The Refuge Vow

The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute.

The good news is there’s no ground.

-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche


Things have been hopping here at Gampo Abbey and there is a lot to post about but before I do, I want to make a short note about taking the Refuge Vow. The schedule here is not as strict as one would assume but the two times a day that are unconditional in terms of participation are morning and evening chants.

Morning chants start at 6am and last about 45 minutes, evening starts at 5:30 and last about an hour. The evening is ‘protector’ chant time, lots of supplicating for the health and longevity of the teachers, humanity, the Dharma etc. etc. It involves cymbals and drums and singing and is pretty fun. The morning chants are more of the ‘offering’ nature, dedicating any good deeds that you may accumulate to the benefit of everyone, reciting the Heart Sutra (I’ll probably post on this at some time, I love it), setting your intention for the day etc. Part of that is taking the Refuge Vow and verbally committing to living by the 5 main Precepts (at least while you reside at the Abbey).

I don’t talk much about my practice and I didn’t tell anyone besides my meditation instructor who had to recommend me for it that I took this vow last October. You publicly state that for the remainder of this life, you will ‘take refuge’ in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (The 3 Jewels), or, the example as set by the historical person commonly referred to as the Buddha, the truth of his teachings and the community of people with whom you affiliate your practice with.

The teachings of Buddhism are fairly broad and hard to argue with and everyone needs friends who understand what they are talking about and we all have someone who lives in a good way that sets a personal example of how we should live so it would seem like taking this type of vow would be a no-brainer right? Well, as it turns out, it scared me to no end because I really took it to heart that I was no longer going to rely on all the little tricks I had to avoid unpleasantness. It was stating to myself that the way I was looking at the world, wishing it was different sometimes than wishing for it to stay the same other times, projecting a ‘summary of events’ to wrap up experiences neatly, holding onto a definition of myself and who I am and what I do no matter how much time passes or what changes was not going to be how I lived from now on. And it was terrifying. To not use the filters and schemes to protect from life as it happens, to be totally open, without preconception about my life, it was like I was giving away everything I had learned about how to live. I felt like I was willingly setting myself adrift, getting in a boat and pushing out to sea with no other plan than to work with whatever came up.

Having the good fortune to never being an actual refugee, I can only imagine that this is what it means, and if this tiny step was so terrifying, I really have no conception of the terror of actually having to flee and leave your life up to good will and chance. The Refuge Vow is essentially the first step to being a Buddhist, this declaration to yourself that you are going to follow this path and that when it gets really rough (because it will) you will rely on the 3 Jewels as guidance to keep you on it. And starting each day with a reminder that this is what you’re doing, and these are the people who will help you is pretty great. Instantly it felt familiar, it is how I was raised, to do well, to think of others, to be an active part of a community where you helped out and were helped out.

I don’t think I’ll always do 45 minutes of chanting in the morning but I hope the habit of waking up and setting my intention to live in the present moment lasts.


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