The Meaning of Refuge
by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche
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 favourable.
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 realise 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 favourable and unfavourable 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 skilful 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 favourable 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 skilful 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 utilise many skilful 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 utilise 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 practising 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 realise 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 realise 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 endeavours. 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 authorised 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. Authorisation is needed because, no matter how realised 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.