There are eight of these: you become a Buddhist, you become a candidate for all vows, you will use up obscurations acquired from previously accumulated karma, you will easily accumulate a huge amount of merit, you will not be bothered by the harmful actions of humans or creatures, you will not fall to the lower realms, you will effortlessly achieve all your temporary and longterm aims, and you will soon be enlightened. When you take refuge, therefore, don’t merely repeat the same words as other people, or take refuge only verbally— take refuge from your heart. You become a Buddhist only when you develop the act of taking refuge properly in your mindstream. Reciting the refuge formula hundreds of thousands of times doesn’t make you a Buddhist. People these days say, “You must recite the refuge formula a number of times”; people who instead say “You must develop it on your mindstream” are rare. In Dagpo once, a monk named Atar was doing a retreat with friends in which they were to recite the refuge formula a [prescribed] number of times. Atar gave proper thought to the meaning behind taking refuge and so took a long time. The others were much quicker because they only repeated the words of the refuge formula; they had nearly completed a billion repetitions. Fearing that Atar would not complete the required number they asked him how many he had done, and Atar said, “Have you only been totting up some number for the refuges formula?” So, if you recite the formula while keeping your attention on taking refuge, you will be significantly ripened by it. When you take any of the three types of vows, you must precede this by taking refuge. If you do not, you will not receive the vow. Just as the ground supports houses, crops, walls, trees, forests, and so on, the act of taking refuge serves as the basis for receiving all vows. 
You may have committed many karmic actions in the past and accumulated many obscurations— for example, the major heinous crimes such as when Ajātaśhatru killed his own father Bimbisāra, who had achieved the result of a never-returner, or the minor heinous crimes— but when you have taken refuge, you purify such karma and the [resulting] obscurations because you have taken refuge in the Buddha. Thereafter, saying the names of buddhas or even reading the set of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras once will purify many eons’ sins and obscurations. The sūtra basket speaks of these benefits again and again. The Short Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra says: “If the merit from taking refuge had form, the three realms would be too small to hold it.” In other words, the merit accruing from the act of taking refuge is immeasurable. Moreover, the buddhas are such karmically potent beings that root virtues generated in relation to them will definitely become the cause of one’s achieving full enlightenment— even if this is done without pure motives. From the White Lotus of Compassion Sūtra: “Ānanda, it is like this. Suppose a farmer householder has a field that has no stones, tree stumps, or brambles. It has no pebbles or rubble, and has rich topsoil. He plowed it well, and prepared it with hand implements. He did right by planting his seed while it was still fresh and fertile. The sun and wind have not been harmful; the seed has not been cracked open, nor has it rotted. The seed was planted at the right time in the furrows of the field. Sometimes it was watered, sometimes left dry, and safeguarded against everything. Ānanda, this householder at some other time goes to the field, stands on the edge of it and says, ‘O seeds, be seeds no longer! O seeds, do not sprout, do not grow. I do not want the fruit. I do not want the rewards!’ Ānanda, what do you think? Would those seeds no longer be seeds because of those words?” “No, Bhagavān,” he replied. “No, Sugata.” The Buddha said, “Would the fruit no longer become fruit? Would he reap no rewards?” “No, Bhagavān,” he replied. “No, Sugata.” Then the Buddha said, “Ānanda, when people who praise saṃsāric existence, who rejoice in saṃsāric existence, make offering to the buddhas, even though they may say, “By these root virtues may we never go to nirvāṇa,” it is quite impossible that they will never go to nirvāṇa. Ānanda, these root virtues generated in relation to the Buddhas will result in nirvāṇa, although they do not want it. I tell you, these virtues will be transforming until their eventual nirvāṇa. Therefore, whenever one develops root virtues by having a single thought about the Bhagavān Buddhas, the fruit of all such root virtues will be nirvāṇa. I tell you, these root virtues will be transforming until one’s eventual nirvāṇa.” One will not be bothered by the harmful actions of humans or creatures. Here are some stories to illustrate. A tīrṭhika once made a noose out of energy wind and tried to catch a Buddhist upāsaka with it, but did not succeed. A man from India was sentenced under the law of a certain king and was to be abandoned in a charnel ground. All other people abandoned there had disappeared: they had been carried off by creatures, a species of ghost, and been eaten. Not one had come back alive. The man placed on the crown of his head a patch taken from the robes of a member of the Saṅgha; then, he took refuge. He was not bothered or harmed by the creatures. Once a nomad was left alone for a day in an uninhabited spot and was attacked by a yeti. He nearly died. His head was still scarred, and so a lama asked what had caused these scars; the man told his story. The lama gave him instruction on taking refuge. Later the man again encountered a yeti. He took refuge; the yeti merely sniffed the air, did not pick up the human scent, and went away. The householder Anāthapiṇḍaḍa recited some verses on taking refuge one night when he saw that a road had taken him into a charnel ground. The creatures there could not harm him. Anāthapiṇḍaḍa then prostrated himself before a tīrṭhika idol and lost his protection, so the story goes. A thief once saw someone give a monk some cloth. The thief returned at night to steal it. The monk outwitted him, tied his hands together, then beat him three times with a stick while saying the names of the Three Jewels. The thief ran away; he repeated what the monk had said while staying under a bridge frequented by demons. “I’m lucky there were only three of them,” he muttered under his breath. “If there had been any more, I would have been killed!” That night, the demons were unable to cross that bridge.   These were some of the stories Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche told.   We should not be afraid when we get into difficulties: we must take courage from the Three Jewels and be satisfied with taking only this one kind of refuge. Taking refuge will also stop us from being reborn in the lower realms. A god was certain he was going to be reborn as a pig and so sought Indra’s protection, but Indra could not save him. 
The god asked the Buddha, who gave him instruction on taking refuge. The god died while taking refuge according to these instructions. Later Indra investigated where this god had been reborn. Now the gods can see mentally only into levels below their own but cannot see higher; Indra could not find the god, so asked Buddha. The Buddha announced he had been reborn in the Tuṣhita celestial realm. That god not only prevented his certain rebirth as a pig, but was also reborn in a very high celestial state— all through taking refuge. Yet we do not appreciate that taking refuge is so important. During public ceremonies we sit distracted, fidgeting while we recite “Until enlightenment, I take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and the Supreme Assembly. When it comes to the part “Oṃ svabhāva śhuddhaḥ sarva dharmāḥ svabhāva śhuddho haṃ,” 55 we pretend we’re in deep meditation and roll our eyes. This is a sign that we don’t know what the gateway to Buddhism is and what a marvelous means it is for preventing rebirth in the lower realms. Atiśha saw that taking refuge and the laws of cause and effect were alone important, and so he taught them. He was called the “Taking-refuge Lama” and the “Cause-and-effect Lama.” Atiśha heard about this and said, “Those names of mine will also help the teachings.” When we are about to die, practicing the generation and completion stages may be beyond our capacities, but if we take refuge properly, it is certain that for once we will not fall to the lower realms. As Sangyae Oen says: In short, if I have not developed Death and impermanence in my mental stream, Even the Guhyasamāja would not be profound. But three verses on taking refuge are profound. When produced in my mindstream at death. There is also no better means of fulfilling one’s wishes than taking refuge. Jangsem Retrengwa said: Do not put your hopes in people— petition the divine! In other words, past saints achieved their temporary and longterm aims by petitioning the divine Three Jewels. Once Retrengwa was embroiled in lawsuits; he won them by depending on the Three Jewels. You will soon be enlightened. Your taking refuge now will result in the future in actions that correspond to it. In this life, whenever unfavorable circumstances arise, you will automatically take refuge right away. And because the mind characteristically follows whatever it is familiar with, you will recall Buddha when you die. The King of Single-Pointed Concentration Sūtra says: Also, construct images of the victors And recall Śhākyamuni, whose primal wisdom is immeasurable. If one grows accustomed to always remembering him, One’s thoughts quite automatically turn to him…   With cleansed body, speech, and mind, Always sing praises to the Buddhas. Accustom your mindstream to thoughts like this, And you will see the world’s protector day and night.   If you are ever ill, or unhappy, Or meet with misery at your death, Your recollection of the Buddha will not decline; Feelings of misery will never take this from you. Not only this, but we will also gain optimum human rebirths in all our lives, we will meet with a refuge, and we will never be separated from people who take refuge. And when we train in the ultimate path, we will achieve the Three Jewels in our own mindstream. Thus we will soon be enlightened.