The second main point is understanding that enlightenment belongs to no particular culture, kind of individual, or gender. Therefore, it is quite a mistaken view to think that enlightenment is only possible for Asian people. It is also a mistaken view to think that enlightenment is only possible for men. As long as an individual has the capacity to understand, that individual, whether from the West or East, male or female, has the capacity for enlightenment. Every individual, regardless of which culture they belong to, has different levels or strengths of neurosis depending upon their individual personality, so some of us have very strong neuroses and while others are weaker in a particular neurotic pattern. Similarly, based on individual effort, some people can achieve enlightenment faster with proper effort, and some of us may not progress so quickly, because we are not putting our effort properly into the path. The goal of those on the path is to attain enlightenment. To actually accomplish this, the first thing we need to do is to lay the proper foundation, and taking refuge is indeed the step that lays the foundation.
To further cultivate the path of enlightenment, we need to meet all the proper conditions, such as having the proper spiritual master who guides us in the proper way of practicing.
Seeking refuge is not new. Beings have often sought refuge in the past as well as at present, but they sought refuge in various unenlightened objects, such as mountains, trees, rocks, rivers, or oceans. Many people have looked to these objects for a refuge, thinking that these things could provide it. As part of nature, they could provide natural energy, but because they are simply part of nature, they could not provide enlightenment. It takes an enlightened being to provide enlightenment, and since the proper guidance with a spiritual master who is fully trained in the path of enlightenment is necessary, meeting such a person is essential to further cultivate the aspiration of walking the path and reaching its goal.
Then you might ask, from who should we seek refuge? The answer is: seek refuge in Buddha, the enlightened being. You may or may not have heard the definition of Buddhahood. In English, the notion of enlightenment sometimes means simply understanding something you have not understood before. We might say, "I was enlightened by this or that explanation or information." This does not convey the meaning of the Tibetan term SANGYE, which means both Buddhahood and Buddha. The two syllables of SANGYE each have a meaning. SANG means elimination or absence. What is being eliminated, or what is absent here, is every neurosis, mental affliction, confusion--all the negative patterns. The second syllable, GYE, means "blossomed" or "fully developed." In the absence of all confusion and mental obscuration, what develops is the mind's potentials and qualities, such as wisdom and knowledge.
Is the development of these qualities temporary?. No, it is permanent. Once you have eliminated all obscuration and fully experienced or realized your own mind's qualities, you are a fully enlightened being. That is what is meant by SANGYE. It does not just mean the historical Buddha of our time (Shakyamuni). SANGYE means the elimination of faults, confusion, and the full development of wisdom qualities--which is to say, Buddhahood.
The refuge vow lays the foundation for all of our spiritual growth as we progress toward enlightenment. That foundation is made possible through the proper mental state or attitude coinciding with the transmission. Also, a gesture of devotion toward that possibility is an important factor in taking refuge. Traditionally, people make offerings such as butter lamps, incense, or a flower as a gesture of devotion and joy in receiving the vow. It is good to make such offerings, because it brings about the accumulation of merit, and is an expression of devotion, which is necessary in receiving refuge. However, if you do not want to do this, there is no obligation at all.
Despite the obligations and demands on our time that we all have, you have taken the time and developed the intention to learn about and understand the process of taking refuge. Developing the intention to take refuge is a very virtuous action, so I would like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for your interest.
Taken from a transcript of a teaching given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche in April, 1990 at KTD. This transcript is available in its entirety from Namse Bangdzo Bookstore.