Chapter 8: Refuge and Precepts


Refuge is a special method, a joyous path, of freeing us from samsara and attaining enlightenment.

All sentient beings are permeated by Buddha-nature yet, failing to recognize that, they remain bewildered in samsara on the wheel of cause and suffering.

The sufferings of individual experiences are like the ocean’s waves endlessly washing up, one after another. As long as you remain in samsara, don’t expect complete peace and happiness.

Refuge is the path to freedom from this cycle. Refuge embodies the complete teachings of Buddha. All the different practices, the so-called preliminary and advanced practices, all are from this refuge. Refuge is the ground, the path, and the fruition.

The ground refuge is the primordially unfabricated nature, the mode of abiding, the way the whole of reality is constituted free from confusion. Whether you realize refuge or not, it has always been natural and free from elaboration. This interdependent nature is the absolute wisdom which pervades all phenomena in samsara and nirvana without duality. The Buddha fully actualizes this reality, so this all-pervasive wisdom and the Buddha cannot be differentiated.

That is why we say Buddha is fully awakened from the sleep of ignorance and has actualized all the excellent qualities. In this state of wisdom, nothing is hidden. All universes are obvious; there is no need for speculation; there is nothing to be investigated. Since all is present, we say Buddha actualized the nonconceptual thought which embodies unconditional, all-pervading compassion and primordial wisdom. From this state, Buddha manifests many different forms in order to benefit sentient beings. The basis of all these manifestations is called Dharmakaya. Like space, it is free of all elaborations and the basis for all qualities and manifestations.

From this, Buddha manifests a form called Sambhogakaya, a celestial body, to benefit advanced bodhisattvas.

Then for the ordinary practitioners, Buddha manifests in Nirmanakaya form, the emanation body. Through these different manifestation states, he teaches all the teachings which completely describe samsara and enlightenment. For these reasons, we take refuge in the Buddha.

To attain Buddhahood ourselves, we need to study and practice all the Buddha’s teachings in order to dispel our confusion and free ourselves from suffering. Therefore, we take refuge in the precious Dharma.

In order to study and practice, we need a guide or exemplar. A great, clear example is to be found in the Sangha, the great bodhisattvas, as well as the Hearer and Solitary Realizer Arhats, who are advanced in their study and realization of the teachings and who have indivisible confidence in the Buddha and Dharma. Therefore, we take refuge in the Sangha.

By taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we begin to follow the path of purification of different types of obscurations and of gathering the two accumulations of merit and wisdom. This is called “path refuge.” By following the path indefatigably, persistently, with full confidence and devotion, one actualizes the result—the complete, unsurpassable enlightenment, which is called Dharmakaya.

Dharmakaya is the designation of the Buddha that embodies the complete Dharma teachings and is the perfection state of the Sangha. This is called “fruition refuge.”

Therefore, refuge embodies all the teachings. Don’t consider it to be just a preliminary practice and not the main practice. It is most important as the first step toward entering the gate of enlightenment, and it is important at the middle and at the completion.

Since this refuge path is the means to dispel our confusion about the cause of suffering and the method for actualizing the excellent qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, it is the way to achieve joy, peace, and happiness. This is why it is called the “joyous” path of refuge.

Always practice refuge with joy and a feeling of being fortunate. Sacrifice by enduring some small suffering in order to become free of all sufferings.


Precepts are also called vows or moral ethics, which is the same as discipline.

Generally speaking, in order to attain Buddhahood one must purify all the obscurations and abstain from the non-virtuous deeds.

Historically, there has never been a Buddha who has not sacrificed these obscurations and perfected all the wisdom qualities.

Because of that, there are so many different levels of precepts with many different numbers of vows. These precepts are designed as a special vehicle for abstention from non-virtuous deeds, for keeping one’s body, speech, and mind in accord with the harmonious state and virtuous deeds.

As such, precepts are an important foundation for the development of our meditative concentration and the actualization of insight. They are the foundation of all spiritual growth, the true cause of rebirth in the next life with a precious human existence.

Some people think that moral ethics and discipline are unnecessary when practicing highest yoga tantra and view (emptiness); they think precepts are designed for lesser practitioners, not for the advanced. This may be going too far.

On the contrary, those who are more realized in the subtle meaning of Dharma conduct themselves even more sensitively and genuinely, setting a greater example for the followers. Taking precepts and keeping them is a 24-hour practice.

It is a real test for Dharma practitioners to sustain their discipline every moment for the rest of their lives. Utilizing all our energy in virtuous channels this way is a very important method of training the body, speech, and mind.

So, it would be good for every Dharma practitioner to at least take the five precepts, train well and think more seriously about becoming a monk or nun.

Rather than feeling like you’ve been put in prison, take the precepts as ornaments. For those who keep them well, the precepts can become a source of peace and joy, and are a special way of practicing purification. As purification increases, the afflicting emotions lessen, creating a greater chance to actualize the nature of mind, the Mahamudra.

Source: Gampopa, Dharma Lord. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings. Translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche. Edited by Ani K. Trinlay Chodron. Boulder, Colorado: Snow Lion, 1998.