Why Refuge?

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Madrid, Spain (Archive #332)

A talk given by Lama Yeshe at a refuge ceremony in Madrid, Spain in January 1983. First published in Wisdom magazine in May 1983 (see p. 36).

Lama Yeshe teaching in Vaddo, Sweden, 1983. Photo: Holger Hjorth.

We should not feel that taking refuge is something strange, something new. Already, we take refuge in food, in keeping warm, in houses and clothes and chocolate. Already, we take refuge in these things in order to be happy.

So why should we take refuge now, at this time? What is so special? We should understand clean-clear that taking refuge in chocolate or ice cream is not sufficient, it doesn’t give everlasting realization. The refuge that does give everlasting realization is an inner experience, an inner understanding, and confidence in the Buddhadharma.

Taking refuge in the Dharma is understanding the universal nature of yourself and all beings. This is the way to completely free yourself. This is the way to elevate yourself from all miserable situations. When you understand this there is no reason to be unhappy, to crave ice cream, is there? Anyway, you know—when you buy ice cream and eat it, it is not sufficient, is it?

Think about your own experience, what you take refuge in when you are unhappy. When you’re miserable, you try to do incredible things! You try going to the cinema, going dancing—anything to make you forget your unhappiness. The point is, whatever you take refuge in doesn’t give you a solution: you have to understand this clean-clear.

From now on, from today, understand that ice cream and dancing are superficial, momentary refuges and that practicing Dharma is the everlasting refuge that leads to everlasting happiness. Dharma is the way, Buddha the leader, and Sangha the dear friends who take care, who give good understanding, who energize you by their good behavior.

The other ways we try to take refuge, the samsaric ways, do not fundamentally change the problem; they only supplement. The problem comes up again later in some other way. However, taking refuge in the Buddhadharma lasts, permanently lasts, and is much stronger than refuge in temporary objects.

To take refuge you don’t need to be near a buddha statue or in a temple or prayer place. You can take refuge anywhere; it is simply a state of mind. Wherever you are—in the bathroom, in the car, in bed, in a plane—you can take refuge. It is a simple, very practical thing. You don’t need to do anything, you don’t need a vow. You can take refuge instantly, just like that!

To take refuge means “to rely upon.” We rely upon the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha—they are a savior, a liberator. We do not rely upon the buddha image but upon the buddha nature. You put the essence of this inside your heart. That way you become Buddha, you become Dharma, you become Sangha.

Buddha and Dharma seem enough, so why do we need Sangha? We need friends, good friends, don’t we? “Bad” friends influence you and bring you into hell. We know that some humans are chicken-mentality human beings, some are pig-mentality, some monkey, and some snake-mentality. We know this, so we should choose, discriminate. You can go along with your friend but at a certain point you need to say, “Wait a minute, I’m going so far away with you. I’ve got to bring myself this way.” Do you see? Karmically, there is nothing wrong with this. To keep the relationship is important but if your dear friend leads you so far away then you should say, “Dear friend, I love you but I cannot go so far. I don’t have to go like a prisoner with you or do everything you do.” Your own discriminating wisdom tells you what is right, so just cut—cut the connection.

This is so important. This modern world is incredible, I tell you! You can become totally lost. You know this better than I do, I’m sure. It is so important to have a Dharma friend who has correct vision, correct behavior and can protect you from danger. Of course, when we reach the stage of Milarepa we don’t need to depend on Sangha friends because we are completely self-sufficient then.

So today you should make strong determination that temporary refuge is something trivial and does not solve problems. Understand that the only way to finally solve problems is to totally cut the ego, the ignorant desire; to understand the universal reality within you. And the way to do this is to practice Dharma as much as possible from now until death and in each life after that.

But remember, do not take refuge as just another excuse or because of some vague mystical idea. Take refuge with understanding of Buddha’s teaching, with clean-clear honesty and truth, with a wisdom-mind.

Understand the connection between Buddha and you. Buddha has universal love and compassion and complete understanding of reality. You also have compassion and love for people, but it’s limited. You also have wisdom; to some extent you understand yourself but, again, it’s limited. So you want to lift yourself up, have better understanding. You want Buddha’s omnipresent compassion and love and your compassion and love to communicate, to connect, to unify exactly.

Don’t think, “Oh, but I do not have enough qualities.” You do have the qualities of love, compassion and wisdom. Buddhism emphasizes so much that the human being—you—is as important as Buddha: you should have confidence that your present limited wisdom, your weak love and compassion can be limitlessly developed. There is no way to stop its development. The development of material is limited, but this wisdom mind-energy can develop infinitely. Your love can expand without limitation. Your compassion can increase limitlessly. Remember this. It is beautiful, isn’t it? This energy, the human mind, has no limitation at all.

So, have strong motivation and strong confidence. Even though momentarily you feel you cannot have love and compassion for some people, this is only superficial. Today, you have changed your mind: I can give, I can love. Today, make your enemy your object of compassion. You can do it.