Kagyu Changchub Chuling

A center for the practice and study of Vajrayana Buddhism founded by His Eminence Kalu Rinpoche

Refuge Vow

Who Takes Refuge?

Refuge is based upon three qualities:

1. Renunciation: This is the quality of being tired of ordinary existence, having concern about the lack of meaning in our life, and experiencing a deep feeling that something is missing. When these feelings have become sufficiently strong, we are willing to consider an alternative to the usual refuge we take in material things and ordinary relationships with family and friends. These common sources of refuge are not in any sense negative or bad in themselves, but are not capable of providing ultimate peace and happiness.

2. Orientation: Having recognized that our common sources of refuge are futile, and cannot afford us the security and peace we seek, we turn our minds to an entirely authentic alternative - Buddha, the teachings regarding the path to the realization of Buddha, and the inspiration of those who have already accomplished the path. This alternative refuge can be summarized here as a clear mind, completely pure and open heart. Since the meaning of this is multi-layered, it is important for each person to accept whatever their starting point is. Where we are is, in fact, the only workable situation at hand.

3. Determination: This is the active intent to pursue this alternative to ordinary existence. It has often been said that we need to cultivate our determination to the extent that we are willing to hold onto it even if our life is threatened.

Frame of Reference

In the Mahayana tradition, the frame of reference has two aspects.

1. Duration of the vow: In the Mahayana, the vow embraces the totality of experience. That is, it is in force for all experience, for all time, until enlightenment takes place. Since there are no time boundaries, we take the vow with the intention that it will be active in future existences.

2. Motivation behind the vow: Again, in the Mahayana, we take the vow with the intent and firm wish that whatever results from this will benefit all beings. This motivation, called bodhicitta, is of great importance in the Mahayana.

Sources of Refuge

The Three Jewels - Main Sources of Refuge

1. Buddha is the one who shows the way. The outer meaning of buddha is the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Having accomplished complete enlightenment, we say that he “showed the way.” Without his example and teaching we would not have the opportunity to practice the Dharma. The inner meaning of taking refuge in the buddha means to acknowledge and accept that our ultimate security and peace can and will be found only in our own mind, in the empty, clear awareness that is our primordial heritage. By clearing away the incidental stains of confusion and the sleep of ignorance, this empty, clear mind with all qualities of buddha nature fully developed becomes self evident. It is the intense feeling that no external reference will be a source of ultimate peace that drives us to take refuge in the buddha.

2. Dharma is the path. The outer meaning of dharma is the vast collection of teachings which have come down to us through the centuries. This includes the sutras, the tantras, the commentaries composed by later masters, and all the texts, oral instructions, guidelines, and sayings. These are called the instructional Dharma.

The inner meaning of dharma is something which happens when compassion, impermanence, non-self, emptiness, and other theoretical concepts become qualities we know experientially. They become part of our make-up and interaction with our world of experience. So, the instructional Dharma is mere words until actualized in our experience.

3. Sangha are the companions and guides for the path. The Sangha is two fold. First, there is the noble Sangha. This refers to great bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Manjushri, and others, figures who represent high levels of spiritual attainment, who inspire and guide us through both their symbolic example and through visionary experience. Second, there is the Sangha of human individuals. This refers to the actual people from whom we learn how to practice and with whom we share our experience and derive support and guidance. In the broadest sense, Sangha consists of all those individuals making the same journey as ourselves. The point here is not to create a structured community, but a companionship where we can and do receive support and guidance from each other without becoming dependent on others for our practice and well-being.

The Three Roots special to Vajrayana Refuge

1. The guru is the source of inspiration. The guru is our actual human contact, whose example inspires us and in whose presence we feel directly the effect of awakened mind. That presence awakens something in us, a sense of being something more than simply habitual patterning. This explicit recognition is, in a sense, the essence of empowerment and blessing. When this is clear in us, we have no choices but to travel the path, so the guru is the source of this inspirational blessing. Further, refuge in the guru means not only our own guru but the gurus of the transmission lineage, since each of them plays a role in this awakening of our own potential.

2. The yidam is the source of attainment. The yidams, meditational deities, are expressions of awakening mind. Through our meditation practice, we form a close personal relationship with them and their energy suffuses our being and experience of the world. In effect, we become the yidam and cease to experience the world as ordinary habituated beings. This free understanding and increased scope of skillful action contain both the seed and fruit of attainment.

3. The protector is the source of enlightened activity. The protectors are further expressions of awakened mind, expressions which arise in the world around us, in our experience, and  act as reminders to be awake. This constant play of activity which creates conditions for us to practice and averts disruptive conditions can be very direct and dramatic or very subtle and seemingly inconsequential. A cardinal principle is the more messages we miss, the louder they become. This manifestation of awakened mind is often depicted in wrathful forms to illustrate the tremendous power and immediacy of awakened mind when it manifest directly in our world of experience.

Three Activities to Stop

1. Taking refuge in worldly attainments: This means to abandon regarding anything other than the open clear awareness of our own mind as a source of ultimate security or peace.

2. Harming other beings: The key here is intent. It is obviously impossible not to harm others in the course of life in the modern world, whether it is driving and watching bugs smash on our windshield or getting a contract or job which someone else was trying for. The essential point is that we don’t harm people or beings intentionally as much as possible. Where it is clearly necessary for health, nutritional or other reasons, we do what we have to with full knowledge and full acceptance of responsibility. Shuffling off extermination of cockroaches onto someone else, for example, in no way  reduces our involvement.

3. Associating with non-spiritual people: The essence of this point is to recognize that in having taken refuge, our basic orientation in life is different. That is, we are internally
committed to the cultivation of awareness or buddha nature, and thus our goals and purpose are significantly different from someone who feels, for example, that money is everything. Thus, while we may do business, have friendships, etc., with many people holding such ideas, we don't allow their perspective to influence what is at the heart of our own life.

Three Activities to Develop

1. Honoring of buddha: Develop an attitude such that all depictions of buddha instantly remind us of what is truly meaningful. Thus, it is appropriate to honor and treat them with

2. Confidence in the Dharma: In the deepest sense this means to bring the understanding of the Dharma into oneself.

3. Respect and support for the sangha: The first point here is to honor, respect, and support those who have taken monastic ordination regardless of their actual ability or character. The monastic sangha has been the base of the teaching through the centuries and will continue to play an important role. The second point is to honor, respect, and support those from whom we receive guidance and instruction. As Gampopa said, 'the human teacher is the most important one since we initially have no contact with other avenues of guidance.'

Three General Points

1. Offerings and respect for the Three Jewels: The form this takes is a matter of personal inclination. There is definite merit in maintaining a shrine in one's home, but, perhaps equally, taking the time on a daily basis to reflect on refuge and the role of the three jewels in one's life is also effective. To make actual monetary or physical offerings and to express one's respect physically as in bowing are important points; they prevent subtle and not so subtle patterns of pride and attachment from remaining fixed.

2. Repetition of vow on daily basis: The most important point about refuge is not to forget that one has made this commitment to oneself in the presence of a teacher. The vow serves as a reminder that we have, in fact, taken our spiritual awakening as the foundation of our life.

3. Work with a spiritual friend and follow the way of the Dharma: These are the practical steps. A key point here is that refuge be viewed as part of the path rather than an enthusiastic response to an initial impulse.

Written by Michael Conklin, based upon refuge notes compiled by Ken McLeod 1992

This Week at KCC