Tibetan Buddhism has such a unifying symbol, known variously as a Refuge assembly, Field of Merit, or Refuge Tree. It is known as a Refuge assembly because it is a visualized gathering of figures representing the three Refuges.
It is known as a Field of Merit because by visualizing a great array of Enlightened figures and then making offerings to them, and by performing other skillful actions, such as committing oneself to the Bodhisattva path in their presence, one gains for oneself a great deal of positive benefit.
The Tantra takes this to its logical conclusion. When performed with faith and devotion, it sees no inherent difference between making offerings to a hundred Buddhas visualized in meditation and doing so in the outer world.
It is known as a Refuge Tree because the assembly is often visualized seated upon a vast lotus flower, with many branches at different levels.
It is possible to visualize a Refuge Tree with any yidam at its center. Whichever yidam you are concentrating on, you can build up a visualization of all the Refuges with that figure as the central focus. It is even possible to perform a condensed version of the meditation by visualizing just the central figure while maintaining the firm conviction that it is the embodiment of all the Refuges. This figure is sometimes called the samgrahakaya or ‘comprehensive body’, as it is the synthesis of all objects of Refuge.
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Tibetan Buddhism and Refuge Tree
The general appearance of the Refuge Tree is similar for all schools of Tibetan Buddhism – all the Refuges, exoteric and esoteric, are ranged in the sky around a central figure who is understood to embody them all.
However, each school has one or more forms of Refuge Tree, each of which synthesizes all their main teachers and lineages of meditation practice.
It is as though each school had gone to its treasury of spiritual practice and laid out its finest jewels on display in the sky as well as embodiments of the exoteric Refuges, there are its greatest scholars and yogins, the yidams whose meditations are most central to it, and the dakinis and dharmapalas with whom it has a special connection.
visualization of the Refuge Tree
To visualize such an assembly, perhaps including hundreds of figures or even to see a well-executed thangka of it, can be quite breathtaking. The sheer number of figures, their richness and variety, and the feeling of the different aspects of the Dharma they embody and express, can have a profound effect on the mind.
Each Refuge assembly is both individual and universal. It is a vehicle through which a Tibetan Buddhist can develop faith and appreciation for the particular school of practice that he or she has joined, and its distinctive traditions of spiritual practice.
At the same time, each assembly includes figures representing all the Refuges, both exoteric and esoteric. Thus, although they may depict different figures, each Refuge Tree is a complete symbol of all the aspects of the human psyche raised to the highest pitch of perfection. Within each assembly, all our energies are illuminated by the golden rays of Enlightenment and find themselves included in one great harmony.
As a paradigm for the Refuge Tree, we shall look at the Nyingma version, and then go on to consider the differences in emphasis in some of the other schools. We shall also consider the meditational contexts in which these vast assemblies are visualized and, finally, reflect on how they may develop further in the West.
The Nyingma Refuge Tree
For the last time, we shall enter the vast blue sky of sunyata, allowing ourselves to let go of worries and concerns, to drop all limiting concepts, and to expand into the freedom of the unchained mind.
In the midst of that vast blueness appears a cloud made of rainbow light, pouring its rays into the surrounding sky. Out of this multicolored cloud grows the stem of a great white lotus flower. Seated on the lotus, his body blazing with light, is Guru Padmasambhava the source of the Nyingma tradition.
He is dressed as a king of Zahor, wearing the three royal robes, holding a golden vajra and a brimming skull cup, and with his khatvanga in the crook of his left arm. The only differences here are that he is seated cross-legged in the vajra posture, and his right-hand does not rest on his right knee but clasps the vajra to his heart.
Growing out from the central lotus towards the four cardinal points are four more lotuses. On the lotus closest to us, in front of Padmasambhava, is a great assembly of Buddhas of the three times – past, present, and future. At their head is Sakyamuni, the Buddha of our own age.
He is flanked by Dlpankara and Maitreya. Dlpankara was the Buddha who, long ago, predicted that Sakyamuni would gain Perfect Enlightenment.
He is usually depicted in monastic robes and wearing a pandit’s cap. Maitreya is the Buddha who will rediscover the path to Enlightenment after the teaching of Sakyamuni has died away.
On the lotus furthest away from us, beyond Padmasambhava, is a great heap of books of the Dharma: sutras, tantras, and commentaries. They are all wrapped in precious silks, and radiate light and the sound of the Dharma in the form of teaching and mantras.
On the lotus to the left of Padmasambhava as we look at it is a great assembly of Bodhisattvas. They are all young and attractive, dressed like Indian princes and princesses, wearing the jewels and silks that symbolize the beauty of their practice of generosity and the other Perfections.
Fig: Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri
On the lotus to our right are the great arhats, the enlightened disciples of the Buddha. They are of various ages, dressed in yellow monastic robes, and each holds a begging-bowl and the wanderer’s staff. They are headed by Sakyamuni Buddha’s chief monastic disciples, such as Sariputra, Maudgalyayana, Mahakasyapa, and Ananda. The Buddhas of the three times, books of the Dharma, Bodhisattvas, and arhats are the embodiments of the Three Jewels in their exoteric form.
However, there are yet more figures. The great white lotus on which Padmasambhava sits has three tiers of lotus petals, on which the esoteric Refuges appear in brilliant ranks. On the tier immediately below Padmasambhava sit the great gurus. The usual practice is to have on this tier those teachers with whom one has a personal connection, by dint of having received teaching or initiation from them. Then in the sky around Padmasambhava appear the gurus of the past, especially those who preserved and transmitted the teachings that one practice.
So we see a great assembly of saintly monks, scholars in pandit’s caps, wild-looking yogins, and other people through whose practice and efforts the Dharma has come down to us. Each of them, out of immense kindness, has become an embodiment of the Dharma in their own lives and made sure that the treasures of Buddhism would be preserved for future generations. They are the living links, forming the golden chain which connects us to the Buddha – a chain that has continued unbroken for two-and-a-half millennia.
On the next tier of the white lotus, below the gurus, appear the great yidams of the four classes of Tantra. These include one or two of the figures, as well as some other yidams specific to the Nyingma tradition. The figures of the Highest Tantra are mainly swathed in flames, clasping their consorts in the close embrace that symbolizes the union of skillful means and wisdom. These figures are the esoteric Dharma Refuge.
On the lowest tier are the dakinis and dharmapalas. The ecstatic dakinis dance wildly, full of the blissful inspiration of the Dharma. Prominent among them in the Nyingma Refuge Tree will be Simhamukha, the lion-headed, blue dakini form of Padmasambhava. Along with the dakinis are the dharmapalas – the protectors of the teaching, headed by the three chief Nyingma protectors: Ekajata, Rahula, and Vajrasadhu.
In the sky directly above Padmasambhava sits Garab Dorje, dressed as a mahasiddha. He is the founder of the Dzogchen lineage, a form of practice that claims to go beyond schools and the three yanas. However, many of its most important practitioners have been Nyingma teachers. Above him in the sky is Vajrasattva, radiant white, holding the vajra to his heart and a vajra-bell to his left side. Finally, at the zenith, in a sphere of light, sits the Adi-Buddha Samantabhadra (Tibetan Kuntuzangpo) the symbol of the ever-present potentiality for Buddhahood which is inherent in the universe, beyond space and time. He is naked and unadorned, his body deep blue in colour. He is seated in a sexual union with his white consort, Samantabhadri.
Refuge Trees of other schools
We have seen that each school of Tibetan Buddhism has a Refuge Tree tradition which is its center of practice, common to all followers of that school. The general principle of the arrangement will be similar for all schools – all the Refuges, exoteric and esoteric, are ranged in the sky about a central figure who is understood to embody them all.
For the Kagyupas the central figure is usually the adi-Buddha Vajradhara. He is deep blue in colour, seated in full-lotus posture. His hands are crossed in front of his heart. In his right hand is the vajra, in his left the vajra-bell. Kagyu Refuge Trees always give prominence to the lineage of gurus: beginning with Tilopa (who was directly inspired by Vajradhara), and continuing through Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa. They are also likely to show Cakrasamvara and Vajravarahi prominently positioned among the yidams.
For the Gelukpas the central focus is Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of their school. He is dressed in monastic robes and the yellow pandit’s cap, holding the stems of lotuses which bloom at his shoulders, supporting the flaming sword and book, which denote that he is considered an emanation of Manjusri. In his heart, the figure of Sakyamuni Buddha is often to be seen.
Geluk Refuge Trees tend to be less obviously lotus-like than those of other schools. Usually, the central figure sits on a lotus in the sky with figures on a many-tiered lotus below him. In the sky above and to each side of him are ranged a mass of gurus, so that the overall impression is of a kind of cruciform arrangement around the central figure.
In the sky above Tsongkhapa are great gurus from whom the Geluk school particularly draws its inspiration, including a number of Indian mahasiddhas. To the left, as we look, is the Bodhisatrva Maitreya, usually represented with a white stupa or chorten as his emblem.
To the right is Manjusri, with the flaming sword and book. They are both surrounded by a sea of gurus. Together they represent the Method and Wisdom lineages respectively, the teachings dealing with compassionate activity and the realization of Emptiness, which were synthesized by Atisa, whose tradition the Gelukpas continue.
Below Tsongkhapa is a great array of figures on a many-tiered lotus. On the highest tiers are the yidams of Highest Tantra such as Yamantaka, Cakrasamvara, Guhyasamaja, Kalacakra, Hevajra, and Vajrayogini. Beneath them appear other figures associated with the three lower classes of Tantra. These tend to be serene and peaceful, as opposed to the flameencircled Anuttarayoga yidams. On the succeeding tiers sit a calm array of Buddhas.
A set of thirty-five Buddhas is often depicted. These are associated with a practice of confession used by those who have taken the Bodhisatrva vows, based on a passage in the Upali-Pariprccha Sutra. A set of seven Buddhas, known as Manusi Buddhas (Tibetan Sangye Rapdun) are often included too. These are Buddhas of past epochs. They are all seated in full-lotus posture, wearing monastic robes, and can be distinguished by their hand-gestures. Vipasyin has both hands on his knees, palms inwards, fingers reaching down in the earth-touching mudra.
Finally, on the lowest tiers of the great lotus, come the dakas, dakinis, and dharmapalas. Among the dharmapalas, particular prominence is given to Mahakala and Sridevi.