The refuge commitments lay the foundation for all the realizations of the stages of the path. Realizing this, we should not regard them as a burden, but practice them joyfully and sincerely. The principal function of our refuge vows is to maintain the continuum of our Buddhist path without interruption between now and our eventual enlightenment. In other words, by training in the refuge vows we will create the karma necessary to maintain this uninterrupted continuum of our practice all the way. It is like we enter into a karmic slip stream which carries us to our final destination.
The second main benefit of keeping our refuge vows is we open our mind to receive the blessings and help from the three jewels. On our own, we lack the necessary power to complete the path. We lack not only the necessary horsepower, we lack even the gasoline. Our effort plants the gasoline of karmic seeds on our mind, and the blessings activate these seeds and give our spiritual journey horsepower. With them, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. Without them, there is almost nothing we can accomplish. Ultimately, we can learn to rely upon the three jewels for all of our actions, from giving teachings at a festival all the way to flossing our teeth. We can eventually learn how to have our every action of body, speech and mind be the three jewels working through us. For more on the benefits of the refuge vows, please see Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
Some people mistakenly think we only focus on our refuge vows at the beginning of our practice. No, our refuge vows remain the foundation of all of our other practices all the way until the very end of the path. There is never a time when we do not need to maintain this basic foundation.
The refuge vows will now be explained:
Not to go for refuge to teachers who contradict Buddha’s view or to samsaric gods.
This vow means we should not go for ultimate refuge to anyone who contradicts Buddha’s view. Ultimate refuge roughly means here “who has the final say.” Throughout our lives we will be exposed to countless different ideas, each of which will have their own degree of validity. But we consider the definitive word to be that of Buddha. There is a good reason for this. Only Buddha explains the radical view of the Prasangikas, which explains (in fact proves) that everything is a karmic dream. Only this view is free from all ignorance. Any view short of this will be contaminated, even if only marginally, with a wrong understanding and therefore will not provide us with the final word on any given subject. This vow does not mean that we can’t still receive ordinary help for ordinary things from others, such as a lawyer or a dentist.
Samsaric gods in this context has two meanings. The first is literal, meaning we don’t turn to beings who themselves are still in samsara for help in getting out. A drowning person cannot save another drowning person. Of course we can still turn to beings within samsara for help with things in samsara, but they can’t provide us ultimate refuge for getting out. The second meaning is metaphoric. Our true samsaric gods that we are willing to sacrifice everything to are the eight worldly concerns. In simple terms, this refers to attachment to pleasant feelings, praise, a good reputation, etc. Everything we generally do in life is aimed at securing these things or freeing ourselves from their opposites. These are the gods we follow.
We most frequently break this vow by mixing Buddha’s teachings with non-Buddhist ideas. We can most easily keep this vow by making a clear distinction between our outer problem and our inner problem. If our car breaks, it is not our problem, it is our car’s problem. Our problem is the unpleasant feeling in our mind that comes from our delusions. To fix that problem we turn to the three jewels. As long as we make this distinction in any given situation, there is little risk of us going in the opposite direction of this vow.
To regard any image of a Buddha as an actual Buddha.
This vow means whenever we see a statue of Buddha we should see it as an actual Buddha, regardless of its quality of craftsmanship. We should make offerings, prostrations and go for refuge to it. For those with a Christian background, this vow usually raises some serious eyebrows about idolatry. Of course it would be foolish to pray to a piece of metal. Metal can’t do anything for us. That is not the meaning here. The meaning is we should not believe the ordinary appearance of seeing the metal, but instead we should “see beyond it” and imagine that there is actually a living Buddha there. This is a correct imagination because Buddhas pervade everywhere and the ultimate nature of all things is a Buddha. So we don’t view the metal as a Buddha, rather seeing the metal reminds us to see with our wisdom eyes a living Buddha actually sitting there.
It is a good idea to always be in the presence of a Buddha image to serve as a constant reminder. For myself, I have on my desk at work a 3-fold picture frame that has images of my guru, yidam and protector. When I work, I occasionally look up from my computer and see them. At home, I have an image next to my bed, and of course there is my shrine for my daily meditations. I knew this one woman who quite literally wall papered her entire room with different images of Buddhas! While this may not quite be “remaining natural while changing our aspiration,” it is frankly not that bad of an idea!