Why Take Refuge?
The Karmapa Continues His Commentary on The Torch of Certainty
Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya, India
January 3, 2014
On the first day of the Gyalwang Karmapa's talks on The Torch of Certainty by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, the side areas of the Pavilion are overflowing with lay followers, while the center is filled with the ordained Sangha. The maroon and gold of their robes is reflected above in the three levels of pleated material that run in a fluttering row from the front to back of the hall along the huge arch of the roof. The large crowd faces the Pavilion stage, where at the very top of its long and broad flight of stairs, the image of Tibet's Mt. Kailash forms the backdrop for a large statue of a golden Buddha. Beneath him is a life-like statue of the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, and a flight downward from him is another throne with a statue of the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje, and finally, at the base, the simple and beautiful throne of the present Karmapa, flanked by thrones for Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche, along with rows of tulkus and khenpos.
Before the Karmapa begins these two days of teachings, he is offered an extensive mandala by monks wearing the traditional red Kagyu hat shaped like a half moon. He is also given representations of enlightened body, speech, mind, qualities, and activity to encourage his long life and support the flourishing of his work to benefit others.
The Karmapa starts his talk with warm greetings to those who have come, adding his good wishes for the New Year and the fulfillment of everyone's aspirations. During the previous Monlam, from this same text, the Karmapa had taught the four common preliminaries (the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind), and this year, he will continue to the next topic of the Four Uncommon Preliminaries, which begin with going for refuge and generating bodhichitta.
The Karmapa first gives a reading transmission for the extensive visualization that accompanies the recitation of the refuge prayer. There are beautiful descriptions of a pure realm with jewel-laden trees, lakes of pure water, and the grass flecked with numerous flowers. The pliant ground gives when stepped upon and springs up when released, while the songs of birds fill the air. These vivid experiential details bring the whole image to life. A central wish-fulfilling tree is the basis for the many figures of buddhas, yidam deities, and the sangha who surround Vajradhara while the lineage lamas rise in space above his head. We ourselves are surrounded by all living beings, including our parents and enemies, who take refuge with us. At the end, the whole image dissolves into light and into ourselves; we rest in the natural state for a while and then dedicate the merit.
After a half-hour break for tea, the Karmapa resumes his talk, now focused on the meaning of taking refuge. He began with the twofold goal of a Buddhist practitioner: helping to improve the lives of beings in this world, and ultimately, to help them achieve the full awakening of a Buddha. First, relying on a qualified teacher, one needs to listen to the teachings with pure, undistracted attention, hearing all the words. There is a lot to know and we cannot know it all, so it's important to draw out what is necessary and practical, like the proverbial swan that can extract the milk from water.
We can study the major treatises, and if that is not possible, we can examine a treatise on the stages of the path, like this Torch of Certainty, learning what is essential and secondary, and then applying all that we know to practice. Like this, when practice is based on hearing and reflecting, we have greater confidence and trust in it. And we also become actual Buddhists, for we should choose Buddhism not because we prefer it to other traditions, but because we have used our intelligence to investigate the reasons for taking refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Why is refuge taught first? We should develop a special understanding of what is necessary for practice, the purpose of practice, and its result. In the beginning, we generate an intense desire to be free of samsara's entanglements. This, in turn, depends on recognizing the suffering that samsara is, which further depends on finding a precious human rebirth with its freedoms and resources. We realize the fragility of this life that it is like a butter lamp running out of fluid.
Two things will help us in going for refuge. Fear of samsara is a key motivator for inspiring us to take refuge, and there are three types: the lesser individual fears rebirth in the lower realms; the average one fears rebirth in any part of samsara, positive or negative; the superior individual does not fear for their own suffering, but fears the long and intense suffering that others undergo in lower rebirths. The second quality we need is faith and belief that the Three Jewels can actually protect us. For the refuge vow to become powerful, it has to come from the depths of our heart. When we are in a difficult situation, where do we naturally turn? Often it is not to the Three Jewels, but a more worldly refuge like divinations or astrology. If we go for refuge with an intense fervor, our vow will become stable reference for us.
There are four reasons why is it possible to take refuge in the Three Jewels. First of all, the Buddha himself is free of samsara. We cannot protect others because we are still stuck in samsara. The analogy is that of a double drowning: if we do not know how to swim, how could we save others? The second reason is that the Buddha has the perfect skill of being able to free others from samsara. Thirdly, he has great impartial compassion, not seeing some as close to him and others as distant. And finally, the Buddha benefits everyone, regardless of whether they have helped or harmed him.
Since the Buddha is said to have such great powers, we might wonder why he has not already liberated us from samsara. In his praise of the Buddha, the great scholar Dignaga said that the Buddha can protect us only if two conditions are met: the outer condition of a buddha being present in the world, and the inner condition of having trust and faith in him without reservation. We know that we are entrusting ourselves to him one hundred percent if we are fully implementing his teachings, not just paying lip service.
It is also true that the Buddha cannot take away our negative karma; it is up to us to do the practice. An analogy illuminates this situation. Imagine a person standing in a large open field with a tent in the middle. Suddenly a huge hail storm pours down and they have the choice of running around the field and suffering or entering the tent for protection. The field represents samsara and the tent, the practice of Dharma and the Three Jewels. If the person does not enter the tent of practice, the Buddha cannot protect them from samsara.
So it is in our hands to take up the practices that lead to full awakening. And the first stage is going for refuge with our whole being to what is the most precious, the Three Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.