A Brief Teaching on Refuge
by His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa
I would like to present a brief teaching on Refuge. It is the understanding and observing of the Refuge vow which defines one as a Buddhist. It is also said, "You are not a Mahayanist if you don't have Bodhicitta." The generation of Bodhicitta or the Bodhisattva aspiration to aid all sentient beings is what defines whether or not your practice is Mahayana.
It should be understood that the entire Buddhist path is included within the principles of Refuge and Bodhicitta. All the teachings given by the Buddha Shakyamuni come down to Refuge and Bodhicitta. 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. First there is trust and confidence in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the Three Jewels). Also, there is compassion, wishing to liberate all sentient beings from suffering.
Faith in the Three Jewels consists of three types. Inspired faith is the positive inspiration you receive when visiting places of worship where there are many sacred objects, or when you meet great masters and attend sangha gatherings. Aspiration faith is when you wish to get rid of suffering and attain the peace of higher states of existence; you wish to practice 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. One has heartfelt trust in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Compassion for all sentient beings is the pure wish to liberate sentient beings from all the kinds of problems and suffering in the ocean of Samsara. One should think, "All living beings have been my mothers (in past lives). All have loved me and cared for me as my mother. Therefore, I would like to help them to become liberated from all their suffering." This is compassion. These are the roots of Refuge.
What is the essence of the refuge vows? It is that I have no other ultimate guide but the Buddha, I have no other true path but the Dharma and I have no other companions with whom to tread the path of dharma 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 will 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 (the noble sangha of bodhisattvas).
Clear and unchanging commitment to the Three Jewels of Refuge is necessary. The instructions on observing the Refuge commitments are many and can be categorized into the general, the particular and so on.
First of the general instructions is not to give up your Refuge vow even in exchange for your life, or for great awards. For example, even if someone might pile up the greatest amount of wealth on one side and tell you, "This could be yours if you would abandon your Refuge vow," one should not abandon the Refuge vow.
Second, whatever suffering 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 which represent the body, speech and mind of a Buddha.
Fourth, you should observe the Refuge vows and bring others to have confidence in 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 the 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 simply means to have respect, recall the kindness of and pay homage to the Buddhas morning, noon and evening.
There are the instructions on the particular precepts regarding the Three Jewels.
First, if we go for Refuge to the Buddha we do not ever take worldly deities and gods as an ultimate source of Refuge. Worldly gods are those like Brahma, Indra, Vishnu and Shiva, or Tsens and Gyalpo and other spirits. 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 Practices of a Bodhisattva (by Thogme Rinpoche), one should not go for Refuge to unenlightened and worldly beings.
Second, going for Refuge to the Dharma means giving up harming sentient beings. These living beings here include not just those with four legs and hair, but all those who have senses or a mind (including insects). One should give up killing and robbing, and should tread the path of non-violence.
Third, 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, making prostrations and offerings, and so on (images of the Buddha should not be placed on the floor).
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.
Third, taking refuge in the Sangha requires you to show respect to the sangha and the representatives of the Sangha, like those who are 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.