Spiritual practice transforms us

Taking refuge: Part 6 of 10

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Part of a series of teachings based on the The Gradual Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim) given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington, from 1991-1994.

  • Developing wisdom, compassion, and a peaceful mind transforms us
  • Taking refuge in the Three Jewels by understanding their characteristics
  • Aspirations we have for each of the Three Jewels

LR 026: Refuge (download)

I was listening to a tape this morning by Jack Kornfield and Robert Welsh, who are both therapists. Jack Kornfield also teaches Vipassana meditation. Robert Welsh commented that in therapy they study pathology and psychology. When you look in a psychology textbook, the index has lists of all the different problems and pathological conditions of the mind, but there is no entry under mental health. In other words, there is no clear definition in psychology about what mental health is. It is taken for granted that mental health is the absence of these other problems—who knows what it is. He was saying that as a result of not having a positive definition for mental health, whenever people have had transcendent, religious experiences, the therapists don’t know how to deal with it. They don’t have any framework in their schema for where to put this kind of experience because the schema doesn’t talk of health; it only talks of pathology. As a result whenever someone had some kind of transcendent, religious experience they usually call it schizophrenia or mental breakdown or hallucination or something like that [laughter].

I thought about that and I thought, that is very interesting. It’s as though something in our culture discredits religious experience, and discredits religious quality. Somehow we only frame things in a way so that all we look at is what is wrong. Then it made me think some more … that our cultural upbringing may help explain why some people have trouble with this section of the lamrim, when we talk about the Buddha’s qualities. We are talking about these transcendent qualities but there is no place in psychology for them. They haven’t been investigated by science. And because they have not been found in any of the major sources of information that we come in contact with, including the newspaper, we tend to think that they don’t exist. In our culture there is just no framework with which to acknowledge, categorize, or learn about these things. This idea was making me think quite a bit.

I was also thinking that whenever we talk in this setting about things like developing wisdom and compassion, and developing a silent, peaceful mind, a calm mind, everybody understands what we are talking about. No one has any difficulty accepting that it is possible for the mind to be in a calm, peaceful state. Somehow we feel that such a state must be possible, and it must be possible to have some wisdom and some loving kindness for everybody. That part does not seem to give people much of a problem.

I have noticed that what the problem is, is that people are skeptical about how this peaceful mind and having wisdom and compassion could change a person, and how one could make use of them. It’s almost as if we think that we could only have wisdom, compassion and a quiet mind when we are sitting in meditation. We experience those qualities in meditation but when we get up from mediation we will still be our old selves, just like we were before we sat down. We think we get those qualities when we are sitting on the cushion but they will not affect any other aspect of our life. That could be why when we hear about the qualities of the Buddha, we say, “What is going on here?”, because the qualities of the Buddha show the effects of meditation on all aspects of a person’s life.

Silhouette of person and bird flying against pink sunrise.

When you have spiritual realizations, there is a very substantial change in character, in personality. The way you interact with others afterwards is completely transformed. (Photo by Hartwig HKD)

It is not the case that when you get some kind of spiritual realizations, you just sit on your meditation cushion experiencing them peacefully but nothing is going to change. There is actually a very substantial change in character, in personality, in the sense that the way you interact with others afterwards is completely transformed. When you have the realizations of wisdom, compassion and stillness of mind, then all the energy that you usually waste on worry and anxiety and frustration is now liberated and can be directed in so many other ways.

So all that energy … it has got to transform something very dramatically in our character, don’t you think? Those realizations of wisdom and compassion and samadhi, they’ve got to give us the ability to see things that we have not been able to see before. For example, being able to understand people’s previous experience, their previous karma and how their present dispositions and inclinations are a result of their previous karma. Also, what they can achieve and what they can’t achieve as a result of their previous karma. Having perfect wisdom has got to also include the wisdom of knowing all the different paths along which to lead somebody in order for them to have realizations. Having that kind of compassion has got to affect the way we speak to people, the power of our speech, and the power of our influence on others. It will also affect what we can do with our body.

I think we have to expand our vision of what enlightenment is. It is not some nice little individual experience that I have on my meditation cushion and then say, “Isn’t that nice?” Rather, it’s some dynamic, transformative thing and after it happens you are not the same anymore. It is definitely possible to attain all the qualities of the Buddha because things really get altered when you have those kinds of realizations.

I have been trying to think a lot about where people have been getting stuck and it seems to me that maybe this is one of those areas. We think ,“I want a little peace of mind now”. Somebody made the comment that she thinks we come to teachings more just to cope with our life than to get tools to transform our existence. Like, “I just want to come, do some breathing and feel a little bit better about myself. That’s good enough.”

And that is good, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it is limited. If we are only thinking of our spiritual practice in terms of, “Well I had a bad day at work and I need some way to relax. I don’t want to get into alcohol and tranquilizers because that’s a bad habit, so I’ll do some meditation instead.” That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. It beats alcohol and tranquilizers, and saves you a lot of money, but spiritual practice can be more than just coping with a bad day at work.

Also, therapy and spiritual practice may be similar in their goals but there is also a big difference [in their goals]. They both deal with the mind. They both try to cure our mental problems. But therapy is basically designed to help a person cope with the way their life is right now. That’s good, and that’s good enough. Spiritual practice, on the other hand, is not only about helping you do that, but it’s also about helping you go on from being stuck in this whole situation to start with. It’s about helping you go beyond being stuck in the narrow limited views of this-is-who-I-am, this-is-all-I-can-be, this-is-how-the-world-exists and don’t-tell-me-anything-else. Spiritual practice is going to tear that apart. So it has a much more expansive goal than therapy does. As a side effect it produces some of the things that therapy also produces. I think it’s good to be aware of that when you’re listening to teachings, and ask yourself, what is it we are doing here.

Now we will continue with the topic of refuge. [laughter] We have talked about why we take refuge. We have talked about what the objects of refuge are. We’ve gone into why they are good objects of refuge and what their qualities are—the qualities of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind, the qualities of the Dharma, the qualities of the Sangha. We know exactly who our guides are and what’s going on.

Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha by learning to understand their distinguishing characteristics

The next section is taking refuge by knowing the distinguishing features of the Three Jewels. The subject of what makes them different from each other comes up because after learning everything that precedes this subject, we might think, “Each of the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—has so many incredible qualities. Can’t I just take refuge in one? Wouldn’t that be simpler? Why do I need three? Since everything is one, let’s make it one!” [laughter] And the answer here is, “Well, sorry folks! It’s got to be all three because they each have distinct features that make them different from each other.” It is quite interesting to listen to these distinguishing features because it gives us an even clearer idea of exactly what Buddha is and how to relate to a Buddha, exactly what Dharma is and how to relate to it, and what Sangha is and how to relate to the Sangha.

Characteristics of the Three Jewels

The distinction between the Three Jewels is first of all in their characteristics. The characteristic of a Buddha is somebody who has abandoned all defects and developed all good qualities. That’s the definition of a Buddha. If anybody ever asks you what a Buddha is, that is it, in simple English. Somebody who has abandoned all the garbage and developed all the good stuff. What more could you ask for? A Buddha doesn’t get angry anymore, doesn’t get frustrated and neurotic anymore, all of which sound pretty good. The Buddha also has the characteristic of seeing the two levels of truth simultaneously. In other words, seeing not only all relative conventional existence and how it appears as an illusion, but also seeing how it appears as an illusion because it actually lacks any kind of solid inherent existence. The Buddha sees both the appearance level and the deeper level of how things exist. This means that a Buddha is omniscient.

The characteristic of the Dharma is the true path and the true cessation. The Dharma is the result of the Buddha’s arrival on our earth. In other words the whole purpose why the Buddha came is to give Dharma teachings. The Buddha gave the Dharma teachings to help sentient beings fulfill their needs.

The Sangha are those who realize the Dharma. So the Dharma is the real refuge, the Buddha is the one who taught it, and the Sangha is the proof in the pudding. Because the Sangha have realized the Dharma they can give us guidance on how we can do it. They teach us by example. They also show us the validity of their teaching because they have been able to manifest the Dharma and use it in their own lives. When we see the effectiveness of the teachings by looking at the Sangha, it helps give us faith and confidence that it actually works.

Enlightening influence of the Three Jewels

The second group of distinguishing features are described in terms of their enlightening influence: how their enlightening influence operates on us. The Buddha’s enlightening influence operates by giving us the verbal teachings, thereby giving us the opportunity to develop the realizational Dharma or the insights on our own mindstream. The Buddha influences us by telling us what to practice and what to abandon, and he transmits all these in the most effective way.

The enlightening influence of the Dharma works by eliminating our afflictions1, our contaminated karma, and therefore all of the unsatisfactory conditions of our life. That’s a pretty nice way to influence, isn’t it?

The Sangha influences us by giving us encouragement, by inspiring us, by showing us an example, and by assisting us in the practice. The Sangha practices and gains the result. When we see this, we get excited about doing it and therefore we engage in the practice too.

It is interesting to look at the different kinds of enlightening influences, how each of the Three Jewels influences us in a particular way. This knowledge can give us an example of how to influence others. The Buddha influences by teaching, so maybe we can teach others a little bit of Dharma. The Sangha influences by practicing, by showing a good example, and by encouraging us. This, too, is something we can start to do at our own level. Especially with your family, colleagues or with people who aren’t particularly Buddhist or interested in the Three Jewels, we can influence them just by practicing ourselves, and transforming our minds. This could cause other people to become open to the Dharma.

One woman came to a retreat that I did at Cloud Mountain. I talked to her privately beforehand, and the whole reason she came to the retreat was because she met two of the people in this group who were such nice, kind, open people. She practiced another Buddhist tradition before but the people she met here were so nice that she thought, “Gee, I wonder what is in the Tibetan tradition? These people are so nice.” So she came to the retreat. We influence people sometimes without even trying to. That is sometimes the best way that we influence them – when we are not trying to. Just by being who we are, we can be helpful to others. Thus we can see how the Sangha influences us, and how we can also train our mind to become like the Sangha. These are just very simple things.

My little sister doesn’t have much interest in Dharma but the little interest she has is because I don’t get angry when my mom needles me. Robin goes, “Wow, I wonder how is it that she doesn’t get angry?” [laughter] “There’s got to be something here.” This kind of influence on others is mostly by example, from what we do.

Aspirations or fervent regard we have for each of the Three Jewels

The third distinction has to do with the aspirations or fervent regard that we have for each of the Three Jewels. In other words, it has to do with how we show our regard for them. How we show our feeling of connectedness to them.

Regard for the Buddha

With the Buddha, we aspire to make offerings. We develop devotion and respect for them and show our respect and gratitude by making offerings and by offering service. We respect their qualities and out of that, we therefore want to offer service, and we want to make offering. It is like you meet somebody who is very nice and automatically you want to start doing things for them. In other words making offerings and showing respect to the Buddha isn’t something that we have to do. It’s not the case that you are only a good Buddhist if you do this. “Ok, I will go buy some apples and put them on the altar if I have to.”

It’s not that kind of thing. Rather, it’s like when you think of the qualities of some person you really care for, then you want to go out and buy them presents. You want to do favors for them because you like them so much. This is the same kind of attitude you develop towards the Buddha. By seeing the qualities of the Buddha, feelings of affection, regard and respect come, so that we want to offer service and do things.

Making offering does not mean just offering things on the altar. Remember that the best way to offer service to the Buddha is to help sentient beings. That is what makes the Buddha the happiest. That is the whole reason that the Buddha became a Buddha—it is for the benefit of sentient beings, not so that he could get apples and oranges and candles and incense. If we help other sentient beings, that’s the best offering that we can give to the Buddha.

Regard for the Dharma

We show our regard for the Dharma by putting it into practice, by using it to transform our minds, to make it manifest in our mind. That doesn’t mean that we have our mind and we put the Dharma on top of it. It’s not like a bologna sandwich. It’s more like when you put food coloring in water, all the water turns pink. We mix our mind with the Dharma so that our mind becomes the Dharma. So that everything we are studying that sounds so academic and intellectual now, actually becomes our personality. It sounds intellectual because we are unfamiliar with it. But as we start to put it into practice and it becomes us, then it no longer is intellectual.

It’s like when you study car mechanics. For me, studying car mechanics is an intellectual pursuit. It’s definitely on the level of intellect. I am completely rusty in more ways than one when it comes to that. But this is not the case for somebody who is trained as a car mechanic—they take things apart and put them back together, and they can do it while they are thinking about something else, simply by the force of habituation and familiarity. Likewise we can mix our mind with the Dharma by practicing it, and making the mind go from here to there. This is the same way that the car mechanic made it go from intellect to habit.

Regard for the Sangha

The way we show regard for the Sangha is by practicing together with them, by joining them in their efforts to make Dharma a living force. The ultimate Sangha that we are taking refuge in are of course beings who have direct realization. But here, we are talking about making a living community. What we try and do is help other Dharma practitioners, practice together with them, and help them in their Dharma work.

Sometimes people think that Buddhism is very individualistic. You come to a Dharma talk; everybody sits down and meditates, and after you dedicate everybody goes away and nobody ever knows each other. That’s not the way it should be. Of course each of us has our own individual mindstream, and our meditation is solitary, but we come and meditate together and share a lot of energy that way. When we discuss things together and when people ask questions, air their doubts and explode in their frustration, they’re sharing with other people. We learn from each other and we help each other in that way.

Similarly, when people are doing Dharma projects and trying to make the Dharma happen by organizing things, then we help. Together we make it work, and we ourselves benefit. I think it is very helpful here not to think of our practice as an individual thing. Of course we have our meditation cushion in a nice quiet place in our house. That’s nice, and that’s our own private little thing. But we live in an interdependent world. We depend a lot on each other. We relate with each other. Our practice has really got to bring this out, especially in our society where people usually feel so lost and unconnected. Therefore it’s very important in our Dharma setting to share and help each other, and practice together.

One person called me up last week and said, “I really want to meditate every day but I just can’t get myself to sit down and do it, so I say to myself, ‘Don’t you love yourself enough to meditate everyday?’”. Of course she doesn’t meditate every day so the obvious answer is “No, I don’t love myself enough to do that.” So she said, “Well, how do I do it?” I started talking about the benefit of coming and being with a group because here are a lot of other people who are doing it. You pick up energy from them. You hear about their experiences. You can learn things from them and be part of the whole group energy. But she didn’t like my answer. It involved too much time. [laughter] She seemed to expect me to be able to completely change years of habit in five minutes. I don’t have that ability.

[Note: this is a partial recording. Unfortunately the end of the talk was not recorded.]

This teaching is based on the Lamrim or The Gradual Path to Enlightenment.


  1. “afflictions” is the translation that Venerable Chodron now uses in place of “disturbing attitudes.” 

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