Taking Refuge

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

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 that.

Deciding to take refuge or not

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 Shantideva!

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 ceremony.

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 refuge?

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 force.

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 blinders.

  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.

  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: 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.

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 delusions.

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 self-doubt.

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.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, August 10, 2002.