Taking Refuge with the Master

After first seeing Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Bodh-Gaya in the winter of 1984/5, I felt that I had to take refuge with him. However, there were so many people in Bodh-Gaya that year that I decided to follow him to Nepal to his Monastery in Boudhanath in order to make my request.

Taking refuge with one’s chosen Master is something akin to the Buddhist equivalent of taking communion in the Christian tradition. It is a commitment to take refuge in the Buddha, to endeavor to practice His Teachings, the Dharma, and to honor his followers, the Sangha. But more than this, taken with a strong and clear intention, at the feet of an authentic master, one promises to tread the path to liberation for the benefit of all sentient beings and the master vows to protect and guide the disciple through all his lifetimes until he/she reaches enlightenment. This is a binding promise spanning lifetimes. 

Therefore it is crucial to take refuge with a teacher in whom one perceives all the qualities of an authentic master, as this is a connection that one can potentially be bound to for a very long time. Making a careful and confident choice is of the utmost importance. Even if this sounds like a contradiction in terms, for is it not said; ‘when the disciple is ready, the master will appear.’ For those fortunate enough to be re-connecting with a former guide, there is never any sense of choice, there is merely a resumption of former ties. Although I took the formal refuge vows with Khyentse Rinpoche I never felt that I was making or needed to make a conscious choice. There was immediate recognition and what followed was the natural continuation of former strong bonds.

There are as many paths to ‘truth’ as there are beings to ‘realize’ it. However, our journey can be dramatically shortened by following a master in whom we have complete faith. Thus, there is the potential in the ‘refuge’ process for not only powerfully focusing our intention to attain ‘enlightenment’ but also gaining thereby the complicity, protection, guidance, and inspiration of the chosen master.

The Buddhist tradition has its own particular appeal. For many, it clearly addresses an issue that we are all very familiar with, namely that of ‘suffering.’ But more than this, it offers a means with which to free ourselves from this cycle of ‘suffering’.

Taking ‘refuge’ is like stepping into an ‘ark’. At the helm of this mighty ship is the ‘Buddha’, all the various masters, and lineages that emanate from Him are like ministers and boatmen who keep the ship afloat and moving. The ‘Dharma’ can be likened to the ‘vessel’ itself and the ‘Sangha’ to all those who have climbed on board. This mighty ship is just a speck in the vast ocean of ‘being’ and ultimately all those who have climbed onboard are eventually returned to the ocean but when that happens they know how to swim and to stay afloat effortlessly. So, for a while, there is the comfort and companionship of the ‘sangha,’ sustenance of the ‘teaching’ and protection and guidance of the Buddha.

Personally, I am not very religious. Although I respect the great religious institutions, I feel they are a means to an end and not the end itself. After all, enlightenment is the simplest and ultimately most natural of things and it is the very heart of ‘who and what we really are.’ A drop of water emerges from the ocean and eventually is absorbed back into it. It does not need to change its nature or ‘become’ something else. It is already ‘that’, the very same essence as the ocean from which it has sprung.

When I first saw Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche I was not a Buddhist and had no particular idea of becoming one. However Rinpoche was very much part of this religious tradition and as I found that its many precepts enhanced my path, I, therefore, saw no reason not to go through the formal doorway of ‘refuge’ and become a ‘Buddhist.’

As soon as I arrived in Boudhanath, a town on the outskirts of Kathmandu, I made my way over to Shechen Monastery where Khyentse Rinpoche was residing. Rinpoche’s rooms were above the main temple and consisted of a series of large chambers, one of which opened into a big hall-like waiting room in the center of the building.

Khyentse Rinpoche sat most of the day in a wooden meditation box near a window in his reception room which opened into the large waiting room via a series of full-length glass doors that could be rolled back when needed. It was a well-thought-out arrangement, as during teachings and empowerments the doors could simply be moved so that Rinpoche’s room became an extension of the waiting room and many more people could then partake in whatever was happening at the time.

On that first occasion after first making my offerings I requested Rinpoche to give me the refuge vow. He immediately assented but said I should wait outside in the main hall until he called for me. At first, I thought this would be a matter of some few minutes or hours at the most. However, it turned out that I was to sit in that hall for three whole days before being summoned.

Waiting outside Khyentse Rinpoche’s room for three days, turned out to be no great hardship at all. In fact, I learned a lot about Rinpoche and the various people who were visiting him. I learned much about life in the monastery in general. During those first three days, I would come early in the morning and after making three prostrations to Rinpoche, he would beckon me to approach him, then extend his huge hand and touch it to my head in blessing. 

I would then go to a favorite seat I had chosen outside his room. From this vantage point, I could not only watch his every move, but I could watch everyone else’s comings and goings as well. I only took occasional breaks to visit the bathroom or go to my room for meals. Somehow I found the ‘life’ going on around him endlessly fascinating. There was no boredom in this waiting at all. In his presence one felt oneself inside a vast mandala, nothing happened accidentally, nothing was random, and nothing could be taken for granted. It was as though one were within the hub of a large wheel of dynamic and buzzing activity. 

Nevertheless, by the end of the third day, I began to have a niggly little doubt and wonder if I should remind him of my request. It seemed unlikely that he could have forgotten, especially as I was sitting right outside his room and peering in at him most of the day! 

There had been an endless stream of visitors since I had first arrived and these never seemed to lessen. It was amazing to see how effortlessly he could accommodate everyone. There was no sense of hurry, tension, or weariness. The people just came and went and each seemed to get what he/she wanted and I am sure a few got more than they bargained for as well. 

In the end, I decided it didn’t matter how long I sat there, I would just wait and see what would happen.

Then, on the morning of the fourth day, Rinpoche’s attendant suddenly called me to go into his room. It was the auspicious day of the 25th of the Tibetan month, the so-called “Dakini Day’ and I realized that he must have been waiting for this. In general, Tibetans are very mindful of auspicious dates and astrological concurrences and such things, so this was all quite in keeping with tradition.

What surprised me, however, was that the room suddenly became empty. This seemed to have happened as if by magic, as there was seldom ever a moment when other Lamas or visitors were not present. It impressed me deeply that Rinpoche had lost no time at all in calling me in and taking advantage of the quiet space which so miraculously had opened up. 

After I made several prostrations he beckoned to me to come forward. I can still see that enormous finger with its long nail motioning me to come closer and closer. All the while he was watching me with a peculiar little grin which I came to know was very characteristic. One corner of his mouth would rise and he would squint a little with one eye while the other remained normal. I was totally in awe of him, trembling shamelessly from head to foot. I felt there was something unspeakably powerful in his presence and this touched me in a completely new way.

Only when I had crept right in front of the big wooden meditation box, did the beckoning finger cease to summon me nearer and nearer. There was something of the extraordinary about Khyentse Rinpoche’s hands. I had never seen hands like these before. Not only were they very large, but they were also wonderfully graceful. There were no clumsy movements.

One finds this about the movements and gestures of a ‘realized being’. Potentially even a seemingly insignificant gesture can have the power to stop one’s mind.

After the beckoning stopped I remember Rinpoche’s hand coming down on top of my head, pulling it right in so that the sound of his chanting of the mantras seemed to flow and reverberate through every cell in my body, and through my entire being.
For as long as it took to recite the prayers and mantras of the refuge ceremony, some five or ten minutes, the hand remained firmly in place. If I had been a cat at that moment, I would have been purring loudly. All sense of the ordinary had long since disappeared and yet there was something so profoundly familiar, so inexplicably part of what is, that in the highest use of the word ‘ordinary’ as in ‘ unaltered’ or uncontrived, there was a complete naturalness in this communion.

There was no doubting the validity or the profundity of the simple ceremony of refuge. If one can be likened to a drop from the ‘ocean’ of being, then that droplet trembles in the proximity of the mighty ‘ocean’. The ocean will as surely swallow it up, erase all traces of the false self, irresistibly take it back and claim it as its own.

Such is the importance, the power, and the potential of the sacred vow and bond of taking refuge…
“The ultimate teacher, the Absolute,
is never separate from us, yet immature beings,
not recognizing this, look outside and seek Him far away.
Sole Father, with your immense love you have shown me my own wealth;
I, who was a pauper, constantly feel your presence in the depths of my heart.”
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

From the book “Tibetan Masters ” – Lyse Mai Lauren