Photograph courtesy Tabrizio Turco


by Ngala Nor’dzin Pamo

For many of us Refuge is a ceremony we take part in when we first become a Buddhist. We are given a refuge name as a symbol of the end of our old life and the beginning of our new life as a practitioner. We may tend to regard it as a state we somehow arrived at when we took Refuge, and after this we may not think about it very much at all, considering it as part of the ground of who we are as Buddhists. This may especially be the case if we practise within a tradition like the Aro Lineage.

The Aro gTér approaches every aspect of method from the perspective of Dzogchen and therefore the practices are essential, and Refuge is integral (without the specific chanting of Refuge and the generation of Bodhicitta at the beginning of a drüpthab). Because this is the case, we may forget about refuge altogether – although it is also true to say that our experience of Refuge can similarly merge into the background if we merely chant it every day without contemplating the meaning of the words. Any feeling for the process and presence of Refuge as a continuing source of inspiration and support can be lost if we do not have a real awareness of what Refuge means.

The dictionary defines the word refuge as shelter or protection from danger or trouble: an asylum or retreat. It would seem, therefore, that the first prerequisite for understanding Refuge is the recognition that there is some danger or trouble from which we need to seek shelter or protection. In ordinary life we may seek refuge from an abusive partner. We may need protection from hostile political systems which deny basic human rights. We may need protection from the horrors of war. We might be seeking shelter from illness or ill luck, hardship or handicap, social pressure or stress. The shelter or protection we find can take many forms. It could be an actual place of safety where we are protected from an external aggressive antagonist. It might be a building or a different country or a new political system. We might seek comfort or protection from friends or family; need some financial or physical support, or simply want a shoulder to cry on or a strong arm to lean on. We may need the professional support of a counsellor or a therapist who can offer us protection from perceived danger, or can teach us strategies to protect ourselves. The danger or trouble can be very real and tangible, or subtle, or even imaginary.

What is the danger or trouble from which we seek refuge in the context of our lives as Buddhists? Here we seek protection from our own conceptual minds: from our compulsion to split reality into dualistic view; from our addiction to conditioned responses rooted in preconception. We need protection from our bad habits that prevent us from experiencing the natural state. In order to arrive at the point of realising that we need protection, however, we need to have reached some understanding that we create our own unhappiness or dissatisfaction with life. Many life circumstances draw people to Buddhism. Often it is an interest in an alternate lifestyle that prompts initial contact, or a life crisis that conventional rationale does not seem able to make sense of. We may become involved in Buddhism through academic study or even quite by chance. It is most likely that it is a feeling of resonance with the teachings we read or hear that will keep us involved, inspiring experiences with a teacher, and happy times with the people we meet who are trying to follow the Buddhist path.

However, interest through inspiration or friendship is unlikely to bear any real and lasting fruit unless we begin to feel, at the core of our being, that there isn’t anything we can do with samsara that will bring us real and lasting happiness. We have to know that ultimate, everlasting happiness will not come if we could just get that new job, adopt a new lifestyle, clinch the business deal, buy a new house, change the type of car we drive, give up the car and buy a bike and trailer, if we become vegetarian or vegan, take more exercise, find our ideal partner, buy a new wardrobe of clothes, or have a change of scene, career, friends... We have to feel this enough to actually start practising and discovering experientially that the cause of our dissatisfaction is something fundamental in ourselves, rather than anything we can manipulate externally. We must realise that there is nothing in our lives we can manipulate and change that will ultimately quieten the feeling of unsatisfactoriness. It is our own relationship with experience that creates unhappiness.

We need to have lived life a little and feel unsure about the conventional view that a ‘successful’ life consists of having an income, certain types of relationships, and a variety of possessions around us. We may need to have experienced some success at this type of existence, the practice of samsara, and to have found that there was something unsatisfactory even in a successful and happy life. We must experience that little itch of dissatisfaction, of feeling that there must be something more... or there must be some higher purpose, or a better way to live, despite the fact that we have a reasonable income coming in, and a loving family around us, nice clothes to wear and good food to eat. People can arrive at this point without ever hearing teachings on cyclic existence, but they are unlikely to turn to a spiritual path while they still believe samsara can work if they could just get the knack of it or have good luck.

Moments of realising the utter purposelessness of everything we do may lead to seeking oblivion by getting drunk or taking drugs, to having a wild time until we collapse, or plunging into a depression where we try and forget the world and our lives. Our conventional friends will share deliciously miserable hours with us bemoaning our unfortunate lot in life. There is something safe in feeling the strength of our misery and despair. It is unlikely that we will come across anyone who will say that we should let go of blame and justification and feeling sorry for ourselves, and take responsibility for how we feel. We would think them mad to consider it our own responsibility that we are so unhappy when it is patently obvious is it the unlucky hand fate has dealt us. It may occasionally dawn on us that the cause of this feeling of dissatisfaction lies deep within us, and there must be a way to work on that cause and turn it around, but we are more likely to come across a therapeutic solution than a spiritual one. Even the best therapies in the world are ultimately putting sticky tape on the true cause of our state, and fail to address the root of unhappiness. Only if we are extremely lucky may we come across a spiritual path that offers a true perspective for understanding dissatisfaction and methods to overcome it; and only if we are in the right frame of mind, with the right group of people, and the right set of teachings, being given by the right teacher, are we likely to be able to actually start to engage in that spiritual path as a practitioner.

If it is the Buddhist path we come across in our search for the cause of our dissatisfaction, we will quickly start to understand that it is our own conditioned neurotic response to our perceptions that continually patterns us to experience pain and loss, fear and panic, helplessness and hopelessness. We will start to learn that our compulsive referentiality prevents us from experiencing nakedly and directly. We stick concepts on to all our experiences to build up a feeling of security and solidity, believing that we can be safe from some vague danger by continually projecting or filtering experience. We may respond to neutral remarks defensively because we have added on a concept of threat to the words we hear. We cannot eat only one chocolate bar because somewhere inside we feel hollow and as though if we don’t eat all the chocolate bars we can get hold of now, then someone else may own all of them and we won’t be able to have any ever again. We do not engage with aspects of our environment because we simply do not care about them or feel they can add anything to our definition of ourselves. Gradually we become a little more closed and set in our ways and find it harder to be open and enthusiastic about new experiences.

Once we are able to gain some experience of the Buddhist path through hearing or reading teachings, perhaps attending courses and retreats and meeting other people trying to follow the methods of practice, we gain some feeling of confidence. We feel inspired by the teachings. We wish to emulate and aspire to the qualities of the great practitioners we hear about and possibly meet. We gain a little experience of meditation and feel a glimmer of the benefits that might be possible through such practice. We start to recognise certain types of experience as our enlightened nature sparkling through the fabric of our distortion. We find we like the people who are also practising and feel that they could become our friends. We respect them and recognise that they are trying to be good people and live their lives honestly and kindly, with energy and enthusiasm. Our view opens a little and we start to see the possibility of a different perspective on life – a subtle and gentle shift offering great potential. It is at this point that we decide to take part in the ceremony of Refuge and commit ourselves to the Buddhist path as our chosen route out of the experience of dissatisfaction and into the experience of utter and complete satisfaction.

Four levels of refuge

Ultimate Refuge

Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche taught:

You should realise openness in the ‘playground’of your emotions and relate to people without artificiality, manipulation, or strategy. You should experience everything totally; never withdrawing into yourselves as marmots hide in their holes.

This practice releases tremendous energy which is usually constricted by the process of maintaining fixed reference points. Referentiality is the process by which we retreat from the direct experience of everyday life. Being present in the moment may be initially fearful, but by welcoming the sensation of fear with complete openness we cut through the barriers created by habitual emotional reaction patterns.

Sometimes new practitioners have powerful and profound experiences when they first start to practise. Glimpses of rigpa can spontaneously arise through the initial cessation of the struggle to maintain the processes of samsara and by relaxing into a more open view. We relax and discover that the ultimate nature of our mind is enlightened. We relax and discover that the ultimate nature of our view is enlightened. We relax and discover that the ultimate nature of our relationship with our physical form and our environment is enlightened. Ultimately, Refuge is beyond meaning at this level, as is the need to establish confidence, because from the perspective of enlightened mind there can be no danger and no need for protection; there is simply the natural state. Even as beginners, we may have some feeling for what this means, but it can only be a refuge once there is no longer any concept of refuge or need for refuge. This is the only safety or security that we can ever ultimately discover: spontaneous non-dual realisation on a moment by moment basis. This is liberation from the causes of dissatisfaction.

This realisation is our refuge at the ultimate level, the level of Dzogchen, yang-sang. Refuge is given in ngowo, rang-zhin and thug-jé; the essence, nature and energy of enlightenment. This is freedom from referentiality, complete openness, presence, and direct experience. If we can plunge into the free fall of the present moment then we will have liberated the vast open expanse of our beginningless enlightened mind.

Ngak’chang Rinpoche says:

If you were to fall to your death from a very great height; it would be a shame not to enjoy the view as you fell, or to appreciate the wind in your hair or the warmth of the sun on your face. To experience the raw voltage of being alive, requires that we learn to lick honey from the razor’s edge.

Unfortunately we only occasionally find ourselves with the presence of mind to embrace this Dzogchen view, so it may be necessary to approach Refuge from a slightly less subtle or profound perspective. When we engage in the practice of shi-nè, we attempt to let go and let be. The true practice of shi-nè is the ting-ngé’dzin of nè-pa: remaining uninvolved. We allow our minds to rest in the space of mind without thought, emotion, or sensation. However, it is not usually possible for us to immediately plunge into this practice of discovering emptiness at the level of the ting-ngé’dzin, so we employ methods to approximate the practice until we can engage in it fully. We use the breath as a focus, so that we are able to capture our presence with the merest attention to the breath. This enables us to let go and let be without losing our awareness in the vast ocean of emptiness we discover through the practice. It allows us to work towards the fruit of the practice of shi-nè, nè-pa, before we are actually ready to engage in it fully.

Our experience of Refuge can be similar. We find that the profundity of ultimate refuge is too much for us. We cannot continue in the referenceless expanse of enlightenment itself. Doubts arise and life happens, and we find ourselves in a very different state to the state of non-duality, and enlightenment. At this time lhundrüp, spontaneity, is not a lived reality. We can continually be reintroduced to rigpa through Dzogchen transmission, but in the meantime we may need to base our feelings of confidence and our understanding of the security of no security at a less subtle and profound level, so that Refuge continues to be a lived experience for us rather than a fairy-tale.

Secret Refuge

Refuge, at the secret level, the level of the inner Tantras, sang, is a refuge at a slightly less subtle and ultimate level. In the inner Tantras the enlightened state is symbolised by awareness-beings. The relationship with the awareness being is one of complete identification, so that one transforms oneself into the essence, nature, and energy of the awareness-being through transformative practices that directly affect the psychic body. Refuge is taken in the thiglé, rLung and rTsa. The thiglé are the elemental essences that represent our being at the most subtle level. The rLung is the psychic wind that flows through the rTsa, the psychic channels of the subtle body. The mind rides on the rLung and pervades the subtle body. This Refuge is secret because it is only possible to hold it in our hearts if we have experienced our subtle body as the potential for enlightenment: that we know thiglé as the basis of our enlightenment in the sphere of chö-ku; know rLung as the basis of enlightenment in the sphere of long-ku; and know rTsa as the basis of our enlightenment in the sphere of trül-ku.

Through identification with the yidam one directly experiences rigpa. The yidam represents a symbol of our enlightenment at the most subtle level. Just as in shi-nè practice we use the merest awareness of the breath as a focus when we are unable to simply let go and let be, so identification with the yidam offers the merest focus to help remain with the experience of transformation. The practices of the rTsa rLung system enable us to establish confidence in the potential of transformation of our experience at the level of our subtle energy; of transforming our ordinary experience into enlightened experience at the level of energy, emotion, vision, and sensation. We relax and have confidence that our ordinary view can transform into enlightened view through knowing the non-dual nature of the elements. We relax and have confidence in the possibility of transforming our experience of the two nyams of emptiness and form into non-dual experience, through the rTsa rLung practices. We relax and become confident that the pain and confusion we experience through grasping, aversion and indifference can be transformed by allowing the energy of the elements to flow freely and transform naturally into their non-dual state.

We experience pain and confusion because of our addiction to splitting experience into emptiness and form, feeling aversion to empty experiences and grasping at form experiences. Thus the territorialism we generate through our desire to consolidate the empty form quality of the earth element, and our aversion to its passionate empty quality (which we experience as hollowness and insecurity) can be opened through relaxation and transformed into a unified experience of generosity, and equanimity. The aggression we generate through our desire to consolidate the empty form quality of the water element, and our aversion to its passionate empty quality (which we experience as fear) can be opened through relaxation and transformed into a unified experience of clarity. The obsession we generate through our desire to consolidate the empty form quality of the fire element, and our aversion to its passionate empty quality (which we experience as isolation) can be opened through relaxation and transformed into a unified experience of indiscriminate compassion. The suspicion and paranoia we generate through our desire to consolidate the empty form quality of the air element, and our aversion to its passionate empty quality (which we experience as groundless anxiety) can be opened through relaxation and transformed into a unified experience of self-accomplishing activity. The depression we generate through our desire to consolidate the empty form quality of the space element, and our aversion to its passionate empty quality (which we experience as bewilderment) can be opened through relaxation and transformed into a unified experience of ubiquitous intelligence.

Every circumstance of our lives is a potential source of conditioned response, a knee-jerk reaction over which we have no control, and in which there is no spaciousness and choice. Our refuge, or place of safety, is the recognition of this danger and the understanding that the transformative practices of the inner Tantras can free us from our conditioned or habitual response. We take refuge in the actuality of the generation of the transformation of our elemental nature, that we glimpse through the practices of rTsa-rLung.

Inner Refuge

However, it may be that the subtle body has little or no meaning for us, and that it is not possible for us to establish confidence in the possibility of enlightenment through teachings and practices of rTsa-rLung. If our level of experience does not equate with inner Tantra then we cannot hold our experience of Refuge at that level. If our level of experience is more in tune with viewing the awareness-being as a state to emulate and aspire to, then we have confidence at the level of nang, inner refuge, outer Tantra. Here refuge is taken in Lama, Yidam and Khandro/Pawo.

The Lama is the source of inspiration and transmission. Through transmission the Lama gives us the opportunity to experience the awareness-being directly, to experience the enlightened state embodied as the communicative symbol of the awareness-being. Without the Lama it is not possible to gain this experience. This is also true at the secret and ultimate levels of practice, because transmission of inner Tantra, and direct introduction in Dzogchen are also only possible through the Lama. The Lama also refers to the inner Lama – our own beginningless enlightened mind. Enlightenment sparkles through, whether we are practitioners or not, but it is only through the wisdom and kindness of the external Lama that we can learn to recognise the sparkling of enlightenment and increase its frequency. If we rely too heavily on the wisdom of the internal Lama, we can easily fool ourselves and follow wrong directions. This can condemn us to a spiral of increasing self-referencing and deluded realisation. If we believe we can find our way by instinct in an unknown town and refuse to ask directions, we could spend our entire lives walking round in circles, possibly occasionally glimpsing our destination, but never managing to arrive there.

We may be fortunate to have made contact with an actual Lama who can guide us and offer transmission. We may feel confident in this individual—or individuals in the case of Lamas who are teaching couples like Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen—and inspired by their teaching and presence. In this case it is quite easy to have a strong feeling for what it means to take Refuge in the Lama. Through personal experience we have developed confidence that the Lama(s) can guide us to realisation. We have confidence that their view is more subtle or profound than ours, and less entrenched in distortion and confusion than our own. We may have confidence that our Lama is greatly realised. The Lama represents a place of safety because they recognise the pitfalls and pain of distorted view and are able to both offer a path to transform this into enlightened view, and also will not indulge our attachment to our distorted view. The Lama will not soothe us with comforting words and palliatives, but will bring us face to face with our neurosis. This is not safety in the sense of comfort and conventional security, but safety in the sense of reality and the security of no security. The only security we can actualise, is knowing that there is no such thing as security in a material sense. Once we are able to realise this, we immediately become secure because we no longer feel the need to hold on to anything or define our experience referentially. The Lama continually reminds us of our lack of solidity, permanence, separateness, continuity, and definition; and transmits the lived meaning of this.

The yidam is the awareness-being, the symbol of full enlightenment, that manifests in myriad forms to respond to the myriad forms of our unenlightenment. In Refuge at this generation phase of Tantra, the yidam is a vivid, multidimensional being of power and potency that we aspire to emulate. We approach direct experience of the awareness-being through symbolic ritual. We visualise the yidam and recite the mantra and try to be aware of the awareness-being at all times. When we act, we try to act in a manner that is appropriate for one who is aspiring to be an enlightened being. When we communicate, we try to do so in a manner that is appropriate for a would-be yidam. When we generate intention, we try to ensure that our intention is rooted in congruent view. The yidam is the method of transformation. We hold the feeling and view of the yidam and this transforms our ordinary experience. Our confidence in the power of the awareness-being lends power to our ability to transform ourselves.

The third source of Refuge at the level of outer Tantra, is khandro/pawo. This is our experience of reality as a reflection of our realised inner nature. For women this is pawo. Women are externally khandro, female, wisdom, and internally, pawo, male, method. For men this is khandro. Men are externally pawo, male, method, and internally khandro, female, wisdom. Through the practice of actively experiencing the external world as our inner nature, we actualise the non-duality of wisdom and method, emptiness and form. The understanding of the potential for all external reality to become a source of inspiration and realisation becomes our Refuge. Rather than feeling ourselves to be victims of reality, tossed and battered by the fickle winds of experience, all experience becomes passionately empty and potent with the possibility of realised form. We can understand our Refuge in khandro/pawo as the complete openness to all experience. We can no longer blame our relationship with reality on our parents, our upbringing, our bad luck, our partner, our children, our health, our financial situation, our job – we must face our total responsibility for all our responses. We recognise that whatever happens to us, we have a choice in how we respond. We can no longer justify our anger, compulsion, or indifference, but must fiercely accept that we choose to continue with our conditioned responses; that we allow the habitual programmes to continue to run.

Outer Refuge

Refuge is usually offered at this inner level, the level of outer Tantra, in the Aro gTér. However, even if we practise within a Tantric tradition, we may sometimes find we are unable to feel our Refuge in the security of no security of the Lama, yidam and khandro/pawo. This level of Refuge may still be too subtle for us to grasp and at that time is held at the most external level. This is the level of chi, Sutra, the outer Refuge. Here we take Refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is the fully awakened being, the enlightened one. Dharma is the method or path that leads to realisation, the teachings of the Buddha. Sangha is the community of practitioners that put into action the teachings and practices given by Buddhas.

The Sutric path is one of renunciation. We recognise our own unenlightened aspects and see them as obstacles to realisation that must be overcome. We recognise how our method of living is different to the methods recommended by the Buddha, and renounce our habitual patterning. We try to develop mindfulness so that we recognise unskilful activity as quickly as possible and can replace it with skilful activity, or at least refrain from the unhelpful act. In meditation, we practise our aspiration to enlightenment, through meditating on kindness and compassionate action, through visualising meritorious intent and through developing experience of emptiness. Thus we attempt to subdue the unskilful in our patterning and strengthen the skilful, while developing the understanding of the emptiness of perception and action.

In some sense outer Refuge plunges us straight back into the ultimate quality of the Dzogchen refuge, because taking refuge in Buddha is turning to the enlightened state itself for a place of safety. Buddha is fully awakened, completely free of conditioned response and distorted energy, and has realised the non-duality of method and wisdom, form and emptiness. To seek safety in Buddha is to recognise the ideal of the enlightened state, to have developed confidence in its reality, and to see the possibility of one’s own awakening to this state. In Tibetan Buddhism, ‘Lama’ is often added before Buddha, Dharma and sangha, because the Lama introduces the student to the enlightened state and the practices that lead to it, as well as being the stimulus to awaken the internal Lama.

The second Refuge at this level is in Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. We establish confidence that the teachings and practices handed down to us from the historical Buddha, and given to us by the living Lama, make a difference to our lives. We find that we start to change. We may become less aggressive and selfish, we may find it easier to be tolerant and patient and put the needs of others before our own, and we may find we simply feel calmer and more at peace with ourselves and the circumstances of our lives. Observing and appreciating these changes, we feel confident in continuing with the practices, and hold the conviction that we shall continue to develop as we practise.

As we attend teachings and practices we get to know other practitioners. These people can be a valuable source of support, encouragement, and inspiration. In times of doubt or trouble, we may turn to these people and their practice orientation, rather than turning to more conventional solace, such as counselling, a trip down the pub or our parents. In this way we establish our confidence and Refuge in sangha, the community of practitioners.

The Refuge of no-refuge

The theme that runs throughout the levels of Refuge is the refuge of no refuge, or security of no security. Through practice we come to understand that there is no state or object that can give us safety from the neuroses of our own minds. We come to understand that the only way we can be liberated from conditioned perception and response, and the confusion that arises from our attempts to separate emptiness and form, is to aspire to the enlightened state and the spontaneous realisation of the non-duality of emptiness and form. This confidence and Refuge can only remain alive and of use to us through practice. We may take part in a ceremony and receive a Refuge name, but never practise. We cannot then say that we really hold Refuge, as our practice is the lifeblood of Refuge. We may never take part in a ceremony or receive a Refuge name, but hold Refuge as a lived reality day by day as we try to live the View. Our feeling for the vivid thread of practice and inspiration continuing in our lives will change in quality and depth from day to day, so that the level of our Refuge is not a fixed state. Living the View is Refuge: recognising the frustration and irritation we experience as opportunities for realisation, as much as the joy and love.

This article first appeared in vision, autumn/winter 1999, entitled ‘Lotus of Wisdom – Refuge’ by Ngakma Nor’dzin Pamo.

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