Originally Published in Lion’s Roar on February 15, 2019
Written by Cyndi Lee
When Gelek Rimpoche gave refuge to me in 1990, I didn’t quite realize what had happened. He wasn’t the kind of teacher who made a big deal out of taking refuge.
What I did know was that Rimpoche was kind, and that when I was around him, I thought, “I’ll have what he’s having.” What he was having is what he was giving: straightforward teachings about profound experiences that are available to all of us. He told us that we could dedicate our lives to the benefit of all beings, that we could become awakened in this lifetime. My friends who’d introduced me to Rimpoche, all of whom were his students, were people I greatly admired and trusted. Why shouldn’t I believe what he was teaching?
Rimpoche had not just given me confidence in him. He had also given me confidence, in his subtle and skillful way, in the sangha (the community), and the teachings that they all sought to live by (the dharma). Without knowing it, I had taken refuge in Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Taking refuge is both a sort of Buddhist rite of passage (the first time) and something a Buddhist might do again and again throughout her life and practice. Many years later, my life fell apart, and Rimpoche held me close as I cried on his chest like a little child sobbing in her mother’s arms. As I gathered myself together, he said matter-of-factly, “You know, this is just samsara. You can’t take it personally.” Rimpoche may have been my refuge, but that didn’t mean he was going to let me wallow in my own suffering. He was showing me that I had to be my own refuge, too.