The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice can be regarded as the starting point of Dharma. These teachings are immediately accessible. They can be heard and understood by anyone who is open to the view they express. This view can be assimilated and can manifest as change in our attitude and interaction. However, the generality of these teachings may fail to address the individual nature of our confusion. We may feel inspired to practise but have particular issues on which we wish to work. In that case we may be attracted to a path that draws on the specific colour, texture, and pattern of ‘my neurosis’. This is Vajrayana – the path that effects transformation through intimate recognition of duality.
If we wish to engage in this path, it is essential to develop a relationship with a Lama. The Lama becomes our vajra master1.
We are individual in the quality and detail of our lives and we may feel that The Four Thoughts cannot address the specific issues of our experience. The path of Vajrayana offers a more individuated approach to spiritual growth. The fuel of this path is the specific character of our neuroses and how they manifest in our lives. Vajrayana offers the opportunity to transform neurotic confusion into non-dual clarity. If we wish to engage with spiritual practice in this transformative manner, we require a mirror. We need a Lama who knows us as individuals, takes an active interest in our spiritual progress, and guides us in our practice – through impartial reflection. The mirror does not choose to reflect some of the objects in front of it and not others, or to favour some in the manner of its reflection and not others – it simply reflects. This is the vajra master – described by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as the dangerous friend2. The Lama reflects as it is in order to allow us the freedom to let go of how it seems. Through aligning ourselves with the view of the Lama and letting go of our own referential rationale, the leap into realisation becomes possible, and our understanding can be taken beyond theory and into actualisation.
The initial venture into spiritual commitment is the ceremony of refuge.3 Having heard several Lamas give teachings over a period of one to three years, we feel moved to enter the commitment of affirming Dharma as our spiritual path.
We publicly declare that we wish to attune ourselves with Dharma view. Refuge will be offered in the general terms of Dharma as a whole, rather than with regard to a particular Lama or lineage.
Hence, we can take refuge many times with many different teachers before considering entering a deeper commitment with an individual Lama or teaching couple.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche says of this,
It is a common error—both in the East and in the West—for people
to think that taking refuge means aligning oneself to a specific
school and a specific Lama.
This is not the case.
Refuge texts will
undoubtedly be written according to the inspiration of a particular
lineage, but this does not mean that one has made a commitment to
that lineage or to a Lama of that lineage.
The objects of refuge are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
The common refuge in all Trans-Himalayan
traditions is ‘Lama, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha’ because one
comes to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha through the Lama.
When one takes refuge however, the Lama is not named.
Refuge belongs to
Sutrayana and so there is no commitment to one specific Lama.
may well be both grateful and inspired by the Lama who offers
Buddhist Refuge, but no commitment to that Lama is included in the
Naturally if one wishes to make a specific
commitment then this is wonderful – but it is too early at the
point of taking Refuge for the first time to be considering tantric
Refuge may be understood simply as a ceremony in which we take part when first becoming 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 regard refuge as a stage at which we have arrived at a particular moment in our lives. After this, we consider refuge as part of the ground of who we are as Buddhists.
It should not be the case that refuge disappears into the background – it should be experienced as a continuing affirmation of our commitment, and as a deepening source of inspiration and support.
The dictionary4 defines the word refuge as ‘shelter or protection from danger or trouble: an asylum or retreat’. We have looked at the nature of the danger or threat to which we are vulnerable with regard to The Four Thoughts. In the context of our lives as Buddhists, we seek protection from our own conceptual minds: from our compulsion to dualistically split reality; from our addiction to conditioned responses rooted in dualistic preconceptions. We seek protection from the neurotic tendencies which we employ in order to prevent us experiencing the natural state5.
Khandro Déchen has described refuge as
being ‘the bottom line’.
We know that we have established
refuge when we take Dharma as the base of our reality.
If we feel
that psychotherapy has better answers in certain areas then we do not
This is not to say that psychotherapy is not of value
at certain times, but if I am a Buddhist—if I have authentic
refuge—then when there is disparity between Dharma and
psychotherapy, I trust Dharma.
If I choose to trust Dharma then that
is where my Refuge lies.
If I choose to trust psychotherapy then
that is where my refuge lies.
If I alternate in my trust between one
and the other then I have refuge in neither – I merely have refuge
1. Vajra Master: Dorje Lopön (rDo rJe sLob dPon) (Tibetan), vajra acharya or vajracharya (Sanskrit). This could be a man or woman. In the Aro gTér Lineage we have the tradition of teaching couples, so a practitioner who has entered vajra commitment may have both a male and a female Dorje Lopön.
2. See Myth of Freedom by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (Shambhala Publications, 2002). See also Wearing the Body of Visions by Ngakpa Chögyam, Chapter 5, ‘The Dangerous Friend’, and Chapter 6, ‘The Perfect Precipice’ (Aro Books, 1995); and Dangerous Friend by Rig’dzin Dorje (Shambhala Publications, 2001).
3. Refuge: kyab (sKyabs) (Tibetan).
4. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1972.
5. The natural state: nalma (rNal ma) (Tibetan), the state of uncontrived relaxation.