Taking The Vow Of Refuge

The Refuge Series: Understanding Refuge | Taking The Vow of Refuge | Refuge Ceremony and Prayers

Do I have to take the refuge vow to practice Buddhism?

When you practice Buddhism, you are taking refuge. Whether you formalize your commitment in the vow ceremony is your choice. Many people find that taking the vow strengthens their motivation and practice.

Qualities Needed For Taking Refuge

When you take the vow of refuge, you are saying that you will continue to take refuge in the Three Jewels until you wake up, that is, until the experiential understanding of the Three Jewels arises in you. In the vow, you are also saying that you want to wake up so that you can help others become free of suffering, too.

Refuge is based on three qualities:

Renunciation is the quality of being tired with the lack of meaning in life, the sense that something is missing. It may arise as a sense of not being enough of a person, a sense of being incomplete or flawed, or a sense of separation or alienation. Whatever form it takes, it has become so strong that you cannot ignore it any longer and are willing to look for other ways of being.

Orientation means that you recognize that the only viable alternative is the clarity and openness of mind itself. To take refuge in anything else will be futile. Money, beauty, power, education, etc., (the “worldly” gods of this culture) cannot provide peace or meaning. This recognition and the subsequent shift in orientation lead to your taking refuge.

Determination signifies the faith to pursue this alternative. Faith is the willingness to open to what arises in experience. You are willing to open to the dissatisfaction you are experiencing and go where it takes you. Taking refuge will, in the end, require you to let go of any aspect of your life that is based on habituated patterns.

The Great Way isn’t difficult for those who are unattached to their preferences. Let go of longing and aversion, and everything will be perfectly clear. — Seng-Ts’an

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The commitments of the vow of refuge fall into three groups of three: activities to stop, activities to develop, and general points.

Three Activities to Stop

Taking refuge in worldly attainments
You stop regarding anything other than the open clear awareness of our own mind as a source of ultimate security or peace: money, fame, physical well-being, a relationship, power, magical abilities, states of bliss or clarity, etc.

Harming other beings
The key idea here is intent. The essential point is that you don’t harm people or beings intentionally as much as possible. Where it is clearly necessary for health, nutritional or other reasons, you do what you have to with full knowledge and full acceptance of the responsibility. Shuffling off extermination of cockroaches onto someone else in no way reduces your involvement.

Associating with non-spiritual people
The essence of this point is to recognize that in having taken refuge, your basic orientation in life has changed. You are internally committed to the cultivation of awareness or buddha nature, and thus your goals and purpose are significantly different from someone who feels that money is everything. Thus, while you may do business, have friendships, etc. with many people holding such ideas, you don’t allow their perspective to influence what is at the heart of your own life.

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Three Activities to Develop

Honoring of Buddha
All depictions of Buddha instantly remind us of what is truly meaningful. Thus, it is appropriate to honor and treat them with respect.

Confidence in the Dharma
Confidence in the Dharma sustains you in your practice. True confidence arises when you know the Dharma as direct experience.

Respect and support for the sangha
You honor, respect and support those who have taken monastic ordination regardless of their actual ability or character. The monastic sangha has provided Buddhism with a wonderful continuity through the centuries and will continue to play a central role in maintaining transmissions, rituals, learning and other key elements.

Secondly, you honor, respect and support those from whom you receive guidance and instruction. Many of the people we will learn from live ordinary lives externally. This ordinariness in no way decreases their value in our lives. The human teacher is the most important teacher because he or she is your contact with the teachings and path of practice.

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Three General Points

Offerings and respect for the three jewels
The form this takes is a matter of personal inclination. There is definite merit in maintaing a shrine in your home. Of equal importance is to take time each day to reflect on refuge and the role of the three jewels in your life. To make actual monetary or physical offerings and to express one’s respect physically as in bowing are important points; they prevent subtle and not so subtle patterns of pride and attachment from remaining fixed.

Repetition of vow on daily basis
The most important point about refuge is not to forget that you have made this commitment in the presence of a teacher. The vow serves as a reminder that you have, in fact, taken spiritual awakening as the foundation of your life.

Work with a spiritual friend and follow the way of the Dharma
These are practical steps. Every teacher has their own ideas but the key point is that refuge is part of a path rather than an enthusiastic response to an initial impulse.


The Refuge Series: Understanding Refuge | Taking The Vow of Refuge | Refuge Ceremony and Prayers


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