Refuge, Renunciation, and the Four Noble Truths

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

Once we have a clear understanding of whom we take refuge with, to what purpose we take refuge and why the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha are qualified to be the ultimate source of refuge, then it's possible that enlightenment or Buddhahood is achievable. Each one of us has the same spiritual potential. Enlightenment is achievable by every human being, regardless of their current situation. The possibility of enlightenment is always there. But remember that enlightenment is not a destination or physical place where we go to abandon the physical or material world.

We must sincerely and honestly work for our enlightenment, based on our clear understanding of who Buddha is and what the dharma and sangha are. We must work with a teacher, with logical analysis, and with the help of meditation. Only two principal types of meditation exist: shamata and vipassana. Within the vipassana meditation is a strong element of analysis. Within shamata meditation is a tranquil calmness; it is a calm, abiding meditation without the care of thought. In shamata, there is the distinct quality of knowing something without thinking.

With the help of these two meditation techniques, enlightenment is achievable by every human being. Taking refuge is very simple. It is the active act of putting trust in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, with your heart open to their spiritual guidance.

Although you may put your trust in and open your heart to the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, you may have a sense something is not yet complete, that you still seek other forms of refuge. If you are still looking for some other form of refuge, there is something wrong; you should not be there. If you have that feeling when you take refuge, the act is not complete.

Consider marriage as an example. If you are preparing to marry, but deep down you aren't fully satisfied with your partner, if you're still looking, searching, then something is wrong right from the beginning. So, if you have doubts, ask questions.

Precepts of refuge

The precepts are divided into two: negative precepts - as in, don't do - and affirmative or prescriptive precepts - as in, do this.

First, it is most important, once you have taken refuge, to always make an effort to get teachings from living masters and to see in that living master manifestations of Buddha.

Second, once you take refuge, you should not cause harm to another living being. The basis of the dharma is compassion, so you should not cause harm.

Third, once you take refuge in the sangha, you should treat all sangha members in a respectful manner.

Some of the proscriptive precepts

  1. Once you take refuge in Buddha, you should not differentiate among representations of Buddha. You should have the same attitude toward all, whether they're made of clay or gold.

  2. If you borrow money and put up collateral, you must not put up the image of Buddha or pawn the image of Buddha. You should be respectful of all dharma materials, including texts. Don't put a book about the dharma or a thangka on the floor or in the bathroom. If you haven't taken refuge, you could treat these objects as you would any other object; once you have taken refuge, you must treat them with respect.

  3. Once you have taken refuge in the sangha, you should not seek out or associate with other non-Buddhists. In the time of Buddha, there were many reasons for this. The main thing to consider now is that it's not effective to share each other's views, particularly if each side is not open to the other. There might be problems. You can still have a good lunch together!

Altogether, the conclusion is that once you have taken refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, you must live life in accord with Buddhism's ethical discipline and the principles of karma.

Ritual for refuge

The ritual for refuge is simple, a ceremony that lasts fifteen to twenty minutes and involves four things.

  1. If you decide to ask for refuge, it must be of your own free will, not because you were forced or because your friends are asking for refuge.

  2. Once the request for refuge is accepted, you will be asked to explain why you are taking refuge, how you set your mind, generated special intention or motivation to take refuge. There should be some form of renunciation. You should understand that the world in which we're living is full of suffering; that is the world's nature. Your five senses provide you experiences with suffering. You should have some understanding of the impermanence of reality. And you should have some sense that as long as you remain imperfect in this imperfect world, there will be no room for peace.

  3. You will put your right knee on the floor, your two hands on your raised left knee, and enter a meditative state. The lama will recite the refuge poem, and you will repeat it, three times in all. Then the lama will click his fingers, and at that exact moment, you will receive refuge.

  4. At the sound of the click, you should remain in your meditative state, but at the same time you should be overwhelmed by a strong and powerful feeling. You should rest in that feeling for a few seconds. Then you will take your seat and receive your refuge name.


Renunciation means giving up something. Many think this means giving up the material world. That is a misunderstanding. You are not giving up your husband or wife and friends. If you misunderstand, you will have a false renunciation. You will lose your normal ability to function in your normal life in a normal world. That is not good.

In France, one guy thought renunciation meant giving up everything, even giving up showers for years. He failed to function in society. That is false renunciation. Yes, renunciation means giving up something, giving up the old habit of being attached. Renunciation means understanding that you can remain in the physical world without being attached to its pleasures or sorrows. The material world becomes a source of pain not because there is a physical world, but because of our emotions of attachment, of unrealistic expectations.

Our perceptions are projected on external objects, and the objects appear the way we project them to be. If we see the physical world with delusions of anger, we'll find what we're looking for. That person or object will appear the way the deluded mind wants; it will appear hostile.

We will find ourselves only moving from old problems to new problems. It becomes a way of living, simply changing old problems into new problems. You can say all our sense pleasures are in fact the beginnings of our new cycle of suffering. So, if we don't give up the old habit of attachment, simply running from the material world won't solve basic problems.

Thus, renunciation is a spiritual act, a shifting of our focus from samsaric pleasure to nonsamsaric pleasure. Samsaric pleasures are all forms of pleasure dependent on external circumstances. Nonsamsaric pleasure means peace and happiness which do not lead to craving for more.

Ordinarily, we are consumed, addicted to sensory pleasures, without which we believe there would be no meaning to life. But without renunciation, it would be very difficult to improve the quality of our spiritual path. Spiritual practice eases our pollution by mundane thoughts and concerns. Renunciation is a gateway to liberation. And renunciation must develop based on an understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment at the age of 35. For the next 45 days he did not give teachings. Then, he gave teachings for 46 years. At the age of 81, he passed away. He gave three rounds of public teachings, the Tridharmachakra (or the three wheels of dharma), that are historically recorded. The first public teaching was held in Varanasi. The explicit subject matter of the first dharmachakra on the Four Noble Truths was the essence, the bottom line of the entire Buddhist teachings, whether Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana.

When Buddha gave his first public teaching, he wanted his message to reach Hinayana students. His second teaching was on emptiness. And his third teaching was on emptiness.

Buddha's first teaching: message to Hiniayana students

In his first teaching, he wanted to reach Hinayana students, who believe the individual liberation of a seeker is based on the seeker's spiritual capacity. The Four Noble Truths say, instead, that the four truths are the sufficient path to individual liberation. Buddha taught about selflessness. People in the West confuse selflessness with emptiness. Selflessness is sufficient to reach individual liberation, but not enough to reach Buddhahood.

Here, things become very complicated. We are going from the small village to the big city! Theravada is one of the Hinayana schools. The Hinayana school has 18 subdivisions; Theravada is one of them. Theravada has survived; the other 17 subdivisions died out. Because of that, some equate Theravada and Hinayana.

At the time of Buddha's teachings, of course, these schools didn't exist. There were four levels of mind or intellectual understanding. The names and schools came afterward. "Hina" means small. "Maha" means great. "Yana" means vehicle. But this shouldn't be taken literally, as insulting. "Small" here refers purely to an individual's spiritual motivation.

Buddha's second teaching: emptiness of inherent

The second public teaching was on emptiness, the emptiness of inherent existence. Things don't have one fixed, ultimate resting place. If they had one fixed resting place, they would have inherent existence; they would be self-sustaining. If this cup exists inherently or has the quality of inherent existence, it should exist as a cup before we name it "cup." Jack should exist as Jack before his parents named him Jack, but we know that if someone named him George, we would know him as George.

Buddha's second teaching: emptiness external existence

His third public teaching was on the emptiness of external existence. His teachings took into regard his listeners' abilities to understand without falling into nihilism or eternalism.

There are four schools: Vaibhasika (pronounced vie-bah-she-kah); Sauvatantika (pronounced sowa-tan-tee-kah); Cittamatra (pronounced chee-tah-mah-tra), and Madhyamaka (pronounced mad-gee-yah-mah-kah). The first two are Hinayana; the second two are Mahayana. The first two mainly search for individual liberation. The second two are not fully satisfied with individual liberation, but are looking for more, for full enlightenment in addition to individual liberation. What is meant by individual liberation? How is it different from enlightenment? Individual liberation means you have achieved cessation of manifested delusions or emotions, and for your own spiritual interests or well-being that is enough for moksha/nirvana.

But individual liberation is not enough for Cittamatra or Madhyamaka. Members of these schools are not satisfied with attaining individual liberation; they are looking for more than that. With individual liberation, although the manifested emotions or delusions are ended, a subtle residue is left behind in the mindstream. It disturbs, interferes with helping others.

More than compassion or karuna is necessary. Mahakaruna is necessary. Compassion is simply restraining yourself from harming others; it does not include taking responsibility for others. Mahakaruna is not just restraint; it is actively helping. Without mahakaruna, you don't realize the subtle residue exists and interferes with helping others. A lack of great compassion is destructive.

This residue left after individual liberation is not physical. Imagine that it's like garlic; leave garlic in a jar for a few days, and even after you remove it, the smell of garlic remains. Obscurations of liberation include all forms of manifested emotions and delusions and obscuration to knowledge, which includes subtle residue. The residue causes you to repeat similar emotions in the future. The more you get angry, for example, the more likely you are to get angry. A great danger to individual liberation is that you would achieve liberation from manifested emotions and delusions, reach moksha or nirvana and be so consumed by the bliss or happiness of individual liberation that you would forget the rest of the world.

The Schools

Cittamatra means "mind only." The Mind-Only school accepts or believes or asserts that the mind exists inherently and the rest of the world is simply projections of the mind.

Madhyamaka says that philosophical stance is incorrect and falls into nihilism. Neither the mind nor the physical world exists inherently. Each is interdependent, the knower and the known. Buddha's second public teaching was on the emptiness of inherent existence, which all four schools accept. His third public teaching was on the emptiness of external existence. His teachings took into regard his listeners' abilities to understand without falling into nihilism or eternalism.

The First Truth says life is full of suffering; the Second Truth establishes the cause of suffering; the Third Truth establishes the possibility of cessation; the Fourth Truth establishes the path out of suffering. The First and Second Noble Truths are an independent set of cause and effect, as are the Third and Fourth Noble Truths. The First and Second Noble Truths teach us that we are caught in samsaric existence or fundamental confusion. The Third and Fourth Noble Truths provide the ways and means to get out of samsaric existence.

The first truth says that life is suffering. Many think Buddhism is too pessimistic, negative, depressing. That's because, right from the beginning, Buddhism mentions suffering. But if we take time to examine life, we must say, yes, life is suffering. Without studying the Four Noble Truths, it might be difficult to understand suffering or to understand real happiness. That's because we actually confuse suffering and happiness. If we don't understand the true meaning of suffering and the nature of samsara, it will be difficult to understand why renunciation is important.

There are two types of suffering: physical and mental. When Buddha says life is suffering he means both what we consider suffering and what we ordinarily consider happiness. Both are based on our own imperfect existence. Our imperfect existence itself is the cause of suffering. I will mention three types of suffering.

The three types of suffering

You suffer because you are in physical pain. Our true existence is suffering, plus we think we are suffering more. Second, the suffering of change. Third, the suffering of pervasive conditioning.

Question: Can we do the refuge prayer said at the beginning of teachings if we have not taken refuge?

Answer: It isn't negative to do so, but the words of the prayer can be mere words.

Question: When we say the refuge prayer and we're here with you, is it positive for us?

Answer: It's positive more in general than positive for a specific person.

Question: What was the timing of the Tridharmachakra?

Answer: All three took place in northern India in the space of one year. The public teachings were not Tantric; Tantric teachings were given to only a few people and not in public.

Question: What school are you?

Answer: The Tibetan view is the Madhyamaka view. And I hold this view.

Question: How are the Vaibhasika and Sauvatantika schools different?

Answer: In terms of philosophy, they aren't different. They do have different texts.

Next time, we will talk more about the Four Noble Truths and the different schools. If you don't know about the different schools and you try to study more in depth, there will be more than suffering, there will be maha-suffering!