I have been asked to talk about kyab—refuge—this evening. Refuge – what does the word mean in terms of dharma; and what does dharma mean? Dharma—or chö—means as it is. As it is is actuality, and to ‘take refuge’ means to establish confidence in actuality. As it is is not somewhere safe. It is not a place to escape or hide away. Taking refuge in the the three jewels1—Buddha, dharma and sangha—means to rely on the as it is-ness of the Buddha – the realised exemplar of actuality; the dharma – the expression of actuality; and the sangha – those who aspire to experience actuality.
Having the motivation or intent to discover authentic nature is the beginning. It is the approach to establishing confidence in actuality. To ‘take refuge’ is not to seek safety and assurances – but to accept the life of a vagrant. It is to acknowledge that any form of security is illusory. The pursuit of security is the root of our dualistic dilemma. To live this view in every moment is the goal of practice – but to begin, we need to feel this issue of security and insecurity in a way that makes a difference to our lives. We have to become suspicious of our need for security.
Having this feeling—this felt-knowledge that the need for security is problematic—is the point at which we can say that we have begun our approach to establishing confidence in actuality. Kyab—the rite of passage—is therefore the act of becoming or recognising ourselves as practitioners. Traditionally this establishment of confidence is authenticated or confirmed in the presence of a Lama.
The Lama in question must be one who perceives that we already have this confidence. The authentication is an externally performed symbol—in the form of a rite—in which we are welcomed into the family of those who are shedding the illusion of duality. The idea of the rite is that our budding internal confidence is sealed and directed through making a physical, external, verbal statement of intent.
Some people seem to have the idea that the ‘refuge ceremony’ confers some kind of understanding in itself.
Some people imagine that ‘refuge’ is a form of Buddhist baptism after which they can say
I’m a Buddhist.
This however, is not possible.
You cannot become a Buddhist.
Only a Buddhist can become a Buddhist.
You can only become a Buddhist by being a Buddhist – and that is only feasible if you understand what it means
in terms of experience.
Not everyone who has taken refuge in a ceremony can be accurately described as being a Buddhist.
It is not feasible—from a Buddhist point of view—that you can become a Buddhist merely by playing a
passive rôle in a ceremony.
No matter how exotic or emotional the ceremony may be – you either gain an understanding that inspires
you to seal your intent … or you misunderstand.
Becoming a Buddhist is a process of continually becoming a Buddhist – of continually breaking through limitations and conditioned perception.
It could be that there are people who have not taken refuge in a ceremony who are more authentically Buddhist than some of those who have. Certainly, those who engage in sectarian dispute cannot accurately be described as Buddhists – no matter how many teachings they have received.
The establishment of confidence in actuality is essentially a realisation. It is the point at which we come to the firm decision that this particular path makes sense. This is a decision that cannot be based on emotionalism. Loneliness, desperation, fashion, ambition, hope or fear – are worthless as a basis for kyab. Kyab can only be based on the confidence that arises from personal experience. Having established confidence, we commit ourselves to openness. We are committed to the practice of meditation and committed to death. When we commit ourselves to practice and to opening, we commit ourselves to change – and when we change, we die. We have to die in order to change. If we cannot die we cannot change. This is a simple, blunt, uncompromising statement of fact.
Dying means letting go of self-image and self-conception. We have to let go of what we are and open ourselves to what we can un-become. From a Buddhist point of view it is unbecoming not to un-become. In order to un-become, we must let go of security and find the security of insecurity. We must discover the freedom of insecurity in which security and insecurity dance as nondual display. Anyone who has spent more than a week in retreat will understand quite well what it means to die in the way I am describing. If we cannot let our past preconceptions die we have no future, and cannot experience the present. Unless we can die, we cannot be alive in the moment – and the moment is all we ever have.
To discover life therefore—and to escape the pseudo-death we usually lead—is the meaning of kyab: of establishing confidence in actuality. Through the rite of authentication, intention is sealed and charged with the power of the Buddhist Tradition. You repeat the formulaic phrasing of kyab—after the Lama—and then you are given a new name. The Lama is offered a gift as a token of one’s measure of commitment – of one’s gratitude for their having facilitated this wonderful situation. Then we continue in the practice. The practice is the rest of your life.
If what we give is of little value, then what we have received—or what we imagine we have received—will be of little value. The Lama does not grade people on the worth of their gifts, because the gift is not a payment. The teachings are beyond price in any case. The teachings are so expensive that they must be given away. This is a matter of attitude, and our actions indicate our attitude. If we hand over a symbolic flower purloined from someone’s front garden on the way to the refuge ceremony, then that means what it means. If we hand over a nominal sum – and the next day buy something for twice that sum merely because we like it rather than because we need it … that also means what it means. We can be absolutely sure that the Lama will teach us whatever we give – because our state of mind is where we have to start. Now I must point out that the other extreme can be equally as unskilful. If we give too much and in so doing cause ourselves problems – this also indicates that we are unbalanced in some way. For instance I gave Lama Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche my warm woollen ngakpa2 waistcoat as a gift – and shivered for a month afterwards because I had little money and no other clothes to wear.
I could have given something more practical, such as helping to repair his roof rather than leaving it to the people he had paid to repair it. I could have saved him some money – but the idea did not occur to me until later.
So what sort of gift should we give? How do we estimate what we give? Fortunately that is not so difficult – because there are comparisons we can make with regard to everyday life. With new lovers we seem to know how much to spend. We tighten our belts a little. We go without something ourselves. This kind of gift means something because it reflects our knowledge of what is valuable.
So when we make a gift we should think about what the Lama could use at the practical material level to make his or her external circumstances easier. I would be happy if people would remember this when next they meet a realised master. From my side … I feel I should probably present you gifts for enabling me to learn new ways of explaining. You have certainly all been patient with my verbal indulgences.