The Benefits of Taking Refuge

BY | Ven. Thubten Chodron

From ancient times to the present, the taking of refuge has functioned as the entranceway to the teaching of the Buddha.

 We Become Buddhists
The first benefit is we become Buddhists. You may say, “what is so great about becoming a Buddhist? I am already a member of this club and that club and that other club, what do I need another membership card for?” Becoming a Buddhist is not joining a club and getting a membership card. Rather it means that we are starting on the path to enlightenment. So, one of the benefits of taking refuge is that it initiates us onto the path to enlightenment. or course we can create good karma without taking refuge and you can be doing practices that are beneficial to yourself, but the meaning of becoming a Buddhist is that you are actually stepping onto the path that the Buddhas follow. You are trying to go in that same direction that the Buddha went.

This can bring up the whole subject of, “Well, is Buddhism the only path that is going to lead you to enlightenment?” Here’s another example that might help to illustrate this point. For instance, there are many roads from here that will take you downtown. There is more than one way to go downtown. You can drive a long way. You can drive a short way. You can go on the highway or you can go on the side streets. But not every road that you take from here where we are now will lead you downtown. We tend to go to extremes of saying, “It’s got to be Buddhist and if you are not a Buddhist you are going to hell.” That is completely erroneous. On the other hand, thinking in the other extreme and saying, “Everything is the same and all religions are the same,” is like saying you can drive any direction that you want from here on Fifty-Fourth Street and you will end up downtown. But that is not true, because if you drive north from here you will end up in Vancouver and not downtown! So I think we have to use our discriminating wisdom and not get hung up on words and labels — that is not important, but we do have to look at the meaning and what is going on. 

We Need to Be Astute
When we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha we are saying that we have examined the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, know something about the path, have confidence in it, and decide that this is the direction that we want to go.

There maybe other teachings that are very good. All religions have something good in them. All religions exist to bring human happiness. By taking refuge, however, we are declaring that this particular system is something that speaks to our heart. We have confidence in it, are going to follow it and therefore we make a clear decision in our lives. I think that is important.

We Settle Down to One Path
I am always talking about the example of someone studying crystals on Monday night and holistic healing on Tuesday night, etc. We can continue to do that. There is no pressure to take refuge. It is our own spiritual practice; we are the ones that are responsible. But at some point, we might actually want to find one principal direction and settle down and devote ourselves to that.

For instance, when you are young you date a lot of guys, but at a certain point you will probably get married. It is like you get tired of going out with all these different guys, so you think marriage might be better. Of course, marriage brings a whole new set of headaches, but you do have the opportunity to go deeply into the relationship that way. Well, marriage here is analogous to taking refuge. Becoming a Buddhist and taking refuge does not mean you do not learn about crystals and holistic healing anymore. You can still learn about those things, but you have your principal priority designated and that cuts out the confusion just as getting married cuts out the confusion of fifty million guys. But taking refuge does bring you some new headaches initially because you have to start looking at your mind.

We Begin to Purify
It is not that Buddhism brings headaches to us, but sometimes the idea of commitment to one path can make a lot of stuff come up in our life because that is when we really begin the process of purification.

When we begin to purify, all of our junk comes up. When we begin to meditate, we have to look at what is in our mind. Whereas when we go from one spiritual thing, to the next and to others, it is like we are in a spiritual amusement park getting amused by all the external things, so of course we do not look at our mind. But when we take refuge, we have to start looking at our mind. That is why I say practising is like living in a garbage dump initially. But there is hope. I firmly believe that it is possible to transform the garbage dump into something better, but we have to start at where we are.

If we do not take refuge, even though we may create a lot of good karma, that karma will not be dedicated for the attainment of enlightenment, because we have no faith in enlightenment and no faith in the Buddhist path.

So this first step of making a commitment, becoming a Buddhist, entering into the Buddhist path, really clarifies where we are going, Then when we create good karma we can dedicate it for the attainment of enlightenment. Whereas, if we do not really have much confidence in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, we may create good karma but we will not dedicate it for the attainment of enlightenment because if you do not believe in enlightenment, why would you dedicate the good karma for that?

We Establish the Foundation for Taking All Further Vows
The next benefit of taking refuge is that it establishes a foundation for taking all further vows. The reason for this is that taking refuge confirms in us that we want to attain liberation. Taking refuge confirms that we want to follow the path set out by the Buddha and thus having confirmed that, it sets the stage so that we can actually take the different levels of precepts or vows that can help us accumulate good karma and help us abandon our habitual confused behaviour.

Also, if your refuge is very strong you will keep your vows well. If your refuge is not very strong, then you will not keep your vows well. If you have not taken refuge, then you will not follow the precepts. If you do not believe in the path and the goal that the Buddha explained, you will not follow the method to get there.

Three Sets of Vows
Refuge serves as the foundation for taking any further vows or initiations. There are actually three sets of vows that one can take as a Buddhist. The first level is called pratimoksha or individual liberation vows. These include the five lay precepts, the monks and nun’s vows and also one-day vows. The second type of vows is called the bodhisattva vows. The third type is the tantric vows. These are in order of how easy or difficult it is to keep them. In other words, the individual liberation vows are the easiest to keep because they point out physical and verbal behaviours that are to be abandoned. The bodhisattva vows are more difficult to keep because they point out mental behaviours to be abandoned, as do the tantric vows which are even more difficult to keep.

Nowadays, because initiations are given very freely, sometimes people’s first exposure to Buddhism is through an initiation. They might say something like, “I’ve taken this and that initiation but I am not a Buddhist.” Actually, refuge vows are given as part of the initiation ceremony, but if the person does not consider himself a Buddhist then he has not taken the bodhisattva vows or thetantrice vows. And if you have not taken those, you have not taken the initiation. So people may say they have taken an initiation, they may think they have and that’s okay, there is nothing wrong with saying that or thinking that, but if one has not taken refuge in one’s heart either in a separate ceremony or in the earlier part of that initiation, then one really has not taken an initiation.

Refuge Vows are the Door
That is why taking refuge is the door to the Buddha’s teachings. It is the doorway that you enter into to be able to commit yourself to any of the further practices. Like I repeatedly say, somebody can learn Buddha’s teachings and practise them without being a Buddhist. If something the Buddha taught helps your life, practise it. It does not matter if you have taken refuge or not.

But now when we talk about taking refuge we are talking of actually settling down and getting into the path and doing it. It is a different level of involvement. The advantage of taking refuge is that you get to take precepts. You are probably going, “Ugh, I get to take precepts. Who wants to take precepts. When I take the one-day Mahayana precepts, I can only eat one meal a day. I can’t sing and dance. I can’t have sex. I can’t do this. I can’t do that. Why is this an advantage?” Well that shows us something about what we think is important in life.

The advantage of taking precepts is that it acts as a framework for us to become more mindful, more aware of what we are saying, thinking and doing. If you take a precept to do, or not do, something that has been in your mind all day, you become much more aware of what is going on instead of just being on automatic mode. Taking precepts is very beneficial that way. Also, by keeping the precepts, we continually create good karma no matter what we are doing as long as we are not directly breaking the precepts.

There is a refuge ceremony for people who wish to take refuge. When you take refuge, you automatically take the precept not to kill. In addition, if people want to take any of the other precepts at that time they may, because taking refuge gives one the ability to take the five lay precepts for one’s life and one gets all the advantages of taking the precepts.

We Can Eliminate Results of Previously Accumulated Negative Karma
The third advantage of taking refuge is that it helps us to eliminate the negative karmic imprints on our mindstream. Previously in our confusion we may have acted destructively in verbal, physical and mental ways. We have those imprints on our mind and they will bring consequences. Taking refuge helps us because if we take refuge, we take vows, and observing the vows helps us to purify our past negative karma.

If we take refuge, we are also more likely to do the other practices that help us to purify, like doing the four opponent powers and doing purification meditation. Also if we take refuge, we have a deeper connection with the Buddha and by making offerings, doing prostrations and so forth to the Buddha, this also helps to purify our negative karma, because we are generating very positive attitudes when we are doing those practices.

Taking refuge can be a very strong purification of all the different karmas that we have created.

We Can Quickly Accumulate Great Positive Karma
Offerings to the Buddha
The next benefit of taking refuge is that it enables us to create a vast store of positive potential for very similar reasons. In other words, if we take refuge then we are more likely to engage in the practices that are going to create positive potential in our lives. Also when we take refuge, because of the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, they become very strong objects for us with which to create karma because of their qualities. If we make offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha we create a very strong, powerful karma compared to making an offering to our best friend, unless your best friend is a Buddha!

In other words, according to the level of a person’s spiritual realisations, the qualities they have and their relationship to us, we create karma. Some people and sonic things are heavier objects karmically for us than others. The Buddha, Dharma, Sangha are heavy because of their qualities.

If we have taken refuge and are prompted to make prostrations or offerings or serve the Buddhist community in some way, then because of the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and because they are very strong objects with which we create karma, we create a lot of good karma through our prostrations, offerings and so on.

This is because the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha have the qualities that they do, any way in which we help them, becomes us helping all other sentient beings because the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are working for the benefit of all those sentient beings. This means if you help the Buddha and help people who are working for the benefit of other sentient beings, as you help them, they in turn help a huge array of people.