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Taking Refuge

Geshe Dakpa Topgyal
August 10, 2002

In order to take refuge, it is important to have a good understanding
of what is meant by refuge, to whom you take refuge, and why you are
taking refuge. It is important to understand what you think will change
in your life. If you believe refuge has the potential to change your
life, what role will it take; what difference will it make?

The refuge ceremony is a formal ceremony in which an individual
officially becomes a Buddhist. At the same time, it is a formal ceremony
in which an individual chooses to become a good human being, at least by
changing some negative behaviors that are harmful to spiritual life,
harmful to relationships with others, by changing habits that cause
injury to yourself or others – from that very day.


When you take refuge, you openly, sincerely accept Buddha as the
ultimate teacher. That does not mean other teachers are not qualified.
However, as far as your own spiritual self, you are choosing Buddha as
your ultimate teacher. You choose Buddha without a critical attitude to
other religious founders, such as Jesus or Muhammad.

At the same time, you openly, sincerely see the Dharma as the ultimate
refuge, Buddha as the ultimate teacher, and the Sangha as the ultimate
spiritual assistant.

Therefore, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are called the Three Jewels,
Triradna, or the "three precious."

In order to take refuge in Buddha and accept Buddha as your ultimate
teacher, it is important to understand what is meant by the word
"buddha," what makes someone a buddha, what are the unique spiritual
characteristics, inner qualities, and spiritual realizations.

All the spiritual qualities Buddha possesses makes Buddha a perfectly
valid person. All the spiritual qualities Buddha achieved through his
hardships, through many lifetimes, many years, makes Buddha a valid
person. By this I mean that Buddha is a trustworthy and reliable example
for you to follow. There is not the slightest element in him through
which you can be deceived.

If you think that you can't do this, wait. Maybe wait until next year.
If not next year, maybe next life. No rush. Just wait. There’s nothing
wrong in waiting.

In Tibet, we say you live 60 years, and in the first 20 years you study,
the next 20 you try to implement what you learn, you practice; and in
the last 20 years you see the positive effects of 20 years of study and
20 years of practice.

When you do a 15 to 20 minute meditation, when we do a one-hour or
two-hour teaching, every step brings you closer to your final
destination. When you are traveling from Charleston to Columbia, every
step brings you closer to Columbia. If you focus on one step and say,
"Oh, I have to go 110 miles," it's discouraging.


Dharma means nothing more than the teachings of the Buddha. When we talk
about taking refuge in the Dharma, the main thing is realizing the
spiritual benefits of the teachings of Buddha. He gave a complete
spiritual map to enlightenment.

In order to take refuge in the Dharma, you must have a conventional
understanding that all that Buddha taught, these realizations, are
achievable, attainable. This is not mere faith, mere dogma.

For example, we explain shamata meditation as a single-pointed focus on
one object or one breath. When we reach a single-pointed focus very
deeply, we lose sense of duality, of the perceived object and the
perceiver as separate. When we see that is achievable, we have a glimpse
of nonduality. If we keep practicing consistently, we know a nondual
mind is achievable, that this is not faith, not dogma.

Nirvana is achievable, enlightenment is achievable by every individual
human being. And then we see, yes, Dharma is an actual refuge. Dharma is
a refuge and a remedy for samsaric problems. We see that Dharma will
work as the ultimate remedy for samsaric problems only when we use it
within ourselves.

When a doctor prescribes medicine, you have to use the right dose at the
right time. Once the healing power of the medicine is in your system, it
works. If you follow spiritual instructions and practice, in the form of
internalizing, you make Dharma a part of yourself, a part of your mental
continuum. Inner transformation of your psycho-physical system occurs.
Buddha said, "I give you instructions on how to get to liberation and
enlightenment. Now, it is in your own hands." Buddha never said, "Well,
I'm here. You can sleep, and the next day you'll be enlightened." He
said, "You are your own protector. No one can become your protector."
In order to take refuge in the Dharma, you need a conventional
understanding that all Dharma material is achievable and attainable.


The relative sangha is people like ourselves who follow the same
spiritual path, have the same interests, the same lineage, the same
spiritual goals to reach. You form a group based on mutual interests and
goals. The members of that group are called a sangha.
But the members of our group, the relative sangha, this is not the
sangha you take refuge in. You take refuge in the ultimate sangha. The
ultimate sangha is composed of individuals who have already reached the
Path of Seeing and have had a direct experience of emptiness. Such
individuals are called arya.
When I was in Europe, I met people who thought refuge was taken with the
relative sangha. But we are ordinary beings and engage in fights and all


Finally, when you take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha,
you sincerely and honestly make an open promise to follow in the
footsteps of the Buddha.

The decision to take refuge must come from the individual. It should not
be based on your friends taking refuge. Thinking, "My friends are taking
refuge; maybe I will also," that is not a healthy decision.

At the same time, thinking refuge will automatically change your life is
also a mistake. Nothing will happen unless you follow the refuge
precepts. Tibetans say, "No work, no food." My mother says, "When there
is something to eat, there is something to work." This is my mother, not

Question: If you take refuge, you become a refugee. You leave your own
country and go to another. Maybe I need more explanation of the term.
Answer: When you take refuge in Buddhism, you participate. Don’t think
you are taking shelter. When a hurricane comes, you go to a safe
building. You don’t "participate" with that building. When you take
refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, you participate in the
Three Jewels.

Question: It is still going for safety, isn't it?
Answer: You've selected a way or means to protect yourself from what you
are trying to escape: delusions and samsara. You are selecting a new
method or means in yourself to escape delusions and samsara, a new
method of living that takes you closer to nirvana and away from samsara,
a new technology, a new way of life, a new way of thinking.

Question: Does taking refuge add strength to your practice?
Answer: Yes, depending on how serious and sincere an individual is. You
can bring a special effort with positive effects to your spiritual
practice by making a special commitment to participate in the refuge

Question: What is an arya?
Answer: Some people think "buddha" is somebody's name. But buddha is not
the name of a person, but the name of a state, the highest form of
spiritual realization. Someone who has reached that state is called a
buddha, named Buddha on the basis of spiritual realizations. Historical
Buddha Shakyamuni was a buddha based on his realizations. In the same
way, an arya is anyone who has reached a certain spiritual state. Just
as "president" is the name of an office or status, an arya is someone
who has reached the Path of Seeing, who has experienced a direct
realization of emptiness.

Question: What is the direct realization of emptiness?
Answer: Someone who has gained a direct realization of emptiness is only
free from 112 delusions: attraction, anger, those things. Someone who
has achieved a direct experience of emptiness is free from the 112
delusions, which are called intellectual or conceptual delusions.
There are two types of delusions: conceptual delusions and innate
delusions. An arya is free from conceptual, constructed delusions but
not innate delusions.

Question: What are the basics that you expect us to know to be ready for
Answer: The primary precept of taking refuge is to follow the law of
karma. You must have a basic understanding of what karma is.
We are, ourselves, responsible for both our happiness and our
unhappiness. Unhappiness arises from our unhappy way of living.
Happiness arises from our healthy or positive way of living. That means
whatever we think, whatever we do carries a long-term, positive,
affecting force. Whatever negative thing we think or do brings a
long-term, negative, affective force.

Based on that understanding, when you participate in the refuge
ceremony, you are making a fresh spiritual commitment to follow the law
of karma by abandoning negative habits and consciously cultivating
positive habits.

You abandon the negative habit of killing; you adopt the positive habit
of helping save life. You see that both actions have consequences, one
an undesirable consequence, one a desirable consequence.

In the same way, the condition of tomorrow's life is based on today’s.
If you do a terrible, bad thing that morning, in the evening your sense
of being is disturbed. What you eat tastes like rubber. You experience
all sorts of discomfort. You fail to bring your sense of being into a
comfortable state, and you fail to have a good night's sleep. You wake
up in a bad mood, go to work in a bad mood. Your colleagues are unhappy,
and one day your boss fires you from your job, All that comes from that
single negative action, which brings a long-term, negative, affecting

Of course, in Buddhism, karma is a complicated subject. When you have a
complete understanding of karma and meditative experience of the law of
karma, you are capable of doing four things.

1.) Don't take any action that has a temporary benefit, but a long-term
negative consequence. For example, a huge tree is cut down. Is it
positive or negative? Who knows. The big company may say it is positive;
an environmentalist may say it is negative. Maybe you get money from
cutting down the tree; the money actually comes from a previous good
action. If a negative action brings immediate positive results, the law
of karma can seem deceptive.

The best thing is not to do that action. Choose to avoid actions that
have long-term consequences after a temporary benefit. For example,
deforestation may benefit our generation, but there are negative
consequences for future generations. We are like horses wearing

2.) Do take actions that have long-term positive results, even if there
is a temporary disadvantage. Perhaps you have the power to kill, and by
killing, you are temporarily safe and secure. Not killing because you
know you don’t have the power to kill, that is not practice. Having the
power and seeing the negative consequences and choosing not to act,
that’s real practice.

Once you have a good understanding and meditative experience of karma,
that subtle examination of yourself will come up before you engage in an
act. Currently, it never occurs in our mind to consider the consequences
of our actions. Karma is the ability to be aware of negative
consequences before indulging in an action.

Question: If your country is doing things that are bad, and you live
here and pay taxes, are you taking on bad karma?
Answer: Of course you are. But there are laws requiring you to pay
taxes, and the taxes are needed because they support good things in your
country. Mentally, you should try not to participate in the bad things.

Question: You can avoid negative karma by not mentally participating?
Answer: There is less karmic effect, a little less. Otherwise, some
collective effect is there.

3.) Don’t take any action that would disadvantage others and offer
advantages only to you.

4.) Do take actions that offer advantages to others, even if there is a
loss for you.

These are difficult, yes. I'm not saying it happens right away. In the
beginning, do as best as you can.

Those with an intellectual understanding and a meditative experience of
karma won’t need conscious effort to realize the affecting power and
force long-term of karma. This is the conclusion of Buddha’s teachings
on karma.

Question: It can be very difficult to judge what will be to the
advantage or disadvantage of yourself or others. How do you do that?
Answer: Subtle things are very difficult. This makes me laugh: One year
ago, in Charleston, some people didn’t want a big truck parking in the
neighborhood. They said the truck was noisy and hurt their property
values. The trucker said that he lived in the neighborhood and had
nowhere else to park his truck. The neighborhood association gave him a
special place to park.

We're only looking for our own benefit in such a situation. We’re not
concerned with the trucker’s problems; it's one-sided.

Question: Does your judgment improve with practice?
Answer: Yes, judgment improves as your sense of concern for others
increases. Initially, many negative side effects blind us.

Question: How do you get rid of bad karma?
Answer: Karma cannot arise without delusions. Once karma is there, you
cannot bring a result without delusion working as an incubator. For a
chicken to hatch from an egg, the mother has to sit on the egg. Karma
cannot function or manifest without delusion working as an incubator.
Which is serious? Delusion. Without delusion, karma cannot arise.
Without delusion, karma cannot function.

Even with no karma, if delusions are there, karma is ready to pop. We
cannot get rid of karma without getting rid of delusions.

Question: If you make a mistake, how do you get rid of karma?
Answer: Specific karma you can get rid of with intense purification
practice. Karma in general, you cannot get rid of without getting rid of

Question: How do you know if you're eligible for refuge?
Answer: I will not make the decision for you. If you come and ask me,
you will go back disappointed in your mind.

You should have a basic understanding of karma, refuge, the Four Noble
Truths, Buddha as a valid person, the effect of Dharma on your life, the
Sangha as your proven spiritual assistant. You should see Buddha as the
ultimate teacher, Dharma as the ultimate refuge, Sangha as the spiritual
assistant. I will ask if you accept the three as objects of refuge, and
if you say yes, you are qualified.

If you wait until you reach the level of Buddha, then the destruction of
the world will come!

Question: It's hard to know. You ask, "Do I know enough?" There is
Answer: By seeing Buddha, accepting Buddha as your ultimate teacher,
accepting the Dharma as the ultimate refuge, accepting the Sangha as
your spiritual assistant, by accepting these three things, are your
spiritual needs fulfilled or not? That’s the question.

If you think "Maybe, if I put Allah in also," or you suspect you need
Jesus or God, then you're not ready.

If all you need is these three things – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the
Sangha – you are ready and eligible for your first spiritual step in
Buddhism. If you say, "These three alone are not complete; I need a
little more than that," then I would say, "Wait and keep studying."
Bees are very clever. They only extract essence of a flower's nectar;
they don't judge the flower. It's a chronic disease, judging.

Read again the Four Noble Truths, study the meaning of karma and
refuge; then think; then make your decision. Taking refuge is mainly
about making a decision to be a good human being. A good understanding
of Buddhism will come on the basis of being a good human being.
You could say faith becomes an external ornament of a person, whose
nature is pretty, meaning goodness. Refuge is just a commitment or
promise to be a good human being. If you are ready to make that
commitment, then taking refuge is okay. That is the minimum commitment.

To be a good human being is to be compassionate to others as to the
self. First, you must see yourself as responsible for becoming a good
human before you make a commitment to make others happy. To do that, you
must avoid harmful actions.

This decision must come from the self. It should not be influenced by
friends, relatives or others manipulating, instigating, or influencing.