. That is an evidence that this particular individual has practiced in the previous life. His or her obscurations or delusion of mind are less thick. It does not mean there are no obscurations, but there are fewer. As a result of this, these people experience natural compassion toward all beings without being taught. Therefore, we must genuinely rejoice if we have natural compassion toward all living beings.

All the countless enlightened beings of the past achieved enlightenment through this union of compassion and wisdom. All the countless enlightened beings of the present achieved that level through the union of compassion and wisdom. All future enlightenment must be achieved through the union of compassion and wisdom. Compassion and wisdom are also referred to as skillful means and primordial wisdom in the Dharma teachings. The skillfulness involved is the union of compassion and wisdom as we have discussed. That union is very important in our lives for the possibility of future enlightenment.

Instructions concerning taking refuge are given before the ceremony itself, since having the proper mental attitude during the ceremony is essential for obtaining the refuge transmission. At the time of the ceremony, there is really not much to do. You simply sit, repeat the Tibetan words, and you receive the refuge. If you do not know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what state of mind you should have, then you are simply sitting and repeating an unknown language. Since it is important not only to repeat the words but to know what you are repeating and what state of mind you should have, I have given this instruction.

If someone participates in the refuge ceremony without any knowledge of refuge, and without even knowing the words they are repeating, it would be like a bucket with holes in it. No matter what you put in, it runs out through the holes. If a person has some knowledge of refuge but is not aspiring toward enlightenment, and if they take refuge with a goal of happiness and prosperity of this and the next life, then they will have refuge, but they will be unable to reach enlightenment because they have not aspired to enlightenment. To enable you to be a perfect recipient of the refuge vow, I have given a complete explanation of the objects of refuge, and what state of mind you need to have. Particularly, it is important to take the attitude of including all living beings with a sense of compassion, and wanting to guide them to liberation. This makes you a very proper vessel, one without any holes at all. When you are a proper vessel, even if what you are putting in is a small amount, adding it to the container drop by drop every day, it is possible eventually to fill it up. You are not lacking a goal. Therefore, I have given these instructions. In order to become a proper vessel to move toward enlightenment, refuge is essential.

It is the nature of every living being, whether big or small, important or unimportant, to strive for happiness. We strive, not only a temporary happiness, but a permanent well-being of body and mind. That is not just the goal of human beings; it is very much the goal of every sentient being. We must understand the fact that we all aim toward this one particular purpose.

As I have explained, although the aim of beings is to have happiness, because of their confusion, they do not know how to obtain that happiness and how to avoid the cause of suffering. With that blindness or confusion, although every one of us (including humans, animals, birds, and so forth) has the aim of happiness, we end up with suffering.

In the hope of that happiness, we are so preoccupied for our personal well-being that we fail to see the needs of other sentient beings. As a result of this preoccupation, no matter how hard we work to provide happiness for ourselves, we always run into suffering. We are so confused that we really do not know the proper ways of obtaining happiness, and it seems that whatever we do to obtain happiness actually leads us further into the depths of suffering, pain, or frustration. The question is, what led us into such a confused state of mind?

There are two explanations for why we experience this confusion that leads us into suffering. The first is that the habitual patterns of confusion we have built up in the previous life continue in this life, because habitual patterns are very strong. These patterns we have built are very difficult to overcome unless we go through a particular training. Not having overcome them, we experience the continuation of the confusion of habitual patterns, which leads us further into the depths of confusion.

The second reason we experience so much confusion and fail to see the truth is that our associates, the influences around us, are also confused beings. When we are dealing with all the confused beings, along with having our own confused patterns from the past life, these factors in combination strongly influence us to engage in confusion rather than to come out of confusion.

A further example of how we have been confused in these ways may be given by speaking about past habitual patterns. With the confusion in the past life, we have engaged in all sorts of harmful activities which lead to the accumulation of negative karma. As a result of that negative karmic accumulation, we experience inferior birth. There are many inferior births, but the one with which we are most familiar (although there are some that are even more inferior) is the animal realm. An animal’s knowledge and human knowledge are very different. An animal’s capacity to learn is very limited. I am not saying that an animal cannot learn, but their capacity to learn is very limited in comparison to that of human beings. That is one example of the outcome of engaging in negative activities with the confused state of mind.

A second example concerns our friends and associates. We all know that the United States is a very civilized country and well developed in technology. People here are well educated in technical matters. But no one is born fully informed about technology, so why are Americans so well informed about this? It is because your environment is filled with technology. Since your environment is filled with technology, technology becomes quite familiar to you, and you learn about it without much effort. Similarly, all the world knows that America is well civilized, but it is very rare to hear of enlightened beings coming from this country. Why have we not heard of American enlightened beings? It is not that you do not have the potential for enlightenment, but rather that you have not had the friends or environment of enlightened beings where you might learn and become familiar with the path. Because of the lack of such enlightened society, so to speak, until now America is not well known for enlightenment.

Despite the fact that America is not well known for enlightened beings, you might ask why so many people here are currently interested in the path to enlightenment. It is very obvious that all of you, and all people who are interested in such a path, were connected to that path in a previous life. As a result of that connection in a previous life, there is still a warmth, an interest, drawing you toward a particular subject in this lifetime. Therefore, although the subject of Buddhism has not been widespread in the United States, you are intrigued with it and are interested in taking the refuge vow. I feel it is very certain that you are completing a journey that you have connected with in a past life. It is very fortunate to be able to connect with whatever you began in a previous life, in order to continue it in this life and hopefully to fulfill it. Because it is a very fortunate event, I thank you all very sincerely for your interest.

The actual process of refuge is based on your state of mind or mental attitude. When you are receiving the refuge vow, the feeling of joy and acceptance must be there in your mind as a participant. If you lack that feeling of joy and acceptance of the refuge, then the vow cannot be fully obtained, because there is blockage or rejection. You also need to realize the reason you must have the feeling of joy is that such an opportunity to have a refuge vow–the unbroken transmission of this vow–is very rare, and that this very rare, precious thing that enables you to continue your past connection in this present life is being made available to you. When you find something that is very rare and precious, naturally you are happy and joyous. You are not only happy and joyous, but with the transmission that you are getting, you try to be more accepting and appreciative. That feeling or attitude is essential while taking the refuge vow.

The proper attitude in taking refuge can be explained in three parts. I am giving such classifications based on knowing that many of you are not completely new in the Dharma, and you are not yet enlightened beings either. Because you are in between, so to speak, you are well prepared to understand these three points.

The first point is acceptance–you must have trust. This trust also has three classifications. The first is clear, open trust. Clear, open trust is based on the knowledge that the possibility of receiving the vow in an unbroken transmission is very rare. Because it is an unbroken transmission, it is very precious as well. Therefore, you have gratitude toward the master who is providing this refuge and feel very fortunate. That feeling of being fortunate is the open trust, or clear trust.

The second aspect is the trust of desire, or longing trust. Longing trust is based on knowing that not only do you want to obtain the refuge, but your goal is to practice. You want to accomplish and perfect the path. That whole aim in obtaining the refuge is longing, or desire to perfect yourself. You have a desire to eliminate all your confusion, mistakes, and obscurations and develop the qualities of wisdom and enlightenment; this is longing trust.

Finally, there is believing trust. Believing trust is defined in this way: you want to perfect enlightenment, eliminating the obscuration or confusion of the mind, but to do so, you have to have knowledge to trust the tradition. To trust that tradition, you learn and understand that all the enlightened beings in the past in India and in Tibet have practiced this particular tradition. Practicing this tradition, they reached what is known as the mahasiddha level, the accomplishment of enlightenment. The point here is that all the uncountable enlightened beings that we talk about (of India or Tibet) have practiced this particular path and reached its goal. Therefore, you have a trust in the path, a trust in the practice itself. It has not only been given to you–it has been widely practiced. Therefore, the last type or trust is believing in the path, the practice itself. Developing these three kinds of trust is essential.

The second main point is understanding that enlightenment belongs to no particular culture, kind of individual, or gender. Therefore, it is quite a mistaken view to think that enlightenment is only possible for Asian people. It is also a mistaken view to think that enlightenment is only possible for men. As long as an individual has the capacity to understand, that individual, whether from the West or East, male or female, has the capacity for enlightenment. Every individual, regardless of which culture they belong to, has different levels or strengths of neurosis depending upon their individual personality, so some of us have very strong neuroses and while others are weaker in a particular neurotic pattern. Similarly, based on individual effort, some people can achieve enlightenment faster with proper effort, and some of us may not progress so quickly, because we are not putting our effort properly into the path. The goal of those on the path is to attain enlightenment. To actually accomplish this, the first thing we need to do is to lay the proper foundation, and taking refuge is indeed the step that lays the foundation.

To further cultivate the path of enlightenment, we need to meet all the proper conditions, such as having the proper spiritual master who guides us in the proper way of practicing.

Seeking refuge is not new. Beings have often sought refuge in the past as well as at present, but they sought refuge in various unenlightened objects, such as mountains, trees, rocks, rivers, or oceans. Many people have looked to these objects for a refuge, thinking that these things could provide it. As part of nature, they could provide natural energy, but because they are simply part of nature, they could not provide enlightenment. It takes an enlightened being to provide enlightenment, and since the proper guidance with a spiritual master who is fully trained in the path of enlightenment is necessary, meeting such a person is essential to further cultivate the aspiration of walking the path and reaching its goal.

Then you might ask, from who should we seek refuge? The answer is: seek refuge in Buddha, the enlightened being. You may or may not have heard the definition of Buddhahood. In English, the notion of enlightenment sometimes means simply understanding something you have not understood before. We might say, “I was enlightened by this or that explanation or information.” This does not convey the meaning of the Tibetan term SANGYE, which means both Buddhahood and Buddha. The two syllables of SANGYE each have a meaning. SANG means elimination or absence. What is being eliminated, or what is absent here, is every neurosis, mental affliction, confusion–all the negative patterns. The second syllable, GYE, means “blossomed” or “fully developed.” In the absence of all confusion and mental obscuration, what develops is the mind’s potentials and qualities, such as wisdom and knowledge.

Is the development of these qualities temporary?. No, it is permanent. Once you have eliminated all obscuration and fully experienced or realized your own mind’s qualities, you are a fully enlightened being. That is what is meant by SANGYE. It does not just mean the historical Buddha of our time (Shakyamuni). SANGYE means the elimination of faults, confusion, and the full development of wisdom qualities–which is to say, Buddhahood.

The refuge vow lays the foundation for all of our spiritual growth as we progress toward enlightenment. That foundation is made possible through the proper mental state or attitude coinciding with the transmission. Also, a gesture of devotion toward that possibility is an important factor in taking refuge. Traditionally, people make offerings such as butter lamps, incenser a flower as a gesture of devotion and joy in receiving the vow. It is good to make such offerings, because it brings about the accumulation of merit, and is an expression of devotion, which is necessary in receiving refuge. However, if you do not want to do this, there is no obligation at all.

Despite the obligations and demands on our time that we all have, you have taken the time and developed the intention to learn about and understand the process of taking refuge. Developing the intention to take refuge is a very virtuous action, so I would like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for your interest.

AT THIS TIME WE ARE EXCEEDINGLY fortunate in that not only have we all obtained a precious human body, a precious human birth, but based upon this, we have actually entered the door of the Dharma, have given rise to faith in the teaching, and actually practiced it.

The entrance into the door of the teachings of Buddhadharma is the taking of refuge in the Three Jewels. If one does not go for refuge with faith to the Jewels, but rather goes for refuge to worldly deities, and is unaware of the qualities of the Three Jewels, then one is not a practitioner of Buddhadharma. Therefore, it is said that the root of the Buddha’s teaching is faith in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Because without faith in these, one will have no conviction about the validity of the teachings, and lacking this conviction, as well as lacking the conviction about the qualities of the Sangha, one will be unwilling or unable to study the teaching. Even if one does study them, to some extent, it will be like the games of children.

The word in Tibetan for the Three Jewels, “konchok,” literally means “rare and supreme.” The first syllable, “kon,” means “rare.” It points to the fact that the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are like the rarest of diamonds in that only someone with the karmic connection and the necessary merit will even hear their names, let alone be able to develop faith in them and receive teachings from them. The second syllable, “chok,” means “supreme” or “best,” and again, like the diamond in the example, the Three Jewels are supreme in that by relying upon them, all of one’s needs and wishes as well as ultimate freedom can be accomplished.

The essence of the mind is emptiness; the nature of the mind is actually the integration of emptiness, clarity, and awareness. The name that is given to the actual nature of mind is “yeshe” or wisdom, something that all beings possess. However, sentient beings do not recognize the actual nature of their mind to be what it is. This lack of recognition is like throwing mud or sand into pure water; it becomes sullied or defiled. When the lack of recognition is present, one no longer speaks of “yeshe” or wisdom, one speaks of “namshe” or consciousness. But the distinction between these two states of mind is nothing other than the presence or lack of recognition by the mind of the mind’s own nature.

The failure of the mind to recognize its own nature is what is meant by the term “ma-rik-pa,” or ignorance, the first level of obscuration or defilement in the mind. As a result of this ignorance, there arises in the mind the imputation of an “I” and an “other,” something that is other than the mind. This dualistic clinging, something that we have had throughout beginningless time and that never stops, is the second level of obscuration, the obscuration of habits. Based upon this dualistic clinging arise the three root mental afflictions: mental darkness, desire, and aggression. Based upon those three afflictions are the 84,000 various mental afflictions, the third level of obscurations, called the obscuration of mental affliction. Under the influence of this, we perform actions that are obscured in their nature–the fourth level, called the obscuration of actions or karma. These four levels or types of obscurations are the cause for all sentient beings to wander in samsara. If these are removed or cleaned, then the inherent qualities of mind’s nature, which we refer to as wisdom or “yeshe,” will naturally manifest and spread like the rays of the sun. The word in Tibetan for the removal of these obscurations, “sang,” means “cleansing,” and the word for the spreading of the inherent qualities of the mind that occurs as a result of that is “gye,” or “increasing.” “Sang-gye,” these two words together, is the Tibetan word for a Buddha. Therefore what is meant by Buddhahood is the recognition and realization of the complete purity of the mind.

When the nature of the mind becomes fully manifest, it possesses what are usually enumerated as twenty-seven extraordinary qualities, such as complete unchanging emptiness and great bliss.

In order to benefit those to be trained, the mind of a Buddha exhibits what are usually enumerated as thirty-two qualities, which are outlined as the ten powers, the four kinds of fearlessness, and the eighteen qualities of unmistakenness. A Buddha, for instance, knows the nature and situation of all of samsara and all of nirvana. He knows the past, present, and future of every sentient being.

Arising from these qualities of the mind of a Buddha are qualities of speech, traditionally sixty qualities, possessed only by a Buddha and not by any human or god. One such quality is that if a Buddha gives one teaching at one time to 1,000 people, each of whom speaks a different language and is from a different place, each single person will understand what the Buddha is saying. Beyond that, a Buddha has the capacity to teach in such a way that each single person receives the particular kind of teaching, at the same time, that the individual needs to receive. So, with one teaching of Dharma, a Buddha can give the remedy to each person for his or her particular strongest mental affliction.

The qualities of the body of a Buddha are experienced at various levels. Particularly the sambhogakaya, or body of complete enjoyment of a Buddha, is experienced only by bodhisattvas residing upon the eighth, ninth, and tenth levels of realization. It is a bodhisattva residing upon one of those levels who sees the forms of the sambhogakaya, Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, Avalokiteshvara, and so forth. The sambhogakaya is actually experienced as possessing the appearance with which we are familiar, the glorious silk garments, jewel ornaments, the pure form, and so forth. The actual appearance of the sambhogakaya is an expression of the complete possession by a Buddha of all qualities of the world and beyond the world.

In order to train ordinary beings, the Buddhas manifest as nirmanakaya, as in the case of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Such a nirmanakaya possesses what are called the 32 major and 80 minor marks of full Buddhahood. These include the “ushnisa” on the top of the head, the thousand-spoked Dharma wheels on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, and so forth. These qualities only arise on the body of a Buddha and not upon the body of any human or worldly god. They arise in such a way that anyone who sees the form of a Buddha immediately delights in it and finds it beautiful to see.

In this way, the qualities of the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha are superior to anything and anyone else. The actual excellence or superiority of a Buddha consists of the fact that a Buddha has the wisdom, compassion, and ability to give beings exactly what each needs in order to become free from the sufferings of samsara. So, in order to benefit beings, the Buddha teaches the Dharma, the second of the Three Rare and Supreme Ones, or the Three Jewels. And as sentient beings possess 84,000 mental afflictions (kleshas), the Buddha taught 84,000 teachings of the Dharma.

There are two aspects to the Jewel of the Dharma. The first of these is the actual words by which the Dharma is transmitted, the words of the Buddha, and the words and text which record them. The transmission of these is called the Dharma of transmission. But the meaning of these words, the realization of this meaning–whether it be the meaning of emptiness, the meaning of compassion, or from the tantric point of view, the meaning of the development and fulfillment stages–is called the Dharma of realization. So the Dharma of transmission and the Dharma of realization are the two aspects of the Jewel of the Dharma.

Those who listen to the teachings of the Dharma, study them, and put them into practice to an extent to which they can guide others are the Sangha. Among the Sangha, those who, through the practice of Dharma, have reached the first level of bodhisattva realization and reside in the first up to the tenth level of realization are called the “exalted ones.” Those who, having listened to the teachings, studied them, and put them into practice, and residing on the two paths that are preliminary to the ten levels of bodhisattva realization and application, are called the “Sangha of ordinary individuals.”

Therefore one must begin by becoming aware of the qualities of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and by understanding exactly what they are. By means of that, one will give rise to faith in them. One will be able to feel one’s faith and go for refuge to them. It is necessary that this occur as a basis for the practice, but beyond that, the going for refuge must be something that is continually practiced and renewed in one’s daily practice; this is extremely important.

The reason why the taking of refuge is so important is that at present we are immersed in samsara, which is an experience of suffering, an experience of impermanence, and an experience of constant change. If we wish to free ourselves from this, we cannot do so simply by ourselves. However, we can travel the path to liberation by relying upon the compassion of the Three Jewels. That is why it is necessary to go to them for refuge.

As ordinary beings, we do not know or understand the methods that we must engage in to obtain Buddhahood. For that reason we need a guide or a companion on the path to Buddhahood. This is something that can be explained by an example that is easily understood by Westerners. If one wanted to get from here to New York City and one tried to walk, one would either not get there at all or it would take a very long time. However, if one were to stand by the side of the road and put out one’s thumb, then eventually some good minded individual would stop their car; one could get in and one would reach the city. It’s the same way if we want to reach the City of Enlightenment. We have to hitchhike or take refuge in the Three Jewels.

The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are beings or things that are separate from us, distinct from us. We are individuals and we are quite a distance from them. One might ask how it is possible to establish a connection. First of all, all phenomena arise through interdependence through the actions of causes and conditions. In the case of the path, what must occur is the coming together of the conditions of one’s own faith, and the compassion and blessing of the Three Jewels. If these two come together, then the connection is established and one can travel the path.

The presence of the faith on one’s own part and the compassion and qualities on the part of the Three Jewels is sufficient to create the connection. It does not depend on distance, like a television station that is sending out a TV program. If one has the box and the set, one can see the program. If the TV station isn’t sending it out, then even if one has the TV set one can’t see it. If the TV station is sending it out but one does not have the TV set, then one also can’t see it . But in either case, if these two things are present, then regardless of the distance that separates the two, although there is no direct physical connection that one can see, the TV program still arrives somehow. In the same way, the actual blessing and compassion of the Three Jewels can be received, and one can enter through one’s faith.

Another example is that the compassion, blessing, and power of the Three Jewels is like a hook, and one’s faith is like a ring. If these two are present and connect one with another, then the hook will lead the ring and oneself, held by the ring, from suffering to happiness and finally to liberation.

This is the reason why all the lamas of the Golden Rosary of the Kagyu have always given and continue to give Refuge as the basis for the transmission of teachings; why, at any time when one receives teaching of Buddhadharma, one begins by reciting the Refuge; and also why when one practices the preliminaries, ngondro, the first of these is the 100,000 recitations of the Refuge accompanied by prostrations.

The root or basis is going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha–the Three Jewels. This could be called external Refuge. Beyond this, from the point of view of the Vajrayana, one goes for refuge to the guru as the root of all blessing, the yidam as the root of all attainment, and the dakini as the root of all activity. This is the internal form of going for refuge. Beyond that, to go for refuge to one’s root guru alone–recognizing that he is the embodiment of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, and the gurus, yidams, and dakinis, the embodiment of all these in one form, and possessing all of their qualities–is the secret form of Refuge.

The form of going for refuge that we use as Kagyupas is called the sixfold Refuge because it has six lines to it, three of which are devoted to the Three Jewels, and three of which are devoted to the Three Roots. The first two and the last of the six lines are devoted to the Three Roots and read:

    Line 1: I go for refuge to the glorious sacred gurus.
    Line 2: I go for refuge to the assembly of deities in the mandalas of the yidams.
    Line 3: I go for refuge to the dakas, dakinis, and Dharma protectors who possess the eye of wisdom.

There is also an abbreviated form of the Refuge:

    I go for refuge to the guru. I go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for refuge to the Dharma.

The first line, “I go for refuge to the guru,” expresses one’s conviction that the guru or lama is the embodiment of the Three Roots because his actual form, his body, is the guru; his speech is the activity of the dakinis and Dharma protectors; and his mind is the nature of the yidams. Following that, one goes for refuge externally to the Buddha, the Dharma, and Sangha. Therefore this shorter form of taking refuge also contains both the Three Jewels and the Three Roots.

It should be understood that the taking of refuge is not a process whereby the Buddha takes those who appear to have devotion to him and leads them to his side. Through taking refuge, one begins a process oneself which, going through various stages, will lead to one’s own realization of the same state, the same experience as the Buddha.

Taken from a teaching given at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra on the weekend of October 24, 1986. Translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso and edited by Krista Schwimmer.


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