Going for Refuge

· Teachings · , ,

The Entrance to the Buddhist Teachings

by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

People naturally search for refuge, for someone or something to protect them from sorrow and torment. Some people turn to the powerful with the hope of achieving wealth, pleasure, and influence. Others seek protection through natural forces, such as the stars or mountains. Some seek aid through the power of spirits. But none of these mistaken objects of refuge are free from ignorance and samsara, and they therefore cannot provide ultimate refuge. Their compassion, if they have any, is partial and limited. 

True refuge can only be provided by something that is itself totally free—free from the bonds of samsara and free from the limited peace of a one-sided nirvana. This quality of true refuge is to be found only in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha— with their absolute wisdom, unbiased compassion, and unimpeded ability.

The first of the Three Jewels is the Buddha. The qualities that characterize the Buddha can be seen in terms of three aspects, or dimensions, called kayas (“bodies”) in Sanskrit—the dharmakaya, the absolute body; the sambhogakaya, the body of perfect endowment; and the nirmanakaya, the manifestation body. These three are all aspects of one essence.

The dharmakaya is the absolute, inconceivable, empty expanse of wisdom. The enlightened wisdom mind of the Buddha is imbued with awareness, compassion, and ability. Beyond all conceptual elaboration, its expression is the five primordial wisdoms. The sambhogakaya is the natural display of these five primordial wisdoms, arising as the five certainties—the perfect teacher, the perfect teachings, the perfect time, the perfect place, and the perfect retinue. The sambhogakaya remains by nature unchanging and unceasing throughout past, present, and future, beyond both growth and decline. Buddhas manifest as the nirmanakaya according to the different needs and capacities of beings, and thus the nirmanakaya appears in countless different forms.

For a bodhisattva on one of the ten bhumis, or levels, the buddhas manifest in the sambhogakaya aspect. For ordinary beings of great merit and fortune, buddhas manifest as supreme nirmanakayas, such as the Buddha Shakyamuni. For beings of lesser merit, buddhas appear in human form as spiritual friends. For those without faith in the Three Jewels, they appear in countless helpful forms, such as animals, wheels, bridges, boats, fresh breezes, medicinal plants, and so on. They manifest constantly to benefit beings through their limitless activity.

These three aspects of the buddhas’ nature are not three separate entities. It is not as if they were three different persons. Of these three aspects, it is only the dharmakaya buddha that is the ultimate refuge. But to actualize the dharmakaya refuge, we have to rely on the teachings given by the nirmanakaya buddha.

In our present age, the supreme nirmanakaya aspect is Buddha Shakyamuni. He is the fourth of the 1,002 buddhas who will appear during this kalpa, or aeon. On the eve of their enlightenment all of these buddhas made vast aspirations to benefit beings. The Buddha Shakyamuni made five hundred great prayers that he would be able to help beings in this decadent and difficult age, and all the other buddhas praised him as being like a white lotus—a lotus grows and flourishes in the mud but remains unstained by it.

Without ever actually moving from the dharmakaya, Buddha Shakyamuni appeared as a prince in India. He displayed the twelve deeds of a buddha, and achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree at Bodhgaya. On the sambhogakaya level, he manifests as Mahavairochana to an infinite retinue of bodhisattvas.


The Buddhas Are Aware of your faith and devotion, and know the very moment you take refuge. Do not think that the buddhas are far away in distant, absolute realms where your prayers and aspirations go unheard and unheeded. Buddhas are as ever-present as the sky.

The second of the Three Jewels is the Dharma, the teachings the Buddha gave on how the enlightenment he had realized can be attained through practice. In this world, the Buddha Shakyamuni taught three categories of teachings, called the Tripitaka, or Three Baskets: the vinaya, or discipline; the sutras, or condensed instructions; and the abhidharma, or cosmology and metaphysics. He gave these teachings from different points of view at different times and places, known as the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. In the first turning, he taught relative truth; in the second, a blend of relative and absolute truth; and in the third, the ultimate, irrevocable truth.

Do not think that the buddhas are far away in distant, absolute realms where your prayers and aspirations go unheard and unheeded. Buddhas are as ever-present as the sky.

The third of the Three Jewels, the Sangha, is the community of the Buddha’s followers. It includes the eight great bodhisattvas, the sixteen arhats, the seven patriarchs that succeeded the Buddha, and all those who teach the Buddha’s teachings, along with those who practice them.

The Buddha is the one who shows you the path to enlightenment. Without him you would have no choice but to remain in the darkness of ignorance. You should therefore see the Buddha as the teacher. The Dharma is the path, the unmistaken way that leads directly to enlightenment. The Sangha is composed of the companions who accompany you along this extraordinary path. It is always good to have travel- ing companions who can help you avoid dangers and pitfalls and ensure that you arrive safely when you are in distant and unfamiliar lands.

According to the Mantrayana, the Three Jewels also have inner aspects. These are the Three Roots, which are the Teacher, the meditation deity or Yidam, and the feminine wisdom principle or Dakini. Roots are the basis of all growth: if the root is strong and of good quality, the tree will grow, and fruit will ripen easily. The Teacher is the root of all blessings, the Yidam is the root of all accomplishments, and the Dakinis together with the Dharma-protectors are the root of all activities. Although the terms are different, the Three Roots correspond to the Three Jewels. The Teacher is the Buddha, the Yidam is the Dharma, and the Dakinis and Dharma-protectors are the Sangha.

Photo by Chris Wilkinson/Wonderland

Photo by Chris Wilkinson/Wonderland

The Teacher can also be considered the very embodiment of all Three Jewels. His mind is the Buddha, his speech the Dharma, and his body the Sangha. He is therefore the source of all blessings that dispel obstacles and enable us to progress on the path.

On the ultimate level the dharmakaya is the Buddha, the sambhogakaya is the Dharma, and the nirmanakaya is the Sangha. All are one in the Teacher, the Buddha in actuality.

The motive for taking refuge can be of three different levels, according to an individual’s capacity. These different levels of motive define the three vehicles. Those with a limited attitude, as in the Hinayana, or Basic Vehicle, seek refuge from fear of the suffering that pervades the three realms of samsara. Those who have a vaster attitude, the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana, go for refuge from fear of selfish attitudes, with the vast motivation of helping all other beings as well as themselves to be free from samsara. Practitioners of the Vajrayana go for refuge from fear of delusion, in order to free all other beings and themselves from the delusion of samsara and the chains of entangling emotions; they go for refuge in order to recognize their innate buddha nature.

Similarly, there are differences in the duration of refuge. Hinayana practitioners take refuge for the duration of their present life. In the Mahayana, this is seen as inadequate, and bodhisattvas take refuge until they and all beings have attained the enlightenment of perfect buddhahood.

A king whose predominant concern was the welfare of his subjects would be considered a noble king, while a king who looked after his own welfare and comfort at the expense of his subjects would be judged shameless. Likewise, you should not take refuge with a narrow-minded concern to attain enlighten- ment for yourself alone. Throughout your past lives you have been connected with all beings, and at some time or other all of them must have been your loving parents. You should take refuge for their benefit. When you take refuge, consider that all these beings are taking refuge along with you, even those who do not know of the Three Jewels.


Taking Refuge Is The Gateway to all of the Buddha’s teachings, and thus to the practice of all the vehicles. Just as you have to step through the door to enter a house, every practice in the Sutrayana, the Mantrayana, or the ultimate vehicle of the Great Perfection, has refuge as its threshold. If you visualize deities and recite mantras without full confidence in the Three Jewels, you will not attain any accomplishments. In the teachings of the Great Perfection, recognizing the true nature of all phenomena is the ultimate refuge, through which you will actualize the three kayas.

Louis Vest

Photo by Louis Vest


Faith Is The Prerequisite for refuge, and its very essence. Taking refuge does not just mean reciting a refuge prayer. It must come from the depth of your heart, from the marrow of your bones. If you have that complete confidence in the Three Jewels, their blessings will always be present in you, like the sun and moon being instantly reflected in clear, still water. Without being concentrated by a magnifying glass, dry grass cannot be set alight by the rays of the sun, even though they bathe the whole earth evenly in their warmth. In the same way, it is only when focused through the magnifying glass of your faith and devotion that the all-pervading warm rays of the buddhas’ compassion can make blessings blaze up in your being, like dry grass on fire.

As faith develops, four successive levels of faith can be distinguished. When you meet a teacher, hear the scriptures, learn of the extraordinary qualities of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, or read the life stories of great masters of the past, a vivid feeling of joy arises in your mind as you discover that there are such beings. This is the first kind of faith, vivid faith.

If you have complete confidence in the Three Jewels, their blessings will always be present in you, like the sun and moon being instantly reflected in clear, still water.

When thinking of the great masters fills you with a deep longing to know more about them, to receive teachings from them, and to develop spiritual qualities, this is the second kind of faith, eager faith.

As you reflect on the teachings, practice, and assimilate them, you develop complete confidence in their truth, and in the Buddha’s boundless perfection. You come to realize that even though the Buddha displayed the parinirvana, he did not die like an ordinary person, but rather is always present in the absolute expanse of the dharmakaya. You clearly understand the law of cause and effect, and the need to act in accord with it. At this stage, you are free from doubt. This is the third kind of faith, confident faith.

When your confidence is so well established that it can never waver, even at the cost of your life, this is the fourth kind of faith, irreversible faith.

To take refuge in a genuine way, you should have these four kinds of faith, especially irreversible faith. Faith and devotion make you a perfect container for the nectar of blessings that pour from the teacher, so that your good qualities steadily grow like the waxing moon. Devotion is as precious as having a skilled hand that can accomplish all crafts. It is like a great treasure that fulfills all needs, the panacea that cures all illness. Entrust your heart and mind to the Three Jewels like throwing a stone into deep water.

Without faith, taking refuge would be pointless. It would be like planting a burned seed, which will never sprout no matter how long it remains in perfect conditions in the ground. Without faith, you will never be able to develop any positive qualities. Even if the Buddha were to appear in person right in front of you, without faith you would fail to recognize his qualities, and you may even conceive erroneous views about him—as some heretic teachers did in his time. You would then miss the opportunity of being benefited by him.


After Having Taken Refuge, you must observe its precepts carefully. There are three things to be avoided, and three things to be done.

The three things to be avoided are as follows. (1) Having taken refuge in the Buddha, you should not take refuge in worldly gods and powerful people of this world. (2) Having taken refuge in the Dharma, you should give up all forms of violence, whether in thought, word, or deed. (3) Having taken refuge in the Sangha, you should not willingly share the lifestyle of those who live in a totally wrong way, nor distrust the karmic law of cause and effect.

The three things to be done are as follows. (1) Having taken refuge in the Buddha, you should respect any representation of the Buddha, including paintings and statues, even those in disrepair, and keep them in elevated places. (2) Having taken refuge in the Dharma, you should respect all the scriptures; this even extends down to a single letter of the alphabet, since letters are the support of the Dharma. Never step over books; the Buddha himself said that in this decadent age he would manifest in the form of scriptures. (3) Having taken refuge in the Sangha, you should respect members of the monastic community and all fellow Dharma practitioners.

To obtain the Dharma, bodhisattvas have endured countless hardships. In many of his former lives as a bodhisattva, the Buddha took birth as a king in remote countries where there were few teachers. He would search the whole countryside for someone who knew even four lines of authentic teaching. To test the bodhisattva king’s determination, buddhas would manifest as wandering hermits. In order to receive from them even four lines of teaching, such as:

Abandon evildoing.
Practice virtue well.
Master your own mind.
This is the Buddha’s teaching.

the king would readily give up his queen, his heirs, and the whole of his kingdom, and, putting these four lines into practice, attain realization.

Sacrifices on such a scale are not always easy to make, but you can certainly remember the Three Jewels in all your activities throughout the day, no matter whether you are happy or sad. If you see a beautiful landscape, flowers, or anything wonderful and inspiring, offer it men- tally to the Three Jewels. When good circumstances or events arise, see them as the blessing and kindness of the Three Jewels. Regard all sicknesses and obstacles, without complaint, as blessings in disguise that will enable you to purify your past negative karma. When confronted with great danger, or with terrifying situations, call upon the Three Jewels for assistance. At that very moment, the blessings of the Three Jewels will grant you protection. When you practice taking refuge in this manner, refuge will become an inherent part of your stream of consciousness.

Take refuge from the core of your heart, for the sake of all beings, from now until they all attain enlightenment. This is the true way of a bodhisattva.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910 – 1991) was a highly regarded teacher and head of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism from 1987 until his death.

From The Heart of Compassion. Copyright © 2007 by Dilgo Khyentse. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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