What is Refuge?The meaning of Refuge becomes deeper and deeper as one proceeds along the Buddhist path and its real depth and magnitude is only known at enlightenment. To put it very simply, to take Refuge is to turn decisively towards the most powerful, sublime, true and meaningful force in the entire universe, seeking its strength, protection and guidance. These will be necessary in order to successfully rid one's mind of confusion and suffering and to attain the peace, wisdom and qualites of enlightenment. This process - of connecting profoundly with the absolute - begins formally with the ceremony of 'Taking Refuge' and is thereafter developed through study and meditation to become a deep inner strength. It is also a commitment to the Buddhist path.
By taking the Refuge ceremony, one becomes a Buddhist. From then on, the inner confidence and support that comes from taking Refuge daily forms a psychological basis for all the work of self-knowledge and transformation of the Buddhist 'path of peace'. Like the foundation of a house, Refuge is the basis upon which all other Buddhist practice is built.
Is Refuge the same in all Buddhist traditions?All traditions (Tibetan, Theravada, Zen etc.) share the basic Refuge in the 'Three Most Precious Things' (often translated as 'the Three Jewels'): the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
In the mahayana traditions, the scope of the basic refuge is widened from almost every point of view: what one takes refuge in, how long one takes refuge for, why one takes refuge etc. (see below)
In the vajrayana traditions, the refuge is extended to include three more fields (gurus, yidams and protectors) for practical reasons related to the intense nature of the vajrayana path.
In what does one take Refuge?In all forms of Buddhism, one places ones trust in:
the Buddha as the best teacher,
his teachings (Dharma) as the best spiritual path to follow and
the Sangha, the holders of those teachings, as the best guides and companions on that path.
In vajrayana Buddhism, three more refuges are added: the gurus, yidams and protectors:
the gurus are the source of spiritual transmission
the yidams are the source of accomplishment in practice
the protectors (also called 'dharmapala') enable compassionate activity to succeed
What is an unsuitable source of Refuge?The Buddhist path enables a person to leave samsara (the illusions, confusion and suffering in the mind) and to attain nirvana (perfect liberation, peace and unconditioned happiness). It is obvious that one needs guidance from a source which has already conquered samsara and attained nirvana. Otherwise it would be like hiring a guide who has never performed the journey.
On this 'journey', there are many dangers, posed by one's inner pride, jealousy, anger and selfish desires, inside oneself, and the general trend to negativity in the world around us. These are like robbers hiding by the wayside or dangerous wild animals. One needs protection and the bodyguard needs the strength and experience to be able to overcome all these various hazards.
In normal life, we turn to friends, family, the rich and the powerful for help. For worldly things these can sometimes provide the material or emotional support we need temporarily. But when it comes to working skilfully on one's mind, for a lasting liberation, they are quite useless. In fact, their guidance can take one completely in the wrong direction.
It is the most natural thing in the world to turn to an expert when one wants to learn something well. The 'experts' - on the spiritual path to freedom - are the Refuges.
Some differences between basic Refuge and mahayana RefugeDURATION ... basic Refuge is taken from the time of the ceremony until death, whereas mahayana Refuge is taken from the ceremony until total enlightenment is reached, in whichever future life that may be.
MOTIVATION ... the main motivation behind basic Refuge is a longing to free one's own mind from samsara and to attain nirvana. The mahayana motivation seeks Refuge in order to be able to help all beings become free from samsara and find nirvana.
OBJECT ... Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are known in a much more profound light than above:
The Buddha, besides being a historical person, is known as the three kaya and as sugatagarbha. These are deep, extensive topics too advanced to describe here.
The Dharma, besides being the body of written and oral teachings of the Buddha, is known as direct realisation of the path and its result and in particular as realisation of the voidness of personality and all things.
The Sangha, besides being the monastic community which perpetuates the Buddha's teaching, is known as those who have attained direct realisation of voidness.
The reference work on the above is Maitreya's mahayana uttara tanra. It has been translated, with commentary, as Maitreya on Buddha Nature by Ken Holmes.
Does taking refuge bind one to any commitments?Yes. Taking Refuge is a commitment to the Buddhist path and so it is natural to at least remain on that path and, preferably, to progress as best possible along it. The main commitment is maintain faith and confidence in the Three Refuges. To help one do this, there are three particular sets of three commitments:
Having taken Refuge in the Buddha, the most enlightened of all beings, one should keep the Buddha as one's main teacher and not drop Buddhism for some other faith. Having taken Refuge in the Dharma, the essence of which is peace, one should never do anything which harms any living being. Having taken Refuge in the Sangha, the finest companions, one should be careful not to be swayed into negativity by worldly friends.
As training, one should always make a point of respecting the representations of the Refuges: Buddha images, dharma texts and the sangha's robes. Images and texts should be kept in high, clean, peaceful places.
As helps for remembering the Refuges, one should recite the Refuge prayer daily, make offerings to them and in particular offer every first mouthful of food.