The Implications of Taking Refuge

Refuge as the Basic Orientation of Our Lives

We’ve been speaking about various problems that we sometimes face with Buddhism, and we’ve been focusing on the difficulty that many of us often have in actually applying the Buddhist teachings to our lives. Another area that’s important to look at for dealing with this problem is the whole topic of refuge. There are many things in the early stages of the Buddhist path that we often trivialize and just skip over. For many people, refuge is one of them. That’s quite sad because, when refuge becomes something quite trivial and meaningless to us, we’re depriving ourselves of the foundation of all the Buddhist practice.

Taking refuge is not just repeating a formula and cutting a little piece of hair as some traditions do and maybe getting a Buddhist name – that’s not the essence of refuge. Rather it’s a whole basic change of attitude toward life. It’s a state of mind with which we actively put a safe direction in our life, which is the direction of working on ourselves – trying to develop ourselves for making our samsara a little bit better, as we discussed, or for attaining liberation, or for reaching enlightenment so that we’ll be able to help others as fully as is possible. It’s not that, with refuge, we’re committing ourselves to being loyal to some sort of cult. And by cult, I don’t just mean an organized cult; it could also be a personality cult of some teacher. But rather, taking refuge entails a whole new orientation that we put in our lives so that when this orientation becomes stable in us, we know what we’re doing with our lives, where our lives are going, and what the purpose of our lives is. It’s to grow.

When we have an idea of where we’re going in life – what we’re doing in life – all the teachings then become based on this foundation. Specifically, we’re looking at the teachings of the Buddha and the example of the Buddha to give us that safe and positive direction. It’s not necessary to go into a big long teaching on refuge, but I think that what’s very helpful is the attitude we develop toward the teachings based on having this safe direction of refuge in our lives. What it means is that we look at all the teachings as being relevant to either lessen or eliminate suffering and as relevant to being able to help others. We take the teachings very seriously and we have confidence that the Buddha taught them, or a later disciple taught them, solely for the purpose of helping us to eliminate suffering and to become of better help to others. That’s the whole purpose of any teaching. We try to understand what’s in this teaching that helps us to accomplish these aims.

Looking at the Deeper Purpose of Ritual Practice

Let’s use the example of these various rituals that we often call our Buddhist practice. All of these practices with deities – the rituals, pujas and so on – are Buddha’s teaching. That means that they’re supposed to be able to help us eliminate problems and help others. How do they do that? Having refuge means that we take these rituals seriously and really analyze them to try to figure out how they accomplish these aims. And then we apply them for that purpose. We try to approach these ritual practices in that way.

The answer of how they help us to gain liberation and enlightenment might not be so obvious. However, that just means that it’s challenging. If we don’t have this attitude from having the safe direction of refuge in our lives, then all these various ritual practices are irrelevant to our life – they don’t really touch us and so they have little or no effect. In fact, having that type of attitude toward these practices, thinking, “They’re just some sort of exotic oriental rituals that maybe are fun to do, in our good moments, but in other moments they’re a bit of an imposition and a drag,” when we have that type of attitude, nothing comes from them. They don’t have any positive effect. And what this indicates is that underlying this lack of any positive effect is that we’re not really taking the teachings terribly seriously. We don’t really have that attitude of openness and respect for Buddha or for the fact that he taught practices that are going to be helpful to us. He didn’t just teach things that are either amusing or horribly boring, which we’ve got to do out of a sense of duty or guilt in order to be “good.”

These points carry over to not only these types of ritual practices, but to anything in the teachings. We hear all sorts of very strange things in the Buddhist teachings. Sometimes the strangeness is because of translation problems. There are many examples of that, where the word that we use to translate into Western languages just gives the totally incorrect interpretation. My favorite examples are: virtue and non-virtue, merit, sin, etc. All of that’s Christian terminology; it’s not Buddhist. All of that’s revolving around this idea of should: “I should do this and I shouldn’t do that; if I do that, I’m good, and if I don’t do that, I’m bad.” It’s all tied up with a judgmental type of background with God being the judge. That’s not at all the context of Buddhism.

When we have confusion and difficulties with the teachings, what we need to check first is a possible problem coming from the translation. This is a very necessary step. But as I said, there are many strange things in the teachings, like teachings on the hell realms, for instance, or about Mount Meru and those sorts of things. We can look at them and say, “This is stupid and I don’t like this,” or we can try to figure out what’s the intention behind them that makes them a device to help us gain a better rebirth, liberation or enlightenment? If we had a firm direction of refuge in our lives, we would try to understand all these teachings and not just dismiss them.

Teaching Stories

I remember the teachings on karma. Serkong Rinpoche used to teach karma with classic examples, such as the example of the person who had an elephant who defecated gold. Whenever he tried to get rid of this elephant, because it attracted such large crowds and fuss, he couldn’t get rid of it. The elephant always came back. As Western persons, we look at a story like that and we say, “Come on! This is ridiculous.” We also become a little bit embarrassed. We wouldn’t really like to show our parents a book about what we’re studying that would contain something like that. They would really think that we’ve gone over the edge into madness. When I used to point that out to Serkong Rinpoche, his reply was rather interesting. He said, “If Buddha had wanted to make up a good story, he’d have to make up a better one than that.”

We can understand what Rinpoche said in two ways. One way is to take the story as being totally literal, and I’m sure there are many people from traditional Asian cultures who do take these stories quite literally. I don’t think that’s the only meaning that we can derive from Serkong Rinpoche’s response, however. The other way of understanding it is that the story is not just meant for entertainment, because Buddha could entertain us much better than that. But the story is intended to teach us a lesson. We have an oral tradition like that in the West as well; there are types of tales called fables, legends, myths and fairy tales that are told to all ages. There’s a lesson to be had from each tale, usually about cause and effect, and this is a very valid and effective teaching method. We don’t need to teach only in terms of a straightforward listing of points. We could also teach through these kinds of stories.

Again, if our refuge is very strong, then when we read all of these fantastic things in the texts, such as, “There are millions of Buddhas in millions of Buddha fields, and in every tiny pore of each Buddha, there are millions of other Buddha fields,” we try to understand what the point is. “It’s undoubtedly about helping me, not just about helping some stupid person over there who would believe this stuff. The point is to help me overcome my own problems in life, to help me to be of more benefit to others. How does it do this? What’s the lesson to be learned?” With that attitude, we can start to relate all the teachings to ourselves personally, much more easily.

Putting Together Pieces of the Puzzle

It’s very important to understand the basic teaching method of Buddhism. The basic method is to give the student pieces of the puzzle. It’s then up to the student to put them together. And a skillful teacher doesn’t give us all the pieces of the puzzle at once. We have to ask for more. If we don’t ask for more, it means that we’re not really interested, we’re not really motivated. So if the teacher were to have given us more, it would have been a waste.

By presenting teachings in that way, it helps the student to develop enthusiasm, patience, hard work – all those things that allow the teachings to take root in us. The Buddhist teaching process is not just one of making a copy of a computer file and transferring it to a blank diskette. It’s not just transferring information from a teacher to a disciple. The whole teaching process is one that’s intended to develop our personalities as students.

We need, then, to approach the teachings in that type of manner and not be impatient and complain, “You didn’t explain everything,” or “It’s not clear,” and so on. We need to gather the various pieces of the puzzle and then work on it – try to put them together. Figure out what do they actually mean? How do they relate to life? Refuge helps us to be open to developing that attitude about the learning process. That’s one point about refuge.

Provisional and Ultimate Sources of Refuge

The other point about refuge is: what do we turn to when life is difficult and things are going poorly? Some people, when anything nasty happens or they start to feel nervous, will go to the refrigerator. Or they might turn to alcohol or drugs, or to sex, or sports. There are so many things that people take refuge in. This aspect of refuge is quite interesting to examine in ourselves. When things are really rough, to what or to whom do we turn? Do we turn to a friend? Do we turn to a drink? We can say, “But I should turn to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” But that becomes a little bit uncomfortable, because that attitude easily degenerates into “God help me – Buddha help me.”

The teachings talk about taking provisional refuge and ultimate refuge. Let me use my own example. When I’m nervous or upset about something, my tendency is to go to the refrigerator. I eat something that I really like, and that sort of helps me a little bit. Remember we spoke about the First Noble Truth: life is difficult. It’s necessary to be a little bit accepting of that. I know with myself that when my energy-winds are getting a little bit nervous or out of balance, then if I eat something, particularly whole-meal bread, it’ll weigh down those winds and give me a little bit more stability. Like taking an aspirin when we don’t feel well, I know that that’s not the ultimate solution to my problems. I know that very clearly. I say to myself, “Well, I know it’s going to help me only on a superficial level, but I do have the deeper direction toward which I’m turning to actually help me with the problem.”

Of course, we have to exercise a certain amount of discrimination here, because if provisionally helping us to deal with a problem were the only variable involved, we could say, “If I shoot up heroin, that’s also my provisional aspirin, and I know the deeper solution.” There’s a difference between eating a bar of chocolate and shooting up heroin. We need to make sure that any provisional refuge that we take is not something that’s grossly harmful to either ourselves or others. It shouldn’t be like, “It makes me feel good to go out and shoot a rabbit, so if I’m nervous I’ll go out and kill something.”

So, we need to work a little bit in terms of “What do I really turn to in times of need?” and not this thing of “I should turn to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, so I’ll sit here and meditate. And if I eat some cookies instead, that means I’m a bad person or a bad Buddhist.” It’s okay to take that aspirin, to have those cookies, or that chocolate or whatever it is – talk to somebody on the phone – that’s okay, as long as we’re clear that that’s not the ultimate solution. If we see that as the deepest solution, then we’ll be disappointed when it doesn’t work. Any comfort it gives can’t possibly last. It’s superficial. After all, life is difficult. These are some aspects about refuge.

Biblical Ethics

If I had the wish to shoot a rabbit, then there would also come the idea “I shouldn’t shoot rabbits.” There comes again this idea of “should.”

Maybe we need to stop painting just little strokes on this part of the painting that’s “should” and “should not,” and go more deeply into that topic.

The discussion of “should” and “should not” revolves around several things: ethics and the whole approach to ethics, as well as the teachings on voidness (emptiness). Biblical ethics, for instance, is a system that’s based on a higher authority that has laid down certain rules and laws, and so ethics in such a system involves basically being obedient. An ethical person in this context is an obedient person who obeys these higher rules. If we obey them, we’re good. If we disobey them, we’re bad and we’re going to be punished. This higher authority has a certain basic emotional reaction to us, so if we obey this higher authority, this higher authority will like us and reward us. If we disobey, this higher authority won’t like us, won’t love us anymore and will punish us. That’s the emotional quality of this sort of ethics.

We can speak about that in terms of God, or we can speak about that in terms of our parents. We project that onto our parents as well, who are always saying to us, “Be a good girl; be a good boy; don’t be bad.” If we disobey, then we’re bad and we feel they don’t love us anymore and so we want to please them. Our ethical conduct is based on wanting to please this higher authority that has laid down the rules.

So, for most of us who have grown up in cultures that follow the Bible, our whole ethics is based on “should” and “should not.” We want to know, “What should I do?” so that we’ll be liked, we’ll be rewarded, and things will go well. Although, on one level, perhaps what I’m explaining sounds a little bit overly simplistic, but it’s amazing how much we act in this way. When we go into a new situation, we want to know what I should do. We want somebody to tell us what the rules are. As long as we know what the rules are, we know what to obey and then we feel good and are comfortable. Then everything is in order and we’re in control.

The Issue of Being in Control

This point touches on the issue of “being in control.” When we know all the laws and know that we need to follow them, then we feel that if we in fact follow them, we’ll be “in control” of the situation. We feel we know what’s going to happen, so it makes us feel a little bit more secure to know all the rules. When we approach life in terms of this attitude of wanting to be in control, this attitude of obedience, these rules, and everything being in order, then, in a sense, we’re really basing our conduct on the emotion of wanting to be good and wanting to please.

This kind of approach is very much based on a concept of a solid “me” and of a solid “you” who’s giving the rules. In this way, we’re always worried about this “me” who’s going to be rejected or abandoned – kicked out of the Garden of Eden – if we’re bad. Because of that preoccupation with the solid “me,” we have all this fear and all these issues of control coming up – this preoccupation with being in control. We feel that the only alternative is absolute chaos and that’s similar to this fear that if we let the walls down, it’ll be chaotic and we’ll have no defenses. We tend to have this as our strong cultural heritage in the West, this type of attitude toward ethics based on “should” and “should not” and following rules.

Then, if we have this attitude, we tend to look at the Buddhist teachings and approach them in the same way. We look at Buddhist ethics also in terms of rules of what I “should” and “should not” do: “I should not kill insects. I should do my recitation practice every day. If I don’t, I’m bad and my gurus won’t love me anymore. They’ll be displeased and won’t love me anymore.”

Someone mentioned during our lunch break that sometimes it’s very difficult to actually follow the teachings that our guru gives us. But still we want to be the good disciple; we want to be liked and to please our teacher. So, instead of following what our teacher has taught, we adopt a sort of cult mentality with that teacher, based on thinking, “My teacher is better than anybody else.” We feel, perhaps unconsciously, that this will please our teacher. Instead of being loyal to our teacher by putting the teachings into practice, we think that being loyal means to worship him or her. So we superimpose the idea of “should” and “should not” onto idol-worshipping our teacher, like in a cult. We do this because it’s too difficult to follow the Dharma that our teacher is teaching us.

Buddhist Ethics

Western ethics is actually a combination of the Biblical approach and the Ancient Greek approach. In the Greek version, instead of laws being given by a higher authority in heaven, laws are made by a legislature of the citizens. The citizens come together and make the laws for the good of society. Then again it’s a question of “Obey them and things go well; disobey them and you’re thrown in jail and punished as a bad citizen of the society.”

Western society, then, combines Biblical and civil ethics in an interesting way, but neither of them is relevant to Buddhist ethics. In Buddhist ethics, the main point is not to find out what the laws are and if we can find them out clearly, then all we have to do is obey them. That’s not the orientation at all. Buddha basically didn’t say what we “should” or “should not” do. Buddha said, “If you act like this, this result comes. If you act like that, that result comes.” In other words, it’s up to us what we want to do. It’s our choice what we do. If we continue banging our heads against the wall, we’re going to continue hurting ourselves. If we stop banging our heads against the wall, we’re going to be happier. He wasn’t saying, “You should stop banging your head against the wall.” He was just saying what happens when you bang it and when you don’t bang it.

So, it’s up to us as individuals to discriminate and to make that choice. If we want to stop suffering and stop creating problems for ourselves, then we would modify our behavior in this way or that way. If we don’t care... well, that’s that. Don’t change. It’s not a question of good or bad. It’s just: “If you want to continue suffering, that’s your choice – it’s your privilege. If you want to stop suffering, you need to modify your behavior.” That doesn’t deny that it’s necessary in society to have certain laws. We still have to put criminals in prison so that they don’t continue to go around killing people. Buddhist ethics don’t contradict that.

For personal development, then, we grow by developing what’s called “discriminating awareness” or “wisdom.” We need to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful for ourselves and others. It’s more difficult knowing what will harm others, so the emphasis is on avoiding what will harm us. For example, we might give a rose to somebody with the intention to make them happy and they get an allergy attack. It’s very difficult to know what’s really going to help someone else. So, the emphasis here is discriminating between what’s harmful and what’s beneficial for us – this is easier to differentiate. It’s not an issue of “I should do this or I shouldn’t do that.” But, instead of realizing this, we often approach our teachers in terms of “Tell me what I should do. How should I practice? What should I do?” That’s not helpful.

Dealing with the Fear of Punishment

But once I discover this aspect about the karmic truth of cause and effect, I still have a sense of a fear when I do a harmful action – I have a fear of punishment. I’d like to be able to have really free choice about what I do, free of fear. I’d like to make the choice in a healthy way and not try to rid myself of harmful behavior out of fear. It’s childish and I don’t like that. So how can I exercise myself, train myself, to get rid of this fear and guilty feeling?

Fear is based on grasping for a solid “me.” We think that there is this solid “me” and we want approval for that solid “me” and we’re afraid of disapproval and punishment. We have fear. We can have that misconception either by itself, just concerning “me,” or we can complicate it further by having a belief in a solidly existent authority figure that this solid “me” wants to please and be approved by. That just complicates it even further, since we’re afraid of being abandoned by that solidly existent authority figure.

I know it’s not really fair the way that I’m explaining this, because we really need to go much more deeply into the discussion of voidness in order not to react to this profound teaching in Buddhism by again thinking, “I’m bad, I’m stupid for not understanding it,” or going to the other extreme of saying, “I don’t exist.” So, let me explain just a little.

Deceptive Appearances

Basically, the mind makes things appear in a way that doesn’t correspond to reality. This automatically happens. We all experience a voice talking inside our heads and our minds make that appear as though there’s somebody inside talking. It seems like there’s an author of the voice that’s speaking in there and saying, “What should I do now? Oh no, this is going to happen.” It appears like that and we think that the author of that voice is “me,” a solidly existing “me.”

When we talk about so-called “deceptive appearances,” we’re talking about the normal type of appearances that we all have, like this one. Our minds make it appear as though there’s a little person, “me,” inside that’s sitting behind the control booth in our heads. All this information comes in the eyes and ears, and then that little “me” says, “Oh, what should I do? Maybe I should do this, maybe I should do that. Oh, I’ll do this...” and presses a button which then makes the body say this or do that.

It’s this conception of a solid “me” that we believe is true. It’s just the way that the mind is deceptively making things appear and that’s the basis for fear in this whole syndrome of “I should do this and what should I do?” and “I want to be good” and “I don’t want to be bad.” But the truth is that there’s no solid little figure inside our heads. Where is it? – the one that’s so worried about what I should do and that’s so afraid of doing the wrong thing. When we’re grasping for ourselves to actually exist as such a “me” – and this word “grasping” is not so easy to understand – we get this fear.


Let’s explore this word “grasping.” The image that always comes to my mind is a rat drowning in a pool of water and, anything floating nearby, the rat is going to grasp onto it, somehow to hold it up and keep it from drowning. When we talk about grasping, there’s a desperate situation and we have a tremendous amount of insecurity and confusion. So we’ll grasp at anything, like that drowning rat, in order to somehow stabilize the situation. For example, when we’re in a difficult situation with somebody, anything they do we grasp at and think, “Ah! That means that you don’t really love me” or “That means that you don’t love me at all.”

Or we’re in a difficult relationship and the other person is always dumping on us and always doing ridiculous things, very negative things to us. But we don’t really want to admit it and we’re afraid of being abandoned, so we grasp at something. Let’s say we have sex together, and even if the person is only using us for their own sexual gratification, we grasp on and think, “Having sex with me at least indicates that this person really does love me.” And we just sort of hold on tightly to that, like the drowning rat, because if we let go we’re afraid that we’re going to drown, we’re going to be abandoned.

Life is similar to this. It’s terrifying. We don’t know what to do. It’s confusing. We want something stable and so we grasp onto some myth that we project. We grasp onto something that we believe is going to make us feel more stable and secure, something to give us a sense of true solid existence. We grasp onto the voice in our heads, for example, and think, “That’s me!” Or we can grasp onto anything: our body, our profession, our car, our dog, whatever. It’s a very complex process; we don’t really have time to go into it here. The deep feeling, however, is there, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, that if I don’t hang on to something, I’m going to drown.

We have a similar attitude toward laws; we grasp onto what I should do and what I shouldn’t do, because we feel if we don’t have that structure and we’re not in control, then we’re going to drown. The reality is that we can swim; the option is open to swim and we can swim. We don’t have to grab out and hang on to anything. We can handle life in a very spontaneous and open way. Of course, this is with wisdom, discriminating between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. But that knowledge of what’s helpful and harmful is not the knowledge of something that’s a solid set of rules carved in stone.

Verbal Conceptual Thought

The mind works conceptually for some people with the sound of words. Okay. That’s the way it is. No big deal. That’s not a big earth-shattering thing. Although it appears as though there is some little figure that’s in there speaking those words, there isn’t anything there. The sound of words in our heads is just the way that the mind functions. It functions with conceptual thoughts that usually have the sound of words associated with them.

We can still make decisions, and even do so on the basis of thinking with words, but without basing them on this idea of a solid “me” that’s inside our heads talking and worrying, “What should I do?” and is so afraid of doing the wrong thing. Just do it. Just act in life with this discrimination between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. Of course, we don’t want to do something that’s harmful, but we need to try not to overinflate ourselves and think that I am totally responsible for everything that happens. We’re not. We can contribute to a situation, but we’re not the only cause. We can dread causing harm, but not be afraid of it.

We could strongly not want to cause harm and that’s different from fearing it. It’s a strong intention: “I don’t want to cause harm; I’m going to try not to cause harm. I don’t want to cause harm to others or cause harm to myself.” There’s no little solid “me” there inside that’s shaking with fear about this whole thing. But, in realizing this, we have to be careful not to negate the conventional “me”: “I’m here and I’m doing this and I don’t want to do that” and so on. “I don’t want to experience suffering.” The conventional “me” exists as merely what the word “me” refers to, imputed on the basis of the continuity of moments of our individual experience.

In short, although it’s not easy, the only way to overcome fear is through the understanding of voidness. On the one hand, there’s nothing to be afraid of and no one to be afraid. On the other hand, we have to be careful not to negate ourselves completely, as if we didn’t exist at all. It’s very necessary to have a middle path that doesn’t bring us to an extreme of fear or to an extreme of “It doesn’t matter what I do, because I don’t really exist.” When we’re so worried about this thing of “What should I do?” and “I want to be good, I don’t want to be bad,” when we’re experiencing that, we need to try to recognize that it’s coming from this misconception of there being a little solid “me” inside who’s a small child, whining, “What should I do?”

Buddha’s Method of Teaching

An example of Buddha’s teaching method that’s based on this understanding about “me” is when a mother once came to the Buddha with her dead baby. She pleaded with the Buddha, saying, “Buddha, please bring my baby back to life.” Buddha replied, “First bring me a mustard seed from the house of a family that death has never visited and then we’ll talk about it.” The mother visited house after house, and soon she realized that death came to everyone, to all families. In this way, she was able to make peace with her child’s death. She understood it herself. Buddha didn’t say, “You shouldn’t ask me such a question. That’s stupid, because everybody dies. Remember impermanence and death. You’re bad for saying that.” And he didn’t say: “Oh, it’s okay, because your baby has gone to heaven or some Buddha-field.” Rather, Buddha set up the circumstances for the mother to be able to understand the death of her child herself.

Likewise, when we put the pieces of the Dharma puzzle together ourselves, it makes a much deeper impression. If we go to the teacher with “What should I do? Give me the answer, so that I don’t have to think for myself or make any decisions myself, because I’m afraid of making the wrong decision,” that jeopardizes the whole process of spiritual growth that we’re seeking with Buddhism. Instead, as I’ve been saying, we need to take care about what we do and assume responsibility for our actions and for our gaining understanding ourselves. Taking care and being careful are not a function of fear. Being careful is a function of concern or caring about the consequences of our actions on ourselves and on others. Such care is in the nature of compassion, the wish to be free from suffering. Taking care is also an affirmation of the existence of the conventional “me” – not the solid “me” – that will experience the results of what we choose to do.