The late Lama Yeshe was a founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition and well-known Tibetan meditation and religious teacher.
Buddhist refuge is a process of
turning inward that begins with our
discovery of our own unlimited
potential as human beings.
Taking refuge is the first step on the Buddhist path to inner freedom, but it is not something new. We have been taking refuge all our lives, though mainly in external things, hoping to find security and happiness. Some of us take refuge in money, some in drugs. Some take refuge in food, in mountain climbing or in sunny beaches. Most of us seek security and satisfaction in a relationship with a man or a woman. Throughout our lives we have drifted from one situation to the next, always in the expectation of final satisfaction. Our successive involvements may sometimes offer temporary relief but, in sober truth, seeking refuge in physical possessions and transient pleasures merely deepens our confusion rather than ending it.
We should try to determine for ourselves whether or not our experiences have been beneficial. When we take refuge only in agreeable sensations or emotions, the problem of attachment is merely aggravated and we are sadly disenchanted because we expect lasting satisfaction from what turns out to be mere flickers of ephemeral pleasure. We take refuge in darkness and sink into even deeper darkness.
Buddhist refuge is a process of turning inward that begins with our discovery of our own unlimited potential as human beings. This discovery generates tremendous zeal for the development of our inborn wisdom-energy. Complete, perfect wisdom is Buddhahood. Perhaps the word ‘Buddha’ conjures up a remote and rather oriental image. But ‘Buddha’ is just a word, and it means a totally opened mind, as ‘opened lotus.’ When we finally realize our human potential and arrive at this total openness of mind, we become Buddhas.
However, at the outset we feel hopeless, helpless and incapable of self-improvement. Buddha seems to be somewhere in the sky, completely out of reach, and we are nothing. But this is not true; we should not underestimate ourselves. Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, was once even more confused than we are, but by discovering his own latent wisdom-energy he attained enlightenment. There are countless Buddhas, and all living beings have the innate capacity to unify their minds with the unsurpassable clarity of enlightenment.
During Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime, many people attained profound insight and experienced miraculous bliss as a result of merely seeing him. In spite of his bodily disappearance so long ago, we still benefit from the power of his wisdom and compassion. By cultivating our own latent powers and continuously developing our wisdom, we too can immensely benefit others. However much the world around us changes and our fortunes fluctuate, our inner world can remain stable and balanced when fortified by his profound understanding. Wisdom brings unfailing happiness, unlike those temporal objects of refuge which bring only tantalizingly brief and inconclusive moments of pleasure.
The three objects of refuge are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Taking refuge in the Buddha involves accepting the guidance of enlightened beings as the only remedy for the confusion and dissatisfaction of our present life. This is the only way we can realize our dormant capacity for attaining inner freedom. There are two aspects of refuge: the outer and the inner. Outer refuge means seeking guidance from living Buddhas, since we are unable to achieve liberation without a teacher. Buddhas also provide inspiration and are sublime models for us to emulate. When we contemplate the enlightened state, its reflection within our own mind fills us with joyful, radiant energy. This demonstrates that though at present we are not fully enlightened, the seed of Buddhahood is contained within each of us. Inner refuge is directed towards this seed of enlightenment, this inner Buddha-nature. We recognize that, ultimately, we are our own refuge.
If we are convinced that we are beyond hope and incapable of change, or if we think we are already perfect, then of course there is obviously no reason to take refuge. But if we honestly examine our minds, our way of life, and the pattern of our relationships we can clearly recognize our own spiritual sickness. The enlightened being we turn to at this point is in effect the doctor who diagnoses our ailments and restores us to perfect health.
The medicine prescribed by a Buddha is the Dharma. Dharma is wisdom: the wisdom that understands our own true nature, and reveals our own latent power of self-liberation. Taking refuge in Dharma means using that wisdom now. This will restore our hitherto obscured sense of human dignity and make us feel that we can, after all, do something positive about ourselves. Those who take deep refuge never feel lost or desperate. Refuge frees us from such mental states. As our self-respect and confidence increase, our relationships with others improve. Having discovered our own inner strength we also recognize and respect the Buddha-nature in others.
Dharma means understanding reality. Meditation and prayer are not Dharma; they are merely tools for reaching this inner wisdom. Even if we meditated all day, but totally lacked Dharma understanding, we would achieve precious little. Nor are religious texts Dharma; they are merely books about Dharma, means for communicating information about Dharma. True Dharma or religion is a personal experience that each of us must elicit from within himself alone. There is a Dharma bell within us and we should use it to awaken and activate our own dormant wisdom. Usually our mind is completely occupied with stale, unprofitable, repetitious thoughts: clutching at fantasies, and giving way to anger, jealousy or despair when they elude us. Practicing Dharma means ringing our inner wisdom-bill, being always on the alert and clearing away the refuse that clogs our mind, the attachments and addictions that haunt our daydreams. By making this our daily practice, we ourselves become Dharma; all our energy becomes Dharma wisdom. Then we are truly taking refuge, allowing the inner Dharma alone to regulate our lives.
The third object of refuge is the Sangha. Sangha consists of those who are endowed with wisdom. They are like the nurses and friends who help us to recuperate from an illness. Sangha is not only those who wear red or yellow robes, but also those friends who influence us beneficently. These spiritual friends energize and inspire us, and are therefore to be clearly distinguished from ordinary friends who hold us back. For example, everyone at this present meditation course comes from a different background and has a different outlook. But we have opened our hearts to each other and shared some profound experiences. We may in fact feel more warmly towards friends we have made here than towards older friends at home. Why is this? Because we sense a spirit of unity: together we have responded to the beauty of Dharma wisdom.
True spiritual friends support one another in their practice and promote each other’s growth in knowledge and awareness. We need support because we are so easily influenced by our environment and by the people around us. Let us suppose that I am a heavy drinker but have decided to take myself in hand and give the habit up. Then a friend says, “What a hot day! Let’s have a drink somewhere.” So I go with him that day, and again the next day, and soon I find myself back in the same old rut.
Moreover, in ordinary friendships we often confuse attachment with affection. For instance, my friend might show his apparent affection for me by suggesting that we go on a drinking bout together. If I decline, he might think me unfriendly and feel rejected, so I give in. This is how friends can bring us down. He didn’t use threats or force but by displaying the kind of affection that consists only of clinging and attachment, he led me into a situation I would rather have avoided. It is therefore essential that we develop the wisdom-eye that distinguishes true love from mere attachment, and that can see the difference between what benefits us and what harms us. We should rely entirely on this wisdom, rather than on our ever-fluctuating emotional responses.
I can clearly see the importance of spiritual friendship when I visit my students around the world. When they are among friends in the supportive environment of a meditation course, they are happy and enthusiastic. But after they leave and try to practice on their own, their energy slowly subsides, and by the time I see them again they are back in the doldrums. This shows our need for strengthening influences that keep our energy flowing in the right channels. Whatever persons provide this influence—be they Eastern or Western, white or black, male or female—are of the true Sangha.
It should be clear by now that the impulse to take refuge arises from seeing the necessity of developing our minds and cultivating our wisdom. Being Buddhist is an inner experience, and not one that can necessarily be measured by our outward behavior. I often meet people who hold no particular religious or philosophical views but who, in a quiet and simple way, take refuge in wisdom. They are sensitive to their own and to others’ needs and try to give their lives meaning by developing themselves and helping others. In my opinion, such people are buddhists, although they may never have heard of Shakyamuni Buddha or his Dharma.
Taking refuge is not difficult, but it would be a mistake to think that we can passively sit back and let Buddha, Dharma and Sangha do the work for us. Buddha said, “You are responsible for your own confusion, and you are responsible for your own liberation.” What saves us from confusion is our wisdom. If we take refuge while fully understanding the meaning of the three objects of refuge, our wisdom will grow and will of itself fill us with energetic determination to follow the path to liberation.
Once we have formally taken refuge, we assume a certain responsibility for our behavior. We should watch our mind and examine the inner process of action and reaction. “What is my mind doing now? What impulse is arising? When I act like this, what is the result?” For example, we should observe how others react when we utter empty, unnecessary words or when we talk without understanding what are we saying. Words are very powerful. Bodily communication also has a strong effect on others; our posture, our movements and our facial expression make a deep impression on other peoples’ minds. Since most of our problems involve other people, it is important to be aware of our behavior and to avoid harming anyone.
This process of action and reaction is called karma. Karma may seem like a technical philosophical term, but it is nothing other than our own experience. It tells us what results to expect from our actions, and thus plays a vital role in spiritual practice. We want to meditate and develop wisdom, but if we make no attempt to control our behavior and our distraught, scattered mind, we shall not get very far. For this reason we say, “Watch your karma.” We must act with discriminating wisdom in order to create the best internal conditions for achieving our aims.
To recapitulate: Buddha is the totally opened mind, the state beyond confusion; Dharma is the path of wisdom leading to that state; and Sangha consists of those who are endowed with wisdom and can help us along the way. It is our own lifelong dissatisfaction that impels us to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We realize that clinging to daydreams and physical possessions has never given us lasting joy. Therefore, in order to rid ourselves of this dissatisfaction and gain an understanding of reality, we take refuge in wisdom: the path to inner freedom.
But you should be careful neither to exaggerate your own problems nor to be concerned exclusively with taking refuge for yourself alone. Remember that all beings alike are confused and unhappy. Therefore, whenever you take refuge, visualize your mother and father at your side, your friends and relatives behind you, those who agitate you sitting beyond you, and all other beings surrounding you. With sympathy and loving-kindness think, “All living beings in the universe, including myself, have been in confusion since time without beginning, taking refuge in fictions and constantly encountering obstacles. Now I have the opportunity to develop my human potential and become unified with the omniscience of totally opened consciousness. Instead of listening to my confused, clinging mind, I shall listen to wisdom; this is the only way to liberate myself and all beings. For this reason I now take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Then visualize Shakyamuni Buddha before you: white light radiating from the crown of his head, red from his throat and blue from his heart. You can visualize your own spiritual teacher as this main object of refuge or, if it comes more naturally, Jesus Christ or another spiritual guide whom you revere as one who has transcended all delusion. Your object of refuge should be visualized in a gentle and loving aspect, and radiating the three colored lights. These rays of light flow into you and all the surrounding beings, and purify all negative energy, especially despair and self-degradation.
At this point a question may arise. “If taking refuge is a matter of relying on our own inner wisdom, why do we have a formal refuge ceremony? Why is this ritual necessary?” The answer is that it reminds us how critical the moment of taking refuge is: it marks our arrival at a crucial insight into our own nature. So many times in the past we have sought security in trivialities, but now we have discovered our innate capacity to fulfill the most exalted destiny of all: complete emancipation from suffering. We are determined that, from this moment on, rather than taking refuge in ephemeral fictions, we will take refuge in our own pure, clear wisdom-energy and set out on the path to liberation. The ceremonious action of taking refuge strengthens this determination.
© Lama Zopa Rinpoche, used with permission of Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. For further permission to use this article, contact Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive at info(at)LamaYeshe(dot)com.