What is Refuge?



“With discrimination, I go for refuge seeking freedom.

I offer all that I was, am, and will be

For the result that will not decay.

I take responsibility for my actions from now on,

And take great joy in joining the family of the Buddha.

I prostrate with my body, speech and mind.”

One begins the Buddhist path by taking refuge.

One also begins a Buddhist practice by taking refuge. In other words, each session of meditation begins by taking refuge. At any time during the day or night, when one feels the need, one can take refuge either silently or aloud. Before a dharma teaching begins, practitioners take refuge. Refuge is a basic practice among Buddhists; and individuals from Buddhist nations, whether or not they are actually Buddhist, understand the basic meaning of the term. However, we are not a Buddhist country and our lack of familiarity with refuge creates a challenge to understand it at first. Gaining an understanding of refuge really doesn’t end. It is like unpeeling an onion; you gain deeper and deeper understandings of refuge layer by layer.

The Three Jewels of Refuge

There are many versions of refuge. All of them involve taking refuge in the three jewels or three precious gems.

  • The Buddha
  • The Dharma
  • The Sangha

The Buddha is a fully awakened (enlightened) being.  The term Buddha means “awakened one.” Buddhism teaches that all beings may become enlightened. We can all become Buddhas. Mahayana Buddhism (more on that later) teaches that there are innumerable Buddhas already. So why do they need more Buddhas? Well, ‘they’ don’t need more Buddhas. We need to escape the suffering of the unenlightened state (samsara.) Who better to show us how to escape than those who have already walked the path? Buddhas have full compassion and wisdom, so their qualities make them ideal mentors. We take refuge in the Buddha(s.) Another way of thinking about it is that we take refuge in the fully awakened state (and those who have achieved it.)

The Dharma is the path. It is the teachings and the methods to help us heal from our confusion (about reality) and the problems that causes ourselves and others, and finally awaken. The dharma is vast. We call it a path because it is a process.

The Sangha are those accomplished beings ahead of us on the path whose sincere love, compassion and skillful experience allow them to help guide us on the path. The term sangha is used in several ways among Buddhists. Traditionally, it means ordained Buddhist monastics, and it is still often used this way. However, the sangha of refuge are those beings who have already achieved earlier levels of enlightenment (bodhisattvas) and are working toward the full enlightenment of Buddhahood. As Mahayana Buddhists, we take refuge in the enlightened sangha.


video July 24, 2012 Refuge Commentary on The Three Jewels (7 min)

Refuge with Bodhichitta Vows

Rinpoche has given us a refuge prayer that includes bodhichitta vows. Bodhichitta means “mind of enlightenment.” In Mahayana Buddhism, the mind of enlightenment is the altruistic mind. In other words, bodhichitta is a high level of compassion that is untainted by self-interest. In this refuge prayer we are promising to attain enlightenment so that we are awakened and skillful enough to rescue all living beings from the sufferings of samsara (the unawakened state.) We promise that we will not abandon living beings in samsara.

In order to obtain perfect enlightenment, I vow from now on to go for refuge to the guru and Three Precious Gems, and not abandon sentient beings. I will practice the six perfections.”

The six perfections are the practices of the bodhisattvas. Once all six are perfected, one attains full Buddhahood. The six are:

  • generosity
  • morals/ethics
  • patience
  • enthusiastic effort
  • meditative concentration
  • wisdom

Rinpoche on Refuge

  • Rinpoche talks about refuge.

Audio January 26, 2012 Rinpoche’s  Commentary on the Refuge prayer

  • Coming soon.

Refuge and Western Individuality

  • In the west, giving choices is believed to be respectful. Even infants are expected to make choices long before they are ready. This leads a sense of individuality and separation from others too early in the developmental process. Children need to first learn safety in order to develop trust. Individuality should be encouraged at the onset of puberty. As adults, this hyper-individuality has led many to feel uncertain, distrusting of others, and lonely. This sense of separation can be healed through the safety of refuge offered by the Buddha.

Video March 10, 2010 Refuge and Western Individuality

Learning to Trust Again

  • We must heal this lack of trust so we can learn to trust again.
  • Audio March 10,  2012 Learning to Trust Again

The Blossoming of Refuge: When Fear Turns to Faith

  • Once our fears are assuaged within the safety of Refuge, this sense of safety becomes the ballast that stabilizes us, and allows us to open and emerge into faith. There is an effervescence to the refuge of faith based on the solid foundation of the refuge of safety. Faith is the joy of refuge. We are now capable of working on higher emotional levels. Unless our refuge is based on the firm foundation of safety, higher levels of refuge and higher development are not possible.

video March 12, 2010 The Blossoming of Refuge: When Fear turns to Faith


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