(From a teaching by Bardor Tulku Rinpoche given at Kunzang Palchen Ling in May 2010. Translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, transcribed by Alan McCoy, edited by Basia Coulter. Copyright 2010 Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Peter O’Hearn. All rights reserved.)
The fundamental significance of the vow of refuge in the Buddhist tradition is that it is the necessary starting point and foundation for all other consciously adopted forms of moral discipline. It is said that there are vows for everyone, but not for those who have not taken the vow of refuge. The reason for the presentation of vows in Buddhism—the conscious adoption of moral discipline—is that, in his omniscience, the Buddha recognized that the only cause of higher rebirth is consciously adopted moral disciple.
In order to enable disciples to achieve continued higher rebirth and to continue to pursue the path, he therefore presented the vow of refuge and all the other vows that ensue upon it. To understand the context in which the Buddha presented these things, we have to look at the broad context of his teaching, which is what we call the four noble truths: The truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path. We must start with the acknowledgement of our suffering. Anyone who was born in any of the six realms (or states) of samsara suffers. No one can say that they do not suffer at all. The claim that a being living in samsara is free of suffering simply goes against all of our valid experience. But suffering does not arise without a context, without a cause. And suffering depends upon the accumulation of karma. If you accumulate karma, you will suffer. If you do not accumulate karma, you will not suffer. This is what the Buddha was pointing to when he presented the first noble truth—the truth of suffering—in his words, “Recognize suffering.”
The first step is for us to recognize and admit our suffering because if we fail to do that, we will have no inspiration to escape from (or transcend) samsara. But other than recognizing suffering, we cannot simply try to get rid of it. We have to get rid of its cause. Therefore the Buddha went on and presented the second noble truth—the truth of the cause of suffering—by saying, “Abandon its cause.” What is the cause of suffering? Fundamentally it is kleshas—mental afflictions. Through the presence of kleshas within us, we accumulate karma. Negative karma causes us to suffer. Positive karma causes us to experience states of afflicted (or imperfect) happiness. All of this is of the nature of suffering and results from the certain cause of kleshas and karma.
How do we abandon the cause of suffering? We do that by the achievement of cessation. Therefore the Buddha taught the third noble truth—the truth of cessation—when he said, “Achieve cessation.” That is to say, you achieve the cessation of suffering by achieving the cessation of its cause, the cessation of kleshas and karma.
To some extent we could say that all spiritual traditions are concerned with the transcendence of suffering, and there are many varieties of spirituality in this world, some more sophisticated than others. But the Buddha, having perfected the two accumulations and achieved the dharmakaya for his own benefit and the rupakaya for the benefit of others, and having therefore turned the three dharmachakras, taught a precise path leading to the cessation of suffering and the causes of suffering, a path leading to non-abiding nirvana. He first mentioned this path by proclaiming the fourth noble truth—the truth of the path—when he said, “Rely upon the path.” The path the Buddha presented conforms to the needs and dispositions of the individual. It can be therefore divided into the path of the shravaka, the path of the pratyekabuddha, and the path of a bodhisattva. And each of these paths leads to liberation.
The reason why the Buddha began by saying, “Recognize suffering,” is that as long as we are in denial of suffering, we are like small children who will touch fire because they are too young or too naïve to know that it will burn them. Small children have to be kept away from fire by their parents, but when a child matures to the point where they know that fire will burn them if they touch it, they no longer have to be protected from it, and they are mature enough to be able to choose not to touch fire. In instructing us to recognize suffering, the Buddha was instructing us to gain an analogous type of maturity to recognize what will cause suffering and how to avoid it. In that way, the Buddha began his presentation of all of his buddhadharma with the four noble truths, and among them, what we actually practice is the fourth—the truth of the path.
The starting point of our practice of the path is the cultivation of moral discipline, and this is because in order to continue to pursue the path, we need continued higher rebirth. The only cause of higher rebirth is moral discipline. Is higher rebirth our final goal? No. All six realms involve suffering, but three of these realms—what are called the three higher realms or three higher states—have much less suffering than the states that are called the three lower realms. Through the conscious adoption of moral discipline, we can achieve these higher rebirths: As a human, as a deva, or as an asura. In these three states we still suffer, but we suffer so much less than those in the lower states, that we can continue to pursue the path. And the only way to gain this necessary resource of a higher rebirth is moral discipline. Nevertheless moral discipline alone will not lead to liberation. It leads to a higher rebirth that is a container (or basis) for pursuing the path, but that higher rebirth itself, because it is still an afflicted state, is not a state of liberation. Devas suffer from death and downfall; humans from birth, aging, sickness, and death; and asuras from warfare and disputation. So we cannot stop there. We cannot stop merely with the practice of moral discipline and the achievement of higher rebirth; we have to go further. Starting with moral discipline, the substance (or body) of the path is the gathering of the two accumulations—of merit and wisdom. And by means of these—the combination of moral discipline and the gathering of the accumulations—not only do we achieve a higher rebirth avoiding the three lower realms, but we also progress along the path.
The starting point of this process is taking the vow of refuge. Taking the vow of refuge is what opens the door to all of the eight varieties of what are called pratimoksha or individual liberation. These are the vows of a male or female monastic, a male or female novice, a male or female upasaka (or lay disciple), the temporary 24–hour vow, and the eight lifelong vows. You can therefore think of the refuge vow as the only doorway into the buddhadharma or you can think of it as the first step on the path that culminates in liberation and awaking. But in either case, whatever analogy or metaphor you use, the taking of the vow of refuge is the starting process of the path that consists of gathering the two accumulations and that culminates in buddhahood.
In whom do we take refuge? We take refuge in the Buddha, the Awakened One; in the dharma, his teaching; and in the sangha, the community (or society) of those who follow the Buddha. Why are there three sources of refuge? That is because there are basically three types of people who engage in spiritual practice. Corresponding to these three types of people, the Buddha taught three vehicles, and as gateways into these vehicles he taught three sources of refuge. Some people are of the shravaka type. Shravakas (originally the term referred to the Buddha’s direct disciples) are those who practice in a group as a society, because the emphasis in their practice is on moral discipline itself and this is maintained in reliance upon and in relation to others—they principally take refuge in the sangha (or community). An individual of the shravaka type primarily takes refuge in the sangha, and for them there is the refuge vow, “I take refuge in the sangha, supreme among assemblies.” The sangha is unique among assemblies, organizations, or societies. There are many organizations, many societies in this world, but the sangha is a society that is specifically dedicated to the mutual support of the pursuit of liberation, and especially the pursuit of moral discipline, so therefore the sangha is the principal source of refuge for a shravaka type of person who therefore practices the shravakayana or shravaka vehicle.
The second type of practitioner is called the pratyekabuddha type. Pratyekabuddha is someone who seeks and achieves the realization of a solitary realized one. The pratyekabuddha type of person principally takes refuge in the dharma. This is because pratyekabuddha type people are very intelligent; they also usually take birth in what is called an aeon of darkness—a time in human history when no buddha or teaching of a buddha are present. Nevertheless, in spite of the dark age in which they have taken birth, through their intelligence and their previous dispositions, they realize the meaning of dharma. They recognize the twelve links of interdependence through the analysis of phenomena and therefore, since essentially they discover the dharma for themselves, they principally take refuge in the dharma. Therefore, for the pratyekabuddha type of person who practices the pratyekabuddhayana, there is the refuge vow, “I take refuge in the dharma, supreme among all that is free of attachment.”
The third type of practitioner is the bodhisattva type who will therefore practice the bodhisattvayana or mahayana. Such an individual principally takes refuge in the Buddha himself. The reason for this is that unlike the other two types, the bodhisattva actually seeks the achievement not merely of liberation but of full buddhahood. Therefore principally their practice consists of conscious emulation of the Buddha. Since they seek perfect buddhahood and since the essence of their practice is following the Buddha’s example, they principally take refuge in the Buddha. Therefore for the bodhisattva type of person there is the refuge vow, “I take refuge in the Buddha, supreme among all who walk on two feet.” So we have three sources of refuge to correspond to three types of people who therefore practice three distinct vehicles.
I need to make something clear about this distinction between the three jewels, and this clarification is especially needed in a culture such as western culture where buddhadharma is relatively new. Because we take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, when we are new to buddhadharma, we generally have the attitude that all three must be perfect. We therefore expect that any member of the sangha must be perfect, and then as soon as we discover—as we eventually must—that members of the sangha have problems, then we decide that the whole thing must be a lie. We are disillusioned about the sangha. This causes us to distrust the dharma and lose faith all together. This, however, can be easily prevented by gaining an understanding of the attributes of the three jewels as explained by the Buddha. If you understand the distinctions the Buddha made among the attributes of the three jewels, this disillusionment and rejection of dharma—this disappointment—need not occur.
If the Buddha had said, “I take refuge in the sangha, supreme among all that is free of attachment,” then our disillusionment would be justifiable. If the Buddha had claimed that the sangha was free of attachment, then as soon as we detected a dharma teacher or member of the sangha demonstrating attachment, such as attachment to food or sex or pleasure of some kind, disillusionment would be justifiable. But the Buddha never said that. The Buddha did not say, “Take refuge in the sangha because they are free of attachment. He said, “Take refuge in the sangha, the best society, supreme among assemblies.” Now what does it mean? As human beings, we are involved in societies, groups, and organizations of all kinds. Many of these are inherently negative. Many of them are neutral. But among all of the societies in which we may take part, the sangha is unique because it is dedicated to mutual support in the pursuit of awakening. So the Buddha never claimed that we should expect the sangha to be perfect. But we should understand the sangha to be the best society.
He did, on the other hand, assert the perfection of dharma. He said, “I take refuge in the dharma, supreme among all that is free of attachment.” And there is a reason for this. Just as the Buddha did not claim that the sangha is free of attachment, he did claim that dharma is free of attachment. Dharma has two aspects: The dharma of tradition and the dharma of realization. The dharma of tradition refers to the Buddha’s teachings and the commentaries upon them. These exist as books. Books are inanimate objects. Books, the words in books, the ideas communicated by those words, as inanimate things cannot possibly have kleshas. You can never mistrust the message found in these books on the basis of assuming that it might have a klesha. It cannot. The other aspect of dharma is realization. This realization dharma is the achievement of the fruition (or result) of the path—the achievement of nirvana—whether it is the nirvana of a shravaka; the nirvana of a pratyekabuddha; or the great non-abiding nirvana of a buddha—the wisdom which knows what there is and the nature of all that there is, the culmination of the bodhisattva path. Whether it is the one-sided nirvana of a shravaka or pratyekabuddha, or the great nirvana of a buddha, which transcends both samsara and nirvana, realization refers to the transcendence of samsara and therefore all kleshas. When someone achieves realization dharma, they cannot and do not have kleshas. Therefore neither the dharma of tradition nor the dharma of realization can possess attachment or any other kleshas. Therefore it was correct and important for the Buddha to make that assertion. If you understand the difference between the dharma and the sangha, then you will not be surprised and disillusioned when you see flaws in dharma teachers or other members of the sangha. You will recognize that as members of the sangha they deserve your support in the mutual achievement of liberation.
In this way an understanding of the attributes of the three jewels not only inspires confidence in them, but it enables us to understand correctly the differences between them. And this understanding will enable us when we observe the imperfections of members of the sangha not to become angry at them, but to feel compassion for them. We will recognize that the other members of the sangha are attempting to follow the correct path, but that they have not yet completed it—they have not yet achieved the state of buddhahood—and therefore they still have kleshas. Recognizing that, we will not be surprised or shocked; we will feel compassion. This brings two benefits. The first, most obvious benefit, is that we will feel supportive compassion for other members of the sangha rather than aggression or anger. The other benefit is that we will not commit the downfall of abandonment of dharma. The abandonment of the dharma is said to be a more serious problem than even the five actions of immediate consequence. So by recognizing the difference between the dharma and the sangha, we will feel compassion and not anger toward the sangha, and we will ourselves be free from the abandonment of dharma. However we may act as members of the sangha, if we can remember that the buddhadharma itself is flawless, then we will avoid the problems of losing faith, losing heart, and these benefits will accrue. In the Uttaratantra Shastra by Lord Maitreya there is a very detailed and precise presentation of the attributes of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—a concise presentation, a detailed presentation, and then a very detailed presentation. So as the Uttaratantra Shastra has been translated along with some of its commentaries, you would be well advised to study it and learn more about the three jewels. Based on The Words of My Perfect Teacher as a source text, what has been described up to this point is what are called the outer three jewels of the causal vehicle—the Buddha, dharma, and sangha.
When the refuge vow is given as the gateway into the path, it is usually conferred according to the causal vehicle and especially according to what is called the common vehicle. In that case, there are three particular attributes to the vow of refuge that identify it as the refuge vow of the common vehicle. The first is that the Buddha is identified as supreme among all who walk on two feet. The Buddha is perceived as the best of all bipeds, humans, and devas. But other than that, his unique attributes are not clearly specified. The second thing is the duration of the vow. When one takes the refuge vow according to the common vehicle, it is taken for the duration of this life, so you will say during the ceremony, “Preceptor, from this moment onward and for the duration of my life..,” meaning this life. The third thing that makes the refuge vow of the common vehicle is the intention with which the vow is taken. According to the common vehicle, one takes the vow of refuge because one recognizes the sufferings of samsara and seeks liberation from them. So one’s intention is primarily to acquire the means to achieve one’s own liberation. In that way, the attitude toward the sources of refuge, the duration of the vow, and the intention with which the vow is taken, specify that form of refuge vow as the refuge vow of the common vehicle.
The other type of external refuge is the outer refuge of the greater vehicle (or mahayana). What distinguishes this from the refuge of the common vehicle is the same attributes as previously mentioned but in reverse. In the case of the mahayana vow of refuge, the Buddha is not understood merely as the best of bipeds, but as the complete trikaya, the three bodies of buddhahood. And the duration of the vow is not simply the duration of this life, but until one achieves buddhahood. And the intention of the vow is not simply the achievement of one’s own liberation from samsara, but the achievement of perfect buddhahood, so that one may bring about the liberation and awakening of all other beings. These two varieties—the refuge vow of the common vehicle and the refuge vow of the mahayana—make up what is called the external vow of refuge.
The internal refuge is taking refuge in the three roots. These are the gurus who are the root of blessing; the yidams who are the roots of attainment; and the dakinis and dharmapalas who are the roots of activity. Essentially the inner vow of refuge is achieved through the realization of these three roots.
The third aspect of the refuge vow is the ultimate refuge. The ultimate refuge is the manifest trikaya—the manifest dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. As a source of refuge this refers to your root guru who is recognized to be the embodiment of the three kayas (or three bodies) of perfect buddhahood. The way that this is actually practiced, that the inner and ultimate sources of refuge or vows of refuge are implemented in practice, is essentially that through the practice and achievement of the three roots—the gurus, yidams, and dakinis and dharmapalas—you achieve (or manifest) the trikaya yourself. That means that your mind and the mind of your root guru, who has already achieved the trikaya, are mixed inseparably. In that way, the vow of refuge has the outer aspect consisting of the common vehicle and the mahayana vows of refuge; the inner aspect, consisting of the vajrayana sources of refuge—the three roots; and the ultimate aspect, which is the achievement and manifestation of the trikaya in which your mind and the mind of your guru are inseparable.
The vow of refuge opens the door to all buddhadharma, but it is faith that opens the door to the vow of refuge. And by faith we mean three things: Awe or wonderment; desire or aspiration; and trust or belief. The need for this type of threefold faith is great. It is said, “Just as the seed that has been burnt in a fire cannot possibly grow into a sprout, a person without faith cannot possibly develop any virtue.” Especially if one is going to generate bodhichitta and practice the vajrayana, we need the vow of refuge that comes from the inspiration of threefold faith.
The first of the three aspects or types of faith is awe or wonderment, and awe refers to the feeling of inspiration we have when we see images of the Buddha, books of dharma that are receptacles of his speech, stupas—receptacles of his mind, temples, and so on. The feeling of inspiration we have when we see those things is awe or wonderment, the first aspect of faith. The second aspect of faith is desire or aspiration, and this means the desire to be protected by the three jewels, the aspiration to achieve nirvana. The faith of desire is [expressed], for example, when we say, “Please protect me from samsara and lower states.” And the third aspect, trust or belief, is the attitude, “I know that you are infallible and if I take refuge in you, you can protect me.” In that way, the starting point of taking refuge is developing the threefold faith of wonderment, aspiration, and belief.