Refuge – the Doorway to Buddhism
by Drukpa Choegon Rinpoche, Thutop Choekyi Wangchuk
TEACHINGS ON REFUGE
Refuge is a complete path of Buddhist. It covers the aspect of Theravada, Mahayana and the highest teachings of Dzogchen and Mahamudra in Vajrayana.
REFUGE – THE VERY FOUNDATION OF BUDDHISM
Refuge is not only an essential foundation stone in Buddhism; it also strengthened all the higher practices as we progress to the more advance stages. That’s why learning refuge properly and thoroughly; knowing it completely and deeply why it’s important, how it’s important, and how one should take refuge and practice refuge with in-depth understanding, will benefit one’s practices tremendously. Then, one would be a very down to earth, authentic and depth practitioner.
When Atisha first came to Tibet, lots of Tibetan practitioners are drifted off-ground … all are preoccupied with deep tantras, high meditation … However, the basic fundamental Dharma was not very strong, yet everybody is talking about very high teachings. Some masters just spread these advance teachings all over … It’s a little like today’s world where everybody is talking about Dzogchen, Mahamudra and high Tantric practices. When very high meditation is being taught, whether those high meditation takers, have completed the basic practice of Buddhism? Very often, they didn’t. But yet they are already up there.
THE ‘REFUGE PANDITA’ – JOWO JE PALDEN ATISHA
When Palden Atisha, the great Indian Buddhist master was invited to Tibet, he sees this extreme confusion about the correct practice in Tibet. Atisha has very high reputation as a learned one, a remarkable master and scholar, yet once again, he made the refuge very important in Tibetan Buddhism. He put so much emphasis on refuge, until he was given a nickname – the ‘Refuge Pandita’. Atisha spent about 17 years in Tibet, translating texts and reintroducing the pure Dharma, which was largely distorted after a period of persecution. His presence in Tibet was instrumental in reinvigorating Buddhism, and bring about the resurrection of another golden age of Dharma in the Land of Snows.
If one does not have the fundamental understanding of refuge, then basically you have missed the main project – building the foundation. It’s as if you are trying to make a very big house, but yet you ignore or neglect the quality and solidity of the groundwork. Even you, apparently seems to be succeeded in building the most magnificent palace, it could never stay for long. A tiny landslide is enough to tumble the entire structure. Similarly, engaging in high tantric practices or meditation without proper preliminaries, will not bring the real long-term benefits of authentic Dharma.
THE MEANINGS OF REFUGE
On the basic level, taking refuge in Buddhism, means we go for refuge in the Three Jewels – the Buddha – the goal of the path; the Dharma – His teachings as the path itself; and the Sangha – the spiritual friends who assist one’s progress towards the goal. They are a true and worthy refuge, as they have the power and methods of deliverance us out of the ocean of samsaric suffering.
What we are seeking in refuge is protection from the samsara itself and all of its sufferings; and under their shelter, we learn and practice the methods follow the path Lord Buddha has laid before us, and attain His realisation. So, we should understand that the nature of this outer refuge is provisional, because when one has realised the absolute nature of reality, then one has obtained the ultimate refuge.
THE NOTIONS OF REFUGE
The notions of refuge vary. In Theravada, the notion of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, is included in the Mahayana and Vajrayana as well. When we say the Mahayana aspect of refuge, the Bodhicitta, also comes in the Vajrayana. However, the notions or meanings in the Mahayana and Vajrayana, such as Bodhicitta, is not necessarily existed in the Theravada tradition.
THE NOTION OF REFUGE IN THERAVADA
For example, in the Theravada perception, I want to be free from samsara; samsara is full of pain and suffering. The one who could take me or guide me out of this cyclic existence is the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. By taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, I can then be free from this miserable samsara. The notion, essentially, is to get away from the painful cyclic existence to nirvana. It is just like when some disasters happened, we naturally want to escape and take refuge in a safer place, far away from the catastrophes, such as the traumatic, distressing, terrifying thunderstorm, earthquake, invasion, etc. Taking refuge in Buddhism is basically to work on establishing oneself to an absolutely secure settlement, from the samsara to nirvana. This is the primary notion of refuge.
THE NOTION OF REFUGE IN MAHAYANA AND VAJRAYANA
The notion of Refuge in Theravada also applied in Mahayana and Vajrayana, i.e.: seeking protection in the Three Jewels from the ever painful samsara. However, Mahayana way of refuge is a step further and deeper.
Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, is to be like them, because my wish is to help all beings. But without practices, I will not have the capacity to do so. So, I enter into the practices, I wanted to be like you Green Tara, Guru Rinpoche or Lord Buddha, so that I could be equally benefited to all beings. It has a little sense of Bodhicitta; Bodhicitta combined with refuge.
The notion is to help others. Not just I, trying to be free from the samsara. The wish is to be freed from samsara, but the aim is to help all beings. By becoming just like you, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, I will then have more capacities to help. So, the refuge in this context already covered the sense of Bodhicitta. The nature of the refuge is no longer focused on self. But this kind of notion does not exist in the Theravada perspective, where it’s just me who wanted to be freed. This is called ‘So Sor Tagpa’ in Tibetan, means Self Liberating Sutra, i.e.: self-liberation from the samsara.
The Vajrayana and the Mahayana’s notion of Refuge and Bodhicitta is the same. Cause the Vajrayana way of bodhicitta is no other than the Mahayana way. There is nothing that we can go beyond the Six Paramitas. Vajrayana is part of the Mahayana tradition. Within the Mahayana tradition, there is Vajrayana. And their bodhicitta practices and the emptiness perspective is also the same. Nevertheless, when it comes to how to realise emptiness, the method is different in Vajrayana.
THE THREE LEVELS OF REFUGE
THE OUTER REFUGE
The outer refuge means we generate faith and devotion toward the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Taking refuge in Buddha as the teacher, in the Dharma as the path, and in the Sangha as companions. This is the approach of the Basic Vehicle in refuge. Understand that Buddha, he himself has realised the absolute truth or reality. He is teaching us what he has realised, not something that he was told or taught, nor something that he created. His realisation is attained through the path of practice. Just like what Buddha did, we accumulate merits and approach the path, eventually we will realise the truth. That’s why Buddha is being taken as a teacher, as he showed us the path.
Dharma is the path or practices we take to realise the ultimate truth. We walk the path exactly as what Lord Buddha has laid before us through which he attained enlightenment. If we follow His teachings and practice accordingly, will lead to the same fruition.
Sangha is a noble community that sustains and propagates the teachings of Lord Buddha. We rely upon their encouragements and spiritual assistance along the way on our journey to enlightenment.
Every refuge prayer in Vajrayana contains few verses that carry the similar meanings … “may we attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings” … In this way, the refuge practices cover the Mahayana aspect of Bodhicitta that entails the compassionate wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all mother beings and to put that aspiration into action through one’s practices.
THE INNER REFUGE
The Inner Refuge is one step further, that linking it to the inner practices. This exists only in the Vajrayana tradition. Here, one generate the extraordinary devotion to the authentic guru, and engage one’s body, speech and mind, sincerely and purely, in serving the guru and practising the sublime Dharma under his guidance and blessings.
Then, one takes the meditation deities or yidams as support in one’s practices; and the dakinis as one’s companions in the path. One has the notion that the whole existence is the nature of emptiness, and whatever one see is a form of illusion. So, now the sense of understanding refuge is a little deeper. The entire phenomena is the mandala; the form is the deity, and the sound is the mantra. In this aspect, the Guru, Deva, Dakini became the inner refuge.
THE ULTIMATE REFUGE
The highest Secret Mantrayana way of understanding refuge is related to the true nature of mind. Realising the indestructible, unchanging natural state of one’s mind — the inherent co-emergence or primordial wisdom, is the ultimate refuge.
Therefore, a simple word of refuge encompasses the essential practices of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, including the highest aspect of the Dzogchen and Mahamudra ways of realising the true nature of mind in ultimate refuge. It covers all aspects of meditation in entirety. So, refuge, in the reality is very deep and profound. It is practically a complete spiritual journey.
Refuge taking ceremony is part of refuge. After taking refuge, there are commitments and things to be practised, such as not harming deliberately, knowingly. Respecting the Dharma, not abandoning them. Following the teaching of Buddha as much as possible. Remembering the Buddha-Dharma-Sangha often, and relying upon them with faith at all times, good and bad … Then, gradually we learn to rely on our own fate and karma.
Relying on them become an interesting theory later, because we do not believe Buddha is a creator, nor he creates everything. So, Buddha cannot change our fate. Relying on them means we are relying on their teachings, that their teaching’s messages are: “We are responsible for our own self.” Then, we start doing good deeds, abandoning negative actions that brought forth bad karma.
Thus, relying on them does not mean we just make them happy and closed our eyes doing nothing, and expecting everything will be ok. Relying on the is to rely on their teachings, their advises. Basically, their advises is that, “I cannot do anything for you. Your karma is your own karma, so you have to clean your karma. You are responsible for your own fate, and all your experiences are manifested according to your own deeds.”
So, gradually one learned and accepted that not the Three Jewels nor the Three Roots can grant one’s liberation or cure one’s sufferings. Nevertheless, by taking refuge in the Three Jewels, we receive their blessings and guidance to learn and practice the teachings accordingly, clarifying our doubts and pacifying the obstacles along the path. Through the two accumulations, karma purification and the blessings of one’s realised master, enlightenment is the fruition of our practices.
So, if you follow the refuge thoroughly, it is a complete path of Buddhist.
REFUGE AND ITS BASIC COMMITMENTS
Do not harm or do not kill is the first step of Buddhism. Because anger as an emotion, killing is an act resulted from a harming mind. This is the main focus of Buddhist, and that must be abandoned. Evil deeds or negative karma or whatever we called it; among all the emotions, this are the most important aspect that Buddha emphasised. The anger, is the Buddha main focus. Buddha often taught on this. Theravada practice is basically focused on this, not to kill, not to get angry; that’s their main focus or practices.
When you take refuge, that’s the samaya you focus on, not killing, not harming, not to be angry. Then you go one step up in Mahayana, not only not killing, but helping; not only not getting angry, but generating compassion. In order to take the next step, you must first master the first step. You cannot practice compassion without first abandoning the harming mind. Now, you are not just not doing the negative aspect, but you are engaging in the opposite of it. That’s why “Maha” means bigger, greater – bigger heart, greater aspiration. For example, I am not going to kill, but if I have a bigger heart, I am going to save. I want to engage; I want to protect; I can put my life at risk, as long as I can save. If I died, it doesn’t matter, I am ready. For that it required a bigger heart, bigger effort. Therefore, entering into the “Maha” vehicle is said to have taken a higher or further step, where you encompass the welfare of other in your heart.
Logically thinking, without abandoning the first part, the harming mind, how can we engage in helping? So, the primary refuge commitment, is not killing, not harming. As we enter into Mahayana, then, it’s bodhicitta. Helping other, generating bigger heart and greater mind to liberate all beings from samsara; sincerely concern for all beings.
However, Refuge and Bodhicitta do not stand as two separate things. In order to practice bodhicitta, you must first have refuge. Without refuge, you cannot practice bodhicitta. But without bodhicitta, you can practice refuge. In order to practice the higher yana, one must first complete the teachings of the basic yana. That’s why when you intend to follow Vajrayana, you must first go through refuge and bodhicitta before entering into the Tantrayana practices – the generation and completion stages; the transformation of the illusional existence into the mandala; the form as the deity and the sound as the mantra, etc. Whatever higher practice that you do, you cannot abandon Refuge and Bodhicitta, which is the heart and core of all practices.
THE PRACTICES OF REFUGE IN VAJRAYANA
All the teachings expounded by Lord Buddha Shakyamuni comes down to Refuge and Bodhicitta. Thus, it’s worthwhile investing your time and effort in building the correct and in-depth understanding on Refuge and Bodhicitta, which shall form the indestructible solid foundation for all advanced practices in the later stage.
If you do not comprehend the inner meaning of Refuge, you cannot even practice the Hinayana, let alone the Mahayana. If you have no inclination towards Bodhicitta, you are not qualified to enter the path of Mahayana, let alone Vajrayana. Refuge and Bodhicitta are like a perfect pair of wings; that’s capable of freeing oneself and other from the ever painful and tricky samsaric existence.
Refuge and Bodhicitta are completed in the preliminary practice of Vajrayana, called Ngondro – the Fourfold Hundred-Thousand Preliminaries. These practices consolidating one’s foundation, making the solid base for higher practices. In the beginning part of the Ngondro, is a refuge and bodhicitta practice with physical engagement. One verbally recites the refuge verses while physically prostrating and mentally visualising that all beings along with you taking refuge in the sublime objects worthy of refuge in the Refuge Merits Fields, including the Three Jewels and the Three Roots.