In order to explore our Buddha nature and begin the journey toward enlightenment, you must understand the meaning of taking refuge. To take refuge daily is the most essential practice of all schools of Buddhism.
The Tibetan word for refuge is skyabs which actually means having a sense of closeness, full confidence, a warm feeling and trusting attitude toward the Buddha, his teaching and those who are devoted to making the teaching a living experience.
In the ngöndro practice we recite the refuge vow right after chanting the four thoughts which clarify the nature of samsara; in the light of this understanding, we take refuge. The Indian Dzogchen master Vimalamitra said, “Knowing clearly the situation in samsara as well as the qualities of enlightened beings, we can go for refuge.” First we must know the nature of samsara. There is nothing here we can rely on, take comfort in or plan to stay with. Everything is always changing and moving. Troubles follow one after another continuously, as if you’re in a tunnel which you have to dig by hand. Discouraged by the situation, the mind becomes unstable. In the face of this, we learn to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This has many levels of meaning, but the act of going for refuge should always be accompanied by a feeling of closeness, warmth, and confidence. That’s the basic nature of taking refuge.
Love, faith and a sense of intimacy in relation to the Three Jewels open us to their influences which are of great assistance in removing our obscurations. Ignorance attachment, anger, jealously, doubt and pride are all obstacles which create uncomfortable situations for us throughout our lives. We must work to remove, transform, or purify them: we can’t just leave them like they are. They are the source of all our difficulties, bringing imbalances and troubles constantly. We have to look at them and deal with them. On the external level we can call on experts, people who can really help us change, those who have trod the path. All the buddhas and bodhisattvas were originally the same as we are. They were not higher or lower than normal sentient beings. However, through their extraordinary motivation, courage, commitment, and joyful efforts, they have become free of all negative emotions and mental obscurations, revealed their Buddha nature, and realized total enlightenment. When we seek assistance on the relative level, the buddhas have the knowledge and skills to purify our emotions and solve our problems so that we may become like them. That is the external aspect of taking refuge.
What is the nature of the Buddha? The Buddha nature is totally enlightened, completely free of all obscurations and habit patterns, radiant with love and compassion, and full of wisdom. That reality is known as the Buddha. When you are liberated from emotions, and are without mental obscurations, you are already naturally loving, compassionate and wise. These qualities are inherent in our being, as the Buddha clearly demonstrated. Buddhahood is not some novelty which the Buddha developed. He became enlightened through the destruction of all fetters and obstacles. That is the meaning of Buddha.
The Dharma is the method or body of techniques which help us awaken true love, genuine compassion and wisdom free from ego-clinging and neurotic games. Universal, unconditional love, selfless compassion, and transcendent wisdom pervade all samsaric beings, no matter their situation. The dharmic point of view is without divisions into higher or lower, close or distant. Everyone has the Buddha nature, everyone needs love, compassion and wisdom and nobody enjoys being subject to anger, jealously, pride, pain and so on. This knowledge is called the Dharma. It is a message of freedom which offers us techniques to purify all obscurations and totally reveal the ultimate state of the Buddha nature, the perfection of love, compassion, wisdom and peace.
The Sangha refers to those who practice the Dharma, who carry it in their hearts and minds, applying it according to their capabilities, joyfully, with courage and commitment. Some sangha members have a high degree of love, compassion and wisdom and some are only beginners, but all are motivated toward enlightenment, dedicated to the realization of benefits for all sentient beings. Also, the sangha can take the form of an individual who has some realization and begins to share and inspire other beings. That too is sangha. These companions serve as a source of inspiration and joy, setting examples for others to follow on the path toward enlightenment.
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha
Buddham saranam gacchami.
Dharmam saranam gacchami.
Sangham saranam gacchami
Sangye la kyab su chi-o
Chö la kyab su chi-o
Gendun la kyab su chi-o
The objects of refuge are the Three Jewels or the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Who is taking refuge? Individuals are motivated to take refuge on the basis of their own interest, feeling of warmth, closeness, and confidence in the Three Jewels. No one can be pressured or forced into taking refuge. It only happens through individual joyful effort, by opening your heart and mind to the Buddha as your teacher, the Dharma as your path and the Sangha as your community of spiritual friends. That’s the true meaning of taking refuge and the way we should perceive the Three Jewels. We take refuge out of love for the teacher, the teaching and our companions. By means of this endeavor, we begin to explore and reveal our Buddha nature.
How long will we take refuge? Until we are enlightened. At that point, we will no longer need to take refuge externally. We’ll actually embody the objects of refuge. The notion of taking refuge is transcended when you become enlightened. That’s the general meaning of taking refuge as defined in the Buddha’s teachings.
In the special terminology employed in the Vajrayana, the inner objects of refuge are called the guru, deva and dakini or the lama, yidam and khandro and are referred to as the Three Roots. According to the inner tantra, we can distinguish three levels; externally we take refuge in the Three Jewels, internally we take refuge in the Three Roots and secretly we take refuge in the rtsa, rlung and thig-le, or the channels, winds and essence elements of the body.
To unite subject and object requires effort, so you must generate some activity when going for refuge in the most external sense. However, from the Dzogchen point of view, there is what is known as “refuge without effort.” This is also known as the ultimate or most secret object of refuge which is to take refuge within one’s own true nature of mind, to abide in the union of emptiness and clarity. To do this, we need a sense of being very close to the objects of refuge and to feel the energy of love and happiness in that relationship.
As sentient beings, we do not live in harmony with our original nature. Having wandered for a long time in samsara, we are unfamiliar with the truth. Enamored by our projections, we do not have much insight into our own mental events. Through actions based in dualism we separate ourselves from the true nature and become confused and deluded. In one way, taking refuge is returning to your own home, to the essence of who you really are, so you can learn how to be at ease here. Of course you can come and go as you please, it’s just that you’ve finally arrived at your permanent address. Knowing where you live inspires great confidence and joy, freedom beyond doubt and the cycle of hopes and fears. You have realized the ultimate state of democracy!
This is the prayer to say when you take refuge:
DI ZUNG JANG CHHUB NYING POR CHHI KYI BAR
From this moment until attaining the essence of enlightenment,
LAMA KÖN CHHOK SUM LA KYAB SUCHHI (3X)
I take refuge in the Lama, who is the Three Jewels.
Initially, the objects of refuge appear to be external. This is the ground and foundation. At first we need to get oriented on the ground, the earth; then we can begin to move. Do not just gaze off into the sky. We must learn to combine the realities of the sky and earth together; we cannot just deal with one half of the world. If you fixate on the sky you will stumble and hurt your self.
Taking refuge is important. All of the Buddha’s teachings are contained within the practice of taking refuge. What exactly did the Buddha teach? All his teachings relate directly to the realities of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The whole teaching is subsumed by these three topics! The Three Jewels are the embodiment of his entire communication. It is necessary to open ourselves with joy and confidence, to make an intimate, heartfelt connection with the objects of refuge, and then maintain this bond throughout all our daily activities.
The great master Atisha came to Tibet around the 11th century. Externally, his foremost practice was taking refuge. He recited the refuge formula all of the time and offered this teaching to many Tibetans. Because he chanted these lines constantly, many people thought this was all he knew. So they called him the Refuge Teacher. But long before Atisha came to Tibet, he already understood all of the Buddha’s teachings. Moreover, he knew many of the sciences of his time. He was the headmaster of Vikramashila monastic university which was like a twin to Nalanda. Given all of that, why did he focus on the refuge? Because he was fully aware of its importance in firmly establishing sentient beings on the ground of practice. Therefore, in communicating with the Tibetan people, Atisha emphasized the supreme virtue of taking refuge.
Another famous Tibetan master who lived around the 15th century, was a renowned Nyingma yogi whose name was Thangtong Gyalpo whose name means “the king of empty land.” Having constructed one hundred and eight iron bridges spanning big rivers throughout Tibet, he was also known as the “Iron Bridge Builder.” Modern scientists have investigated his work and believe that he was the first man to build iron bridges on such a scale. He was also a famous terton, who sported a long white beard and top-knot. He is depicted holding a vase and an iron chain in his right hand. Nobody knows how he was paid or what sort of techniques he used, but the bridges have not rusted, and some of these structures are still in use. Even the communist regime has expressed their appreciation of his efforts, citing him as one of the only practitioners who actually worked for the common welfare. They like to promote him as an example of their socialist philosophy. His main teachings and practice consisted of taking refuge and reciting the six-syllable mantra of Avalokitesvara. He also added one more to the three objects of refuge–the Lama–so that it now reads: I take refuge in the Lama, the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha. This style of taking refuge grew very popular, with the result that all of the lay people in Tibet now say, “I take refuge in the Lama and the Three Jewels.”
According to the Vajrayana, these Three Roots, Three Jewels and Three Objects of Refuge are all present in the form of Guru Padmasambhava. The body of Guru Padmasambhava represents the Sangha. His speech represents the Dharma. The realization state of Guru Padmasambhava represents the Buddha. In this way Guru Rinpoche is the embodiment of the Three Jewels as well as the Three Roots. Guru Padmasambhava is our root teacher, like the lama. The realization state of Guru Padmasambhava, his love, compassion, kindness and wisdom, all represent the deity or yidam. His beneficial activities for all sentient beings of the ten directions and three times are known as dakinis, while those aspects which continue to protect and remove obstacles, are known as dharmapalas. In a very simple and convenient way, Guru Rinpoche alone is enough to take as our object of refuge.
Commentary on Ngöndro Practice according to
The New Treasure of Dudjom
by The Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
Padma Shungchang (Craig Bialick) 1999