Practical guidelines for good living

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An excerpt from the book Taming the Mind by Venerable Thubten Chodron.

Taking refuge in the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha helps us to focus on what is important in our lives. It gives our lives a positive direction and reaffirms our conviction that there exists a path to happiness.

When taking refuge, we’re enriched by the knowledge that great beings with full compassion, wisdom and skillful means exist. We gain confidence that by following the path, we’ll attain the same state they have. Refuge is also a way of fulfilling a promise we’ve made to ourselves—a promise to become better people and make a positive contribution to others’ welfare.

A man walking towards coming light on a railway rack.

The reason we take refuge is to prevent future suffering and to progress along the path. (Photo by Hartwig HKD)

The real taking of refuge occurs deep in our heart and isn’t dependent on doing or saying anything. Nevertheless, we may wish to participate in the refuge ceremony by requesting a monk or nun to formally give us refuge. The refuge ceremony is brief: we repeat a passage after our teacher and open our hearts to make a strong connection with the Three Jewels of the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha. The ceremony also “officially’ makes us a Buddhist.

The reason we take refuge is to prevent future suffering and to progress along the path. To be true to our goals, we must act according to this motivation after taking refuge. It’s not the case that after we take refuge we’re “saved,” and thereafter can do anything we please. Taking refuge is the first step in giving our lives a positive direction, and we must continue to channel our energy in that direction. Therefore, the Buddha gave advice on how to practice the Dharma to ensure we remain true to our determination to improve ourselves. The points to train ourselves in are:

  1. In keeping with taking refuge in the Buddha, we should rely on a qualified spiritual master. Whoever performs the refuge ceremony for us becomes one of our spiritual mentors. We may have more than one teacher, and it’s good to pray to meet fully qualified mentors with whom we feel a close Dharma connection. It’s beneficial if we follow the Dharma instructions our teachers give us, care for our teachers’ needs and treat them with respect.

  2. In keeping with taking refuge in the Dharma, we should listen to and study the teachings, as well as put them into practice in our daily lives. Some people think only monks and nuns study the teachings deeply, and such dedicated study and practice is too difficult for lay followers. This is incorrect. Everyone should listen to and study the teachings as much as possible. If we want to progress along the path, we must practice the Dharma, and receiving instructions is essential in order to practice.

  3. In keeping with taking refuge in the Sangha, we should respect the Sangha as our spiritual companions and follow their good example. If we constantly look for others’ weaknesses, that’s all we’ll see. Such an attitude prevents us from appreciating whatever good qualities they have and learning about them.

    We shouldn’t expect monks and nuns to be perfect. Although they have dedicated their lives to the path, it takes time to gain realizations, and most of the Sangha are endeavoring to pacify their disturbing attitudes and karma, just as we are. Shaving one’s head doesn’t make one enlightened. However, we can appreciate their effort to practice the Dharma purely, and the good example they set for us. Although individual monks and nuns may have faults, we should respect the fact they have taken the vows set forth by the Buddha.

  4. We should try to train ourselves in accordance to the examples set by the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha. If we take their behavior as a model, we’ll eventually become like them. When we’re in a state of emotional turmoil, it’s helpful to ask ourselves, “How would a bodhisattva respond to this situation?” Thinking about this, we’ll consider other ways to handle our problem.

  5. We should avoid being self-indulgent, running after any desirable object we see. Craving money and status leads us to obsession and constant dissatisfaction. We’re much happier when we enjoy pleasures of the senses in moderation.

    Similarly, let’s avoid arrogantly criticizing whatever we dislike. It’s so easy to see others’ faults and overlook our own. Yet this doesn’t make us or others any happier. It is more constructive to correct our own faults than to point out those of others.

  6. As much as possible we should avoid the ten destructive actions and keep precepts. We can take the five lay precepts for the duration of our lives, or the eight precepts for one day. Ethics is the foundation of the practice of the Dharma; without it, there is no way to create the cause for good rebirths or to attain realizations.

  7. We should develop a compassionate and sympathetic heart toward all other beings. To do this, it’s helpful to continually meditate on love, compassion and altruism. If we don’t contemplate patience before meeting a troublesome person, it will be difficult to control our temper. We need to prepare beforehand, by remembering the kindness of others and meditating on patience continually in our daily meditation sessions. Chapter six of Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is very effective in helping us learn the antidotes to anger.

    If we nurture patience in our meditation, then when we go to work or school, we’ll be mindful and will notice when we’re getting angry. At that time, we will be able to remember what we’ve contemplated at the meditation sessions and let go of our anger. We won’t always succeed, but over time we’ll notice progress.
    Each evening it’s helpful to review our day. If we discover any remaining anger in our minds, we should again reflect on patience and the altruistic intention.

  8. On Buddhist festival days, it’s advisable for us to make special offerings to The Three Jewels to accumulate positive potential.

    Points 5-7 emphasize the importance of improving our relations with others. Following Buddha’s teachings doesn’t mean performing rites and rituals to gain a superficial feeling of being “holy.” It means not harming others and helping them as much as possible in our daily lives.

Specific guidelines

To help us develop and maintain a good relationship with each of the Three Jewels individually, there are guidelines which are specific for refuge in the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha:

  1. Having taken refuge in the Buddha, who has purified all defilements and developed all qualities, we shouldn’t turn for refuge to worldly gods who lack the capacity to guide us from all problems. Although some worldly gods have psychic powers, they aren’t free from cyclic existence. Taking ultimate refuge in them is like one drowning person asking another to take him to shore.

    We should respect all images of the Buddha and avoid putting them in low or dirty places, stepping over them or pointing our feet toward them. Because the statues represent the noble state we want to attain, we should take care of them. The statues don’t need our respect, but we need to be mindful of the Buddha’s qualities that they represent.

    The purpose of having statues of Buddha is to help us remember the enlightened state and work toward attaining it ourselves. Therefore we shouldn’t use religious objects as collateral for a loan or buy and sell them as someone buys and sells used cars—with the motive to earn a living. The profit made from selling statues or Dharma books should be used to purchase or produce more Dharma items, not to buy ourselves a good meal or new clothes.

    When looking at various images, it’s nonsensical to discriminate, “This Buddha is beautiful, but this one isn’t.” How can a Buddha be ugly? We can comment on the artist’s skills in making a statue or painting, but not on the looks of a Buddha.

    Also, don’t treat expensive statues with respect while neglecting those that are damaged or less costly. Some people put the expensive beautifully made statues in the front of their shrines so their friends will say, “You have such lovely and costly things in your home!” Seeking praise for owning religious objects is a worldly attitude, and we might as well show off our VCR or bankbook if all we’re looking for is admiration from others.

  2. Having taken refuge in the Dharma, we should avoid harming any living being. One becomes a Buddha in order to benefit others, and Buddhas cherish others more than themselves. Therefore, if we admire the Buddhas, we should respect all living beings just as they do.

    Also, we should respect the written words which describe the path to enlightenment by keeping the texts clean and in a high place. Avoid stepping over them, putting them on the floor, or throwing them in the rubbish when they are old. Old Dharma materials can be burned.

    The reason for this is not that the paper and ink of the books are holy in and of themselves, but that these books show the path to enlightenment which we want to develop in our minds. They are our spiritual nourishment. We don’t put our food on the floor without something to contain it, because the floor is dirty and we value our food. Similarly, if we remember the importance of Dharma books which nourish us spiritually, we’ll treat them properly. These guidelines make us more mindful of how we relate to things in our environment.

  3. Having taken refuge in the Sangha, we should avoid becoming close friends with people who criticize the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha, or who are unruly or harm others. We avoid these people not because they’re “evil and bad,” but because our own minds are weak. For example, although we may want to stop gossiping, if we’re constantly in the company of people who gossip, we’ll easily resume our old habits.

    However, we shouldn’t criticize or be rude to these people. We can have compassion for them, but we won’t seek their company. For example, if a colleague is critical of our religious practice, we can be courteous and kind to him at work, but we won’t cultivate his friendship after work or discuss religion with him. However, if someone is open-minded and wants to discuss religion in order to understand life, we can freely engage ideas with him.

    The bodhisattvas and practitioners approaching arhatship, who don’t run the risk of falling back into their old negative behaviors, seek the company of unruly beings in order to help them. However, if our practice isn’t yet firm, we have to be careful of the environment we put ourselves in.

    Also, we should respect monks and nuns as people who earnestly endeavor to actualize the teachings. Respecting them helps our minds, because it opens us to appreciate their qualities and learn from their examples. By respecting even the robes of ordained beings, we’ll be happy and inspired on seeing them.

Common guidelines

To help us deepen our refuge and extend it to others, there are six guidelines in common for the Three Jewels:

  1. Mindful of the qualities of the Three Jewels and the differences between them and other possible refuges, we should repeatedly take refuge in the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha. The qualities of the Three Jewels are explained in many texts. If we study these, our understanding of how the Three Jewels guide and protect us will increase. Taking refuge isn’t done just once. Rather, it’s a process through which we continually deepen our trust in the Three Jewels.

  2. Remembering the kindness of the Three Jewels, we should make offerings to them. Some people make offerings thinking that they’re paying the Three Jewels back for what they’ve done or are obliging them to render help in the future. These people go to the temple and pray, “Buddha, if you make my sick relative recover and make my business flourish, I’ll make offerings to you each year on this day.”

    This is the wrong attitude to have when making offerings. We aren’t doing business with the Buddhas, as with the attitude, “Buddha, you deliver what I want, then I’ll pay you.” Offerings should be made with a good motivation, to eliminate our miserliness and to increase our joy in giving.

    Some people make offerings as if they were in the business of earning merit. They regard merit as spiritual money and strive to collect it with a greedy mind. This is also an incorrect attitude. While it’s beneficial to create positive potential, it’s important to dedicate it for the welfare of everyone.

    It’s good to offer our food before eating. This enables us to stop and reflect for a moment, rather than gobble our food down with voracity the way hungry animals do. To offer our food, we think, “Food is like medicine which cures the suffering of hunger. I must preserve my life so that I can practice the Dharma and be of service to others. Food is the fuel which allows me to do so. Many beings were involved in growing, transporting and preparing this food. They were very kind, and to repay this I want to make my life meaningful. I can do this by offering the food to the Buddha with the motivation to become a Buddha myself for their benefit.”

    Then imagine the food as pure and sweet wisdom-nectar that gives great bliss. Visualize a small Buddha made of light at your heart center and offer this nectar to him or her. To consecrate it, recite “om ah hum” three times. This is a mantra representing the qualities of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind. Then recite the following verses:

    I now take this food, without greed or repulsion,
    Nor merely for health, not for pleasure or comfort,
    But simply as a medicine to strengthen my body
    To attain enlightenment for the benefit of all.

    The supreme teacher, the precious Buddha,
    The supreme refuge, the holy precious Dharma,
    The supreme guide, the precious Sangha
    To all of the objects of refuge I make this offering.

    May myself and all those around me
    Never be separated from the Three Jewels in all future lives,
    May we continuously make offerings to the Three Jewels,
    May we receive the blessings and inspiration of the Three Jewels.

    While doing this we can close our eyes for a few moments, or if we’re in a public place, we can visualize and say the prayers silently, with our eyes open.

  3. Mindful of the compassion of the Three Jewels, we should encourage others to take refuge in them. When we recall how the Buddhas practiced the path and how the Sangha is practicing the path to help us, their compassion towards us becomes obvious. Their kindness to teach us the Dharma, guide us, set a good example and inspire us is inconceivably vast.

    Aware of the benefit that taking refuge and following the Dharma has had on our own lives, we’ll want to share this fortune with others. However, pressuring people to come to Dharma talks or forcing our beliefs on others is both unskillful and rude. We shouldn’t have a football team mentality thinking, “My religion is better than yours. I’m going to win more converts than you.” We aren’t in competition with other religions.

    Nor should we go to the other extreme, keeping all Buddhist activities quiet, not publicizing them at all. If no one had organized and publicized Buddhist teachings, I never would have heard about the Dharma. I’m grateful to those who created the opportunity for me to contact and practice the Buddha’s teachings.

    Similarly, we can let others know about Buddhist teachings and activities and encourage them to come if they wish. To people who have no interest in Buddhism per se, we can express the meaning of the teachings in ordinary language. After all, much of Buddhism is common sense. For instance, we can talk to others about the faults of anger and how to calm hatred, without using any Buddhist vocabulary. We can explain the disadvantages of selfishness and the advantages of kindness toward others in ordinary language.

    In addition, others will notice our behavior and will wonder how we’re able to remain calm and happy in bad circumstances. We needn’t speak one word of Dharma to them, but by our actions they’ll see the benefits of Dharma practice and will be curious about what we do. Some of my relatives once said to me, “You didn’t get angry when that person criticized you!” After that, they became more open to learning about Buddhism.

  4. Remembering the benefits of taking refuge, we should take refuge three times in the morning and three times in the evening, by reciting and reflecting upon any of the refuge prayers.

    It’s extremely beneficial to start our day off in a positive way. When the alarm clock rings, let’s try to make our first thoughts, “How fortunate I am to be alive and to have the opportunity to practice the Dharma. The Three Jewels are reliable guides to lead me along the path to enlightenment. The best way to take the essence from my life is to develop the attitude of cherishing others and wanting to benefit them. Therefore, today, as much as possible, I’ll avoid harming others and will be kind and help them.”

    Then we can recite three times the prayer for taking refuge and generating the altruistic intention:

    I take refuge until I am enlightened in the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. By the positive potential I create by practicing generosity and the other far-reaching attitudes (ethics, patience, joyous effort, meditative stabilization and wisdom), may I attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all beings.

    It takes only a few moments to think about these things and recite the prayer, yet doing so has a significant effect on the rest of the day. We’ll be more cheerful and will be sure of our direction in life. Especially if we don’t do a regular meditation practice, starting the day in this way is extremely beneficial.

    In the evening, after reviewing the day’s activities and freeing our minds from any remaining disturbing attitudes that may have arisen during the day, we should again take refuge and generate the altruistic intention.

    Before going to sleep, we can envision the Buddha, made of light, on our pillow. Placing our head in his lap, we’ll fall asleep amidst the gentle glow of his wisdom and compassion.

  5. We should do all actions by entrusting ourselves to the Three Jewels. When we’re nervous, it’s good to visualize the Buddha, make requests, and imagine light radiating from the Buddha which enters our body, filling it completely. If we’re in danger, we can make prayers and request the Three Jewels for help and guidance.

    Entrusting ourselves to the Three Jewels also refers to remembering their instructions. For example, when we become angry, we should recall the techniques to cultivate patience. When we feel jealous, we can instead rejoice in others’ happiness and good qualities. Our Dharma practice is our best refuge, for with it we’ll develop the beneficial and correct attitudes that resolve our problems.

  6. We shouldn’t forsake our refuge if our lives are threatened or for a joke. Whether we’re happy or sad, maintaining confidence in and a good relationship with the Three Jewels is important. Some people become so distracted when enjoying pleasures of the sense that they forget their Dharma practice. Others become so discouraged when misfortune strikes that they forget the Three Jewels. Forgetting our refuge is harmful, for we betray our own inner resolve to make our lives useful. By knowing that the Three Jewels are our best friends who will never abandon us, we’ll always keep them in our hearts, no matter what external conditions we encounter.

    All the above guidelines were set forth to help us make our lives meaningful. They are attitudes and actions that we train ourselves in gradually. It’s wasted energy to feel we’re guilty or bad because we don’t follow these guidelines perfectly right now. Such self-judgment immobilizes us.

    Instead, we can learn the guidelines and try to implement them as much as we can, reviewing them periodically to refresh our minds. We may choose one guideline to emphasize this week in our daily lives. Next week, we can add another, and so on. In that way, we’ll slowly build up the good habits of practicing all of them.

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