Karmapa Teaches New Ways to Understand Refuge

RHSUpac_MG_2585(April 18, 2015 – Kingston, New York) Well before His Holiness’s lecture started, a long line stretched down the block and around the corner with people waiting to enter the Ulster Performing Arts Center. This elegant space filled to its capacity of 1,500. Among those attending the talk were students from an older generation who had seen the Karmapa in his previous incarnation. Beginning in 1974, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, had come to the United States three times and founded his main seat, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, just a few miles away in Woodstock, New York.


The Mayor of Kingston, Shayne Gallo, welcomed the Karmapa to the city announcing that it was an auspicious day for all and a blessing to the city he serves. Mayor Gallo thanked the Karmapa for bringing the message of love, compassion and peace, which comes through individuals changing. Echoing the Karmapa, he said that we have the responsibility to serve others and facilitate through compassion the awakening of everyone.

The Karmapa began by explaining the refuge vow as both the gateway to the Dharma and its essence. Encouraging people to reflect and find the reasons for taking refuge, he cited the Buddha’s famous lines from the Sanskrit: Examine my teachings as carefully as you would gold before purchasing it. The Pali text adds: Do not take anything just because it comes from a teacher or a family tradition. Engage only when you know the valid reason for doing so.

The Karmapa then queried the difference between the meaning of “religion” and “spirituality.” “Religion,” he said, “represents a tradition or a belief system that has been handed down whereas spirituality is based on our personal exploration and experience.” In the beginning every major religion was a spiritual tradition, he said: the founder had experience that fostered a profound realization, which was directly pointed out to students. But over time and generations, he observed, this changed so that faith and belief became increasingly important and the transmission of realization based on experience diminished.


“Spirituality must be a journey of personal discovery,” the Karmapa taught, “so we need to understand the reasons and conditions for taking refuge.” This will lead us to know what is essential to the Dharma and what is secondary, he said. The Karmapa created an example to illustrate his point. Suppose that the Buddha had given a teaching in a hall with only one door on his right. Afterward he would naturally leave through that exit. Later one of his students taught in a hall with doors on the right and left, and since the Buddha had exited on the right, the student did as well. Leaving on the right became an established custom without any real basis in reason. Problems arise when such customs replace reason and prevent us from knowing the Buddha’s true intention and teachings.


His Holiness explained that we take refuge for two reasons: fear, which relates to what we seek refuge from, and faith, which gives the impetus to fully rely on the sources of refuge, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Fear is an emotion we all feel, but here in the case of refuge, fear refers to an intelligent understanding of what harms or what helps us. Fear can protect us, but the problem with instinctive fear is that our brains have developed to deal with immediate dangers such as a tiger suddenly leaping in front of us. If we were told this would happen in two months, we would not feel the same fear. The Karmapa reflected that the situation with climate change is similar: people do not fear it because it is a distant danger so vast we cannot see it. Therefore, we need to go beyond an emotional or instinctive fear to think carefully about our situation.


The Karmapa turned to another subtle and invisible danger: the inadequacy of our love. The fear of obvious dangers, such as war, famine or sickness, we can easily identify. Lack of love, however, is another story; it leaves too many people and animals without protection or refuge. Their terrible suffering could be prevented if we had enough love, His Holiness stated. Since this deficit is within us, we can recognize it and change, and change we must, as insufficient love poses not only the danger of eventual disaster for others but for ourselves as well.

RHSUpac_MG_2649 1

Our usual love and compassion is limited to relatives or friends, and beyond them, we set a boundary to our caring that allows us to ignore others. “We need to extend our love,” the Karmapa said, “and come to see that we are connected to everyone.” The Karmapa expanded the usual definition of fear: “When we think about how living beings harm one another, we can see this lack of love clearly. Fearing it within ourselves, we go for refuge to develop the love and compassion that the Dharma teaches.”

RHSUpac_MG_2605Turning to faith, the second reason for taking refuge, the Karmapa gave the term a creative turn and spoke about the importance of self-confidence: “The foundation of faith is a trust in oneself and one’s actions, a true self-confidence.” He gave the example of his escape to India, which happened due to his confidence that he could do it. Reflecting on our own qualities can inspire us so that we are not deflated by the problems that appear but have the courage and resilience to face them.


The qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the objects of our faith, seem beyond what we could conceive, and so we need a high level of faith that is not vulnerable to adversity. He observed, “We need immeasurable confidence, immeasurable hope and immeasurable aspiration as well as a one-pointed focus on our goal. Faith is not just faith in others, but faith in ourselves and hope for ourselves. Aspiration alone is not true faith. When faith is authentic, our minds are filled with joy and courage.”


On this positive note, the Karmapa ended his introduction to taking refuge, which he would give in the afternoon.

The full video of this teaching can be viewed here, on the official youTube page of the Karmapa.

Story Courtesy of the Karmapa Foundation

Photos: Robert Hansen-Sturm


One thought on “Karmapa Teaches New Ways to Understand Refuge

  1. timely message for uncertain and fluctuating issues for countless beings………may all be free, liberated, satisfied, fulfilled, stabilized Long Life, Radiant Health to HH Karmapa, may his pathway unfold in the most auspicious ways to bring benefit to countless beings, me ke aloha, Leonora

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