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Purifying for refuge practice

This talk was given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington, USA.

  • Understanding the cluttered mind
  • Benefits and functions of purification
  • Accumulating merit
  • Visualizing the objects of refuge
  • Qualities of the Buddha
  • Importance of a spiritual mentor

Refuge practice (download)

The idea of today was to really go into some of the practices for purifying the mind and accumulating positive potential or merit. These are very important practices and they’re done in all the four Tibetan traditions: the Nyingma, Gelug, Sakya, and Kagyu.

Why purification is necessary

Why we need to purify and create merit or positive potential is because our minds are pretty cluttered right now. It’s very difficult for us to meditate. It’s difficult to get ourselves on the cushion. It’s difficult to concentrate after we get on the cushion. When we go to teachings, it’s difficult to concentrate. When we get out, it’s difficult to remember what we heard. Even if we have some kind of strong feeling in meditation or at teachings, it’s difficult to sustain it. The reason for all these difficulties is because our mind has a real overload of negative karma. It’s like trying to put something on a computer disk that’s already full of garbage and viruses. You’re just going to wind up with a mess. You need to kind of get your computer disk in shape first.

Cesar, a guest at the Abbey, emptying water bowls.

We need to purify and generate merit in order to prepare our minds for refuge practice.

Actually, the analogy that’s usually given in the scriptures is not of a computer disk but of a field—and our mind being like a field. In order to grow a crop, it isn’t sufficient just to plant seeds. Planting seeds is like listening to teachings. The planting of the seeds isn’t sufficient because if your field has bubble-gum wrappers, rusty nails, and remnants of DDT in it, you can plant lots of good seeds but nothing’s going to grow. If there’s no water and no fertilizer and it’s the middle of Arizona, also nothing’s going to grow.

We need to do two things to really prepare the field. First, we need to clean out the mess and all the other unnecessary stuff. Second, we need to get the water and fertilizer in there. In the analogy, the field is like our mind. Our mind can grow many different kinds of crops. Listening to teachings is like putting in the seeds of the best kind of crops, and then taking out the bubble-gum wrappers and DDT. This stuff is purifying the mind of the negative karma so that there’s space in our mind for the other things, space in the field for something to grow. Putting in the irrigation system and the fertilizer is creating positive potential. In other words, really enriching the mind so that once the seeds are planted, something can actually grow. They don’t just fizzle out.

Often, we get really blocked in our practice and we feel stuck. We feel discouraged. We feel like we’re not getting anywhere. This is all symptomatic of the fact that we need to do much more purification and collection of positive potential/merit. When we get stuck, instead of becoming despondent and thinking the Dharma doesn’t work, that’s the time when we really shift the energy in our practice and concentrate more on purification and collection of merit.

It’s also why we shouldn’t ignore those two things, purification and collecting merit/positive potential, throughout our daily practice. We shouldn’t just ignore those things and think all we need to do is sit down and breathe, and we can concentrate. Those two practices are really important to do on a daily basis. That’s why we do the prayers before we meditate. We do the prayers rather quickly, but you can actually take your time and do the prayers, really do them slowly. And as much as you do them, then that much more your own mind gets enriched. Then listening to teachings or doing meditation becomes really fruitful.

I’m saying this because sometimes we do get stuck. Know that there’s something to do. This is “stuck prevention practice.” By keeping up these two things on a daily basis, then you don’t get stuck quite as readily.

How rebirth and karma relate to purification

When you think of the amount of negative karma that we’ve accumulated since beginningless time, then it begins to become clear why we need to do some purification. I think this is a real essential step, and sometimes a very difficult one for us Westerners. Westerners sometimes have difficulty believing in past lives, or even if they believe in past lives, difficulty believing in karma—believing that what we do actually has a result later on. Without these two convictions, we become very blocked. If we don’t think there’s rebirth, then we think, “Well, I didn’t do anything before this life. I came into this life as an empty slate. What do I need to purify? I stole the chocolate bar from my brother when I was five, but that’s no big thing to purify.”

Sometimes we have that kind of attitude because we don’t really have conviction in rebirth and karma. That makes it so we don’t purify, and then, therefore, we just keep having more and more blocks. Sometimes, it’s really helpful, even if you don’t have complete and utter conviction in rebirth and karma, just take the jump and do these practices. These practices make you think about rebirth and karma. A lot of the meditation and practices you do help you look at these issues, and get them clear in our own mind. It really helps a tremendous amount.

Understanding purification through your own experience

I know when I first went and I was listening to teachings, a lot of things started clicking. The way my teacher usually had us do it, the summer of our first year, he had us do a three-month Vajrasattva retreat. I did that. All during the whole Vajrasattva practice, I kept on saying, “What does it mean to purify the mind? What am I doing? I’m saying this 100-syllable mantra over and over again, and all I’m thinking about is, ‘Me, I, my, and mine.’ What’s purifying here? What’s going on? My mind’s totally bananas.” I just sit in this session for, like, two and a half hours, four sessions a day. That’s ten hours a day with aching knees and a fidgety back. My mind’s thinking nothing but of my own life, again and again, and all the horrible things I did to people. And how much I hate the people I’m doing the meditation with because whenever you’re doing the retreat, you project your garbage onto everyone else in the retreats and, “Grrr, how’s this helping my mind?” And “Grrr!”

Then, after I did this three-month retreat, I went back and I was listening to teachings from my teacher again and, all of a sudden, I was going, “Oh my goodness! Did he say this last year? I didn’t hear this last year. I didn’t understand it this way last year!” And then I began to see what it meant to purify. No amount of intellectual description of what purification meant would have helped my mind during the retreat. It would just have been intellectual exploration. But by having done it, and having seen how different my mind was when I heard the teachings and when I tried to meditate, then I began to understand what purification meant.

I began to understand that purification doesn’t necessarily mean you feel blissful and joyful. I mean, during all these practices that we’re going to do today, you’re going to hear the instructions all the time about, “You’re filled with light. Feel bliss and feel joy.” You hear all these instructions, you do the practice and you’re discontent. You’re discouraged. You’re angry and guilty, and all this. And you’re thinking, “I’m not doing it right anyway. I knew I should have gone to go hiking in the mountains today!”

But it’s really important to remember that whenever we purify—it’s like when you wash a really dirty cloth. What do you see when you wash the cloth? You don’t see the clean cloth right away, do you? You see all the dirt come out in the water. You see lots of dirty, yucky, stinky, smelly water. But in the middle of all that is your cloth, which is in the process of becoming quite clean. We have to remember that the junk’s going to come up, but that’s actually very good when that happens because, as it comes up, then it’s finishing. It’s getting over with. You’re letting go of those blocks in your practice so that then you can maybe go forward. It’s really important to remember.

Preliminary practices in Tibetan tradition

In the Tibetan practice, when they talk about purifying, collecting positive potential or merit, they often talk about doing—some traditions say four preliminary practices, some say five, some say nine. It depends how you want to bargain, “For you, special, only three.” My teacher, when I first started, he just gave us one to do at a time. There’s the Tibetan tradition of doing 100,000, but now Rinpoche doesn’t waste time. When people come in and say, “What practice should I do?” he says, “You do four million prostrations. You do 2,000 Nyung Nes.” He knows Westerners like the big numbers. And then people come out and they’re like, “Uhhhhhh!” because they start calculating. And they’re, like, “Well this is going to take me 15 lifetimes!” Don’t worry; I won’t do that to you!

In the Tibetan tradition, there’s a custom of doing 100,000. Some people get really hung up on the numbers and they spend all the sessions just calculating how long it’s going to take them if they do so many refuge recitations an hour—how many hours, how many days until they’re done. That’s because we’re very business-minded. We want to know how long it’s going to take to pay off the interest of the loan! We spend meditation sessions thinking about this. That’s actually a complete waste.

Some people like to count the numbers. It’s really helpful. It gives them a feeling that they’re going somewhere, that they’re getting somewhere with it. For other people, counting the numbers just boggles your mind. Just leave it aside, that’s not so important. What’s more important is that you really engage in the practice on some kind of regular basis and allow yourself to really soak up its energy and get into it.

There’re various levels of detail that you can get into with any of these practices, and so what I’ll do today is give you enough so that you can really start doing the practice. But as you do the practice, then automatically you’ll want to start learning more about it. I’d recommend reading your lamrim books, like Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Treasury of Dharma—all these different lamrim books. If you read these books, if you look in the refuge section, they’ll give you more information about refuge, or more information about confession if you look under the seven limbs.

All these things, as you’re doing them, bring up a lot of different questions. Different doubts will arise as you do the practice also. But that’s the purpose of the practice, to make us really think about the teachings, and to have all of our doubts and misconceptions surface so we can really work through them and get things clear in our mind. That’s what purification means. These practices are very challenging.

At one of the teachers’ conferences, somebody came up with, “Well, there’s been some talk in the West of, maybe these preliminary practices aren’t so important because they’re just so overlain with Asian culture. Maybe, we can just forget them.” I was going, “Ahhhh!” His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “Well, if somebody’s practiced Dharma in previous lives and they have very good understanding, and have purified and collected merit in their previous lives, then maybe they can skip these practices this lifetime. But for the rest of us, then it’s really important that we do these practices!”

Initially, sometimes, our mind rebels and says, “It’s just Tibetan culture!” One of the nine practices is offering 100,000 water bowls. You see seven water bowls there. I was doing this practice and I was putting up—I had, I don’t know, maybe 50 bowls. There’s a special way that you wipe the bowls and you pour the water into them. I would do this, and then I’d take the water out, and then I’d clean them and offer more water, and then I’d take the water out. And as I was doing this, I began to say, “What in the world am I doing? This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of! Pouring water in 50 bowls, emptying it out and filling the bowls again, and emptying them again. Fifty, over and over—what in the world am I doing? This is ridiculous! If my mother saw me, she’d know I was crazy!” It was like, “Well what am I doing? This is stupid! Why is my teacher telling me to do this?” And that was so good because what I did was, because my teacher suggested I do this, I hung in there and I did it because I really felt this connection to him. I wanted to follow his instructions.

It was good because it brought all this up and it really made me think, “Well, why am I doing this? What is this practice really about? Is it just about pouring water?” Well no, I didn’t get interested in Buddhism because it was about external activities and pouring water. I got interested in Buddhism because it had something to do with the mind.

What am I doing with my mind while I’m pouring this water? “Oh, you mean I have to look at what I’m doing with my mind? You mean I can’t just pour water and complain? I have to look at what I’m doing with my mind and what my motivation is? How much faith I have, and what faith means? What offering means? What visualizations means?” It was quite a challenge.

That’s the kind of stuff that’s going to come up as you’re doing these practices. But it’s really good. It helps you by having to sit there, and hang in there, and think about these things. Do more research on the practice. Talk to people and ask your teacher questions. You really begin to make a lot of progress and get some understanding of the path. Then, like I said, when you come to listen to teachings, things make a lot more sense.

Nine preliminary practices

Let me just outline the nine preliminary practices so you’ll have an idea because we’re going to be covering three of the nine today. All of these practices have both the functions of purifying and creating positive potential or merit. They all perform both things. We have refuge, prostrations, Vajrasattva, mandala offerings, Guru Yoga (reciting the mantra with your guru’s name is the guru yoga one), Samayavajra (which is one deity, a green deity), and Dorje Khadro (which is a very wrathful deity—you make a fire puja and throw black sesame seeds into Dorje Khadro’s mouth in this practice), water bowls, and tsa-tsa. Tsa-tsa practice is making little clay figures of the Buddha. In the Tibetan tradition, you usually have a mold and fill it with clay or plaster, or different things making figures of the Buddha.

Refuge practice

We’ll start now with the one on refuge. This refuge one is different. We’re not doing the refuge ceremony here. The refuge ceremony is where you formally take refuge in the five precepts. That, you do with a teacher. It’s a ceremony; it lasts about an hour. What we’re doing here is the refuge practice, which builds upon your own feeling of refuge that you developed before you did the refuge ceremony and during the refuge ceremony. Refuge practice is something that pertains to all of our practice from the very beginning, until we become Buddha. We say, “I take refuge until I am enlightened,” don’t we? We’re not doing the refuge ceremony here, just the refuge practice. But it’s a very important one.

In the refuge practice, there’s the visualization that we do. There’s also recitation and certain attitudes that we’re trying to develop.

Extensive visualization of the merit field

It starts out in an ocean of Samantabhadra offering. Samantabhadra was a bodhisattva, and his specialty was making offerings. He made big, beautiful, fantastic offerings that totally filled the entire sky. That’s why it says, “In an ocean of Samantabhadra offerings,” which means that you just visualize the entire sky completely filled with offerings. It’s a very beautiful place.

In front of you, there’s a large, spacious throne. Now, I know sometimes people in the West get very uptight about thrones because they think, “Oh no, this is like the King of France and the King of England.” We’re just talking about thrones here because it’s a way of honoring and respecting. Don’t get into that, “This isn’t a democratic practice because Buddha’s sitting on a throne.” I say this because one time I taught this and somebody got really upset about the throne. Actually, this is good. If the throne upsets you, this is what you have to look at, “Why does my mind get so upset when there’s a throne? What do I associate with the throne? What do I associate with religion? Why don’t I want the throne and religion put together? What’s religion all about? Is Buddhism talking about Louis the 14th? Or is the throne for a different reason?”

If any of these things bother you, we can discuss them. But it’s also interesting to look at your mind about why they bother you, too.

We have, in this whole beautiful sea of offerings, beautiful flowers, food, scents, and everything. There’s this huge throne and it’s about—imagine about a body’s length in front of us, about two meters in front of us, a meter and a half. It’s one huge, beautiful, golden throne. On top of it, there’s one throne in the center and then four thrones: one in front, one on each side, and one in the back.

In the center throne, which is a little bit higher, you have Śākyamuni Buddha. Here it goes into the description of Śākyamuni. What we’re doing here is we’re visualizing all the different refuge objects, everybody that we’re taking refuge in. Śākyamuni is a gold color and he has the crown protrusion that is one of the signs of a fully enlightened being—that kind of bump on his head, symbolic of all the merit that he accumulated. His hands are in the gesture of meditation. The left hand is in his lap, holding a begging bowl, and his right hand is in the earth-touching position on his knee, the palm down, touching the earth, and that symbolizes control. Control doesn’t mean like, control. It’s not like Buddha’s controlling, just control of the negativities.

He’s sitting in the vajra cross-legged position. This is sometimes in the West called the lotus position, but in Tibetan Buddhism, actually, the lotus position is something different. It’s with your left foot on your right thigh and then your right foot on your left thigh. That’s called the vajra position.

He’s wearing the three brilliant saffron robes of a monastic. With our monastics, we have three robes: one is the lower robe, here, and then we have two upper robes. This one, actually, is a Tibetan invention; there’re two saffron-colored robes that I don’t wear very often, but sometimes you see me wear them for special occasions. Like you saw at His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings, then we all wore them.

From his body, brilliant light radiates in the ten directions. The ten directions are north, east, south, west, and then northeast, southwest, etc. We have the eight directions, and then up and down. That’s the ten. Light radiates from the Buddha’s body, and the Buddha’s body is completely made of light. All the offerings and the whole environment that we see is made of light. These light rays are like Buddha’s realizations. The power of all Buddha’s realizations just radiate out all over to all the sentient beings. As you think of the light rays, you can think of many miniature Buddhas going out on them to all the different places; going to Bosnia, the Middle East, going to Oklahoma. Going to all these places to pacify sentient beings’ minds, to pacify their fear and their anxiety, and lead them on the path.

This visualization helps us remember that the Buddha appears in many different forms in order to guide us, and we don’t always recognize when there’s a Buddha around to guide us. This helps us remember that that energy is always available, and that a Buddha’s whole purpose is to radiate out all these different manifestations to all the different realms and living beings, to whosoever’s mind is ready, whosoever’s mind is ripe, in order to help them.

Our eyes never tire of his resplendent form, with the signs and marks. Signs and marks are special physical signs that a Buddha has that indicate a fully enlightened being. There’re 32 signs and 80 marks. You can see this. If you spend a long time just concentrating on visualizing the Buddha, it just gives you such a nice, peaceful vibration in your mind. You can see why it says your eyes never tire of looking at him. If we really had the Buddha in front of us, we just could look at the Buddha all day instead of the 6:00 news; we’d feel a lot different.

Recollecting the Buddha’s qualities of speech and mind

Our ears never tire of his enchanting speech, with its sixty melodies. The sixty melodies are sixty different qualities of the Buddha’s speech. For example, he doesn’t need a mike and tape recorder. When the Buddha speaks, everybody hears no matter how far away they’re sitting. He’s able to teach in a way that’s suitable for each sentient being’s mind, so people hear the teachings on different levels. Buddha can say one sentence and people get very different meanings of it. He’s able to teach exactly according to where people are at. His speech is always compassionate. It’s always truthful. It always hits the nail on the head and gets to the point. This is something to think about when we’re doing the refuge, “Well, what are the qualities of the Buddha’s speech?” Again, I refer you to some books. You can do some reading on this and then think about these qualities.

His vast and profound mind is a treasure of knowledge and love; his depth is beyond measure. We think of the qualities of the Buddha’s mind. Here’s the body, speech, and mind, the eyes, ears, our eyes looking at his body, ears listening to his speech, and thinking about his mind. He’s the consummation of all good qualities, having perfected all things, and is free of all stains and imperfection, and so purified all the garbage. The mere recollection of the Buddha dispels the anxieties of cyclic existence and self-complacent peace. (Sometimes, we talk of two extremes in the practice. One is the extreme of cyclic existence, which is the extreme we’re caught in right now because we’re just out of control! The other extreme is just working for our own spiritual benefit alone and being very complacent about it; not caring about everybody else. That’s called self-complacent peace, kind of being self-complacent, peaceful. But we’re self-complacent in it—we don’t care about what’s happening with others.)

Just thinking about the Buddha eliminates this kind of anxiety and turbulence in our mind. That’s also why they say, if we can remember the Buddha before we die, then negative karma won’t ripen. We won’t be born in the lower rebirth because just the image of the Buddha, the remembrance of the Buddha, it reminds us of all these good qualities. It reminds us of our own inner potential and so it completely changes our state of mind.

He displays manifold, amazing powers—like the twelve deeds—to tame beings in countless worlds. The twelve deeds refer to taking birth on the earth, and teaching the Dharma, subduing the negative forces, and all these kinds of things. He does this in countless worlds that a Buddha manifests, throughout the universe, and in all the realms of different living beings out of compassion. This is something that’s really wonderful to think about when you take refuge. Think about the Buddha’s ability and that kind of compassion. Would we want to manifest in the middle of Somalia and help sentient beings? “No, I think I’ll stay here, thank you.” (laughter) When you think about that, it gives a lot of faith, a lot of joy, a lot of happiness and inspiration in the mind. In the space to the right on the throne (on the Buddha’s right), so as we look at it, it’s on the left. So to the Buddha’s right, on that throne you have Maitreya Buddha and the lineage lamas of the extensive practice. The extensive practice emphasizes bodhicitta, or the method aspect of the path. On the left side of Śākyamuni, on the right as we look at it because the visualization is in front, then we have Mañjuśrī, who’s the Buddha of wisdom, and that’s the profound lineage—profound because they emphasize the teachings on wisdom. We keep coming to this thing—the compassion or method aspect of the path which is the extensive aspect, and then the wisdom or profound aspect of the path.

Audience: [inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, I think there was a Maitreya who was one of Buddha’s disciples. The Maitreya we usually talk about is the Buddha of the future. This is referring to that Buddha, who taught Asaṅga, one of the great Indian sages. Remember, I told you that story of Asaṅga meditating in a cave for twelve years to have a vision of Maitreya? After he did all of that meditating, then Maitreya gave him all these teachings and the extensive lineage really flourished after that.

On the throne in front, as we’re looking at it, the throne in front of Śākyamuni Buddha, is our own root teacher and any teachers that we have taken as our personal Dharma teachers, people that we have a personal connection with. People are going to put different people here; this does not mean everybody who is a Dharma teacher. Somebody being a Dharma teacher and somebody being your Dharma teacher are two different things. You choose your Dharma teachers. I said “spiritual mentor” here. You choose the ones that you feel most closely connected with.

When it talks about your root spiritual mentor—you’ll hear this term often in Tibetan Buddhism of “root guru”—that can be the teacher who either first got you interested in the Dharma, or the one who most profoundly touches your heart. That may not be evident right at the beginning. There’s no stress. There’s no push to find your root guru and make a big thing. Often, it’s just you hear teachings for a while and, very naturally, after a while, sometimes after a few months, sometimes after a few years, sometimes after many years, there are one or two or three teachers that, of all the people who you consider your teachers, who you feel really affect you the most profoundly. That person or persons become your root spiritual mentor. No pressure. His Holiness the Dalai Lama really advises going slowly on selecting people as being our spiritual mentors and not just running around collecting things. He says it’s fine to go to the teachings offered by various teachers. You get to know the people. You check up their ethics. You check up their compassion and you check up their qualities before you say, “This person is my spiritual mentor.”

In any case, if you have people who you consider your teachers, they’re seated on the throne in front of the Buddha. Behind the Buddha, the throne behind the Buddha is Vajradhāra. Vajradhāra is one tantric aspect of the Buddha, who’s usually blue and sitting with his partner. Surrounding them is the lineage of the Blessings of the Practice. Sometimes, they have Śāntideva (Shantideva) there and Atiśa (Atisha). Sometimes, they have the tantric lamas. I think you could probably put in all the other lamas, the other lineage spiritual mentors that you feel close to because when their texts are taught, it really influences you a lot.

Around Śākyamuni, around this whole thing of all the spiritual mentors, around that you have the four principal deities of the Maha-anuttarayoga Tantra class. I’m mentioning these things as planting seeds. If you don’t understand everything all at once, it’s okay. These four deities are Guhyasamāja, Chakrasaṃvara, Vajrabhairava, and Kalachakra with their maṇḍalas. Then around them, we have all the other meditational deities: Medicine Buddha, Chenrezig, Tara, Mañjuśrī, and Vajrasattva.

What we’re doing is, we’re having the spiritual mentors in the center and then, sitting all around them, we have the different yidams or the different deities. Remember all these different deities. Sometimes you can relate to them as beings who have attained enlightenment. Sometimes you can relate to them as symbols of all the good qualities of the Buddha appearing in that symbolic physical form. Sometimes you can relate to them also as a reflection of the Buddha you’re going to become. As we’re visualizing all these objects of refuge, don’t just think that it’s all external things, like God or something, unrelated to me. They’re actually symbols of qualities, and they actually also represent our own potential. We can become all these different beings that we’re now taking refuge in.

Around the deities, we have seated a ring of Buddhas. This can be the thousand Buddhas of this Fortunate Aeon—the thousand Buddhas who appear in this historical period. You can put the eight Medicine Buddhas there, the 35 Buddhas that you make prostrations to. Around that, you have a ring of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are all the people who are not yet Buddhas, but have that strong intention to become a Buddha for the benefit of others. Around them, you have a ring of arhats, all the liberated beings who are free of cyclic existence. Around them, you have another ring of ḍākas and ḍākinīs. These are special spiritual helpers who appear and help us along the path. Around them, you have a ring of Dharma protectors, different Buddhas that appear in a very forceful way. Lower down, off the throne, you have the four guardian protectors. Sometimes, you go into temples and you see four kind of guardians at the beginning. If you go into Chinese temples or Tibetan temples, you’ll see these often at the entrance, these four guardian protectors. They aren’t yet Buddhas but they’ve pledged their help to support the Dharma.

The purpose of the extensive visualization of the merit field

Do you see what we’re doing? We’re building up this whole incredible visualization. We usually sit in our room and we say, “I feel so lonely, and who’s going to help me in my practice? Everybody’s just screwed in this world. There’s nobody with a decent personality around. Who’s going to help me?” And so we go, “Who’s going to help you? Look! Whole skies filled with people who’re going to help us! Whole skies filled with help!” The purpose of doing this visualization is so that we really get the feeling that there’s a lot of help there. If we really open our eyes, there are a lot of beings who have practiced the Dharma, and they appear. The mind of bliss and emptiness appears in all these myriad forms—sometimes as teachers, sometimes as deities, as Buddhas or bodhisattvas, as protectors, as ḍākas and ḍākinīs. The omniscient mind of a Buddha can appear in all these different forms, and this is fantastic! I mean, look how much help there is available! That’s the purpose of making such an extensive visualization.

Now, we sometimes read about this and we go, “Oh gosh! How am I going to do this? Okay, I’ve got the Buddha, kind of, but where’s Mañjuśrī? And how does Mañjuśrī look? And what does Maitreya look like? Oh God, I can’t get all their toenails right. I only count four! And what kind of clothes are they wearing? And how many gurus? And what do all these Buddhas look like?” What we do is we get obsessed with details. We miss the forest because we’re trying to see every leaf on each tree. Although this whole vast thing is described, maybe when you visualize, the only thing that comes clear, or somewhat clear, is some kind of golden blob that you associate with the Buddha! That’s okay! That’s completely okay. It’s like when you go to a movie theater, it’s filled with thousands of people. You don’t look at the face of every single person in there, do you? But you get the feeling that there’s a whole lot around you. It’s the same here. Don’t get all worried and upset because you can’t see each face clearly. But just really go on the feeling of, “Wow, look at all these beings who’ve attained enlightenment, who can help me! It’s incredible! And I’m sitting in their presence! And they actually don’t mind sitting with me!”

This visualization, it brings up so much stuff! You’re sitting there, visualizing, and you really try and make it alive, “I’m really there in the presence of the Buddha.” And, all of a sudden, it hits you, “Oh, the Buddha’s sitting in my presence. Buddha has omniscient mind. Uh-oh, that means he sees what I’m thinking! Oh no! He saw this and he knows that, and, oh no, I’m just so ashamed! What’s the Buddha going to think of me? How can I ever raise my eyes and look at this visualization because I’m so unworthy and full of garbage!” What do we do? All of our old dysfunctional thought patterns come up. All of our garbage just comes up and creates all these blocks. Why we can’t visualize the Buddha and be happy about it? Why do we make ourselves feel miserable, and anxious, and guilty? So, it’s very good when you have this kind of reaction. Then you stop for a while and you say, “Well, is the Buddha really sitting there and judging me? Why am I so paranoid about being judged by the Buddha? Where does that come from? What conditioned me to feel that way? How did I buy into that conditioning? Is that really what’s happening in Buddhism?”

It’s helpful to ask ourselves these kinds of questions if our mind starts feeling uncomfortable. “Oh, the Buddha’s omniscient and he sees all my garbage and I’m so embarrassed.” Well, why do I feel embarrassed? I mean, I have this garbage; why can’t I admit it? What’s wrong with admitting it? Buddha sees it anyway. I see it. What’s wrong with admitting that it’s there? Okay, big deal. I can admit that. I can realize that I have the Buddha potential and have a sense of integrity, and not just get completely bent out of shape because I’ve made some blunders in my life. There’s the Buddha who’s looking at us compassionately.

Sometimes, it’s funny how our mind works. It’s like we want the Buddha to look at us with disgust and anger because that’s what we associate with our own mistakes. Sometimes it’s even hard for us to imagine the Buddha looking at us with compassion. Here I am full of all my garbage and the Buddha’s looking at me with compassion. Why can’t I let that compassion in? Why do we block compassion from others? Why do we block love from others? This kind of stuff is going to come up when you do the practice, and it’s really good because this is what purification’s about. It’s about looking at all this stuff and realizing that it’s not necessary. We don’t need to tote all this stuff along with us our whole life. We can let it go.

Then we have, sitting by all the Dharma teachers, we have the texts. We can imagine all the sūtras, all the tantras, all the commentaries, all the books that Snow Lion, Wisdom, and Shambhala print. We’re going to be taking refuge in the spiritual mentors, in the Buddhas, in the Dharma, and the Sangha. We visualize all of them in the space in front. We have our own teacher appearing in the form of the Buddha and then the three thrones with the lineage teachers, and the throne in front of the Buddha with the teachers that are our teachers, who we have a direct connection with. When we take refuge in the spiritual mentors, we concentrate on them. When we take refuge in the Buddhas, we’re going to concentrate on visualizing all the meditational deities and that whole ring of Buddhas. When we take refuge in the Dharma, we’re going to concentrate on the texts and the teachings in the texts that explain the path to gain those actual realizations. When we concentrate on the Sangha, we’re going to concentrate on the bodhisattvas, the arhats, the ḍākas and ḍākinīs, and on the enlightened protectors. We have everybody there.

Then, we are surrounded by all living beings. You can see that meditation doesn’t mean cramming up in our little hole. Look what we’re doing! We’re creating this whole extensive thing to try and wake us up to the fact that there’s a lot of good energy out there. We’re surrounded by all sentient beings on all sides of us, everywhere. The visualization is really expanding our mind. It can be real helpful if you imagine on your left side your mom, on the right side your dad. Some people go, “But my parents aren’t Buddhists. If they knew I was doing this, they’d be really offended! My parents are born-again Christians! I can’t put them in a Buddhist visualization.” Of course you can because the whole purpose of why we’re taking refuge is because we’re looking for a path to happiness. Your parents are looking for a path to happiness too. It’s okay. You can put them in there. They can take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. They can still take refuge in Jesus; it’s not contradictory. It’s okay for them. But it’s real helpful for you to include them in there so that we remember we’re not just doing our spiritual practice for our self alone.

Sometimes, it’s very helpful as we’re doing it to have all the people who we don’t like right in front of us. The merit field is out there, all the holy beings. But between us and the Buddha is this guy who’s such a jerk: that one who stole my things; this one who criticized me; that one who broke up my relationship; and this one who gossips behind my back. It’s very helpful to think of those specific people right there in front of us where we can’t ignore them, and remember that we’re all looking at the Buddha together. We’re all facing the Buddha together. Why? Because we all want happiness and we all want to be free of pain. That means also the people who we don’t like, the people who have harmed us, our parents, everybody. That whole motivation of wanting happiness and being free of pain, that’s why we’re all there.

We have this huge visualization, and when we actually do the recitation for it, we think that we’re leading everybody else in doing the recitation and the visualization, too. It’s not just me sitting there doing it. I’m sitting there, and also my mom and my dad, and this guy who I can’t stand, and my best friend, and everybody. We’re all doing the chanting together. It creates this incredible sense of unity and pleasure, and we remember that we all have common visions and purposes.

If for some reason the extensive visualization that I described is too much, you can just visualize Śākyamuni Buddha and think that he’s the combined essence of all the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. If that makes you feel better, you can do that. But if you can get a sense, even if you just focus on Śākyamuni, if you can get a sense that there are more beings than that all around you, that can be real helpful for you.

Taking refuge in the spiritual mentors

We start with, “I take refuge in the spiritual mentors, or in the guru.” Here, I should explain because Buddhism always talks about the Three Jewels, or the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Some people go, “What’s this in the Tibetan tradition about the spiritual mentors? I thought there were only three gems. What’s this fourth one doing? Is that why they call it ‘lamaism’?” Actually, lamaism is completely wrong terminology coined by early Europeans. Like calling His Holiness the Dalai Lama a “God King”—that also is completely off-the-wall terminology.

When you take refuge in the spiritual mentor, it’s not a fourth jewel. There’re still three jewels. When we say the spiritual mentors, we’re not thinking of the personality of our teachers. If we think, “I’m taking refuge in that flesh-and-blood human being,” then sometimes we get really confused because what happens when that person dies? Does that mean we have no refuge? My Dharma teacher dies—that means I have no refuge because that person’s body is no longer here? Their personality is no longer here? Do I lose my refuge at that time? Taking refuge in the spiritual mentors, it’s not in the personality of your teachers or in that particular body.

The real guru that we take refuge in is the blissful omniscient mind of the Buddha. That’s the real guru. This is real important to remember. The mind that simultaneously perceives emptiness (the ultimate truth) and all conventional existence (the relative truth), that’s completely blissful and perceives all these things simultaneously—only a Buddha’s mind can do that. That’s the ultimate guru that we’re taking refuge in. That’s kind of a level of abstraction. It’s really incredible when we think of an omniscient mind. What does that look like? What does a Buddha think about all day? What appears to the Buddha’s mind all day? This is actually something we can think about as we’re doing the refuge. What does this really mean: omniscient mind full of bliss and wisdom? What does it mean to perceive the two truths simultaneously? That blissful mind manifests in the form of the Buddhas, and the Dharma, and the Sangha, and all the other manifestations that we encounter that often we don’t recognize we encounter.

We’re taking refuge in this ultimate guru, and we’re also at the same time stabilizing our relationship with our relative spiritual mentors. We’re not taking refuge in the personality, the body of our teachers. But we do want to have a good relationship with our teachers because our teachers are the ones that act as the link between the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and us. They’re the ones that really convey the teachings to us, and the import of the teachings, who give us the feeling for the Dharma, who encourage and inspire us in practice. It’s really important to have a good relationship and to appreciate our spiritual teachers.

If we don’t, then what happens is, if we learn Dharma from somebody and then afterwards we start saying, “That person is just a complete idiot. Everything they do is wrong; they’re completely screwed up. There should be a society for the prevention of this person being a teacher because they’re just drrahhh!” We just criticize up and down. If we do that, what happens to our mind? We’re full of anger and resentment, but what else happens? We’re going to stop practicing everything they taught us, aren’t we, because we think they’re such disgusting people. We’re going to stop practicing all the good things that they taught us. When we do that, who gets harmed? When we throw out the good practice that our teacher taught us, even if our teacher isn’t a Buddha and made some mistakes, still they taught us some good practice that helps our mind. If we disparage that person and then stop the practice, who gets harmed? Not the teacher; it’s us. That’s why they say it’s really important to keep a good relationship with your teacher so that you avoid throwing your practice out. Also, if you have a good relationship with your teacher, it acts to really inspire you. That’s why I told you I like to go to Dharamsala every year—to see my teachers and see Dharma in 3D living action. How they handle situations, how they deal with things. See a real person who’s practicing. That can give a lot of inspiration. To be able to ask questions, to be able to talk about our own personal practice. We can’t do that with a book. There are certain things that develop because of a relationship with a teacher that we can’t get in any other way, and these things are very helpful for our practice.

It’s not a thing of idolizing our teacher. We should really avoid that. Let’s not make what I call “guru gaga eyes.” You see this in the West, “Oh! Oh, my teacher!” We don’t need to do that because then what happens is we’re going to project all of our … in America we have all of our tumultuous relationship with authority. On one hand, we want authority to be perfect; on the other hand, we can’t stand it. We begin to project all that on our spiritual teacher, “Look! My teacher’s perfect! They’re a Buddha! They’re da, dada, dada…” But then they start telling me something I don’t want to do? “Grrr!” We get really upset and all of our authority issues come out. Just be aware of this. Or if your teacher makes one mistake, then it’s like, “Gasp! Michael Jordan! How can that happen?” (Is it Michael Jordan? I get all these guys mixed up.) But when one of your big sports heroes makes a mistake … OJ! I know who he is. I went to college with OJ. I did. I went to all the football games. All the audience was yelling, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” during the football games. Talk about planting seeds. (Comments from the audience here.) Now I didn’t say that! Just because seeds are planted doesn’t mean they then need to ripen.

But you know how we build up a sports hero and then we tear the poor guy down so he can’t do anything right. We do the same thing with our spiritual teachers, and the same thing with our parents. Interesting, isn’t it? Little bit of transference going on here. It’s the same thing with our therapists. We make everybody perfect and then they make one mistake, they do one thing we don’t want, and we’re out of there. Goodbye. This thing’s screwed up!

Then where’s our equanimity? Where’re our patience and tolerance? Are we looking for ideal people who are going to be perfect? What does perfect mean? “It means that they fulfill all my ego needs and they do whatever I want them to do, when I want them to do it. That’s what perfect means.” Is this what we’re looking for when we take refuge? Is this perfection? All my ego needs are going to get fulfilled whenever I have them? Is that why we’re in spiritual practice? “Well, now that you bring it up, yes. That’s what I want! I’m really hoping that it’ll really work this time. That finally I’ll meet somebody who’s perfect, who doesn’t push my buttons.”

When we take refuge in the spiritual mentors, what we’re going to be concentrating on is thinking about the qualities of the absolute or the ultimate guru—this blissful omniscient mind of the Buddhas that perceives ultimate and relative truth. We’re going to be thinking about that. We’re also going to be thinking about our relationship with our relative teacher, and how to have a really open relationship so that we can really receive benefit.

We think about this as we’re doing the recitation, and what we would recite is in Sanskrit. Recite “Namo Gurubhya,” over and over again. You have your prayer beads and you go, “Namo Gurubhya, Namo Gurubhya.” Or you can do it in Tibetan, “Lama la, kyab su chio.” Or you can do it in English, “I take refuge in the spiritual mentors.” However you want to do it, whatever language you want to do it in, we have the visualization. We have our self doing the recitation. We’re thinking about these things and we’re also purifying.

Purifying negative karma in relation to spiritual mentors

What are we purifying? [Missing audio at 58:28 briefly] … [endangering] the life of your spiritual teacher? You’re crossing the street and a truck comes. You’re scared, so you put your teacher in front of you. “Well, I took refuge in my teacher! He’s supposed to protect me.” Endangering the life of your spiritual mentors. Disregarding their speech—in other words, they give you certain Dharma instructions or certain advice that would be really helpful and you just completely throw it out the window and say, “That’s nonsense.” Disturbing their minds—we know how we disturb people’s minds, don’t we? I don’t need to go into detail about that. Disparaging them, criticizing them, misappropriating their belongings—taking things that belong to our teacher, like library books, and not returning them. In short, all negativities committed in relationship to the spiritual mentors as well as any kind of negativities that could result in us having unfortunate rebirths in a future life. If we’re born as humans but we get born in a dreadful environment that’s very difficult to live in, where there’s no Dharma. Or we’re born and we have lots of difficulties with how other people act towards us, even though we’re born human. Or we’re born with a personality that just habitually creates more negativity.

Importance of the visualization process

We need to purify all those kinds of results, as well as any kind of disease that comes from our negative karma, and any kind of harms. We imagine all of this that comes from all of our negative karma, but specifically, particular karma created in relationship with our teachers. During the visualization we imagine that it leaves us through our lower orifices and our pores in the form of filthy liquid.

We concentrate, and we’re getting light and nectar from all the merit field of the whole visualization. We imagine this light and nectar from all the holy beings, but particularly from all the spiritual mentors, Śākyamuni and all the lineage teachers and all. Light and nectar is flowing from them into us. We can imagine it entering into us in two ways: one is that it enters through the top of our head, through our crown, and it flows down. Another way is that it just enters and absorbs through all the pores of your body. The result is the same in that we’re just completely filled with not only light, but also nectar. We’re not only filled with it, but all the psychological junk, all the negativities, all the disease, all the harms, all the tight stomach and everything else that we have, all of this leaves us in the form of filth. You can imagine it specifically coming out of your lower orifices or oozing out of your pores, like you’re sweating all this stuff.

What we’re dealing with here is symbols, aren’t we? We’re taking all the negativities and making them appear as this filth that comes out. It’s not like you imagine yourself full of filth and then it comes out. The light’s coming into you and you just think you’re full of light, but as you think of letting go of this stuff, as it leaves you, the filth appears. You can really get into this visualization, I mean it’s a tremendous visualization. Especially if you’ve been carrying something around that you just feel so lousy about, so horrible about. Here, when you’re doing these visualizations with any of the refuge beings, the light is coming in and you can imagine those specific things and they’re all oozing out of you in the form of this gunk. You just say, “Okay, now that’s out and finished and done.”

Everything that we’ve been putting in psychological cold storage, which takes up a lot of room, you have to pay rent on it, psychological rent to keep all that guilt and bad feelings and negativity. We pay psychological rent which, because of inflation, keeps increasing. We can finally let it go. We just let this stuff go. It’s such a feeling of tremendous relief. When you really concentrate and do this practice, you feel this tremendous relief because now we can just face our garbage. We can acknowledge it, we can admit it, we don’t have to feel guilty, sinful and wicked, and all those other wonderful words that we learned as children. We don’t have to feel that, we’re just letting go of all of it. Instead, what’s coming in to us is the ultimate spiritual mentor, the blessings, the inspiration of the Buddha’s omniscient mind that sees blissful emptiness and conventional phenomena simultaneously. If this doesn’t promote psychological change … when you can do this it’s tremendous, the effect it has on your mind. It’s really incredible.

Sometimes we have a hard time doing the visualizations because maybe we have a lot invested in holding onto our garbage. We don’t really want to visualize it all coming out of us. Who am I going to be if I don’t have this trauma to hold onto? Who am I going to be if I don’t keep all my energy knotted up in feeling bad about myself? Who am I going to be if I’m not depressed all day long? It’s funny because sometimes it becomes even hard to do the visualization because we have a lot, in a very crazy way, invested in our junk.

Or sometimes we fall back into our old psychological patterns of, “Okay, I see my junk but I’m guilty, and I’m wicked, and I’m evil, and this is awful. The Buddha’s never going to forgive me.” We find these kind of blocks coming in. “How can I imagine light from the whole lineage, from the Buddha down to my teacher? How can I imagine light from them coming into me when I’ve had so many critical, disrespectful thoughts? When I’ve said such horrible things, and criticized? I’m not worthy of light from them coming into me.” We get all of our issues about worthiness coming out.

This is really very effective. When this stuff comes up, this is what’s supposed to happen. You’re not doing it wrong; you’re doing it right. That’s real important to remember when this stuff comes up. It’s only by looking at that stuff and really thinking about it that we get it sorted out. You might not get it all sorted out in that one meditation session. My own experience is that some of the things that are really deeply rooted, they keep coming back one meditation session after another one, one year after another one, one retreat after another one. But you keep working on it and it keeps getting better. It definitely gets better. I wouldn’t have stuck around for twenty years if it didn’t get better. It definitely makes things change if you keep on doing these things.

Another real neat thing now comes into this visualization, and here we’re really using symbology. We visualize this horrible, ugly, disgusting monster. The one that you were always afraid was going to creep out from your closet when you were a kid? When you went to bed and the lights were out, once in a while? This guy, the one that you were always so afraid of? There he is. He’s below you and his mouth is wide open. He’s not going to gobble you up, but what he’s going to gobble up is all this filth that’s leaving you. All your negativities, all your guilt and anxiety, all the horrible, stupid, ridiculous things we did. They’re all coming out in the form of this filth, and that filth becomes like nectar for this monster—for the Lord of Death. He’s hanging like this, kind of like the guy drooling in front of the Jack in the Box. All this negativity, all this filth is just coming into him and he just loves it. He’s so satisfied—completely blissed out. This monster, the thing that is symbolic of the things that we’re most terrified of in our life, the things that we’re most afraid of, that we’re most ashamed of, whatever it is, appear like this monster, the Lord of Death. What are we most afraid of? Dying, isn’t it? Giving up our ego. But there he is! We satisfy him, not by giving up the good things in our life, but by giving up the trash. Isn’t that amazing? We satisfy what we’re most afraid of by giving up our trash. And he eats it! It’s nectar to him and he’s just, “Wow, that’s great!” At the end of the visualization, his mouth closes, and then you imagine a double dorje, a crossed vajra, on top of his mouth so he can’t burp.

It’s a tremendous visualization when you do this. You can think also not only the light and nectar coming into you, but all the sentient beings around you. We can put in it the people who blew up the building in Oklahoma. I was telling you on Wednesday about having compassion for Republicans—all the negativity; and all the negativity of the Democrats, too—they have a little bit as well. Any kind of negativity that we see in other sentient beings, all of it is getting purified.

What I’m describing now is going for all of the visualizations—not only of the spiritual mentors, but also the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I’m just describing it all at the beginning, but it applies to all of them. We put all sentient beings in there, and all this stuff in the world. All the impurities in the world, all the impurities in other people, all the potentials for harm, all the harm already committed. All of this is getting fed into the Lord of Death who is then just totally satisfied.

Sometimes, at the beginning, as we’re doing this recitation, we concentrate on white light coming. When we do that, it’s actually all rainbow-colored light. But when we concentrate on the white light coming, we really think of purification. Sometimes, we can switch it and concentrate on the yellow [golden] light coming and we concentrate, in our way of thinking, on receiving the blessings and inspiration. We think of the qualities of whichever refuge object it is, and we think that those qualities are now flowing into us. For example, the qualities of the ultimate guru, this blissful mind is flowing into me. This ability to understand emptiness is flowing into me. This ability to be compassionate with people who harm me, it’s flowing into me in the form of this light and nectar. When we concentrate on the light and nectar being white, we’re concentrating more on the purification and the Lord of Death and the goop coming out. When we concentrate on the yellow light, we really think of the good qualities and develop the sense of faith and conviction in whichever refuge object we’re concentrating on as we’re doing this. So it’s yellow light coming from them and all good qualities coming into us and into everybody else as well.

Taking refuge in the Buddha

When we say, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” and, actually, when we do it in class, we do first the mentors, then the Buddhas, and then the Dharma, and the Sangha. Then we repeat the whole thing. When you’re going to do it and count 100,000, what I think is really good to do is, for part of your session, or for all of your session, just concentrate on the spiritual mentors. Maybe you do five malas (our prayer beads are called malas). Maybe you do five malas of the one with the spiritual mentors, then five malas with the Buddhas, then five with the Dharma, and then five with the Sangha. You can do it like that. Or maybe you want to do all 100,000 first with the gurus, and then do 100,000 recitations for the Buddha, 100,000 for the Dharma, and 100,000 for the Sangha. You can do it either way.

When you focus on the Buddhas, when you’re saying, “I take refuge in the Buddhas,” it’s the same visualization described above. First, the white light coming and purifying, and here we’re purifying all the negativities created since beginningless time, particularly those that we created in relationship to the Buddhas. Things like, with an angry, disrespectful mind destroying Buddha statues and stupas. Maybe, in a previous life, we were born like the Chinese soldiers going into Tibet. In a previous life, we could have been one of the soldiers in some army that went into a Buddhist country and destroyed all the temples.

Buying and selling statues simply for business. It’s okay to buy and sell Buddhist statues and books. But if you’re doing it with the mind that’s just doing it for business—like, you look at the Buddha’s statues the same way as a used car dealer looks at the used cars—buying and selling with that kind of attitude. Or criticizing the Buddha’s body—for example, you look at a picture of the Buddha and you say, “Oh, that Buddha’s really ugly.” It’s more appropriate to talk about the artistry of that Buddha. “The artist did not depict the Buddha in such a beautiful way,” rather than criticizing the Buddha’s body itself because the Buddha’s body is an emanation of the Buddha’s mind. The actual Buddha’s body is made of light and it’s an emanation of all these good qualities. There’s nothing to criticize there. The artist may not be so good. We can criticize that.

We purify any kind of criticism of the Buddhas, or hostile attitudes that we’ve had towards Buddhas, or cynical attitudes that we’ve had towards Buddhas. All of the negativities, even stuff that doesn’t relate to the Buddhas, but particularly the stuff that does, we imagine it coming out as this filth. The white light and nectar comes in, and then later on after we’ve purified that, it becomes yellow light and nectar, and we imagine that the qualities of the Buddha come into us. Here we think about the qualities of the Buddha—qualities of his body, of his speech, of his mind. (Go to some of the lamrim books and do some reading about this.) Then you think that you and everybody else comes under the protection of the Buddhas. Before, we came under the protection of the spiritual mentors; now we’re under the protection of the Buddha.

Taking refuge in the Dharma

We take refuge in the Dharma. Here it’s the same visualization. All the negativities from beginningless time, especially negativities created in relationship to the Dharma. Those such as abandoning Dharma. What abandoning Dharma means is, you say, “Oh, the Buddha didn’t teach the Pāli scriptures.” Or, “The Buddha didn’t teach the Mahāyāna scriptures.” Or, “The Buddha didn’t teach the tantra.” Or, there’s some point in Buddhism that you don’t feel good about so you just say, “The Buddha didn’t teach that. I don’t like doing purification practices so the Buddha didn’t teach purification practice. I don’t have to do that. We’re already Buddhas. We don’t have to purify.” You abandon the real Dharma and create your own stuff.

Criticizing the Buddha’s teachings or other Buddhist traditions—while we may follow a particular tradition, we criticize other traditions. We may say, “Oh, that tradition has it completely upside down. There’s nothing valuable in it. It’s completely degenerate. These people don’t know what they’re talking about.” In actual fact, since all of the Buddhist traditions came from the teachings of the Buddha, if we criticize the traditions, then we’re criticizing the Buddha’s teachings. This doesn’t mean that we need to paint everything that’s not good and say it’s good. There are things that are wrong, let’s say, in Buddhist institutions. And there are things that have gotten degenerated. We need to talk about those and we need to point them out. But we need to be very careful in doing so, to make sure that it’s things that are actual degenerations of Buddhism—and not just things that we feel jealous of, or that we’re incapable of doing, or that somehow, because of our disturbing attitude, we criticize. If some teacher’s going around and saying, “Well, Buddha taught ‘believe in God,’” you can say, “That’s not Buddhism,” and that’s not abandoning the Dharma. But if Buddha taught emptiness and you say, “Well, Buddha didn’t teach that,” that’s abandoning the Dharma.

We have to be real careful with sectarianism—very careful about it. Unfortunately, a lot of sectarianism is spreading to the West from Asia. It existed in the other traditions and it’s passed down generation to generation, and it’s passed to us. Because we don’t know any better, we believe it. I think we have to be real careful and aware and investigate any kind of Dharma gossip, or critical things that we hear, and not just take them at face value.

Another negativity created in relationship to the Dharma is buying and selling scriptures simply for business. That’s why, for example, with all my books, the profit from those goes in a special account that’s only used to buy more Dharma books or to buy statues or for Dharma educational purposes. If we sell Dharma materials and then use it to go to the movies and to have pizza and to buy yourself a nice house, it creates incredible negative karma. It’s like selling the holy things, isn’t it. The holy objects don’t care, but what it does to our mind when we start seeing holy objects simply as merchandise, that’s when it’s negative.

The same thing with not treating the Buddha’s statues properly—Buddha’s statue doesn’t care. Buddha doesn’t care. It’s more, what psychological state have we gotten our self into if we treat holy objects in that way? That’s more what we need to purify.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Oh, you mean if you’re selling mustard, but you imagine that it’s blissful wisdom nectar? I think most of us would actually prefer to work and not charge. But this is referring specifically to when there’s an object that’s commonly regarded by society as something that’s holy. It’s not in terms of your doing your career. That wouldn’t be a breach of this one with the Dharma. However, there’s going to be a big difference in the karma you create if you give treatments thinking, “Oh! I’m going to get a whole bunch of money from this!” Or if you give your treatment and think, “I really hope I benefit these people.” You’re creating completely different karma even though the treatment you give is the same.

Disrespecting the texts—for example, putting them in dirty places, putting your coffee cup on top of your Dharma book, putting your Dharma books on the same shelf with all your Playboy magazines, all your porno. We treat Dharma materials somehow special. We don’t use them to line our garbage can and wipe our windows, and things like that. Those are the things to purify specifically when we say we take refuge in the Dharma, all together with everything else.

When we take refuge in the Dharma, then we think, too, about receiving the blessings and inspiration of the Dharma. What are the qualities of the Dharma? Well, the real Dharma—it’s not just the books. The books are the symbol. The real Dharma is the cessation of suffering and the path to that cessation that exists in the minds of people who have developed those. Those things are now flowing into us as the yellow light flows into us. We think about what really is the Dharma. What is it? What are the qualities that come to us?

Taking refuge in the Sangha

With the Sangha, it’s the same visualizations. Here we’re concentrating, again—with the Buddhas we concentrated on the light coming from the deity, from the circle of Buddhas; with the Dharma, coming from the scriptures; with the Sangha, from the bodhisattvas, the arhats, the ḍākas and ḍākinīs, and the protectors. The light comes from them, purifying all the negativities—particularly those related to the Sangha.

Sangha is actually two kinds of Sangha. The Sangha that is the ultimate Sangha—the one that we’re taking refuge in—is any person, whether they’re lay or monastic, who has direct perception of emptiness. That’s the ultimate Sangha, the real object of refuge. The one that symbolizes that in our daily life are people holding monastic vows. Now that does not mean that everybody who holds monastic vows is an ultimate Sangha. Lots of us are stupid nincompoops like everybody else. It doesn’t mean that everybody who isn’t in monastic robes is not the ultimate Sangha because you can have lay people with very deep realizations also that are the ultimate Sangha. We have to really discriminate this quite well.

I think the way “Sangha” often gets used in American Buddhism, it refers to anybody who comes to a Buddhist center. Then people say, “I take refuge in the Sangha.” They look and they go, “This guy’s lying and that guy’s taking drugs, and I take refuge in these people?” No. Those aren’t the ultimate Sangha that we take refuge in. They’re a support system. They’re our Dharma friends, our Dharma community. The monastic community also is a support system, and these people have really committed their lives to practice. They can really support us a lot. The real Sangha we take refuge in is any particular person, lay or monastic, who has those deep realizations.

When we’re purifying, we’re purifying all the negativities from beginningless time, and specifically misbehavior related to the Sangha, such as criticizing them. This can go also for the symbolic Sangha, the monastic community. When we get really negative minds towards the monastic community and say, “Oh, these are just a bunch of people making money and none of them practice anymore,” we make these very broad, sweeping generalizations, which you hear all the time, especially in America. They say, “All these monks and nuns, they just have sexual hang-ups. They can’t face real relationships; that’s why they get ordained.” It’s wonderful what you hear in America, freedom and democracy. So, we have discrimination against people of color. Just different color this time, gold and maroon color.

This is not to say that we have to say everybody who’s a monk or a nun is perfect. That’s certainly not the case. There’re a lot of defects in the Buddhist institution. There’s a lot of stuff in the monasteries that I don’t approve of. These are like common human faults. We can point out mistakes that people made without criticizing the person, and without attributing their mistake to the fact that they’re a Buddhist, or the fact that they’re a monastic. It’s exactly the opposite. Somebody being a Buddhist or somebody being a monastic is going to be the good side of that person’s personality, not the side that’s involved in making a mistake.

We can certainly point out things that are not proper. That’s how all the monastic vows got made, because people saw the monks and nuns doing inappropriate things and they went and complained to the Buddha. The Buddha said, “I’ll make a vow and you shouldn’t do that anymore.” Really, that’s how all of our vows came about. People complained about how we act to the Buddha.

You can certainly point out negativities, specific behaviors, and talk about the behavior. But this is like making sweeping generalizations that puts down a whole institution that actually has some very remarkable and redeeming qualities. Remember that the Dharma that we’re enjoying has been passed down through mostly the ordained Sangha, some lay members as well, but mostly ordained people since the time of the Buddha. It’s only because of them that we have the Dharma. There’s something good going on there.

Causing disunity—in a monastic community, or more in general in a Dharma center, creating factions and parties, stirring things up and getting people angry at each other. This one’s real easy to do. It happens in too many Dharma centers.

Misappropriating donations—things get donated to the Dharma center or to the monastery and you just kind of take it for what you happen to need.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Right! “We’re going to have a hot tub for the center.” Or, “There’re just too many $1 bills in the dana basket. I’d better take them and make it not so heavy.” This kind of thing is misappropriating funds. It’s very heavy negative karma. Why? Because the people, when they give donations, they give it in good faith and with a happy mind. It’s really betraying that to misappropriate it.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.