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Taking the Vow of Refuge

The Torch of Certainty, Session 3

 

Monlam Pavilion, Bodhgaya, India

January 4, 2014

 

The slow chant of ‘Karmapa Khyenno’ resounded throughout the Monlam Pavilion, signaling a start to the second day of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s teachings on the Torch of Certainty. Soon the sound of gyaling horns could be heard over the chanting as the Gyalwang Karmapa arrived.

After he made three prostrations to the golden Buddha on the stage, the rest of the sangha followed suit. As ten thousand monks, nuns and laypeople prostrated in perfect synchronicity to the rhythm of a small drum, the visual effect was a reminder of the unity of the sangha, and their single shared purpose in coming together to hear the dharma.

Ten thousand voices then united as one in supplication to the Kagyu lineage masters; in a moment of perfect unity, perfect stillness, the entire gathering offered a mandala to the Gyalwang Karmapa, chanting with a single voice.

The Gyalwang Karmapa urged the packed hall to listen single-pointedly, with utter non-distractedness and not to miss even a single word of the teachings.

Next he guided those gathered through the three incorrect ways of listening, likening the student to being a faulty vessel. The first fault was to be like an upside-down vessel, he said, into which the teachings cannot enter. The second fault was to be like a cracked or leaky vessel, in which, once they have entered, the teachings don’t remain. And the third fault, he explained, was to be like a filthy or poisoned vessel, in which the teachings become contaminated.

He then went on to explain that the remedy for being an upside-down vessel is to consciously pay attention during teachings, not allowing our minds to stray. The remedy for being a leaky vessel is to carefully place and store what we hear in our minds. And finally, he said, the remedy for being a poisoned vessel is to check that we have a pure and stainless motivation.

The Gyalwang Karmapa then picked up where he had left off the previous day with the fundamental topic of refuge. He turned to the objects of refuge, the Three Jewels, once more illustrating their qualities.

He described the first refuge, the Buddha jewel, as the elimination of all darkness and obscuration, and the full blossoming of all light and illumination. The second refuge, which is the dharma jewel, has the connotation of improvement and correction, such as improving or correcting our minds. And the third refuge, the sangha jewel, is a harmonious society with pure discipline; it is a treasury which brings pure attributes to our minds. It is to these three that we turn when we seek refuge from the incurable illness of samsara.

The Gyalwang Karmapa drew a clear distinction between merely going for refuge, such as praying to the three jewels for help in times of need, and taking the actual vow of refuge.

“The refuge vow is an actual promise or commitment—a commitment or promise not to give up taking refuge in the three jewels for the duration of this life or until awakening,” he said.

As the session wound to a close, the Gyalwang Karmapa offered the refuge vow, also known as the upasaka and upasika vow for lay people. All those taking the vow kneeled on their right knees and the Gyalwang Karmapa began chanting; once again, thousands of voices united as one to repeat the liturgy after him and receive the refuge vow.

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