A Brief Teaching on Refuge
By His Holiness Urgyen Thrinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa
Edited by Repa Sang-Ngag Gonpo
Today I would like to present a brief teaching on Refuge. You are not a Buddhist if you don't take Refuge. It is the understanding and observing of Refuge which defines one as a Buddhist. It is said, "You are not a Mahayanist if you don't have Bodhichitta"; it is the generation of Bodhichitta or the Bodhisattva aspiration that decides whether or not your practice is Mahayana. Therefore it should be understood that the entire path is included within the principles of Refuge and Bodhichitta.
All the teachings given by the Buddha Shakyamuni come down to Refuge and Bodhichitta. Therefore we have teachings on the roots of Refuge, the general and particular precepts of Refuge, and many other instructions related to Refuge. The roots of Refuge are faith and compassion: trust and confidence in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and compassion wishing to liberate all sentient beings from suffering.
Faith in the Three Jewels is of three types:
- The inspired faith is the positive inspiration you receive when you visit places of worship where there are many sacred objects, or when you meet great masters or attend inspiring sangha gatherings.
- The aspirational faith is that whereby you wish to get rid of suffering and attain the peace of higher states of existence; you wish to practise good deeds and abandon negative deeds for that purpose, and have confidence in the possibility of achieving that goal.
- The faith of full confidence is to understand that the Three Jewels are your only and ultimate Refuge, and to have heartfelt understanding of and trust in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Compassion for all sentient beings is to want to liberate all sentient beings from all the kinds of problems and sufferings in the ocean of Samsara. All these beings have been my mothers and all have loved me and cared for me as my mother, and I, myself personally, would like to help them to become liberated from all their sufferings. That is compassion. These are the roots of Refuge.
What is the essence of Refuge? It is that I have no other ultimate guide but the Buddha; I have no other true path but the Dharma; I have no other companions with whom to tread the path but the supreme Sangha. We need companions with whom to tread our path: if we want to cross the river we need a boatman; the boat would not move on it's own. If we rely on wrong companions or friends we can be led astray, so we want to find the right companions and travel together on the right path. That is the supreme sangha.
This is the clear and unchanging commitment to the Three Refuges which is necessary.
The instructions on observing the Refuge commitments are many and can be categorised into the general and the particular and so on:
- First of the general instructions is not to give up your Refuge even in exchange for your life, or for great awards. If someone were to pile up the greatest amount of wealth on one side and tell you it could be yours if you would abandon your Refuge, you would not want to give up the Refuge; not even for your life.
- Secondly, whatever sufferings and hardships you go through, you should not rely on anything but the Three Jewels.
- Third, you should always make offerings to the Three Jewels and the sacred objects of body, speech and mind.
- Fourth, you yourself should observe the Refuge and bring others to the Refuge of the Three Jewels as much as possible: it is not enough that oneself alone should abide by the Refuge precepts, one should also bring others to the right direction; if somebody is going in a wrong way you should try to lead them on the right path.
- Fifth, you should make prostrations to the Buddhas of the ten directions, to the Buddha of whichever direction in which you are heading. This means to pay homage to the Buddhas, morning, noon and evening.
Then there are the instructions on the particular precepts regarding the Three Jewels:
- First, if we go for Refuge to the Buddha we don't take worldly deities and gods as an ultimate Refuge. Worldly gods are those like Brahma, Indra, Vishnu and Shiva; tsens and gyalpo. Since they themselves are in Samsara, how can they help you to become liberated from it? So, as it is said in the thirty-seven ways of a Bodhisattva, one should not go to them for Refuge.
- Secondly, going for Refuge to the Dharma means to give up harming sentient beings, semchen. Semchen here includes not just those with four legs and hairy beings but all those who have senses or minds. One should give up killing and robbing, and should try to tread the path of non-violence.
- Thirdly, when you go for Refuge to the Sangha you should not spend time with negative companions; if you spend time with negative companions you will be led into negative ways and not into positive ways.
There are three precepts to observe with regard to paying respect to the Three Jewels:
- First, regarding going for Refuge to the Buddha, you show reverence to the Buddhas and their representatives. This includes putting Buddha images in a place of respect and making prostrations and offerings and so on.
- Second, going for Refuge to the Dharma requires you to show reverence to the Dharma and its representations, even to a letter or a syllable by which the Dharma is written. Not to mention the books and Dharma materials.
- Third, taking refuge in the Sangha requires you to show respect to the sangha and the representatives of the Sangha, even those who are merely wearing the robes of the Sangha; even if you find a piece of red robe on the street you should think that this is also a representation of the Sangha and should not treat it in a disrespectful way.
Now for the three instructions on accordance:
- First, in going for Refuge to the Buddha, let your mind be in accord with the Dharma. If we claim to go for Refuge to the Buddha but our mind is completely in opposition to the Dharma it is not all right. Let your mind be infused with the Dharma, and generate peace and humility in your mind.
- Secondly, in going for Refuge to the Dharma, we should let our speech be in accord with the Dharma. We claim to be taking Refuge in the Dharma, and so to let our speech go totally contrary to the Dharma is wrong. Therefore we try to give up telling lies, slandering others, and speaking hurtful words; we try to infuse our speech with the Dharma in our daily life.
- Thirdly, in going for refuge to the Sangha we should let our body be in accord with the Dharma. We should try to live our life in accord with the Dharma and give up negative actions of the body, such as sexual misconduct and so on.
What are the benefits of observing the Refuge precepts? We should not go for Refuge if there were no benefits.
- First, by going for Refuge we begin to practice Buddhism or Dharma.
- Second, we create a favourable basis for all precepts and levels of ordination.
- Third, we are protected from harm from humans and non-human beings; all obstacles and harmful influences are pacified.
- Fourth, we will not be separated from the Blessings of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in all our lives to come. Fifth, the effects of negative karma will be reduced. There are so many benefits that it is difficult to count them all.
Now we'll talk about Bodhicitta. All of the paths, without exception, of a Bodhisattva, must be completed within the context of Bodhicitta. First try to think of all those beings experiencing great sufferings whom you yourself have seen, like those people who are disabled or sick and have much suffering, and then think of all the other beings who are undergoing immeasurable sufferings. You think of this again and again until you feel real and great compassion for them. You feel as if, 'I personally will dispel all their sufferings; I will do it even if I must do it alone.' When this kind of aspiration and courage arises in you it is the beginning of your becoming a Bodhisattva; developing the compassion and courage form the preparation and training of a Bodhisattva.
There are three kinds of aspiration for a Bodhisattva:
- First is the king-like aspiration. A king has power and can give orders to help and give benefits to his subjects. This means I aspire to become enlightened myself in order to be able to help all other sentient beings to attain Enlightenment.
- Second is the captain-like aspiration, which means you want to become enlightened alongside all other sentient beings. A boatman loads his boat with passengers and goes with them across the river; the boat doesn't go alone. This kind of wisdom is called the Sacred Wisdom aspiration.
- Third is the shepherd-like aspiration, which is when I aspire, 'May all beings become enlightened because of my positive deeds. I will become enlightened only after every one of them has attained enlightenment.' A shepherd will take care of the sheep first, and only then will he go home. This is the supreme courage and compassion. Of these three the most noble is the third, but you can choose whichever is more suitable for you; there is no difference.
There are three precepts of Bodhicitta:
- abstaining from negative actions,
- accumulating positive actions, and
- working for the benefit of others.
Abstaining from negative actions can be elaborated into the eighteen root precepts, but the essence of all of them can be condensed into not to abandon sentient beings. To give up on any sentient being is worse then any other negative deed, therefore one must place emphasis on this.
The Refuge and Bodhicitta is not just a preliminary or something to be done in the beginning and then be left behind. We usually recite verses on Refuge and Bodhicitta at the beginning of our practices, but it should not be thought that it is only for the beginning. These two should always accompany you throughout the path.
One should maintain compassion, not giving up on any sentient beings, and a strong commitment to Refuge is the most important basis for the Buddhist path. 'I myself personally will bring all sentient beings to Enlightenment.' One should try to generate a genuine aspiration of this kind and work on it as one would dig for gold. That one should be genuine means one should not be false; if you are not drunk but act like a drunk you are not being genuine. One should genuinely generate this aspiration. We human beings are greedy, so that if we are digging for gold we are not thinking of anything else but this gold; one should be similarly focused on the generation of Bodhicitta, concentrating only on this.
If you don't have an understanding of and emphasis on Refuge you can't even practise Hinayana, let alone Mahayana. If you don't have an inclination towards Bodhicitta you can't practise Mahayana, let alone Vajrayana. It is very important to understand this basic principal. If genuine Bodhicitta is established in your mind you will enter the path of the Bodhisattvas, will always meet genuine spiritual friends in your lives to come, will receive the nectar of the Dharma teachings, and will actualise Enlightenment, the perfect Buddhahood, without much delay. Perfect here means perfect in terms of the complete abandonment of all that is to be abandoned and the full accomplishment of all that is to be accomplished. 'Buddha' is' Sangye' in Tibetan. 'Sang' means awaken: you awaken from all the afflictions. 'Gye" means blossom: the wisdom opens like the petals of a blossoming flower.
Now that we have laid the foundation for the ocean of Bodhisattva activities, we should say prayers such as the Zangpa Chopa Monlam, the prayers composed by Nagarjuna, Two Hundred Prayers, and Lopon Pawo, Seven Hundred Prayers. We should say them not just once or twice but every day, and as constantly as possible throughout our lives for the benefit of others.
The reason why I talk about Refuge is that we should not waste this life of ours which is endowed with the eight freedoms and ten opportunities. Of course there are many who are more learned then I am, but I have tried to say a few words on this. A fool like me doesn't know much, but if you keep it in mind I think there will be some benefits.
To all of you who spread the teachings of the Karma Kagyud throughout many countries, I would like to express my thanks and appreciation. I wish and I pray that I will be able to visit the Western countries in the near future, and that the Buddhadharma will spread all over the world.
May all of you have good health and may there be happiness and wellbeing in this life and in other lives to come. I wish and dedicate that all the positive deeds I have done in all the three times will ripen for the benefit of all my mother sentient beings and especially you all. I request you all to engage in non-violence and to abandon all harmful deeds towards any beings. I pray that there will be timely seasons, good harvests and the greatest prosperity and happiness for all the beings on this earth.Due to my young age I am not able to serve the monasteries and the Buddhadharma very well at present, but I will ensure that I do not become a disgrace to my lineage in my contributions to the Dharma and the lineage.