What it means to ‘take refuge,’ Part 1

I’ve been asked by a few people to explain the whole concept of Refuge practice in the Buddha-dharma. I’ll do this as a two-for-one: I’ll cover the actual refuge ceremony and how it applied to my life (and changed it), and then the ‘turbo-charged’ version of refuge: Prostrations, the first part of what are called the “extraordinary preliminaries” or ngondro in Tibetan. This is where things start to get ‘interesting’ (some would say “Are you insane?”) since ngondro includes at least 100,000 prostrations. I say ‘at least’ because there is one lineage that requires 300,000 prostrations in the course of the ngondro.  As you will find out, I ended up IN that lineage.

But first: H.E. Khandro Rinpoche explaining Taking Refuge.  Everything she says supersedes anything I say. 🙂

Part 1: Refuge

This is when one “officially” becomes a “Buddhist.” In that way, it is similar to when one gets baptized in any of the Christian traditions (though much more like adult baptism, or when one gets ‘confirmed’, since there is some learning and understanding that has to come first.) In pretty much all traditions of all the yanas, one takes refuge is the Buddha as a teacher, the Dharma as the teachings, and the Sangha as those who follow the first two.

Before explaining that in more depth, I suppose I should explain what the historical basis of ‘taking refuge’ is, since a lot of people don’t -quite- get it. According to Khandro Rinpoche, back in the time of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, the people in a kingdom would literally ‘take refuge’ in the local king/chieftain’s’ palace/compound whenever outlaws or opposing tribes would roll into town. In this case, taking refuge quite literally meant trust one’s life to their local ruler. (As an aside, check out Karen Armstrong’s excellent biography “Buddha” for some good info on Prince Siddhartha’s/Shakyamuni’s life and times. His path of peace is all the more remarkable if you realize just how violent and turbulent a time he lived in.)

Now, the objects of refuge in Buddha-dharma are usually known collectively as “the Three Jewels” or “the Triple Gem.” (A little note: This holy trio is not in any way similar to the Christian ‘Holy Trinity’ – though there IS a lot of similarity (at least in the monastic/retreatant traditions) between that and what is called the ‘three kayas’, which I will hopefully get to in the future.)

It should be realized up front there are many different levels of understanding and commitment possible.
In most Asian countries where the dharma has been for centuries, most of the lay people have officially ‘taken refuge’. However, they are pretty much equivalent to the “Easter/Christmas Christians” who believe in the tenants (though in both cases I am pretty sure most people don’t REALLY understand what they profess to believe in), show up at the temple/church on the big holy days, and pray/make offerings when they want something (to pass their drivers’ test, that their uncle survives surgery, etc.)

As an aside, I’m not sure what these folks shout during sex. Most Buddhists I know are formerly theistic, and still shout at “oh GOD!” at the moment of orgasm – it’s a cultural thing at this point, really. :))

While I suppose there is some positive karma due to sense of direction for these folks, there is no big deal to this – they don’t all of a sudden turn in to slow-talking fountains of wisdom like Kain from the 70’s “Kung Fu” TV series starring David Carradine. I saw some B-movie once where someone said “all Buddhists vibrate at the same frequency,” and thought “Huh? Vibrators? What’s the frequency, Buddha? Geez, this has NOTHING to do with the 4 Noble Truths. :)”

But, the next step up are the actual lay practitioners. These are people who have a job, wear hats, etc. and also actually get their asses down on the cushion to meditate. Most of the meditators reading this would fall in this category.  It is usually done (at least in the West) after someone has actually been practicing (usually at least Shamatha (‘calm-abiding’) to get some control over their mind) for a while.

By taking this step, one is saying to everyone attending (but mostly to one’s self) “I am not going to float around investigating bits and pieces of various religions/philosophies, but instead commit myself to this path from this moment on until the day I die.” It is about making clear to yourself that this is your path. Period.

I’ve been asked how this has affected me personally.  I took refuge for the first time under Khandro Rinpoche in August of 1999, at the conclusion of the mind-altering ‘Gateway’ program. For me, after the refuge ceremony, when VKR snapped her fingers and said “ok, you have done it”, it was like a demarcation was set. To me, it was like saying ” this is what I am now.”

But much more than that. Admittedly, right afterwards, for a while, it just meant to me “ok, i am a buddhist now.” However, after several months, I found that it had more of an effect. There was a bit of ‘I am committed to this path, so my actions should show some respect to the Three Jewels.’ Also, I had a thirst for more that would make my understanding increase. At the same time, some notion of ethics snuck itself in. There was a bit of “If I am committing myself to this path, I should try not to be am embarrassment to it.” When I went back to Washington College for my five-year college reunion, I could see some of the effects.

After several periods of being a bit of a drunk (and worse) in college, when I got out for the reunion, I didn’t really want to do that role again. I wanted to be able to read this one dharma book, which I wouldn’t be able to do un-sober. So, after hanging out and talking to a bunch of folks I used to know, I went back to the dorm room I had for the night. Several people noticed that “why is Duder* the most sober person here?” After taking refuge, a sense of “I am a representative of the dharma” also came to the forefront.

But this is just part of the story. Honestly, the main points of refuge I didn’t – quite get until late – especially after I took refuge again several months later with then-Khenpo Rinpoche in Frederick. The sense of a sense of protection from Buddha, Dharma, Sangha increased. ‘Protection’ in this case is pretty much protection from myself, and my own neurosis and unawareness.

When I started my ngondro in July of 2001, THEN I learned about the other element of surrender….but that will have to be part 2….:)


*Yes, this was my nick-name in college. No, this was before “the Big Lebowski“,  and no, I don’t really use it anymore. 🙂
(Originally posted Saturday, November 8, 2008)


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Filed under black swan, Dharma teachings

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