Refuge & and the Five Lay Followers Vows

His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul the Third,

Karma Lodrö Chökyi Senge

 karmapa jamgon


While accompanying His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, His Eminence presented these instructions in Palo Alto, California in 1977.  They were translated from Tibetan by Matthew Kapstein.


Refuge, more than anything else, is that which distinguishes Buddhism, so refuge should cause one to ask what the meaning of Buddhism is. In Tibetan, the word most commonly used for Buddhism means "the inward way" or "the inner teaching." It is distinguished from those bodies of faith and religion that are outer ways or teaching. What this basically means is that there are those bodies of religions and philosophies that place their faith in things outside oneself, in things of the outer world when seeking to create conditions through which one might attain enlightenment. Buddhism does not have that sort of dependency on anything outside oneself.

If one is going to discover what the meaning of Buddhism is, it is helpful to perhaps start by discovering something of the meaning of what is not Buddhism and of what cannot be considered to be in harmony with the Buddhist teachings. In general, all those teachings rejected by Buddhism can be classified into two basic groups: those that adhere to some substantial and permanent reality as forming the basis for what exists and those that are nihilistic in their teachings.

The first includes all those schools of thought which believe that the world, the universe, ourselves, and all we experience were created by some permanent, unchanging god not subject to variation, some creator, some soul, some thing beyond and outside the world it created. The problem with this is logical - the very act of creation implies that some change is taking place. In order for something to act as a creator and to create, it must undergo a change or transformation. Having undergone that change or transformation, it is not permanent. As a result, Buddhist teachings can in no way accept the idea of a substantial, permanent entity of any kind, neither a god nor soul that forms the basis for our world.

In reaction, there are several nihilistic points of view, which, for example, regard the world as a sort of cosmic accident, where there are no causes and effects, i.e., everything happened by the force of accident; things that have no logical connection are somehow connected. Mind, in this point of view, would have had its origin in matter. We can see that both in the realm of the material and psychological world that there is causality in terms of what occurs. So, Buddhism cannot accept in any way a system that seeks to deny causality. It is extremely difficult to establish the sorts of causal sequences that Buddhism invites us to investigate to extend beyond the limitations of given definitive lifetimes. Thus Buddhism does establish a continuum of the consciousness beyond a single life.

Again, the problem with an idea of a permanent creator is that even if we were to find in some way a system through which we could have a permanent creator, then his creation would have to be essentially identical with him if he were not to undergo changes in the act of creation. The result would be that everything we deal with in this world- whether mechanical contrivances we make or everything we encounter- would have to be considered the creator in some form or another. Buddhism cannot seek refuge with any god, soul, lasting entity, or creator who somehow stands apart from the world and yet created it.

When we go for refuge in Buddhism, we go for refuge in the Three Jewels- the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It is necessary to have something to go to for refuge, because without a refuge there is no act of going for refuge. But we should understand that the nature of refuge is provisional, because when one has realized the absolute nature of reality, then a refuge, someone going for refuge, and an act of going for refuge are all dissolved in the realization of absolute reality.

In a sense, when one has realized the absolute nature of reality, there is no need to go for refuge. Since I suspect that there aren't too many here who have realized the nature of absolute reality, it might be helpful now to have a more detailed explanation on the nature of going for refuge.


The Objects of Refuge- The Three Jewels

The three refuges again are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It is important to understand what each means. So, starting with the nature of the Buddha, the way we understand the Buddha in the Mahayana is as the totality of the five planes, which embody Buddhahood, and the five modes of perfect awareness, which are the cognitive aspects of Buddhahood. Some of the technical terms we are using may not be understood right now; they will be explained in detail later. We are just trying to establish the basic definitions we work with in Mahayana Buddhism here.

The second object of refuge is the Dharma, which is understood as the teachings of the Buddha, the whole body of expression of the Buddha's realization that he presents to living beings in order to affect the means for their realization as well as the body of teachings composed by Buddhist successors. The Dharma is in a sense to be regarded as the path, as the presentation of the means through which Buddhahood can be realized.

Finally, if we were to realize the meaning of Buddhahood or the meaning of Lord Buddha's teachings, which are tantamount to realizing Buddhahood, then the process of enlightenment would end right there and we would need nothing else. But we finally take refuge in the Sangha or the community of those who have given over their body, speech, and mind as well as all acts of body, speech, and mind to the manifestation in the world of the Buddha's teachings. As long as one has not yet realized this and while not having realized enlightenment, one needs assistance- one needs those who can teach, one needs those who can help, one needs those who through contact with them can advance us on the path to enlightenment. This is the reason why one finally takes refuge in the Sangha.

So, the nature of the Three Jewels is essentially the Buddha, the goal of the path, the Dharma, his teachings as the path itself, and the Sangha, the spiritual friends who advance one's progress towards the goal.

As for the power of the connection which one makes with realization of Buddhahood by going for refuge, the Buddha himself has said that even an exceptionally evil person who goes to the Three Jewels for refuge has in that act advanced himself above the qualities of a hundred ordinary people who have not yet gone for refuge.


The Base for Going for Refuge in the Three Jewels

It is necessary to go for refuge with one's entire being. One has to have very profound confidence in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha in order to do that. Without profound confidence in the Three Jewels, there is no way one can totally go for refuge. Even if such confidence were to arise momentarily in one's mind, it alone doesn't really confirm one's going for refuge unless one makes some very special connection with the act of going for refuge. For this reason, one takes a vow of refuge. One takes it with a teacher who himself carries in his own realization the sustaining power of the Three Jewels. Based on that and on the connection one makes through the teacher, then one's confidence and refuge become very firm, like the ground, like the foundation. For example, if one were to build a house, one would want a firm foundation to start out with. Refuge, if it is firm, becomes the foundation on which one builds all further practices in Buddhism, whether high or low. For this reason, it is essential to commence here by establishing a very firm and solid grounding in refuge and its meaning. If one has established that sort of refuge and one wishes to meditate in the Buddhist tradition, it is fine. If one wishes to take up the practice of the Mahayana, that's fine too, because one has a strong foundation on which to base it.

It is further said that although Buddhism has no fixed statements which limit the range of its teachings, it doesn't try to set up a frozen body of doctrines and is thus quite free and open in spite of the endless variety of teachings it gives rise to. It is said that all teachings can be basically summed up in the teachings of the Three Jewels. Anything we deal with in Buddhism can be thought of as pertaining to the topic of the Buddha, or his teachings, or the community that adheres to those teachings.

Furthermore, after creating a foundation for one's practice in refuge, it is usually customary to strengthen it with the commitment of one of the groups of the Hinayana vows. Although the Hinayana vows are Hinayana, at the same time they are a foundation for any serious practice of the Mahayana and should be regarded in this manner- as a link between the practice of going for refuge and the assumption of actual practice in the Mahayana.

However, after starting and grounding one's practice in refuge in the Three Jewels, the most powerful way to advance is with the Mahayana commitment or with the Bodhisattva vows. Essentially, the vow of the Bodhisattva is the commitment to abstain from all that brings harm to others and to seek to achieve all that benefits others. The wish to remove all conditions which in some way harm others is really the fundamental Buddhist definition of compassion and, at the same time, the wish to achieve all that benefits others is the fundamental definition of loving kindness. These two form the basis of Mahayana practice.

The Motivation of Taking the Bodhisattva Precepts

There are three types of motivation to take the Bodhisattva vows. The first motivation for taking the Bodhisattva vows is compared to a shepherd or cowherd who walks behind the herd or flock he is tending, making sure they get where they are going before he does. In the same way, the Bodhisattva who is motivated in this way seeks that all living beings attain enlightenment first, i.e., before he does. He seeks in his practice of the path to create the conditions through which all living beings may attain enlightenment.

The second sort of motivation is known as the motivation of the boatman, which is compared to someone who runs a boat, fills it with living beings, and rows it to wherever they are going. The boatman in his practice seeks to create the conditions through which he and all living beings may attain enlightenment together and regards his own progress towards enlightenment as equal to that of others.

Finally, the third motivation is known as the motivation of a king. Just as a king has to achieve power and gather his kingship before he can do anything to benefit his subjects or run the kingdom, one wishes to achieve enlightenment with this motivation by wishing to achieve enlightenment first and then to help all living beings later. Although this is regarded as the third, there is still a very powerful motivation here: to work out the path of a Bodhisattva and to assist all living beings. The difference is that one here places precedence in one's own enlightenment and sees one's own enlightenment as a position and power from which one will have the ability to benefit all others.

The Purpose of Taking the Bodhisattva Vows

Although the Mahayana is, from the point of view of the motivation and the attitude it inculcates us with, a negation of self-interest and an encouragement to think only of that which would benefit others, one should realize that the achievement of the goal of the Mahayana also fulfils one's own purpose and one's aspiration to achieve enlightenment. It is said that when one fulfils the purpose of others, then one's own purpose is spontaneously achieved. Because the Mahayana steers one away from self-interest, it becomes a much more powerful vehicle through which to achieve enlightenment than paths that are preoccupied with one's own enlightenment. The path of the Hinayana, which is concerned with achieving freedom from samsara, is very self-interested in that way. It works, but it is slower, slower because through the very precedence one gives to one's own enlightenment, there is a strength given to egotism, which effectively prevents the swift achievement of enlightenment. So in the way of the Hinayana, it is necessary to achieve a sort of fixation through an endless practice of meditation over a long period of time, to gain firmness in absorption, and to then move on to the Mahayana. Whereas, since the Mahayana steers practitioners away from egotistical concerns and towards looking at and openness towards others, it is a very effective and powerful means to annihilate egotism - the fundamental stumbling-block - in order to progress towards enlightenment. 


The Procedure for Taking the Bodhisattva Vows

Finally, the enlightened attitude of a Bodhisattva can be approached from two points of view: absolute and relative. The absolute nature of the enlightened attitude is realized in perfect enlightenment, so we won't deal with it here. The relative nature of the enlightened attitude is as it applies to situations we are dealing with in the ordinary world. The kind we are dealing with when we receive the vow of the enlightened attitude is the relative enlightened attitude as adduced by linguistic and other symbolic conventions. What this basically means is the vehicle through which the vow is conferred, through which the vow is administered is speech and the explanation that His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa will read of the vow and our own acceptance of that. Having entered the vow of the enlightened attitude, we should know two main modes of the enlightened attitude. First of all, it is known as the aspiration of the enlightened attitude, which is the intention we have been talking about, the motivation to achieve enlightenment on behalf of all living beings. Secondly, there is what is known as the application of the enlightened attitude, which is actually carrying out one's intention in practice, as, for example, in the practice of the six perfections.

The two basic vows of refuge and the enlightened attitude are the strongest impetus one can have in one's practice of Buddhism and particularly in one's practice of Mahayana. When one has the special opportunity to receive them from one who has perfected their realization as His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, one should regard this as a very great opportunity that adds a lot of strength to one's own practice. Having received the vows, one should also remember the responsibility one undertakes to explore and guard their meaning in one's life. If you are inspired and wish to undertake the vows of refuge and Bodhisattva, it is most excellent. After giving the refuge vow, His Holiness the Karmapa will give the five vows of vipasaka, "Buddhist laymen vows." These will be given individually and in order. You should consider very carefully which of these you can really respect in your own life and in practice. All I can do right now is explain the nature of the vows to you. It is up to you whether you wish to assume the commitments or not. You should realize them to be commitments, though, and not treat them lightly or casually. If you have never taken a vow, then you have no problem about breaking them. If you have taken a vow and it is broken, you are only making things difficult for yourself and really ripping down your own practice. It is better not to assume a vow if you have any doubts.

The Five Vows of a Buddhist Layman

In any case, the nature of the five vows of a Buddhist layman are 1) not to kill, 2) not to steal, 3) not to lie. This particularly refers to misrepresentation with respect to the Dharma, Lord Buddha's teachings, particularly by saying, "I have realized this or that," when there is even the slightest possibility that one is involved in self-deception. 4) A vow to abstain from toxicities and alcoholic beverages, and 5) a vow to avoid sexual misconduct, which for laymen is of course not a vow of chastity but does limit in certain ways the expression of one's sexuality. The vows go in this order, so if one only wishes to take the first, it is done. One then takes the vow not to kill and one doesn't take the rest. In general, the first three of not killing, not stealing, and not lying are commitments that Buddhist laymen should definitely undertake. The others are taken according to one's own ability to maintain them in one's own life. If you have any doubts, then it is better not to take them right now.

The line of transmission of the vows and commitments in the Kagyü Lineage have all been transmitted directly from Lha-je Gampopa through a succession of teachers to the present time, all of whom have impeccably maintained their own commitments. Lha-je Gampopa is in a sense regarded as the Father of all Kagyüpas. If you are serious in your intent to follow through with the teachings and transmission of this lineage, it would be very helpful if you undertake to make a serious and thorough study of Gampopa's most important work, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, which is one of the few Tibetan texts that has been excellently translated into English so far. If nothing else is the basis of the Kagyüpa teachings, that is it. You should appreciate this and seek to study this book as profoundly as possible.

The Function of the Vows

If you are going to take vows and expect to maintain their commitment, it is important to understand something of how vows work and how a commitment is maintained, a quite complex subject. The technical term in Tibetan translates roughly as "that factor which conditions our material existence without being perceived by others as part of our material existence." What this means is that when one has taken the obligation, for instance not to kill, then from the period of time one has assumed this as a vow until either through a deliberate renunciation of the vow or something else, there is a continuum of time, regardless of what occurs in one's mind, in which one's body will just not become involved with killing. That is to say, the initial impact of a commitment made in the mind has so powerfully conditioned one's physical acts of body and speech that, unless through rather extreme circumstances or deliberate reconditioning, it is en-coated into one's physical existence. So, from that point of view, a vow is considered to be a part of the material world. You should understand that, because it also tells us something about the mechanism through which we maintain the force of a vow, which is based on maintaining a certain conditioning-force in our mental existence. It is also important that this be recognized, because it is in a sense a part of our physical presence in the world, i.e., this is not a body that steals, not a voice that lies, and it is not something anyone other than oneself can know. It is important for you to acknowledge this. 

The Time

It is also important to realize that this is the reason, in spite of the teaching of reincarnation in Buddhism, that all vows are negated at one's death and one has to re-assume them in different lifetimes, because with a change of psychological motivations that set of conditioning-features may not apply to another body. It is important for you to understand the relationship between a vow, your commitment, and your physical presence in the world, and to see that the vow is very much a part of your physical presence in the world.

Questions & Answers

Question: Would you please explain what the moment of taking vows means.

Rinpoche: The whole refuge rite is written in the classical language of ancient Tibet, rather than in modern classical Tibetan. Even in Tibet, many people don't understand what is being read when they go for refuge. There is one moment in which the impact of refuge is invoked and one has to be receptive to let it penetrate one's mind. In order to indicate that moment, His Holiness snaps His fingers.

Question: What if you have already taken refuge and have received a refuge name?

Rinpoche: The vow of refuge and of a Bodhisattva may be taken repeatedly in this lifetime. The vows of a Buddhist layman can only be taken once, the same as monastic vows. It is expected that once one has taken such a firm commitment, there is no need for any further commitment. If you have already taken layman's vows, you can't take them again, but you can take refuge again. If you already have a name, you don't receive a new name then. You should mention that you don't need a new name and just use the refuge name you have during the recitation.

The reason that the two vows of refuge and of Bodhicitta can be taken again and again is the same as the need in daily practice of Ngöndro - to continually reaffirm them in practice. As part of that regular reaffirmation, one can take refuge and Bodhicitta vows repeatedly. But with vows of conduct, it is expected that once one has taken the obligation, it is fixed and there is no question of reaffirming it, because one is continually acting according to that vow anyway.

Question: In respect to the vows of the layman and not being enlightened, one is not always in control of what one does and one makes a lot of errors. How can one consciously make a vow not to lie if one doesn't really know what the truth is and not to kill if one doesn't know if one is possibly killing? In reference to killing, does it mean consciously killing or would eating meat be considered killing as well?

Rinpoche: These vows are intended for people who have not yet reached enlightenment. An individual who has attained perfect Buddhahood doesn't need vows anymore. There is a difference between conscious acts and unconscious acts. It is very good if one can abandon eating meat and so forth, but merely eating meat is not regarded as killing. It is rather like the difference between stealing or asking someone to steal, which is itself part of stealing, and ending up with goods that at some time or another have been stolen. It is impossible to completely avoid that in this world, but it is very nice if one can completely do it, although it is not being insisted upon in this context. For instance, you see monks reciting an extensive series of prayers before their meals. It is not like saying grace, but they recite a prayer of recognition for the benefit of the animal whose meat they eat, since it is something that was alive. It is intended to dedicate whatever merit is done through one's practice. If one were strictly vegetarian, then the need to be as conscientious about that relationship with food and to cultivate the thought by undergoing the entire series of prayers prior to eating would not be present. At the same time, if you can become a vegetarian, that's excellent.

Question: How are the vows exactly interpreted, to train myself to abstain from killing or is it just, "You shouldn't kill," period, "Do not kill," as commanded in Christianity?

Rinpoche: Are you involved in killing right now?

Same student: It's hard to say.

Rinpoche: Remember that we're not referring to non-deliberate killing. If there is any sin that adheres to the killing which comes through unconscious acts of just walking around, for example, then I will take it over for you.

Same student: How do you break the vows?

Rinpoche: Deliberately. The vows are to abstain from all deliberate and intentional negative actions, which applies from the time you take the vows.

Same student: If you do break a vow, how do you rectify it?

Rinpoche: If one takes a vow and thinks about all the possible contingencies under which it might be broken, it is better not to take it, because it is then too much worry and trouble. There are means of rectification of minor infringements and one can go on endlessly about major infringements which really break it. What is important is the attitude with which one approaches it right now. When situations come up later, one can ask one's teacher to help one deal with them. But one shouldn't sit here and try to work out every contingency that might arise in life.

Question: I would like to ask whether the vows are meant to be taken that you must abstain completely or that you are taking the vow against alcohol, for instance? There might be occasions during ceremoniies that you must drink, because of the tradition, diplomacy, and the culture of people. If you did not drink, you would be offending severely, in a killing sense of the first vow through psychological harm, the community?

Rinpoche: In taking a Buddhist commitment, it is necessary to fulfil that commitment in a Buddhist sense. If there are other commitments that prevent it, then it is better not to take the commitment. If one does take the vow not to drink, it means absolutely, i.e., not at all.

Question: I understand that you go for refuge until enlightenment in the three higher realms.

Rinpoche: Enlightenment means perfect Buddhahood.

Student: Right. Until enlightenment you go for refuge in the next three higher realms.

Rinpoche: What three higher realms?

Same student: The three higher realms. In other words, you won't be going into the three lower realms if you go for refuge.

Rinpoche: If one adheres to the commitments of refuge from now until perfect Buddhahood has been attained, there can be no rebirth in the lower realms of samsara.

Same student: In other words, if you adhere to the vows?

Rinpoche: If you adhere to refuge and its commitments.

Same student: Which will be explained later?

Rinpoche: There are two sets, each of three commitments, that go with refuge, which I will explain shortly now.

The Refuge Vows

The first commitment of refuge is three things that one should learn to avoid. 1) Having gone for refuge in the Buddha, one must avoid refuges that are themselves part of samsara, in other words, deities, gods, things that have themselves nor achieved liberation. The complementary thing that should be undertaken once one has gone for refuge in the Buddha is to show respect and veneration to all images and representations of the Buddha. Even a fragment that is chipped off an old statue, or a little corner that was torn off a painting shouldn't be discarded but kept in a respectful place. If it must be discarded, then in a very pure and respectful manner. Particularly, the art market in the West has made it customary to deal with Buddhist art as commercial objects. To treat them as such is totally forbidden by this precept. However, to buy a Buddhist art object for use in one's practice is considered beneficial, because it is like ransoming it from someone who had mistreated it.

2) Having gone for refuge in the Dharma, one must avoid any actions that bring harm to other living beings, because all such acts are contradictory to the Dharma. What must be undertaken is to show respect and veneration to the Dharma. Particularly at the present time, it means really showing respect to books of the Dharma, even to a scrap from a page on the Dharma shouldn't be thrown in the trash or rubbish but disposed of by burning or some other pure means. Also, commercial use of the Dharma is forbidden by this vow as well.

3) When one has gone for refuge in the Sangha, it is essential to avoid the company of those who destroy one's practice, whose company makes it impossible for one to progress in the practice of Buddhism. What is to be undertaken is to show respect to members of the Sangha, and even the scrap of the robe of a member of the Sangha should be treated with veneration and respect.

Question: What do you do when you see people who destroy your practice?

Rinpoche: It means people whose minds are really turned against the Dharma, who bad-mouth one's practice. One just shouldn't listen to them or pay attention at all.

Student: Once you don't listen, they can't touch you?

Rinpoche: No. Those who might bad-mouth your practice and say, for instance, "Hey, you should get out of Buddhism. It is stupid, idiotic, you're wrong and you are screwed up." You just don't listen.

Same student: This doesn't necessarily concern people who do not believe in it?

Rinpoche: No, it means people whose influence is definitely negative.

Continuing with the refuge vows, finally, it is important to continually remember the Three Jewels and the importance of refuge. Particularly here, it is important not to be affected by circumstances. There are some people whose religious faith is great when they are in bad times and as soon as things get good, they completely forget it and see no purpose, or the other way around. It is important to develop a consistent commitment that transcends the circumstances one might be dealing with in any given moment.

Question: How does enlightenment work in this life and how did you get enlightened?

Rinpoche: Do you think that I am a Buddha?

Student: Not the Buddha. I heard that you are the reincarnation of a Tulku. Somebody told me that.

Rinpoche: When I look at myself, all I see is faults. I can't talk about anything other than that. For a general understanding, there are three levels of of Buddhahood. There is the Dharmakaya, which is the real nature of Buddhahood, i.e., the substratum for all cognitive existents. And there are the two form kayas of manifestation of Buddhahood. One is known as the Sambhogakaya, which is the Buddha as he manifests to those whose mind is already pure. And there is the Nirmanakaya, the Tulku, which is the Buddha as he manifests to this sort of world in which people's minds are impure. As a child I was identified as the incarnation of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. I don't know if that is what I am, but I acted out that part in life.

Question: I have a question about taking the precept of not lying. What role does the motivation play? For instance, if you lie to prevent pain for someone else, is that considered lying?

Rinpoche: In the case of lying, we are concerned mostly with a lying that creates confusion in the world and must be avoided. It is certainly true that there are times something dishonest may have to be said in order to have a beneficial effect that can be seen. Although that might ultimately have to be rectified and one is aware of it at the time with the correct motivation, there is still the awareness that it is basically removing confusion rather than creating it at the given moment. From that point of view, it is not considered to be contrary with the vow.

Thank you very much.
three masters

His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, His Holiness the XVIIth Gyalwa Karmapa, & His Eminence the IVth Jamgon Kongtrul, Lodrö Chökyi Nyima.


"In general, at a precise moment in time, when disciples merit and the Lama's compassion connect with each other, the great and genuine beings will give up one emanation body and appear in another. Once again, disciples will be able to meet face to face with the supreme emanationsand to truly enjoy their portion of the nectar of their Lama's speech." Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Foreword to EMAHO! The Reincarnation of the Third Jamgon Kongtrul, published by Jamgon Kongtrul Labrang, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1998.



May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.

May peace and happiness fully arise for beings  as limitless (in number) as space (is vast in its extent).

Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings without exception

swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.


Transcribed in 1987 and rewritten for visitors of the website of Karma Chang Chub Choepel Ling in Heidelberg by Gaby Hollmann, responsible for any mistakes. Copyright Jamgon Kongtrul Labrang at Pullahari Monastery in Nepal, 2008.