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Taking Refuge

Taking Refuge in a short ceremony actually marks the formal acceptance of Buddhism as one’s spiritual practice. That doesn’t mean that people from other faith traditions cannot practice the Buddhist methods of working with the mind, however the actual ceremony of ‘Taking Refuge’ is the demarcation of the Buddhist follower as opposed to a follower of Christ, Mohammed, etc.

If you decide to take Refuge or not, you’re still very welcome to keep coming to Tara Institute and the teachings continue to work just as well!

If you are from another Faith tradition, then please continue in your own tradition and don’t feel that you have to ‘convert’ or change to Buddhism in order to come to the teachings. The beauty of the Buddhist teachings is that they can be applied to one’s life regardless of religious tradition or belief.

The short ‘Refuge Prayer’ is repeated at the beginning of teachings and when one takes formal Refuge, then one has the commitment to repeat this short prayer three times together with three prostrations in the morning and again at night. This works on familiarising our mind with a way of living in the world that is different from our old patterns.

As you can also see, taking Refuge is ‘until Enlightenment’ – the state of the mind free from delusions and the subtle ‘stains’ or seeds of these deluded mind states of anger, attachment and ignorance.  We also take the vow to do this in order to ‘benefit all sentient beings’.

So we take Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the Three Jewels) in order to develop the Enlightened mind so that we can benefit all living beings.  This is called the ‘Mahayana’ form of taking refuge – because ultimately it benefits all beings.

I go for Refuge until I am Enlightened
To the Buddha, the Dharma and the virtuous Assembly.
From the virtuous merit that I collect
By practising giving and the other perfections,
May I attain the state of a Buddha
To be able to benefit all sentient beings.

The Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘refuge’ is ‘a place or state of safety from danger or trouble’ (Oxford Online Dictionary). So, where we would have taken refuge in food, alcohol, TV, sex or shopping when things were tough, now we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha (the Three Jewels) in order to make sense of and work with everything that comes.

A quote from Lama Yeshe:

“Taking refuge is nothing new, we are taking refuge all the time, but always in temporary objects. When we are sick we take refuge in a physician and medicine, when we are depressed we seek refuge in a friend, when lonely in sense pleasures even in chocolate cake, cheese cake etc”
(Lam Rim Outlines: Beginners Meditation Guide compiled by Karin Valham Kopan Monastery 2003 p 25/26)

Traditionally it is explained that we take refuge for two reasons: fear and faith.

  • Fear of rebirth in the lower realms – i.e. animal realms and hell realms and all of samsara generally
  • Faith that the Three Jewels have the ability to keep us safe from these rebirths.

In a more modern context, we could fear the effects of the negative mind states of anger, attachment and the ignorance that misperceives reality. We know these mind states are not helpful and so in order to change our mental patterns and subsequent behaviour, we have faith in the Three Jewels to help us change them and live a happier, more content life – regardless of the life situations that we find ourselves in.

Faith in the Buddha jewel is likened to having faith in the doctor to cure us from disease, i.e. these negative mind states. We follow the guidance of our teachers and learn that the enlightened mind free from delusions is possible – the example of Shakyamuni Buddha. This is the ‘outer’ aspect of the Buddha jewel. By contemplating this enlightened state, we realise that the seed of this enlightened state of buddhahood is within us, so ‘inner’ refuge is directed towards developing our inner buddha nature or clear wisdom.

To keep this vow, we do not take refuge in any worldly gods or things eg alcohol, food.

Faith in the Dharma jewel – (the teachings likened to medicine) – This is the true refuge which protects us from suffering. We have faith that practising the teachings will show us how to live a kinder life and enable us to overcome the negative states of mind and thus become calmer, kinder and more resilient in everyday life. This is the ‘outer’ aspect of the Dharma jewel. The ‘inner’ Dharma jewel is our innate wisdom that reveals our true buddha nature. We develop a healthy self-esteem based on the knowledge that our true nature is compassion and wisdom – the mind free from delusions. Having discovered our own inner strength, then we respect and encourage that of others.

To keep this vow, we try to avoid intentionally harming others.

Sangha jewel – (the nurse who helps us recuperate from illness) – our spiritual friends who influence us in a positive way. The ‘outer’ aspects of the Sangha jewel are those friends who support us in our practice and help us develop more knowledge and understanding of the teachings. The ‘inner’ aspect is developing our own capacity to be a friend and supporter to others. ‘Sangha’ in this context is not just the monks and nuns, although this is a major role for them as spiritual friends and supporters.

To keep this vow, we do not let ourselves be influenced by negative friends or influences.

So, taking refuge in the Buddha leads to the state beyond confusion and suffering; the Dharma is the Path of Wisdom leading to this state and the Sangha are those endowed with wisdom who can help us along the way.

To sum up – a quote from Lama Yeshe:

“Taking refuge is not difficult, but it would be a mistake to think that we can passively sit back and let buddha, dharma and sangha do the work for us. Buddha said, ‘You are responsible for your own confusion and your are responsible for your own liberation’. What saves us from confusion is our wisdom. If we take refuge while fully understanding the meaning of the three objects of refuge, our wisdom will grow and will of itself fill us with energetic determination to follow the path to liberation”.
Lama Thubten Yeshe, Wisdom Energy 2


1. Not seeking refuge in worldly objects and deities once you have taken refuge in the Buddha
2. Not harming any living being once you have taken refuge in the Dharma
3. Not associating closely with people who do not believe in the Path once you have taken refuge in the Sangha
4. Considering any representation of the Buddha, regardless of the quality of its artistry or material, as though it were the Buddha himself, once you have taken refuge in the Buddha.
5. Considering any written Dharma material at all, from a single letter on up, as though it were the Dharma itself, once you have taken refuge in the Dharma.
6. Considering even a single scrap of the saffron robe as though it were the Sangha itself, once you have taken refuge in the Sangha.
7. Going for refuge over and over again, by calling to mind the good qualities of the refuge objects.
8. In remembrance of their kindness, offering the first part of any food or drink to the refuge objects
9. Encouraging others to take refuge
10. Taking refuge three times each day, and three times each night, by bringing to mind the benefits of doing so
11. Putting all your trust in the objects of refuge, during any activity you may undertake at all
12. Not giving up the Three Jewels, even if it should cost you your life, or even as a joke.


Refraining from:

1. Killing
2. Stealing
3. Sexual Misconduct

4. Lying
5. Divisive talk
6. Harsh words
7 Useless talk

8. Craving
9. Ill-will
10. Wrong views


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Dharma Quote

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Ven. Geshe Doga 16-6-10