When I Took Refuge Vows (a look back)

When I Took Refuge Vows (a look back) December 11, 2017

This story takes place in 2009.

We sat in the upstairs shrine room. My best friend since childhood, the other Daniel, had come with me. It was the two of us and a room full of strangers. I hadn’t really been going to the Rime Center long enough to make friends or even acquaintances, really. But I wanted to take Refuge Vows anyway. I had been studying and practicing Buddhism on my own for years before I first set foot in a Buddhist temple.

I had done some research. I knew that taking refuge would mean an initiation ceremony, a rite of passage, where I would have a real and clear connection to the teachings and history of Buddhism. After taking these vows I wouldn’t be a guy that was interested in Buddhism anymore. I would be a Buddhist.

To take refuge is to strive for freedom.

We take refuge in the Buddha as our example.

We take refuge in the Dharma as our journey.

We take refuge in the Sangha as our companionship.


Taking refuge is about transformation. We want to transform into the best possible versions of ourselves. We want to renounce the suffering and delusion that is present in our lives. Through our meditation practice we can see how suffering can be transcended.

Taking refuge is seeking shelter.

Buddha: the Buddha is our example. We can  realize our Buddha nature, as he did, and find inner peace. He realized the middle way and abandoned extremes. He worked on himself in a way that we can emulate. We are worthy and we can do the same thing. We are capable of becoming awake.

Dharma: The Buddhist path becomes our journey. This is where we are dedicated to understanding and trusting the path that we are on. We want to reverse the course of ordinary suffering and attain freedom from it.

Sangha: friendship with brothers and sisters in the dharma. Sitting and practicing together is the best friendship. These are true friends. We want to enter the community without reservation and to be harmonious.

This was the big step that we were taking.

And I knew we were going to get red strings to tie around our wrists and cool Buddhist names too, which was exciting in itself. I really hoped I’d get a cool name. 

Anyway, we sat in the little shrine room on red zafus, meditation cushions. It was August and it was hot in there. It would be a few more years before air conditioning would be installed in the Rime Center, so suffering in the heat was an added bonus to the ceremony.

The lama (an old white guy, btw) sat on a cushion facing us. He was wearing maroon robes with a shawl draped over himself. He must have been uncomfortable. He had a handkerchief like my dad used to carry and he used it once in a while to wipe sweat off his forehead. Did I mention it was hot in there? Behind him there was a table with various Buddhist statues and such, a little shrine.

We were given white envelopes when we entered. The plan was to give dana, or donations, to the lama at the end of the ceremony. But they were in white envelopes, so he wouldn’t know who gave how much or who gave none at all. I put a five dollar bill in mine. I think my friend the other Daniel put in substantially more.

He lead us in some full body prostrations. You have to bow to the statue in exactly the right way, you know, or else taking refuge doesn’t count. Then there was chanting. We chanted something along the lines of: “In the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha I go for refuge until enlightenment is reached.” And we chanted the Four Immeasurables too: “May all beings be endowed with happiness, may all beings be free from suffering, may all beings never be separated from happiness, and may all beings abide in equanimity undisturbed by the eight worldly concerns.”

Then we meditated for a while and did some more bows.

The lama had us walk up, one by one, and he would clip a little of our hair. This was symbolism, representing the way monks shave their heads. He gave us these read strings to tie around our wrists. They represent the vows and also, in the Tibetan tradition, they are considered to be a source of magical protection. I don’t believe in that stuff, but I like the way the red string feels, so I wear it. In ancient times they gave out strings too, but they would fall apart after a while. What a great lesson in impermanence. Now we have synthetic fabrics. Theoretically these strings can last forever. I still have mine. 

Then the time came and he handed out yellow cards. So great that we received membership certificates in Buddhism. I was going to find out my name and I was super excited. Of course, they were decided randomly.

The lama said, “Karma has a way of making sure you get the right name.”

I thought that sounded like superstitious nonsense. But I was ready.

The little yellow card had a picture of the Buddha on the front. I flipped over my card. At the top it had a small picture of Chenrezig. At the bottom was my name and the date. My Buddhist name was “Kalsang Dakpa”. It means Good Fortune and Fame. Daniel turned and showed me his card. His name was “Karma Dakpa,” Star and Fame. We had the same name again, as we always had. Dakpa. And, if the lama was to be believed and karma gave us the right names, then we were destined for fame and fortune.

The other Daniel is a Pagan Unitarian or something. All religions are true, or something like that. I’ve never understood. But the point is that he wasn’t really going to run headlong into Buddhism. He was just adding it to an ever-growing spiritual toolbox that he has. He had previously been initiated into Reiki practice and a few years later he would be initiated into Freemasonry and add that to his toolbox too. That one would mean a lot more to him than Buddhism.

But to me it meant everything.

Kalsang Dakpa.

I was going to be a Buddhist rock star. Or Legend. Or something.

Later I’d get another Buddhist name. Later, still another. New names are kind of a big deal in Buddhism. I’d rather just be Daniel.

We gave our little envelopes and left. Again, we didn’t really know anyone. I’m pretty introverted, so the thought of lingering sounded like madness to me.

After taking refuge vows we went to some dive bar I had never been to and knocked back Guinness for the rest of the afternoon and talked about some bullshit or another. It was a great day.


 Daniel Scharpenburg is a meditation instructor and dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world. Find out more about Daniel on his website and connect with him on Facebook.




Dharma Talk: Confidence in Mind, Daily Dharma Gathering, online 7-7:30pm


I’m volunteering at Harvesters with the Rime Buddhist Center from 10am-noon. Message me if you want to come help out.

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