The reason why we go for refuge is because it is like walking through the doorway of Dharma. We realize that the solution to our problems lies in changing our mind. But before we start the actual sadhana we must first prepare ourselves for meditation. After we have cleaned the meditation room, set up our shrine and sat in the correct meditation posture, the first thing we need to do is calm our mind by dissolving all things into the ultimate nature of our mind and engaging in the breathing meditation. We should do this for around 2-5 minutes. This stage is important, but we should not get stuck here.
Once we have calmed our mind, we need to create the causes of going for refuge: fear and faith. There are three things we cultivate fear for. Our own rebirth in the lower realms, our own rebirth anywhere in samsara, the rebirth of anyone anywhere in samsara. We need to choose the one that moves our mind the most depending on where we are. The goal is to move our mind the most. But it is good to also try generate the compassionate motivation as well since this is our final goal. So we imagine all living beings around us, realize that they they are all part of us (they are all aspects of our empty mind, we are like one body, and then consider how they are taking uncontrolled rebirth into contaminated aggregates because we have not yet gained control of our own mind.
On the basis of this fear, we then generate faith. This is faith in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in general, but in our guru in particular. We visualize in the space in front of us the living Guru Buddha Shakyamuni surrounded by all the other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The most important thing is to maintain 100% conviction and the feeling of being in the living presence of your spiritual guide. Buddha is like the supreme doctor, Dharma is like the supreme medicine, and Sangha are like the supreme nurses. We consider the guru to be the synthesis of all three Jewels. He manifests all Three Jewels for us. We see all Three Jewels as manifestations of our guru, so our real refuge is in the guru. We think that ‘I have promised to free all living beings from all of their suffering. (Looking at the guru we say) You are the perfect means by which I can fulfil my promise (we say this understanding that by mixing our mind completely with our guru’s we can gain all the abilities and realizations we need to be able to free all living beings). We consider how we can die at any point in time. We ask ourselves, ‘if I died today, would I be ready?’ We could easily be swept away by samsara and lose the path forever. So we think, ‘I must mix my mind inseparably with yours while I still have the chance.’ On this basis, we can then recite the refuge prayer.
I and all sentient beings, until we achieve enlightenment,
Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. (3x)
Here we imagine that we lead all living beings surrounding us in the refuge prayer. It is important that this not become routine or ritual, but a sincere and qualified practice.
To go for refuge means to rely upon something as a source of protection. There are two types of refuge: Simple refuge and special refuge. Simple refuge is simply calling upon the power of the holy beings to help us. The key to making such requests is to have the complete conviction that our requests are heard, and to have complete faith that who we are requesting has the complete power to fulfil our request. Special refuge is when we strengthen our own mind sufficiently to protect ourselves. This recognizes that it is not enough to just have others help us, but we must build up our own refuge in our own mind. The real refuge is the realizations of Dharma within our mind. While special refuge is the final goal, we never abandon our simple refuge. Rather our simple refuge forever remains the means by which we acquire special refuge.
The key to making our refuge qualified is to really feel like we are actually talking to somebody who is really there, no different than talking to somebody outside of our meditation. If we feel like we are talking to ourself, talking to our wall or talking to some imaginary friend, it doesn’t work. We should feel like we are in the living presence of our guru inside our mind, and we are going for refuge to him. He is an actual being who lives inside our mind. Just as we go on-line to chat with our friends we cannot see with our physical eyes but we do not doubt at all their existence or that we are communicating with them, so too we go into meditation to directly communicate with our guru who we cannot see with our physical eyes but we have no doubt at all of his existence or that we are communicating directly with him. Ultimate refuge is mixing our mind indistinguishably with the guru’s mind, so that our mind becomes his mind and his mind becomes our mind. Since his mind already has all of the realizations of the stages of the path, by mixing our mind with his we download all of his realizations into our own mind to the point that they become our own. The Spiritual Guide is like the Google of all of the Buddhas. From Google, we can quickly gain access to all knowledge. In the same way, through the Spiritual Guide, we can quickly gain access to all enlightened wisdom, compassion and power.
If we have some experience with exchanging self with others, it is particularly powerful to impute our I onto all living beings, and then as all living beings we engage in the sadhana. If this is too difficult, at a minimum when we think “I” we should make a distinction between our true self, which is our very subtle mind at our heart also known as our pure potential, and who we mistakenly think we are, namely our ordinary body and mind. Our ordinary body and mind are the straight jacket of our samsara trapping our true self inside. It is our true self we wish to free.