Understanding Refuge

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

The aim of Buddhist practice is to end suffering. A refuge is a place where one goes to be free from harm, fear, and suffering. In Buddhism, refuge is a metaphor for wakefulness or presence. It is reminder of the basic orientation in Buddhist practice, namely, that suffering comes to end only through being awake and present.

Another way to think about refuge is that you become a refugee. A refugee is someone who leaves a country or homeland because life is no longer tenable there. When you take refuge, you are acknowledging that a life based on habituated patterns is no longer tenable for you. You are prepared to set out into the mystery and rely on awareness, wherever it may lead you.

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Who takes refuge?

You do. The person who seeks to end suffering takes refuge.

Refuge takes expression as a simple formula that you repeat as many times as you wish, usually at least three:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Refuge also takes expression as a vow. In the ceremony conducted by a teacher or spiritual elder, you, the student, formally acknowledge that you are taking wakefulness (buddha) as your principal orientation in life.

Ultimately, refuge is the direct knowing in which experience arises as movement in mind and the processes of reaction and suffering no longer take place.


What do I take refuge in?

You take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Three Jewels may be understood on several levels:

  Buddha Dharma Sangha
External Resources
traditionally “outer refuge”
the teacher the way the guides
Internal Understanding
traditionally “inner refuge”
being awake experiential
making use
of experience
Direct Experience
traditionally “secret refuge”
emptiness clarity unrestricted

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Vajrayana Refuge: the Three Sources

In the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, you also take refuge in the Three Roots. Like the Three Jewels, the Three Roots operate on multiple levels. 

The lama or guru: The root of energy
The guru is your actual human contact with awakened mind. The energy of the guru is inspiring, challenging, and sustaining. In his or her presence you feel directly the effect of awakened mind. That presence can and does awaken something in you, a sense of being that is different from the functioning of habituated personality. The explicit recognition of this possibility is the essence of empowerment. When it is clear in you, you have few choices but to travel the path.

Refuge in the guru means not only your own guru but the gurus of the transmission lineage since each of them plays a role in this awakening of our own potential. As your recognition of mind nature deepens, refuge in the guru also comes to mean taking refuge in mind nature, your own mind as your guru. See Kyergongpa’s song on Recognizing Mind as the Guru.


The yidam: The root of attainment
The yidams, meditation deities, are expressions of awakened mind. In meditation practice, you identify with the particular expression, awake compassion (Avalokiteshavara), for instance, or awake purity (Vajrasattva). By reorganizing your experience of what you are and of the world around this expression of wakefulness, the knots of habituation and confusion loosen and fall apart. In effect, you cease to be you and you become the yidam, with all its understanding, capability, and qualities. Thus, the yidam is the root of attainment, the attainment of free knowing and the ability to live awake.



The protector: The root of activity
The protectors are further expressions of awakened mind, how your experience of wakefulness arises in the world around you. As you practice, wakefulness manifests as reminders to be awake. The constant play of wakefulness creates conditions that support your practice. At the same time, it averts conditions that disrupt your efforts to wake up. The activity can be very direct and dramatic or very subtle and seemingly inconsequential. However, the more messages you miss, the more forceful the reminders. Consequently, this manifestation of awakened mind is often depicted in wrathful forms that represent the terrific power and immediacy of awakened mind when it manifests directly in your world of experience.


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


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