Refuge - FAQ
WHAT IS REFUGE?
The meaning of Refuge becomes deeper
and deeper as one proceeds along the Buddhist path and its real depth
and magnitude is only known at enlightenment. To put it very simply,
to take Refuge is to turn decisively towards the most powerful, sublime,
true and meaningful force in the entire universe, seeking its strength,
protection and guidance. These will be necessary in order to successfully
rid one's mind of confusion and suffering and to attain the peace, wisdom
and qualites of enlightenment. This process - of connecting profoundly
with the absolute - begins formally with the ceremony of 'Taking Refuge'
and is thereafter developed through study and meditation to become a
deep inner strength. It is also a commitment to the
By taking the Refuge ceremony, one
becomes a Buddhist. From then on, the inner confidence and support that
comes from taking Refuge daily forms a psychological basis for all the
work of self-knowledge and transformation of the Buddhist 'path of peace'.
Like the foundation of a house, Refuge is the basis upon which all other
Buddhist practice is built.
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IS REFUGE THE SAME
IN ALL BUDDHIST TRADITIONS?
All traditions (Tibetan, Theravada, Zen
etc.) share the basic Refuge in the 'Three Most Precious Things' (often
translated as 'the Three Jewels'): the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
In the mahayana
traditions, the scope of the basic refuge is widened from almost every
point of view: what one takes refuge in, how long one takes refuge for,
why one takes refuge etc. (see below)
In the vajrayana
traditions, the refuge is extended to include three more fields (gurus,
yidams and protectors) for practical reasons related to the intense
nature of the vajrayana path.
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IN WHAT DOES ONE
In all forms of Buddhism, one places
ones trust in:
the Buddha as the best teacher,
(Dharma) as the best spiritual path to
the holders of those teachings, as the best guides and companions on
In vajrayana Buddhism, three more
refuges are added: the gurus, yidams and protectors:
the gurus are the source of spiritual transmission
the yidams are the source of accomplishment
the protectors (also called 'dharmapala')
enable compassionate activity to succeed
WHAT IS AN UNSUITABLE
SOURCE OF REFUGE?
The Buddhist path enables a person
to leave samsara (the illusions, confusion and suffering in the
mind) and to attain nirvana (perfect liberation, peace and unconditioned
happiness). It is obvious that one needs guidance from a source which
has already conquered samsara and attained nirvana. Otherwise
it would be like hiring a guide who has never performed the journey.
On this 'journey', there are many
dangers, posed by one's inner pride, jealousy, anger and selfish desires,
inside oneself, and the general trend to negativity in the world around
us. These are like robbers hiding by the wayside or dangerous wild animals.
One needs protection and the bodyguard needs the strength and experience
to be able to overcome all these various hazards.
In normal life, we turn to friends,
family, the rich and the powerful for help. For worldly things these
can sometimes provide the material or emotional support we need temporarily.
But when it comes to working skilfully on one's mind, for a lasting
liberation, they are quite useless. In fact, their guidance can take
one completely in the wrong direction.
It is the most natural thing in the
world to turn to an expert when one wants to learn something well. The
'experts' - on the spiritual path to freedom - are the Refuges.
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BETWEEN BASIC REFUGE
AND MAHAYANA REFUGE
DURATION ... basic Refuge is taken
from the time of the ceremony until death, whereas mahayana Refuge is
taken from the ceremony until total enlightenment is reached, in whichever
future life that may be.
MOTIVATION ... the main motivation
behind basic Refuge is a longing to free one's own mind from samsara
and to attain nirvana. The mahayana motivation seeks Refuge in order
to be able to help all beings become free from samsara and find nirvana.
OBJECT ... Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
are known in a much more profound light than above:
The Buddha, besides being a historical
person, is known as the three kaya and as sugatagarbha. These are deep,
extensive topics too advanced to describe here.
The Dharma, besides being the body of written and oral teachings of
the Buddha, is known as direct realisation of the path and its result
and in particular as realisation of the voidness of personality and
The Sangha, besides being the monastic community which perpetuates the
Buddha's teaching, is known as those who have attained direct realisation
The reference work on the above is
Maitreya's mahayana uttara tanra. It has been translated, with
commentary, as Maitreya on Buddha Nature by Ken Holmes.
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REFUGE BIND ONE TO ANY COMMITMENTS?
Yes. Taking Refuge is a commitment
to the Buddhist path and so it is natural to at least remain on that
path and, preferably, to progress as best possible along it. The main
commitment is maintain faith and confidence in the Three Refuges. To
help one do this, there are three particular sets of three commitments:
Having taken Refuge in the Buddha, the most enblightened of all
beings, one should keep the Buddha as one's main teacher and not drop
Buddhism for some other faith. Having taken Refuge in the Dharma, the
essence of which is peace, one should never do anything which harms
any living being. Having taken Refuge in the Sangha, the finest companions,
one should be careful not to be swayed into negativity by worldly friends.
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As training, one should always make a point of respecting the representations
of the Refuges: Buddha images, dharma texts and the sangha's robes.
Images and texts should be kept in high, clean, peaceful places.
As helps for remembering the Refuges, one should recite the Refuge prayer
daily, make offerings to them and in particular offer every first mouthful
REFUGE COMMIT ME TO A SPECIFIC LAMA OR TRADITION?
No. Taking Refuge is one thing, choosing
one's personal mentor is another. As the first step of any journey is
the most important one, the moment of Refuge is a truning point in one's
life. The bond between oneself and the teacher who gives Refuge is something
wonderful to be grateful for. But all the scriptures say that one should
consider very thoroughly - even for some years - before choosing one's
personal guru. That comes later in the light on knowledge and experience.
Refuge is common to all Buddhist traditions and one is not obliged to
continue in the tradition one first discovers.
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HOW TO FIND OUT
MORE DETAILS ABOUT THE CEREMONY?
We could put more here but it would be much
better to make human contact with an authentic Buddhist lama and the
monastic community and discuss Refuge in person.