The first point is acceptance--you must have trust. This trust also has three classifications. The first is clear, open trust. Clear, open trust is based on the knowledge that the possibility of receiving the vow in an unbroken transmission is very rare. Because it is an unbroken transmission, it is very precious as well. Therefore, you have gratitude toward the master who is providing this refuge and feel very fortunate. That feeling of being fortunate is the open trust, or clear trust.
The second aspect is the trust of desire, or longing trust. Longing trust is based on knowing that not only do you want to obtain the refuge, but your goal is to practice. You want to accomplish and perfect the path. That whole aim in obtaining the refuge is longing, or desire to perfect yourself. You have a desire to eliminate all your confusion, mistakes, and obscurations and develop the qualities of wisdom and enlightenment; this is longing trust.
Finally, there is believing trust. Believing trust is defined in this way: you want to perfect enlightenment, eliminating the obscuration or confusion of the mind, but to do so, you have to have knowledge to trust the tradition. To trust that tradition, you learn and understand that all the enlightened beings in the past in India and in Tibet have practiced this particular tradition. Practicing this tradition, they reached what is known as the mahasiddha level, the accomplishment of enlightenment. The point here is that all the uncountable enlightened beings that we talk about (of India or Tibet) have practiced this particular path and reached its goal. Therefore, you have a trust in the path, a trust in the practice itself. It has not only been given to you--it has been widely practiced. Therefore, the last type or trust is believing in the path, the practice itself. Developing these three kinds of trust is essential.

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.