A Brief Teaching on Refuge
by His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa

I would like to present a brief teaching on Refuge. It is the understanding and observing of the Refuge vow which defines one as a Buddhist. It is also said, "You are not a Mahayanist if you don't have Bodhicitta." The generation of Bodhicitta or the Bodhisattva aspiration to aid all sentient beings is what defines whether or not your practice is Mahayana.
It should be understood that the entire Buddhist path is included within the principles of Refuge and Bodhicitta. All the teachings given by the Buddha Shakyamuni come down to Refuge and Bodhicitta. Therefore we have teachings on the roots of Refuge, the general and particular precepts of Refuge, and many other instructions related to Refuge. The roots of Refuge are faith and compassion. First there is trust and confidence in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the Three Jewels). Also, there is compassion, wishing to liberate all sentient beings from suffering.
Faith in the Three Jewels consists of three types. Inspired faith is the positive inspiration you receive when visiting places of worship where there are many sacred objects, or when you meet great masters and attend sangha gatherings. Aspiration faith is when you wish to get rid of suffering and attain the peace of higher states of existence; you wish to practice good deeds and abandon negative deeds for that purpose, and have confidence in the possibility of achieving that goal. The faith of full confidence is to understand that the Three Jewels are your only and ultimate Refuge. One has heartfelt trust in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Compassion for all sentient beings is the pure wish to liberate sentient beings from all the kinds of problems and suffering in the ocean of Samsara. One should think, "All living beings have been my mothers (in past lives). All have loved me and cared for me as my mother. Therefore, I would like to help them to become liberated from all their suffering." This is compassion. These are the roots of Refuge.
What is the essence of the refuge vows? It is that I have no other ultimate guide but the Buddha, I have no other true path but the Dharma and I have no other companions with whom to tread the path of dharma but the supreme Sangha. We need companions with whom to tread our path: If we want to cross the river we need a boatman; the boat will not move on it's own. If we rely on wrong companions or friends we can be led astray, so we want to find the right companions and travel together on the right path. That is the supreme sangha (the noble sangha of bodhisattvas).
Clear and unchanging commitment to the Three Jewels of Refuge is necessary. The instructions on observing the Refuge commitments are many and can be categorized into the general, the particular and so on.
First of the general instructions is not to give up your Refuge vow even in exchange for your life, or for great awards. For example, even if someone might pile up the greatest amount of wealth on one side and tell you, "This could be yours if you would abandon your Refuge vow," one should not abandon the Refuge vow.
Second, whatever suffering and hardships you go through, you should not rely on anything but the Three Jewels.
Third, you should always make offerings to the Three Jewels and the sacred objects which represent the body, speech and mind of a Buddha.
Fourth, you should observe the Refuge vows and bring others to have confidence in the Three Jewels as much as possible. It is not enough that oneself alone should abide by the Refuge precepts, one should also bring others to the right direction; if somebody is going the wrong way you should try to lead them on the right path.
Fifth, you should make prostrations to the Buddhas of the ten directions, to the Buddha of whichever direction in which you are heading. This simply means to have respect, recall the kindness of and pay homage to the Buddhas morning, noon and evening.
There are the instructions on the particular precepts regarding the Three Jewels.
First, if we go for Refuge to the Buddha we do not ever take worldly deities and gods as an ultimate source of Refuge. Worldly gods are those like Brahma, Indra, Vishnu and Shiva, or Tsens and Gyalpo and other spirits. Since they themselves are in Samsara, how can they help you to become liberated from it? So, as it is said in the Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva (by Thogme Rinpoche), one should not go for Refuge to unenlightened and worldly beings.
Second, going for Refuge to the Dharma means giving up harming sentient beings. These living beings here include not just those with four legs and hair, but all those who have senses or a mind (including insects). One should give up killing and robbing, and should tread the path of non-violence.
Third, when you go for Refuge to the Sangha you should not spend time with negative companions; if you spend time with negative companions you will be led into negative ways and not into positive ways.
There are three precepts to observe with regard to paying respect to the Three Jewels:
First, regarding going for Refuge to the Buddha, you show reverence to the Buddhas and their representatives. This includes putting Buddha images in a place of respect, making prostrations and offerings, and so on (images of the Buddha should not be placed on the floor).
Second, going for Refuge to the Dharma requires you to show reverence to the Dharma and its representations, even to a letter or a syllable by which the Dharma is written.
Third, taking refuge in the Sangha requires you to show respect to the sangha and the representatives of the Sangha, like those who are wearing the robes of the Sangha. Even if you find a piece of red robe on the street you should think that this is also a representation of the Sangha and should not treat it in a disrespectful way.

Now for the three instructions on accordance of the vows.
First, in going for Refuge to the Buddha, let your mind be in accord with the Dharma. If we claim to go for Refuge to the Buddha but our mind is completely in opposition to the Dharma it is not right. Let your mind be infused with the Dharma, and generate peace and humility in your mind.
Second, in going for Refuge to the Dharma, we should let our speech be in accord with the Dharma. If we claim to be taking Refuge in the Dharma but let our speech be totally contrary to the Dharma this is very wrong. Therefore we try to give up telling deceitful lies, slandering others, and speaking hurtful words; we try to infuse our speech with the Dharma in our daily life.
Third, in going for refuge to the Sangha we should let our body be in accord with the Dharma. We should try to live our life in accord with the Dharma and give up negative actions of the body, such as sexual misconduct and so on.
What are the benefits of observing the Refuge precepts? By going for Refuge we begin to practice the Buddha's Dharma, this generates numerous benefits. We create a favorable basis for all precepts and levels of ordination. Also, we are protected from the harm of negative humans and non-human beings; all obstacles and harmful influences are pacified. We will not be separated from the blessings of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in all our lives to come. The effects of negative karma will be reduced. There are so many benefits that it is difficult to count them all.

Now we'll talk about Bodhicitta. All of the paths of a Bodhisattva must be completed within the context of Bodhicitta. First try to think of all those beings experiencing great suffering whom you have seen, like those people who are disabled or sick, and then think of all the other beings who are undergoing immeasurable sufferings. You think of this again and again until you feel real and great compassion for them. You feel as if one will personally dispel all their sufferings; I will do it even if I must do it alone.
When this kind of aspiration and courage arises in you, it is the beginning of becoming a Bodhisattva. Developing this kind of compassion and courage constitute the preparation and training of a Bodhisattva.
There are three kinds of aspiration for a Bodhisattva.
First is the king-like aspiration. A king has power and can give orders to help and benefit his subjects. This means one aspires to become enlightened, in order to be able to help all other sentient beings attain enlightenment.
Second is the captain-like aspiration, which means you want to become enlightened alongside all other sentient beings. A boatman loads his boat with passengers and goes with them across the river.
Third is the shepherd-like aspiration, which is when one aspires, "May all beings become enlightened because of my positive deeds. I will become enlightened only after every one of them has attained enlightenment." A shepherd will take care of the sheep first, and only then will he go home. This is the most supreme type of courage and compassion.
Of these three, the most noble is the third. But you can choose whichever is more suitable for you; there is no difference. There are three precepts of the Bodhicitta vow: abstaining from negative actions, accumulating positive actions, and working for the benefit of others. Abstaining from negative actions can be elaborated into the eighteen root precepts, but the essence of all of them can be condensed into not abandoning sentient beings. To give up on any sentient being is worse than any other negative deed, therefore one must place emphasis on this.
The Refuge vow and Bodhicitta are not just preliminary practices, or something to be done in the beginning and then be left behind. We recite verses on Refuge and Bodhicitta at the beginning of our practices, but they are not only for the beginning. These two should always accompany you throughout the path. One should maintain compassion, not give up on any sentient being, and should keep a strong commitment to the Refuge vow. This is the most important basis for the Buddhist path and one should always think that "I will personally bring all sentient beings to Enlightenment."
One should try to generate a genuine aspiration of this kind and work on it as one would dig for gold. This means one should be genuine, and not false or hypocritical. For example if you are not drunk but act like a drunk to impress others, you are not being genuine. When someone is digging for gold, he or she is not thinking of anything else but that gold. Likewise, one should focus one's mind solely on the generation of Bodhicitta and not do it for fame.
If you do not place emphasis on Refuge you cannot even practice the Hinayana, let alone the Mahayana. If you do not have an inclination towards Bodhicitta you cannot practice Mahayana, let alone Vajrayana.
It is very important to understand this basic principle. If genuine Bodhicitta is established in your mind, you will enter the path of the Bodhisattvas and you will always meet genuine spiritual friends in your lives to come. One will receive the nectar of the Dharma teachings, and will actualize Enlightenment, the perfect Buddhahood, without much delay. Perfect here means the complete abandonment of all that is to be abandoned and the full accomplishment of all that is to be accomplished.
Buddha is translated into Tibetan as Sangye. 'Sang' means awaken: you awaken from all the afflictions. 'Gye' means blossom: the wisdom opens like the petals of a blossoming flower.
Now that we have laid the foundation for the ocean of Bodhisattva activities, we should say prayers such as the Zangpa Chopa Monlam, the prayers composed by Nagarjuna, etc. al. We should say them not just once or twice but every day, and as constantly as possible throughout our lives for the benefit of others.
The reason why I talk about Refuge is that we should not waste this life of ours which is endowed with the eight freedoms and ten opportunities. Of course there are many who are more learned than I am, but I have tried to say a few words on this. A fool like me doesn't know much, but if you keep it these words in mind I think there will be some benefits.

Teaching given at Tsurphu Monastery in 1998, translated by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche.
Redistributed by the Tsurphu Foundation