Refuge is Everything

If the benefits of taking refuge were materially represented, all of space could not contain it.

Imagine you’re alone, stranded on an island. What are your thoughts and feelings?

Now, imagine you remember to practice taking refuge. What changed?

Did you experience not feeling so alone?

Yes, not only are we never alone but we're in the best of company—the qualities and capacities of our own true nature. Not to Self: It's always my true nature that saves the day!

Refuge—simple, challenging and illuminating

The meditation practice of taking refuge is not as complex as many Vajrayana practices. It first appears simple and doable. But, as we get deeper into taking refuge, instead of becoming easier, as might be expected, greater levels of letting go and surrendering are required. This is good. It's the maturing of our mindstream. 

Practicing refuge is calming and illuminating. The calmer we become, the more likely we will notice our true nature and develop our understandings. Relatively and ultimately, refuge is our best friend, especially in the modern world, where there seems to be little time and also desire for intensive practice. 

Refuge can be our only practice and entire path!

However, if it's regarded only as a beginner's practice or a preliminary, we'll soon fall into a formulaic practice and short-change ourselves.

When we take refuge, the power of mis-knowing and ignorance can be temporarily suspended and we can immediately begin glimpsing and recognizing the wisdom field of our true nature.

Refuge itself is not a preliminary. When it's called a preliminary in sadhana texts, it means that we must do this practice (and do it fairly well) before proceeding further. It doesn't mean that refuge is lesser compared to what follows. And so, the quality of our refuge practice is serious business—a pretty accurate predictor of what we'll be able to do with other practices such as bodhicitta, visualization, and so forth, not to mention the vibe we're able to bring to our daily lives that impacts everyone and the world!

The Refuge Metaphors

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 In requiring that we set aside our usual stuff, if only for a few minutes, practicing refuge can quickly lead to more evolved, larger states of being.

In practicing refuge, it's necessary to understand what is known as the sources of refuge, such as the Three Jewels and Three Sources. Not truly external or even real in a conventional sense, the sources of refuge are expressions of vajrayana's skillful means. They can be understood as spiritual metaphors or code for what cannot be well expressed otherwise.

The sources of refuge are usually classified as outer, inner, secret and ultimate.

When protection from worldly or eternal imbalances is needed, we can take refuge in the Three Jewels, reaching out with faith to the buddhas, their teachings and exemplars. This approach is healing and inspirational.

When protection from our own internal imbalances is needed, we can take refuge in the Three Roots, reaching out with devotion to our spiritual masters, human and transcendent; to the meditation deities who mirror our true nature; and to the invincible dakinis who, in their wisdom, accomplish everything effortlessly. This approach advances our meditative experience and the insight into nonconceptuality.

When what's needed is protection from that which is larger than life itself, we can turn to the three dimensions of enlightened being: dharmakaya’s great emptiness that pervades everything, material and immaterial; sambhogakaya’s displays of enlightened universes; and nirmanakaya’s nondual compassion that never fails.

And when we are not so much in need of protection—this is a good time to be attentive to the three wisdoms of our true nature’s innate awareness: its essence of emptiness, its nature of lucidity, and its capacity for nondual compassion. With this refuge, we realize inseparability. Fragmentation and ignorance are no more.

My point is that in practicing refuge, we are training in the complete path of the inner tantras. 

Reflections on Practicing Refuge:

  • This may not bear repeating but…Vajrayana is challenging. It never supports the status quo. (Please read the small print.) This applies to the practice of taking refuge. It's not just receiving a spiritual name and loosing a lock of hair.
  • Refuge can be a hidden practice. No one need know we're doing it. When is it not important to be practicing refuge?
  • Taking refuge begins intentionally and gradually becomes the entire context in which we live our lives, like the air we breathe and the water fish swim in. It meets all needs.
  • It doesn’t matter what level of refuge is practiced. It can be need-based or time-based. But after a awhile, we can try being spacious, observing when it arises by itself and becomes our natural state of being. 
  • Regrading it as a must-do is sometimes a good plan but it's also good to aim for it feels awesome and we naturally crave it.
  • In Vajrayana terms, refuge is a matter of pure vision—standing where we are now with what is present—our true nature.

COMMENTS: I've enjoyed gathering my thoughts on this topic and I'm wondering about your experience and ideas about this practice? Thank you for commenting below.

Lama Yeshe Dechen Wangmo is a lineage holder of the Dudjom Dakini Heart Essence (mkha 'gro thug thig). Based on thirty-eight years of vajrayana study and practice and her knowledge of literary Tibetan, she offers inspiration, teaching and guidance. In 2002, she established Jnanasukha Foundation as a venue for the teachings of Yeshe Tsogyal and the female buddhas. Since then, the Foundation has generated several initiatives such as support for the birthplace of Yeshe Tsogyal in Tibet, pilgrimages to Tibet, scholarships, grants and humanitarian aid. www.jnanasukha.org