This is a post about the Refuge Vows one takes on the Vajrayana Buddhist path
I want to start out by saying that I write the title in jest. If you meet a Dharma (Buddhist) teacher who you feel a strong connection with, it is very beneficial to take refuge, which effectively means to become a Buddhist. Do the best you can and then let go. I am writing this to inform, not to cause overwhelm or guilt of any sort. Remember to practice kindness to self.
I wonder, when we take refuge, if a teacher had enough time, would they go into detail on all of these commitments or vows? Or does each teacher have slightly different methods or flavors as it were? Hmmm… See what you think:
Upon reading Alexander Berzin’s book entitled “An Introduction to the Kalachakra Initiation,” I got a vivid reminder of all the vows I have taken, and about the vows I could possibly take if I were to go through the Kalachakra Initiation, which thankfully I don’t plan to do. One can also go to the berzinarchives.com to see multiple essays on this same subject. There are also multiple texts which include this information, including the source texts by the Indian master Asanga.
I realize that, for beginners, there are a lot of words in this post which may seem novel or foreign. That’s because they are. A trustworthy site to go to look up these and other terms is Rigpa Wiki – rigpawiki.org.
In spite of having practiced for six years and having read multiple books, some of these are new to me. It does not mean I that do not follow them, but I did not realize they came with taking refuge. Most of this info comes directly from Alexander Berzin, PhD. so it would be good to read the Berzin Archives or another of his books when you get the chance, as he goes in depth on each of these topics. I feel that Berzin is closest to the Gelugpa in orientation, considering his work with the Dalai Lama and the Kalachakra texts. As a result, I wonder, or better yet, yearn to know if I can “get out” of any of these due to my being a Kagyupa… But I suspect these apply to everyone who aspires to be a Buddhist.
Taking refuge means much, much more than simply having our hair cut and receiving a Dharma name (usually in Tibetan). To take refuge in the Vajrayana path, one commits themselves to a teacher already examined, or commits themselves to finding and investigating a qualified teacher. Obviously we take refuge in the Triple Gem – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, not exactly in that teacher per se. We commit ourselves to studying Dharma texts and this goes even further, we also commit ourselves to applying the sections of the Dharma (practices) that help us to overcome our afflictive emotions. Apart of taking refuge in the Arya (noble ones) Sangha, we commit to understanding how the Four Noble Truths apply to our lives. In doing so, we follow the example of the Noble Sangha.
This next set of commitments applies to all of the Three Jewels as a whole. Also, when I read them, I wonder about certain lineages and whether or not they realize these commitments apply to them… By studying the Dharma and the Four Noble Truths, we apply ourselves to become less attached to sensory pleasures. Berzin says that we work on ourselves and try to constantly improve our positive skills and potentials. Most people know that Buddhism is about renunciation. And I think that distortions of this fact keep people away from the Buddhist path or even inquiry. However, when we take refuge, we commit to lead a more ethical life – following the Buddha’s example as it were. This is different though than following a completely set-in-stone sequence of rules – rather we need to investigate, what is beneficial for us and for those around us? What harms me or those around me? What should I adopt and what should I discard?
I think that most people who take refuge know that they have committed themselves to causing as little harm to themselves and others as possible. Berzin mentions that our spiritual progress never comes at other’s expense. I like that. The eighth commitment is to make offerings to the Triple Gem whenever possible, and especially during Buddhist holidays, as “this helps us to feel apart of a larger community” (Berzin archives). I suspect that if one is quite impoverished, that making offerings mentally visualized might suffice – or picking a wildflower and offering it. There is the story of a woman offering a single flower to a previous Buddha and with that merit, having a fortunate rebirth down the road (unfortunately I am away from my notes, so I don’t know the sutra this comes from).
As another personal note, I have taken refuge from several well-respected lamas in the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism – at least in terms of have separate refuge ceremonies. Of course, whenever we receive Tantric intitiations, we also take refuge and bodhicitta vows – minus the haircutting and Dharma name aspects. I was also present when members of a Ladakh Pilgrimage took refuge from Bakula Rangdrol Nyima Rinpoche. Some of these lamas went more in depth on these topics above while others did not have much time and only made a few comments. For instance, Bakula Rangdrol Nyima Rinpoche was the primary Cham dancer at the Lama Yuru dances, so he did not have a lot of time.
This post is continued (see above).
2 thoughts on “Buddhist vows: what have I gotten myself into?”
Very nicely written Kirby!
thank you Ryan! it is so long tho that I might break it up so I can add more commentary 🙂