Writings | Traditional

Understanding Refuge

The aim of Buddhist practice is to end suffering. A refuge is a place where one goes to be free from harm, fear, and suffering. In Buddhism, refuge is a metaphor for wakefulness or presence. It is reminder of the basic orientation in Buddhist practice, namely, that suffering comes to end only through being awake and present.

Another way to think about refuge is that you become a refugee. A refugee is someone who leaves a country or homeland because life is no longer tenable there. When you take refuge, you are acknowledging that a life based on habituated patterns is no longer tenable for you. You are prepared to set out into the mystery and rely on awareness, wherever it may lead you.

Who takes refuge?

You do. The person who seeks to end suffering takes refuge.

Refuge takes expression as a simple formula that you repeat as many times as you wish, usually at least three:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Refuge also takes expression as a vow. In the ceremony conducted by a teacher or spiritual elder, you, the student, formally acknowledge that you are taking wakefulness (buddha) as your principal orientation in life.

Ultimately, refuge is the direct knowing in which experience arises as movement in mind and the processes of reaction and suffering no longer take place.

What do I take refuge in?

You take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Three Jewels may be understood on several levels:

  Buddha Dharma Sangha
External Resources
traditionally “outer refuge”
the teacher the way the guides
Internal Understanding
traditionally “inner refuge”
being awake experiential
making use
of experience
Direct Experience
traditionally “secret refuge”
emptiness clarity unrestricted

Vajrayana Refuge: the Three Sources

In the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, you also take refuge in the Three Roots. Like the Three Jewels, the Three Roots operate on multiple levels.

The lama or guru: The root of energy
The guru is your actual human contact with awakened mind. The energy of the guru is inspiring, challenging, and sustaining. In his or her presence you feel directly the effect of awakened mind. That presence can and does awaken something in you, a sense of being that is different from the functioning of habituated personality. The explicit recognition of this possibility is the essence of empowerment. When it is clear in you, you have few choices but to travel the path.

Refuge in the guru means not only your own guru but the gurus of the transmission lineage since each of them plays a role in this awakening of our own potential. As your recognition of mind nature deepens, refuge in the guru also comes to mean taking refuge in mind nature, your own mind as your guru. See Kyergongpa’s song on Recognizing Mind as the Guru.

The yidam: The root of attainment
The yidams, meditation deities, are expressions of awakened mind. In meditation practice, you identify with the particular expression, awake compassion (Avalokiteshavara), for instance, or awake purity (Vajrasattva). By reorganizing your experience of what you are and of the world around this expression of wakefulness, the knots of habituation and confusion loosen and fall apart. In effect, you cease to be you and you become the yidam, with all its understanding, capability, and qualities. Thus, the yidam is the root of attainment, the attainment of free knowing and the ability to live awake.

The protector: The root of activity
The protectors are further expressions of awakened mind, how your experience of wakefulness arises in the world around you. As you practice, wakefulness manifests as reminders to be awake. The constant play of wakefulness creates conditions that support your practice. At the same time, it averts conditions that disrupt your efforts to wake up. The activity can be very direct and dramatic or very subtle and seemingly inconsequential. However, the more messages you miss, the more forceful the reminders. Consequently, this manifestation of awakened mind is often depicted in wrathful forms that represent the terrific power and immediacy of awakened mind when it manifests directly in your world of experience.

Taking The Vow of Refuge

Do I have to take the refuge vow to practice Buddhism?

When you practice Buddhism, you are taking refuge. Whether you formalize your commitment in the vow ceremony is your choice. Many people find that taking the vow strengthens their motivation and practice.

Qualities Needed For Taking Refuge

When you take the vow of refuge, you are saying that you will continue to take refuge in the Three Jewels until you wake up, that is, until the experiential understanding of the Three Jewels arises in you. In the vow, you are also saying that you want to wake up so that you can help others become free of suffering, too.

Refuge is based on three qualities:

Renunciation is the quality of being tired with the lack of meaning in life, the sense that something is missing. It may arise as a sense of not being enough of a person, a sense of being incomplete or flawed, or a sense of separation or alienation. Whatever form it takes, it has become so strong that you cannot ignore it any longer and are willing to look for other ways of being.

Orientation means that you recognize that the only viable alternative is the clarity and openness of mind itself. To take refuge in anything else will be futile. Money, beauty, power, education, etc., (the “worldly” gods of this culture) cannot provide peace or meaning. This recognition and the subsequent shift in orientation lead to your taking refuge.

Determination signifies the faith to pursue this alternative. Faith is the willingness to open to what arises in experience. You are willing to open to the dissatisfaction you are experiencing and go where it takes you. Taking refuge will, in the end, require you to let go of any aspect of your life that is based on habituated patterns.

The Great Way isn’t difficult for those who are unattached to their preferences. Let go of longing and aversion, and everything will be perfectly clear. — Seng-Ts’an


The commitments of the vow of refuge fall into three groups of three: activities to stop, activities to develop, and general points.

Three Activities to Stop

Taking refuge in worldly attainments
You stop regarding anything other than the open clear awareness of our own mind as a source of ultimate security or peace: money, fame, physical well-being, a relationship, power, magical abilities, states of bliss or clarity, etc.

Harming other beings
The key idea here is intent. The essential point is that you don’t harm people or beings intentionally as much as possible. Where it is clearly necessary for health, nutritional or other reasons, you do what you have to with full knowledge and full acceptance of the responsibility. Shuffling off extermination of cockroaches onto someone else in no way reduces your involvement.

Associating with non-spiritual people
The essence of this point is to recognize that in having taken refuge, your basic orientation in life has changed. You are internally committed to the cultivation of awareness or buddha nature, and thus your goals and purpose are significantly different from someone who feels that money is everything. Thus, while you may do business, have friendships, etc. with many people holding such ideas, you don’t allow their perspective to influence what is at the heart of your own life.

Three Activities to Develop

Honoring of Buddha
All depictions of Buddha instantly remind us of what is truly meaningful. Thus, it is appropriate to honor and treat them with respect.

Confidence in the Dharma
Confidence in the Dharma sustains you in your practice. True confidence arises when you know the Dharma as direct experience.

Respect and support for the sangha
You honor, respect and support those who have taken monastic ordination regardless of their actual ability or character. The monastic sangha has provided Buddhism with a wonderful continuity through the centuries and will continue to play a central role in maintaining transmissions, rituals, learning and other key elements.

Secondly, you honor, respect and support those from whom you receive guidance and instruction. Many of the people we will learn from live ordinary lives externally. This ordinariness in no way decreases their value in our lives. The human teacher is the most important teacher because he or she is your contact with the teachings and path of practice.

Three General Points

Offerings and respect for the three jewels
The form this takes is a matter of personal inclination. There is definite merit in maintaing a shrine in your home. Of equal importance is to take time each day to reflect on refuge and the role of the three jewels in your life. To make actual monetary or physical offerings and to express one’s respect physically as in bowing are important points; they prevent subtle and not so subtle patterns of pride and attachment from remaining fixed.

Repetition of vow on daily basis
The most important point about refuge is not to forget that you have made this commitment in the presence of a teacher. The vow serves as a reminder that you have, in fact, taken spiritual awakening as the foundation of your life.

Work with a spiritual friend and follow the way of the Dharma
These are practical steps. Every teacher has their own ideas but the key point is that refuge is part of a path rather than an enthusiastic response to an initial impulse.

Refuge Ceremony and Prayers

The ceremony begins with the establishment of
an inspirational setting and goes through the following steps:

The student is directed to offer three prostrations to the Three Jewels with a feeling of faith, confidence and trust, seeking refuge in them. He or she is then directed to sit with the right knee on the ground and the hands joined together. The joined hands connote respect, the bent knee sincerity.

Repetition of vow
The vow is repeated three times. Each repetition has a different intention. The student is directed to foster the appropriate intention during each repetition:

  1. first repetition: request for refuge
  2. second repetition: intention to observe the vow
  3. third repetition: acceptance of vow

Request for the support of the teacher
The student formally requests the support of the teacher in the intention of refuge.

Acknowledgement of the commitment
The student formally acknowledges having made this commitment.

Confirmation of commitment
The vow is confirmed by the giving of a new name and by the cutting of a lock of hair. The new name signifies a new life, acts as a reminder of having taken refuge, and serves as an inspiration. The cutting of the hair symbolizes Buddha Shakyamuni’s determination in turning away from the distractions of ordinary life. It derives from his cutting his hair near a stupa shortly after he left the palace and entered the way of the religious mendicant.

The teacher instructs the student in the commitments of the vow, explains the benefits of taking the vow, and prays for the student’s growth through his or her practice.

Sample Refuge Prayers

Refuge as practiced
in all traditions of Buddhism

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Refuge as often practiced
in the Tibetan tradition

I take refuge in the guru.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Refuge in the Three Jewels and the Three Roots
I take refuge in all the glorious holy gurus.
I take refuge in all the yidams and the assembly of deities in their mandalas.
I take refuge in all the Buddhas, the fully awakened.
I take refuge in all the holy Dharma.
I take refuge in all the noble Sangha.
I take refuge in all who possess the eye of pristine awareness,
the assembly of dakas, dakinis, protectors and guardians of the Dharma.

Refuge prayer composed by Atisha
and used in all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism

Until I awaken, I take refuge in
The Buddha, Dharma, and the Supreme Assembly.
Through the goodness of generosity and other virtues
May I awaken fully in order to help all beings.

Refuge prayer from the Mahamudra tradition
I take refuge in the guru, precious buddha.
I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
I take refuge in the guru, yidams and assemby of dakinis and protectors.
I take refuge in mind itself, empty, luminous pure being.

Refuge prayer from the Dzogchen tradition
Until I awaken, I take refuge
In the Three Jewels, and the Three Roots,
In awakening mind as paths, energy, and essences, and
In the nature of mind, essence, nature, and compassion.