Thursday, May 03, 2007

Taking Refuge

I took Refuge with HE Tsem Tulku Rinpoche on Vesak Day 2007.

Why Refuge
Why take Refuge, many friends - Buddhists and non-Buddhists have asked. The explanation is simple. In order to have opportunities for us to have spiritual growth, we need merits. In order to get merits, we need to do various Dharma activities. One of the ways to earn merits is to hold vows. For example, if we don't lie anyway, we don't get merit, it's neither positive or negative. But if we take a vow not to lie, and we uphold that vow, we earn merits to help us in our spiritual journey.

Missed Refuge
I had wanted to take Refuge when Rinpoche first offered it on Tsongkhapa Day in December 2006. He is not known to give Refuge easily but i had long planned to go skiing in Canada in December.. I was wracked by guilt for months after that perhaps i should have canceled my frivolous trip and stayed to take refuge. After all - what does it say about my priorities? Anyway, on that trip, I had my share of purification, skiing by day and transcribing CDs of Rinpoche's marathon 3 day talk by night. I fell sick by the third day and didn't ski for 3 days. Could barely transcribe even - although Susan and I managed to finish our allocated CDs within the agreed timeframe. But i digress.

So when JT sent an email around a couple of weeks ago to ask if anyone wanted to seek Refuge as Vesak day was coming up, I was quite excited and asked Susan if she wanted to take Refuge too. I felt it was a momentous decision and not one to be taken lightly.

Almost missed Refuge (again)
Ironically, I might have missed this Refuge opportunity too, as a good friend of mine, Pat, had asked me to join her and Adam to go to Tibet. She is based in Shanghai and planned to take the train from Shanghai to Tibet - a journey which would take around 52 hours but go through some amazing scenery. In spring, the views would have been spectacular. We would be gone for about 10 days - right through Vesak day and beyond.

I really wanted to go. I'd always wanted to go to Tibet. I absolutely love travelling with Pat - my dear and completely mad friend, with whom I have had many a memorable vacation. I hadn't spent time with Pat for years. She was stationed in Bangkok for the longest time and I had never made it to visit her - somehow there was never enough time. And now she's moved to Shanghai. So spending 10 days together would have been so great.

I had asked Susan and GL if they wanted to join on this trip. When the trip was first canvassed, Susan was in Ladrang, so it was unlikely that she could get leave - even though Rinpoche had said that as long as each person's duties were covered, they could take leave. Then nothing changes, everything changes - Susan was assigned to KMP (Kechara Media and Publications) so again, I thought maybe she could still come to Tibet. Or maybe I'd go to Tibet without her. After asking GL a few times, I felt that she wasn't really keen either. So when the question of refuge came up, I was glad I didn't commit to go to Tibet after all!

Preparing for Refuge
After shopping for offerings at YMT (Yogini Mystical Treasures in Lot 10), I was very excited and looked forward to Vesak day to seek refuge. However, obstacles always arise as usual - and we heard from JT that actually Rinpoche wasn't granting refuge on Vesak day but that the names of those who were requesting refuge would be submitted to Rinpoche on Vesak day.

I was crestfallen.

Why, why, why can't he grant Refuge on Vesak day? I asked with childish impatience. Because the events of the day was too packed already was the answer. JT said that Rinpoche could grant refuge on the real Vesak day which falls on 31 May. Real Vesak day? You mean this year's is not real? Apparently, Malaysia had decreed that Vesak day be held on May 1st this year while normally it's on 31st. I was quite dumbfounded by this but was quickly resigned to it and took it in my stride.

Vesak Day - Refuge at last
Then on Vesak day - when Rinpoche came to give a Dharma talk in the evening, he said he would grant Refuge that very night! Wow - it was so unexpected. Susan slipped out home to get our offerings and came back in time. Technically speaking, we received Refuge on 2 May as it was already about 1am when we were conferred refuge, but since 1 May wasn't really Vesak day, I guess it didn't really matter!

Rinpoche gave a short talk about Refuge and invited anyone who was present to join in. The initial group of people seeking Refuge were 14 - in the end there were almost double that number. Even a couple who had come to KH for the first time that day came to seek Refuge.

Rinpoche led us through the vows of Refuge - simple common sense rules to life - to not kill, lie, steal, not perform sexual misconduct (hmmm that one's a killer.. sigh) intoxicants (no booze, no drugs... )

When we recited our vows three times, we were granted Refuge, and we were given our Refuge names. Mine was 'Yangchenma'. Most people had two refuge names, Rinpoche said, but mine would be just one. Yangchenma is the Tibetan version of Saraswati - the Goddess of the Arts and Music. Then Rinpoche said add 'Tenzin' in front of 'Yangchenma' - but very small and in parenthesis. So it's like (Tenzin) Yangchenma.

He then gave us the oral transmission or 'lung' of Migtsema and the long and short mantras for Lama Tsongkhapa. Oral transmission is central to the transmission of teachings in the Tibetan tradition. When a prayer is given to a student from a qualified teacher in the form of a direct oral transmission, the benefits of the prayers will be amplified for the practitioner.

From today on, I can say 'I am a Buddhist' with conviction. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So here we go!

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