When we do prostrations we first begin by thinking over each of the Four Reminders of Buddhist Practice. The first reminder is our precious human birth. We have to think about how difficult it is to obtain a human life and how easy it is to lose this life. The second reminder concerns death and impermanence. For this we remember of five different ways that everything is impermanent. After this, we think about the third reminder concerning karma and how actions will have specific consequences. With this contemplation we realize that it's very important to do what is virtuous and give up what is unvirtuous. Finally, we think of all suffering of samsara and this gives us a very strong wish to gain liberation.
We should first understand what it really means to take refuge, what the purpose of refuge is, and what are the benefits we can expect from taking refuge. Ordinarily when we encounter pain, suffering, or fear, we wonder where we can look for protection against these. Sometimes we will look for this from our parents. Or we will look for this in worldly affairs. But these are not the answer because they can only help us for a short time.
Only the three jewels of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha can protect us from pain and help us gain liberation. They are the only thing that can really protect us and they can help us in ways others cannot do. The reason other beings cannot help us avoid suffering and truly protect us is that they themselves have no control over their own suffering and have not reached liberation themselves. So only the three jewels are in a position to truly help us. This is why we take refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.
But how do we take refuge in them? Do we think of them as the ones who can give us liberation and cure our suffering? No, we cannot expect them to do this for us because our liberation depends on us. We do, however, need someone to show us the way, that being the Buddha who is our guide. We need a path and this is the dharma. We also need friends to help us on the path and this is the sangha. This is why we take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and sangha.
To this three-fold general refuge there are three more refuges that are added in the vajrayana tradition. These are known as the three roots. The first root is the lama who is the root of blessing. He or she is the one who shows us the path and gives us blessing. In general, the Buddha can do this, but we cannot meet the Buddha so we have to rely on the lama to do that for us. We are able to meet a root guru and receive the teachings from him or her. So, as far as we are concerned, all of the Buddha's teachings and all his blessings come to us through the root guru. He has the power to give us this and this is why we take refuge in the lama for the root of blessing in the vajrayana.
The second root of the refuge is the root of spiritual accomplishments which is the yidam. In general, we take refuge in the dharma as being the path through which we can achieve the ultimate fruition and in this way accomplish all the positive qualities. In the profound vajrayana practice we take refuge in the dharma and we practice the dharma, but we do this in a particular form by practicing yidam meditation. We practice yidam meditation both in the visualizing stage and the completion stage. Through this our ability to meditate gradually increases and becomes better and better.
With yidam practice we will be able to achieve the ordinary spiritual accomplishments which are qualities such as clairvoyance and various forms of deeper understanding in the short term. In the long term, we will be able to achieve the supreme spiritual accomplishment which is Buddhahood. So the yidam can help us achieve the ultimate fruition. Outwardly taking refuge in the yidam means we choose to commit ourselves to that particular practice. And once we've committed ourselves to that, we are going to work on it until it brings us to the ultimate goal of enlightenment. This is why we take refuge in the yidam in the vajrayana.
The third root of refuge is the root of activity which corresponds to the protectors, the dakas, and the dakinis. Generally, we take refuge in the sangha as our companions on the path. These companions are important because they are the ones who help us follow the path correctly. They can stop us from falling into an incorrect path and thus remove the obstacles that might arise on our path. If we become too involved with pleasures, or meet with difficult circumstances, they can help us to avoid these difficulties in practice. They therefore make it easier for us to follow the true path.
The other aspects of the sangha are the dharma protectors, dakas, and dakinis. We cannot see them directly, but they are the ones who can remove those subtle obstacles that might interrupt our life prematurely or cause difficulties for our body and mind. They will also eliminate obstacles that would interrupt our dharma activity. So in the vajrayana they constitute one aspect of the sangha and we therefore take refuge in the protectors and dakas and dakinis as the root of Buddha activity.
All the refuges are included in the three jewels and the three roots. But one could say that all these aspects are already contained in the three jewels in the form of the teacher, the path and the companions. They give us the blessings, the spiritual accomplishments, and remove the obstacles. But we could argue also that all these various aspects are contained within the guru (Tib. Lama). He, after all, is the one who can perform these functions for us. So it is said that the guru embodies all the aspects of the refuge.
In summary, we can say there are six sources of refuge, but more concisely there are three sources of refuge or still more concisely there is one refuge, the guru who embodies all the other aspects. A more detailed explanation of refuge can be found in Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation which has a full explanation of the purpose of refuge, the source of refuge, and the benefits of practice that come from taking refuge.
Taking refuge in the practice
The taking of refuge in prostration practice involves creating the following visualization while reciting, "In front of me is a lake and in the middle of the lake is the great wishfulfilling tree…" So one imagines all the things that are described in this recitation and takes refuge in the six sources of refuge. In the center is the root guru and then in the east, west, south, north and below are the five other aspects of refuge. One takes refuge physically, verbally, and mentally. Physically one does prostrations, verbally one recites the refuge prayer, and mentally one visualizes the refuge tree. One also develops the three aspects of faith: faith of listening, faith of aspiration, and faith of confidence. One prays that all the aspects of refuge which are the body, speech, mind, quality, and action of the Buddha which will be born in one. So with this confidence one takes refuge in the six aspects of refuge.
Taking refuge is immediately followed by taking of the vow of bodhichitta. One generates the wish to reach Buddhahood for the sake of all beings. One thinks that whatever one is going to do, whether it be the taking of refuge or any subsequent practice, one will do it to reach Buddhahood in order to help all other beings reach enlightenment. So the second aspect of this practice is the resolution to reach enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The text says, "Just as the buddhas of the past first generated bodhichitta and progressed stage by stage through the different levels of the bodhisattva training, so in the same way, I also generate the bodhochitta for the good of all beings. I will also progressively practice that same training." This means that we are following the examples of all the buddhas of the past who at one time set their mind on reaching perfect enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Similarly, we are saying we are making the same commitment by going through the five paths of accumulation, junction, insight, cultivation, and accomplishing Buddhahood. At each of these levels the Buddhas did certain practices, behaved in a certain way, and performed certain actions to achieve enlightenment for the sake of other beings. When we make this same commitment, we think that from today onwards, we are going to try to act in the same way as all the buddhas did to achieve enlightenment. Once this is done all our actions become a cause for enlightenment. This is why we take the bodhisattva's vow every day after we have taken refuge to renew this commitment.
After the bodhisattva vow we say, "Now my life is fruitful. I have truly achieved human existence. I rejoice." Why do we rejoice? We rejoice because we have taken refuge and made a commitment to reach Buddhahood for the sake of all beings. Once we have done this, everything we do becomes meaningful. We know that all our actions are beneficial, deeply meaningful, and once we have acknowledged this, we rejoice.
Why is it important to rejoice? If we do not really appreciate the value of what we are doing and are not happy about it, then when difficulties arise we may regret having taken the bodhisattva commitment. If we are not really truly aware of the goodness of what we are doing then when difficulties arise, little by little our enthusiasm for the practice, our faith, and our diligence will decrease. However, if we rejoice in the goodness of what we are doing, we will be aware of just how valuable our practice is and we be very happy. Once we are in this state of mind, then whatever we are doing can only get better. We will want to do it more and more. It is not suitable to regret good things that one has done or are going to do. So the importance of rejoicing is that it will reinforce our interest in the practice and our desire to practice.
We should also invite other beings to rejoice in what we are doing. We are taking this commitment not on our own but in front of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, deities, great sages, and realized beings. So we are asking them to witness our oath. They are witnessing this so that once we have taken this promise, we know that we can't go back on it. We have to keep the promise very carefully and it would be really wrong to go against it. That is why we take this oath in the presence of so many witnesses in the practice.
The Visualization Stage
In the beginning of this practice we have to imagine the refuge tree and visualize all the deities in this visualization stage of the practice. This is the stage when we visualize things, we imagine things. In the final stage of the practice there is the completion stage when everything is dissolved into voidness. The practice of visualizing something in a creation stage and later dissolving it in the completion stage is done in almost all vajrayana practices.
We visualize the central branch of the refuge tree. Above the central branch is the lineage of the lamas. On this central branch is Vajradhara (Tib. Dorje Chang) who is on a moon disk which is on a lotus. The text says Vajradhara sits on a sun and a moon because these two represent the union of skillful means (upaya) and understanding (prajna). However, in the instructions that are given in some books the sun is not mentioned, just the moon. So one can visualize either the sun and the moon or just the moon.
On the eastern branch (that is coming towards us) we visualize all the yidams. We can imagine the main yidam as being whoever we feel the most faith in or are most comfortable with. We imagine this yidam in the center surrounded by all the other yidams. For example, we can imagine in the center Dorje Palmo (Vajrayogini) or Drolma (Tara) surrounded by all the other yidams.
On the right branch (by this we mean the right of Dorje Chang which is actually our left) is the Buddha. He is sitting on a lion's throne which is on a lotus and a moon disk. This is the Sakyamuni Buddha and he is surrounded by all the other buddhas. When we visualize Buddha Sakyamuni, we imagine him as having this special crown on top of his head and the wheel of dharma (dharmacakra) on the soles of his feet. In general, it means we imagine him with all the special marks and signs of a Buddha. If we cannot imagine a whole lot of buddhas around him, we can just visualize the Buddha by himself.
On the branch behind the tree, we imagine the dharma. By dharma we mean the realization of all the realized beings, that is the direct understanding of the true nature of phenomena. But since we have to visualize something, we visualizing books which contain the teachings of the Buddha. We imagine books of the sutras and the tantras and imagine them with letters, making their own sound so that each letter in the book actually resonates. So we can hear the sound of all the letters.
On the left (our right) branch are the three kinds of protectors representing the sangha. The sangha of the bodhisattvas are mainly Manjushri, the bodhisattva embodying perfect knowledge; Vajrapani, the bodhisattva embodying compassion and love to help all beings; and Shariputra representing the hinayana sangha.
On the branch below the yidams and lamas we imagine Mahakala in the center surrounded by all the other protectors. So in the front of the refuge tree we see the lamas, then below this the yidams, and below this the protectors. These three represent the three roots or the us are as many beings as can fit in all of space. In particular, we visualize our enemies and people who are causing us difficulties and troubles. We then visualize that all of these are together taking refuge and committing themselves to reach enlightenment for the sake of all beings. We are acting as the leader of all other beings when we are taking this refuge and generating bodhicitta motivation.
At the end of these prayers and meditatione say, "Finally the sources of refuge dissolve into light and fuse into me." Then we imagine that all of this has become one with us and that everything, oneself and the sources of refuge, dissolves into voidness, and practice tranquility meditation without thinking of anything in particular. Just letting our mind rest in voidness.
At the end, we then imagine that everything that was visualized in front of us dissolves into light and that this light is absorbed into us. At that point, we think that all the blessings of body, speech, and mind of all the buddhas are inseparable from us. We think that our mind and the mind of all these sources of refuge have become indivisible, inseparably merged. We have to have a very strong conviction that our mind and their mind is one. If we are convinced of this, it will change our mind. We will really feel something different and this is what makes meditation very clear. This is why it isv ery necessary to meditate with this conviction and this process is what is called the completion stage of meditation.
Presently, we are reciting all these prayers in Tibetan because these Tibetan words are loaded with very many blessings caused by many, many lamas having practiced these texts. So the words convey all the lama's blessings. A similar thing happened in Tibet at the beginning of the spreading of dharma there. The old mantras that came from India were in Sanskrit and they were not translated into Tibetan. This could have been done, but it was felt that the words had a special power of blessing because they had been recited by so many beings who had achieved realization in this way that they contained so much blessing. This was why the mantras such as "OM AH HUN" or "OM TARA TUT TARA TURE SVAHA".
Although we recite them in Tibetan, we should study their meaning in English so that we can understand the meaning of our practice. However, when we recite the text, we receive the blessing from the words themselves. Sometimes in the future, when people have achieved realization in the English context of practice, then at that time the English words will also be full of blessing and we can then use English in our practice. We should try to study these prayers when we are by ourselves. What we can do is take the phonetic transcription and see what part of the English text corresponds to what Tibetan words and try to understand the meaning of what we are doing so that once we begin reciting it in Tibetan we know the meaning of the words and exactly what these words are describing.