Posted by: mkl325 | June 7, 2013

Taking Refuge

The main purpose of my visit to Samye Ling was in order to take Refuge. The phrase “Taking Refuge” is used to describe the way in which a person formally commits to Buddhism. For the past six years I have been reading about Buddhism and meditating on my own, and felt that I had been doing fine with that. However, when I was in Italy this past March I began to realize how much I missed the sense of community that I had grown up with. I decided it was time to officially commit to the Buddhist community, so when I returned home I did some research, found Samye Ling and planned my trip out.

Although I was excited about the ceremony, I was becoming increasingly nervous as the time drew near. It is one thing to navigate some sort of spiritual path on your own, it something completely different to put yourself into a group of people that have been studying for years together, and have a greater understanding of what they are doing. From the very first moment that I stepped onto the grounds, the people I met made me feel instantly welcomed. There was not a moment where I felt like an outsider. At dinner I met David who took me around the grounds of the center and walked me through EVERYTHING. He explained the stories of Guru Rinpoche, Nagarjuna as well as the different aspects of the art, architecture and even explained the different elements of the Refuge ceremony. Learning more about the lineage I was stepping into helped calm my nerves about participating in the ceremony, whether I was ready or not, or if this community was right for me. We talked about the different deities, the importance of the Karmapa, Buddhism as a Socratic religion and he explained some of the chants and rituals to me (I had only ever done silent meditation so I had no idea of how to meditate with chants). My contribution to the conversation, of course, led me back to Dr. Who – no matter the location I am always a sci-fi nerd, I felt my sister would have been proud.

The ceremony itself took place after an explanation of Taking Refuge by Gelong Thubten, one of the monks at the center and Akong Rinpoche’s assistant. Once the six of us who had come for refuge were prepared, we headed up to Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s home for the ceremony. Meeting Akong Rinpoche was daunting in of itself but to be receiving Refuge from him was incredibly so. Akong Rinpoche is a Tulku, a recognized reincarnated Lama. Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche is the reincarnation of the 1st Akong, the Abbot of Dolma Lhakang monastery in Tibet. He was discovered at age two by monks following instructions of the 16th Karmapa. In 1959, both Akong and his younger brother, Lama Yeshe, were part of a group of 300 that were fleeing Tibet for India. Akong Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe were among the 13 of that party that survived. He and Lama Yeshe were the ones that established Samye Ling, and he has also helped found ROKPA International, an international humanitarian organization. He is an incredibly kind and funny man, and it was an honor to be around him.

Akong Rinpoche (left) and Lama Yeshe (right). Photo courtesy of Samye Ling.

Akong Rinpoche (left) and Lama Yeshe (right). Photo courtesy of Samye Ling.

The ceremony began after we were settled and Rinpoche had answered some questions. Rinpoche and Gelong Thubten opened the ceremony with a Tibetan chant. Then, as a group, the six of us repeated a request for Refuge, in English and Tibetan, after Rinpoche. These are the vows we take to take refuge in and abide by the Three Jewels, the Three Roots, and the Five Precepts.

The Three Jewels…

  1. The Buddha – This refers to the Buddha nature as well as the historical Buddha, who is used as an example for those striving for enlightenment.
  2. The Dharma – The teachings of the Buddha, which are the path to Enlightenment.
  3. The Sangha – The community of practicing Buddhists, who aid in the path to Enlightenment.

The Three Roots…

  1. The Gurus/ Lamas – Your teacher and your guide along the path to Enlightenment.
  2. The Yidams – These are the deities that you use for meditation. It is a reflection of awakening, and therefore reflects whatever each individual practitioner requires to awaken.
  3. The Protectors – The enlightened energy that is the root of action or the enlightened activity of realized beings.

The Five Precepts…

  1. To refrain from harming living creatures
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct
  4. To refrain from false speech
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness

One by one we came in front of Rinpoche. When it came to my turn, both of my legs had fallen asleep (I was definitely not used to sitting like that for so long) but thankfully I was already pretty much directly in front of Rinpoche, so  I didn’t make a complete ass out of myself. Kneeling in front of Rinpoche, he cut a millimeter of hair from the crown of my head; this is a symbol of your new commitment to Buddhism. Afterwards, he anointed my head with consecrated water and gave me my Dharma name. He then touched the crown of my head with blessed objects and I returned to my spot. My Dharma name is “Karma Noryang Lhamo”. Everyone in the Karma Kagyu tradition receives the name Karma, in order to identify the lineage, but Noryang Lhamo can be translated as either “Goddess of Wealth and Melody” or “Melodious Jewel Goddess”. Your name is decided for you based on Karma. Rinpoche had two stacks of cards with names on them, one with female names and the other with male names. It was meant to be that you are in that particular spot in line at that particular time in order to receive your name. We then repeated our vows with our new name and we were officially Buddhist practitioners in the Karma Kagyu tradition. I presented a white Kata (scarf) to Rinpoche who blessed it and placed it around my neck.

Over the next couple of days I took part in the group meditations, two empowerment ceremonies, as well as the birthday celebrations for Lama Yeshe’s 70th birthday (all of which I hope to explain in later posts, if I have time). I even had a few people ask me if I was “the American girl who came to take Refuge” and was constantly told by people I just met how excited they were for me and to welcome me into their community. When it came time for me to leave Samye Ling, it felt as though I was leaving home all over again. On that first day, David compared the experience of Samye Ling to a traditional Vietnamese way of washing potatoes. They are all thrown into a large barrel of water and stirred with a stick, causing them to crash into each other and knock all the dirt off. I love this analogy because it explains perfectly how this experience felt. It was a lot to take in, and a lot to learn, but at the end of it I felt like a better version of myself and had gone through it with an amazing group of people.

Tokens from the Refuge Ceremony: The Kata, refuge bracelet, prayers, Dharma name card, and a picture of Akong Rinpoche with the Karmapa.

Tokens from the Refuge Ceremony: The Kata, refuge bracelet, prayers, Dharma name card, and a picture of Akong Rinpoche with the Karmapa.



  1. a very sad day ….
    A great Blessing to have taken refuge with Rinpoche.

    • I am back in the states now and just heard the news this morning. I am completely and utterly shocked by Rinpoche’s assassination. It breaks my heart that such a kind, funny, and compassionate man met such a violent end. I feel very honored to have met him and beyond blessed to have received refuge from him.

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