What is “Refuge?” What does it mean to take “Refuge?”
While we cannot offer a full explanation of Refuge here, we can point out some of the resources for learning about Refuge. Refuge is, very simply put, formally making the commitment to transcend the suffering and happiness of daily existence and taking vows and committing to achieving liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
To begin to understand Refuge, really meditate and contemplate the Four Thoughts. The Four Thoughts are the skillful means that inspire us to wish to take Refuge in the first place. These you can begin to learn a little bit about here, and we would recommend finding teachings and written materials on this topic, studying as deeply as you can when you begin the path. Fully understanding and realizing the Four Thoughts will lend a great stability to your practice.
Some books you might consult are Great Perfection: Buddha in the Palm of the Hand (Gyatrul Rinpoche, Yeshe Melong Publications, phone in US: (1) 916-926-0573), The Words of My Perfect Teacher/Kunzang Lama’I Shelung . These books also go into detail about Refuge. The very best way to understand Refuge is by attending the teachings of a qualified master.
Refuge ceremony with HH Penor RinpocheIn brief, one takes Refuge after meditating upon the Four Thoughts and realizing that one wishes to make a commitment to obtaining liberation for oneself and all sentient beings. One takes Refuge in the Buddha as the teacher, the Dharma as the path and the Sangha as the companions and support on the way to enlightenment. Part of the act of taking Refuge is to renounce the temporary sufferings, pleasures and happiness found in daily life. His Holiness Penor Rinpoche teaches on this method of renunciation in this article published in What is Enlightenment? magazine.
A great part of taking Refuge is the development of faith. This is not blind faith, but faith based on one’s own observation of the truth of the teachings. From How to Follow a Spiritual Master, (pg. 120, Ngagyur Nyingma Institute Editorial Committee, copies available for purchase by calling India: (91) 8223-25-2963 or in the US: (1) 607-656-4645):
“There are traditionally four stages described in developing Faith:
1. Attraction [Vivid Faith]
3. Fully-Convinced Faith
4. Irreversible Faith
Attraction gives rise to Vivid Vaith, which is when the mind becomes attracted to the object. It may be a strong joy or a great appreciation of the qualities we observe. We may have visited a holy place with statues, stupas, and other representations of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind. We could also have just met with a genuinely great Master, who has inspired us through his invisible Blessings or read about [his or her] life [story]. Ths is still changeable as our mind can turn to aversion as well as appreciation.
Emulation means that, going beyond the attraction, the desire to become like the object we are contemplating is arising within us. If we strive to become similar like supreme beings, like the ordinary woods left in the sandal grove acquire sweet fragrances of sandal, we too can attain their noble qualities.
Fully-Convinced Faith and Irreversible Faith are born out of our nascent knowledge of the qualities of the Buddhas, bodhisattvas and our Master. The Fully-Convinced Faith becomes irreversible, when, come what may, nothing will be able to alter our mind or our devotion. This is the faith we should constantly try to develop through examination of the Teachings, and the Teacher, especially as neither blessings nor accomplishment can ever occur in the secret Mantra Vehicle without Irreversible Faith in one’s Master.”
As mentioned by Patrul Rinpoche, taking Refuge is the foundation of all the practices. He says: “By simply taking Refuge, you plant the seed of liberation within yourself. You distance yourself from all the negative actions you have accumulated and develop more and more positive actions. Taking Refuge is the support for all vows, the source of all good qualities. Ultimately it will lead you to the state of Buddhahood.” (p. 187, Words of My Perfect Teacher, Shambhala Publications, Boston, MA, USA, 1998).
May all beings benefit!