The Refuge Ceremony in Tibetan Buddhism

Maybe you are thinking of taking refuge this year?

If you have experimented with Buddhist practices and contemplated its principles, you may have decided you’d like to become a practitioner of Buddhism. One can practice one’s whole life without formalizing that decision, or one can take the vow of refuge, which is ritualized in a ceremony, either public or private.

Most traditionally the vow can be given my anyone who holds it, but usually it is given by a lama who understands and hopefully, holds the vow as a direction for their life.

Generally the ceremony goes something like this:

First. the person taking refuge will do three prostrations to the person offering the vow. The prostrations are the formal means for requesting the vow. This is tradition because the Buddha prohibited his followers from giving refuge, teachings or precepts to someone who had not clearly asked for them.  

Then the one offering refuge will repeat the refuge prayer three times—and the recipients will repeat it , also three times, in turn. Generally the preceptor will snap at some point, marking the instant the vow is given.

This is the basic ceremony. Different lamas have different ways of conducting this ceremony.

In addition, the person taking refuge will make vows relating to the three objects of refuge:  the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. There are three general vows, three vows linked to positive actions and three linked to negative actions.

The three general vows are:

  1. The be ever mindful of the Three Jewels and throughout the day, whether we are working or having leisure, making offerings to them.
  2. Never to forsake the refuge of the Three Jewels, not even in the face of great loss or great reward.
  3. To repeat the refuge prayer often, and to think of the qualities and benefits of taking refuge.

The three specific vows linked to positive actions relate mostly to respect:

  1. Show respect to enlightened beings, and any image of enlightened beings.
  2. Show respect for books or papers that involve the Dharma.
  3. Show respect for members of the Sahgha, including monks and nuns and for all representations of the Three Jewels.

What are the benefits of taking refuge? A traditional teaching on this is that

  • Upon taking refuge, one has made the decision to concentrate on inner development. This is the basis for receiving future precepts and ripening.
  • One purifies the negative karma that arises from past harmful actions.
  • One is protected from threats of other humans and of spirits.
  • One will be able to accomplish all of one’s vows.
  • One accumulates merit throughout the day and night because of the importance and potency of one’s intentions to awaken.
  • One no longer falls back into the lower realms.
  • One is definitely on the path to enlightenment.

The person offering the vow may give a ‘dharma name’ to the person, and will cut a tiny lock of hair—again, with permission—to indicate the beginning of a new life in the dharma. I have heard the hair-cutting described both ‘the highest offering’ to the three jewels, and as symbolic of renunciation. In several Asian cultures, hair was considered the highest part of the body and so symbolic of the sacred. Most people continue to use their secular name, but some like their dharma name and use it. Generally, your name will be written for you and translated.

The refuge ceremony represents a final decision. Acknowledging that the only real working basis is oneself and that there is no way around that, one takes refuge in the Buddha as an example, in the dharma as the path, and in the sangha as companionship. Nevertheless, it is a total commitment to oneself. The ceremony cuts the line that connects the ship to the anchor; it marks the beginning of an odyssey of loneliness. Still, it also includes the inspiration of the preceptor and the lineage. The participation of the preceptor is a kind of guarantee that you will not be getting back into the question of security as such, that you will continue to acknowledge your aloneness and work on yourself without leaning on anyone. Finally you become a real person, standing on your own feet. At that point, everything starts with you.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Lion’s Roar, May, 2017

How will I know if Buddhism is right for me?

You will know the same way you know if anything is right for you. You will try it. You will listen to the teaching, study a little and think it over. Hopefully you will watch for awhile and see if Buddhism suits your needs and wishes.

Buddhism is fairly temperate. It doesn’t say that we have to stop associating with people from other faiths or that other traditions are ‘bad.’ It is centered around harmony, so it won’t cause you to need to abandon family or friends if they practice in a different tradition, or no tradition at all. In fact, if practiced properly, it should enrich your relationships and extend your kindness to even more people and ways of life.

How will I know if I should take refuge from a particular teacher or lama?

The words ‘lama’ and ‘guru’ have the same meaning: lama is Tibetan and guru is Sanskrit, and both mean teacher. In this case, not a college teacher, for example, but a spiritual teacher who will guide your practice.

Since the refuge vow is for life, ideally, it’s good to take the vow from someone you trust and relate to. The usual recommendations are that, best case, this person

  • carry the correct transmission from an unbroken lineage
  • have taken Refuge themselves
  • have faith in the teachings of Buddha, born of the confidence of their own experience
  • be following the teachings themselves
  • be able to inspire your trust and faith.

The person who gives you Refuge, if a Lama, is called your Refuge Lama. They need not be your primary teacher. But as with anyone who introduces you to something you treasure, you may feel a kind of important kinship to that person, so ideally it is a relationship you are happy to be associated with.

Your refuge Lama gets you started on the path, in the way that your first grade teacher got you started in education. Unlike more advanced vows, this one is actually quite simple and the commitments are sincere, but not so complex that you need to feel overly worried about whether your Refuge Lama is ‘the right one.’ If at some point you find a better match for you as spiritual guide, you’ll move along freely. In this way, Refuge Lama is different than a Root Lama.

If you do not know this about the person with whom you’d like to take Refuge, ask. It’s OK. In fact, ask all your questions about taking refuge in advance of the ceremony if you can.


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