Taking refuge (skyabs-'gro) means formally putting the safe and positive direction in our lives indicated by the Triple Gem – the Buddhas, Dharma, and Sangha – and pledging to maintain this steady direction unwaveringly, until it brings us liberation or enlightenment.
Taking formal refuge at a bodhisattva vow ceremony or at a tantric initiation, whether at a full empowerment (dbang, "wang") or a subsequent permission ceremony (rjes-snang, "jenang"), is equivalent to doing so in a separate ritual with a spiritual teacher. Cutting a lock of hair and receiving a Dharma name are not essential components of the procedure. They are dispensed with when taking refuge at a bodhisattva vow ceremony or an initiation, even if it is for the first time.
When we formally orient our lives with the safe and positive direction of refuge, we commit ourselves to two sets of actions for training (skyabs-'gro bslabs-bya), which are helpful for maintaining this direction:
- Training specified in The All-Inclusive Text (bsdu-ba-las 'byung-ba'i bslabs-bya)
- Training specified from quintessence teachings (man-ngag-las 'byung-ba'i bslabs-bya).
The former derives from The All-Inclusive Text for Ascertainments (gTan-la dbab-pa bsdu-ba, Skt. Vinishcaya-samgraha), one of the five texts of Levels of Mind for Integrated Behavior (rNal-'byor spyod-pa'i sa, Skt.: Yogacaryabhumi) by the 4th or 5th-century Indian master Asanga.
The second comprises two sets:
- Individual trainings for each of the Three Gems (so-so'i bslab-bya)
- Trainings shared in common for all Three Gems (thun-mong-ba'i bslab-bya).
These three groups of actions to train in are not vows. If we transgress any of them, we merely weaken our safe direction in life. We do not lose that direction unless we formally give it up.
Training Specified in The All-Inclusive Text
The actions to train in that derive from Asanga's text include two sets of four. The first set encompasses one action that is parallel to taking safe direction from the Buddhas, two from the Dharma, and one from the Sangha. The second set of four relates to the Triple Gem as a whole.
Parallel to taking safe direction from the Buddhas, (1) committing ourselves wholeheartedly to a spiritual teacher. If we have not yet found a personal teacher to direct our practice, this commitment is to find one.
Formally taking refuge in the presence of a teacher does not imply necessarily committing ourselves to following this teacher as our personal spiritual guide. It is important, of course, always to maintain respect and gratitude toward this person as the one who opened the door to our safe direction in life. Our refuge, however, is in the Triple Gem – represented by a Buddha statue or painting during the ceremony – and not in the specific person who conducts the ritual. Only within the context of a tantric initiation does the teacher embody the Three Jewels of Refuge and does taking safe direction create the formal bond of spiritual master and disciple.
Furthermore, regardless of context, our safe direction is that of the Triple Gem in general, not that of a specific lineage or tradition of Buddhism. If the teacher conducting a refuge ceremony or initiation is of a particular lineage, receiving safe direction or empowerment from him or her does not necessarily render us a follower of the same lineage.
To maintain a Dharma direction in life, (2) studying the Buddhist teachings and (3) focusing attention on those aspects of the teachings specifically for overcoming our disturbing emotions and attitudes. Academic study is not enough; we need to apply the Dharma to our personal lives.
To take direction from the Sangha community of highly realized practitioners (aryas), (4) following their example. To do so does not mean necessarily becoming a monastic, but rather making sincere efforts to realize straightforwardly and non-conceptually the four true facts of life (the four noble truths). These are that life is difficult; our difficulties come from a cause, namely confusion about reality; we can end our problems; and to do so we need the understanding of voidness as a pathway mind.
[For more detail, see: The Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths]
Parallel to taking safe direction in the Triple Gem as a whole, (5) withdrawing our minds from the pursuit of sensory pleasures, when they inattentively fly after them, and working on ourselves, instead, as the primary task in our lives. This means devoting our time and energies to overcoming our shortcomings and to realizing our talents and potentials, rather than to chasing after ever more entertainment, food, and sexual experience, and to accumulating ever more money and material possessions.
(6) Adopting the ethical standards the Buddhas have set. This ethic is based on clearly discriminating between what is helpful and what is harmful to a positive direction in life, rather than on obedience to a set of divinely ordained laws. Therefore, following the Buddhist ethic means to refrain from certain modes of conduct because they are destructive and hamper our abilities to benefit ourselves or others, and to embrace other modes because they are constructive and help us to grow.
(7) Trying to be as sympathetic and compassionate to others as possible. Even if our spiritual goals are restricted to gaining liberation from our personal problems, this is never at the expense of others.
Finally, to maintain our connections with the Triple Gem, (8) making special offerings of fruit, flowers, and so forth on Buddhist holy days, such as the anniversary of Buddha's enlightenment. Observing religious holidays with traditional ritual helps us feel part of a larger community.
Individual Trainings for Each of the Three Gems
The first group of actions that derive from quintessence teachings encompasses training in three actions to shun (dgag-pa'i bslabs-bya) and three actions to practice (sgrub-pa'i bslab-bya), connected with each of the Three Precious Gems individually. The actions avoided lead to a contrary direction in life, while those adopted foster mindfulness of the goal.
The three actions to shun are, in spite of taking safe direction from the Buddhas, (1) taking paramount direction from elsewhere. The most important thing in life is no longer accumulating as many material objects and entertaining experiences as possible, but as many good qualities as we can – such as love, patience, concentration, and wisdom – in order to be of more benefit to others. This is not a vow of poverty and abstinence, but rather an affirmation of having a deeper direction in life.
More specifically, this commitment means not taking ultimate refuge in gods or spirits. Buddhism, particularly in its Tibetan form, often contains ritual ceremonies (puja) directed toward various Buddha-figures (yidam, tantric deities) or fierce protectors in order to help dispel obstacles and accomplish constructive purposes. Performing these ceremonies provides circumstances conducive for negative potentials to ripen in trivial rather than major obstacles, and for positive potentials to ripen sooner rather than later. If we have built up overwhelmingly negative potentials, however, these ceremonies are ineffective in averting difficulties. Therefore, propitiating gods, spirits, protectors, or even Buddhas is never a substitute for attending to our karma – avoiding destructive conduct and acting in a constructive manner. Buddhism is not a spiritual path of protector-worship, or even Buddha-worship. The safe direction of the Buddhist path is working to become liberated or enlightened beings ourselves.
In spite of taking safe direction from the Dharma, (2) causing harm or mischief to humans or animals. One of the main guidelines Buddha taught is to help others as much as possible, and if we cannot be of help, at least not to cause any harm.
In spite of taking safe direction from the Sangha, (3) associating closely with negative people. Shunning such contact helps us to avoid being easily swayed from our positive goals when we are still weak in our direction in life. It does not mean having to live in a Buddhist community, but rather exercising care about the company we keep and taking whatever measures are appropriate and necessary to avoid detrimental influences.
The three actions to adopt as a sign of respect are honoring (4) all statues, paintings, and other artistic depictions of Buddhas, (5) all books, especially concerning the Dharma, and (6) all persons with Buddhist monastic vows, and even their robes. Traditionally, signs of disrespect are stepping on or over such objects, sitting or standing on them, and placing them directly on the floor or ground without at least providing a piece of cloth beneath them. Although these objects are not the actual sources of safe direction, they represent and help keep us mindful of enlightened beings, their supreme attainments, and the highly realized practitioners well advanced toward that goal.
Taking Refuge and Following Other Religions or Spiritual Paths
Some people ask if taking refuge vows means converting to Buddhism and leaving forever their native religions. This is not the case, unless we wish to do so. There is no term in Tibetan literally equivalent to a "Buddhist." The word used for a practitioner means "someone who lives within," namely within the boundaries of taking a safe and positive direction in life. To live that type of life does not require wearing a red protection string around our necks and never setting foot inside a church, synagogue, Hindu temple, or Confucian shrine. Rather, it means working on ourselves to overcome our shortcomings and realize our potentials – in other words, to actualize the Dharma – as the Buddhas have done and highly realized practitioners, the Sangha, are doing. We put our primary efforts in this direction. As many Buddhist masters have said, including my own late teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, if we look at the teachings of charity and love in other religions such as Christianity, we must conclude that following them is not counter to the direction taught in Buddhism. The humanitarian message in all religions is the same.
Our safe and positive direction of refuge is primarily to refrain from the ten most destructive actions (ten nonvirtues) – taking the life of any living creature, taking what is not given, indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior, lying, speaking divisively, using harsh and cruel language, chattering meaninglessly, and thinking in either a covetous, malicious or distorted, antagonistic manner. Taking the Buddhist direction in life entails turning from only those teachings in other religious, philosophical, or political systems that encourage action, speech, or thought involving these destructive actions, and which is harmful to ourselves and others. Further, although there is no prohibition against going to church, maintaining a steady direction means not to focus all our energies on that aspect of our lives, to the neglect of our Buddhist study and practice.
Some people wonder if taking refuge as part of a tantric ceremony will require them to stop practicing zen or systems of physical training such as hatha yoga or martial arts. The answer is no, because these are also methods to realize our positive potentials and do not compromise our safe direction in life. All great masters advise, however, not to mix and adulterate meditation practices. If we wish to have soup and a cup of coffee for lunch, we do not pour the coffee into the soup and drink both together. Engaging in several different types of training each day is fine. However, it is best to do them in separate sessions, carrying out each practice by honoring its individual customs. Just as it would be preposterous to offer three prostrations to the altar on entering a church, likewise it is inappropriate to recite mantras during a zen or vipassana meditation session.