Review of Karma and Introduction to Refuge

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

Once we have a basic understanding of the Buddhist concept of karma, of the karmic results of what we think and what we do, it’s possible for day-to-day life to come under spiritual discipline. We understand cause and effect and see a direct connection between our actions and their consequences. When our day-to-day living exhibits spiritual discipline, we have less tendency to engage in unwholesome activity. We make a more conscious effort to engage in wholesome activity. We endeavor to cause less harm to others.

In general, we tend to seek our own happiness at the cost of others. We serve our own interests even if we cause harm to others in the process. We stop that when we understand how we create karma and then undergo undesirable consequences. This helps improve our quality of life. Even when we understand that it is best not to engage or indulge in unwholesome activities, we may still make mistakes. If we do, it is important to acknowledge wrong as wrong, negative as negative.


It is often difficult for use to acknowledge we are wrong, but understanding karma helps. When we do something wrong we must take two steps.

  1. We must acknowledge wrong as wrong and negative as negative.

  2. We must engage in a practice to purify our negative deeds or karmic imprint.

The purification practice is designed to destroy the potential of the karmic seed, so the karmic seed won’t bear results. A seed has potential to grow; if we throw it in a fire, it loses its potential. So, too, with karmic seeds and the purification practice. You may choose your purification practice based on your spiritual abilities.

  1. Meditation. The meditation on emptiness is the most effective, most powerful, and most difficult of the practices. First, you must have an intellectual understanding of emptiness. A meditation on nothingness is not a meditation on emptiness.

  2. Reading and reciting sutras. You may read and recite the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, or the Samadhiraja Sutra.

  3. Vajrasattva purification mantra. You may recite the 100-seed-syllable purification mantra.

  4. Recitation and Visualization. You may recite the names of each of the 35 Confession Buddha, at the same time visualizing each with the correct color and hand mudras.

Four Factors of Purification

Whether any of these practices works depends on four factors.

  1. You must have a sincere feeling of regret or remorse.

  2. You must have a full awareness of the negative actions committed in your past. And you must possess a strong resolve not to engage in such negative actions from now on.

  3. You must reinforce this by going for refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha and generating a strong feeling of compassion.

  4. You must practice one of the antidotes: the meditation on emptiness, the reading and reciting of sutras, the Vajrasattva purification practice, or the recitation and visualization of the 35 Confession Buddhas.

Once you combine your purification practice with an antidotal power, there is no doubt it works. At the end of the purification practice it is important to experience a sense of joy. You are ridding yourself of negative karma. You should not feel doubt; you should not have a two-pointed attitude, will this work or not?


Refuge is important to understand. It differentiates Buddhists from non-Buddhists. Someone who has taken refuge has taken refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha and has become Buddhist. Simply being born in a Buddhist family does not make one Buddhist. Going to a Buddhist temple, reciting mantras, those are not factors that make someone Buddhist.

So what does taking refuge mean? In the West, some people think this is a way to ask the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha to do us a favor. But instead, when you take refuge, you are giving up something and voluntarily accepting something. You are giving up your idea or concept of someone who is a Creator and of others as the Creator’s creations. Ask yourself, "Is this easy to give up or not?" No matter how much you know about Buddhism, there is no way to become Buddhist if you do not give up your concept of a Creator. Many in the West want to take refuge without giving up their idea of a Creator. They want both, and this will not work. After you give up your notion of a Creator, you accept what we call the objects of refuge as your ultimate source of refuge. The objects of refuge are the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. We call them the Three Jewels or Triratna.

When you accept the Three Jewels, you put all your trust in them and see the possibility in yourself of reaching the state of buddhahood, of achieving realization equal to Buddha’s realization. While no one can reach Godhood, you accept the belief that one can reach buddhahood.

Five Questions of Refuge

When you go for refuge, you must be able to answer five questions: On what grounds should I go for refuge? With whom or what am I taking refuge? Why are the objects of refuge qualified to be the sources of refuge? What are the ways of going for refuge? What are the precepts taken when going for refuge?

1. On what grounds am I taking refuge?

You take refuge on the grounds of fear and faith.


At the beginning of the Lam Rim you study impermanence, samsara, the three realms and six beings, the specific sufferings of specific beings in specific realms, common sufferings, lower rebirths and upper rebirths, and how karma works.

If you have grown to understand the possibility of life after death, a life that is not your choice; that is entered through conditions beyond your control; that is totally determined by your past way of living, your actions, and your state of mind at death, then you have some form of fear.


In Buddhism, faith should not be a blind faith, but a longing faith, a wish or desire to get out of suffering. It should be a lucid faith, a faith that arises as a result of analysis. Through analysis, you have become convinced; your heart is touched.

So, you have fear of a future birth in the lower realms, fear of where you will be thrown by your present karma. And you have a lucid faith that comes from understanding the spiritual qualities of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha as the only way for you to protect yourself from the lower births.

If fear and faith are mere words to you, then your refuge would be a mere word. It would have no weight, no potential to improve your spiritual understanding.

2. With whom or what are you taking refuge?

You take refuge with the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To do this, you must understand who is Buddha, what is Dharma, what is Sangha.


When we say "Buddha," we refer to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, who was born in northern India 2,600 years ago. At the age of 29, he renounced his worldly life, and became a monk. At the age of 35, he was enlightened, and he taught until his death at the age of 81. But when we say "buddha," we are also talking about the highest level of spiritual realization, rather than a person. This is the point at which nothing is left to be realized, nothing is left to be cured, nothing is left to be abandoned. You are 100 percent perfect.

Anyone can become enlightened, regardless of cultural background. Anyone who achieves full realization is a buddha. Here, "buddha" means someone who has gone beyond, from here to the other shore, from samsara to nirvana, from the ordinary world to the perfect world, beyond all forms of distorted or ordinary perception to pure awareness.

So far, we relate to the physical world with our delusions. But someone who goes beyond, who is "a buddha," perceives things and objects as they really are in every moment of existence. A buddha is able to interact with conventional reality while remaining in a meditative state. A buddha is capable of remaining fused in ultimate reality while interacting in conventional reality, of maintaining meditative equipose.

It’s not that difficult to understand that you could reach buddhahood if you understand how meditation works, that it changes your perceptions, your thinking, and your attitude; that it improves your quality of awareness. Meditation helps us to transform our conscious mind into a non-conceptual mind. Then we can see things and objects without needing to know their names and terms and labels.

It’s not that difficult to understand the possibility that you could reach buddhahood if you can glimpse the possibility of perceiving things as they really are without the mediation of concepts and thinking processes. Our thought processes constantly distort events. Our deluded mind constantly manipulates things so we can perceive things as we want to perceive them.

If you are under the influence of anger, anger wants you to see in a negative way. An object or person will appear negative because you want to see something negatively. When the anger is gone and you’re not trying to see in a negative way, you’ll think the appearance of the object or person has changed. What might have appeared hostile could now appear appealing.

Buddha has reached the highest form of reality. There are two distinct factors. For Buddha, nothing is left to be realized, abandoned, cured, or corrected. And for Buddha, conventional reality can be interacted with while in meditative equipose, fused with ultimate reality.


Keep in mind, it is not enough to merely take refuge in Buddha. You must also take refuge in the dharma. Dharma refers to the teachings of Buddha. Dharma is "cho;" it changes your perception. It helps you to replace the negativities in your mindstream with positivities. When you’re more positive, you have more peace. When you are negative, you have less peace; you are restless and agitated.

Dharma has two meanings. The word "dharma" refers to the spiritual text. Buddha’s own words are recorded in 108 volumes. Commentaries by bodhisattvas and arhats are recorded in 225 volumes. There are also sub-commentaries by masters.

The second meaning, the "real dharma," is the inside realization. Human beings engage in thinking, contemplation, meditation, and analysis. "Inside realization" is divided into two kinds, that achieved by arhats and that achieved by regular human beings.

An arhat has direct experience of emptiness and an unfabricated realization of bodhicitta or compassion. "Unfabricated" means spontaneous; there is no thought process or conscious effort. A fabricated experience of compassion would require that you go through a thought process and make a conscious effort to experience compassion. Regular human beings have an intellectual understanding, an inferential understanding. We experience knowledge through the meditative process, then try to regain that in daily life. Our actual experience of inside realization is precise, healthy, and complete.

Taking refuge in the dharma inspires you to walk on a path leading to realization. You encourage yourself to intensively engage in spiritual practice.


"Sangha" means spiritual community or members of a spiritual community with the same interests and same spiritual goals, following the same teacher. A sangha treats as sincere all spiritual companions or friends; members of a sangha help each other with their spiritual practice, help each other to keep faith and interest; they are always working together.

Both lay members and ordained members (monks and nuns) of a sangha are considered the relative sangha. You can’t take refuge in the relative sangha. You take refuge in the ultimate sangha, those with direct experience of emptiness and an unfabricated experience of compassion. People in the West get confused about this. They define the sangha as whoever is in the dharma center, at some point find flaws in those people, and then lose their faith or refuge. The ultimate sangha will never cause you to lose faith.

3. Why are the objects of refuge qualified to be the source of refuge?

Four reasons determine the qualifications. The Buddha and ultimate sangha are completely free of defilements and fear. Fear is a distinct characteristic of being an unenlightened being. We are constantly looking for external protection: life insurance, health insurance, investments on the stock market. The future is very insecure. Where will we end up in the New Year? There are no guarantees. We’re never sure which will come first, our breakfast or our funeral. Buddha is free of this; Buddha is not caught up in samsara. Someone stuck in the mud cannot save someone else stuck in the mud. Without rescue equipment, there is no help. Buddha has all the equipment to rescue us from samsara.

Buddha is completely under the influence of compassion. If you don’t have compassion, there’s no guarantee you’d help, even with the appropriate equipment. Buddha is pleased and delighted by our efforts to take advice and put it into practice. Someone attracted by gifts might or might not help depending on the gift.

So Buddha and the ultimate sangha are free of samsara, equipped to rescue us from samsara, under the influence of compassion and pleased we keep to our studies. So Buddha and the ultimate sangha are qualified to be a refuge.

Question: Do we give up the idea of a Creator because it isn’t true?

Answer: If you understand emptiness, there is no doubt that there is no Creator. If you understand emptiness, there is no conclusive, logical evidence that a Creator exists. If you ask people why they believe in a Creator, 99 percent will just say that they are more comfortable believing in one or that their ancestors believed in one, or that they have some sort of intuition, an innate feeling that a Creator exists.

But emptiness excludes inherent existence. To believe in a Creator, you must believe in something uncaused. And you must answer the question, "If the Creator is pure, why are the Creator’s creations impure?" How could a pure, uncaused being create impure, caused things? If there is the existence of an inherent, timeless being, how can it interact with or affect the objects caused? If it doesn’t, then cause and effect have no purpose or meaning.

The questions are difficult because there is no definite definition of what "God" means.

Question: What about the Dalai Lama? Is he a buddha?

Answer: There are 10 stages to becoming a bodhisattva. We believe if he is not a bodhisattva, he is at least in the 10th, final stage to become one. One buddha is enough, but actually many sentient beings reach buddhahood.

Question: Are we taking refuge in what we can become?

Answer: Yes, you’re seeing the possibility of the dharma’s ability to tranform you. You are not taking refuge in books.

Question: Are you trying to achieve your own perfection? Is that a difference from Christianity, where only God is perfect and humans can never reach God’s perfection?

Answer: Yes, this is one of the fundamental differences.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, July 6, 2001.