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Refuge and bodhicitta

Refuge and bodhicitta

From a talk given to the Maha Bodhi Society of USA, Sunnyvale, CA.

Benefits of Buddhadharma

  • Understanding the influences of modern society on our mind
  • Ceasing suffering
  • Becoming a Buddha
  • Developing inner refuge through the Three Jewels

Refuge and bodhicitta 01 (download)

Questions and answers

  • Antidotes to the negativity of the media
  • Nurturing marriage through basic human manners

Refuge and bodhicitta 02 (download)

The topic for today is something to the effect of: How can Buddhadharma help you in your life, especially in this modern age? The teachings that Sakyamuni Buddha gave 2500 years ago are just as applicable now as they were at the time of the Buddha. Cultural examples may have changed, but the teachings about how the mind works are the same because we basically have the same mind, then as now.

Statue of a bronze Buddha.

The Buddhadharma provides a vision of life that gives us hope, faith, and optimism about the future. (Photo by Alice Popkorn)

One of the things that is most valuable about the Buddhadharma is that it really provides a vision of life that gives us some hope, some faith, and some optimism about the future. Nowadays one thing that is different than at the time of the Buddha is that people are exposed to much more information, and we know what’s happening on the other side of the world. The media also exploits our fear and anxiety in terms of what it reports. It wants to make us fearful and anxious—because somehow, when we get revved up like that, we buy more things. I find it quite interesting in the media when you’re trying to get things published. For example, I remember a few years ago we had this conference of Western Buddhist nuns. I couldn’t get any Buddhist magazines to publish anything about it. They weren’t interested in a group of women doing something virtuous. But if I had called it, “Buddhist Nuns Tell All,” I’m sure they’d have all bought it up and it would have been a top seller.

We’re exposed to a lot of this kind of negativity. The media doesn’t report much about what’s going on about human kindness and things that people have accomplished in a positive way. As a result, nowadays people have more anxiety, depression, and despair because they don’t have a positive vision of the future. People don’t have the same mental qualities, or maybe they didn’t come out as much because the social system wasn’t quite as complicated. They didn’t have IRAs, 401Ks, and stock markets back in the time of the Buddha, so they didn’t have to worry about all those things—like going bankrupt. Although they did have to worry about all their crops failing and there was no social security system then—there might not be much left in our country either.

Anyway, I think that this whole thing about how to have an optimistic mind is something very important for people today because without it, there’s no joy in life. Without it, we dig our self into an emotional hole of depression and despair which we don’t need to dig our self into—because there’s a lot of reason for optimism. It’s just that we aren’t used to thinking about it. The Buddhadharma shows us how to turn our mind around so we can see the goodness in the world. It does this, I think, in several ways. Two of the principal ones are the teachings on refuge and the teachings on bodhicitta, or the altruistic intention of love and compassion. I think these two things help us adjust in the world and have a happy life. Someone wrote a book once and really talked about refuge in terms of how to be peaceful when being alone in our own heart, and bodhicitta about how to be peaceful when being together with others. Those are the two situations that we’re usually in. We’re alone or we’re with others. It helps to have an open and kind heart in both those situations.

When we talk about refuge, how is it that something gives us peace of mind when we’re alone? Refuge helps us develop a positive outlook on life and a feeling of connection to all the holy beings. We may be alone in the sense that there aren’t other human beings in the realm, but we’re not alone in our heart because we have deep refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Being alone is very different from being lonely. We can be alone, and be the only one in our house, but feel quite connected to the holy beings or even to other human beings. We may be alone but not lonely in that way. Refuge gives us that connection, specifically, with the holy beings.

When they talk about refuge, there are usually two principal causes for taking refuge. Refuge means turning to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha for spiritual guidance; to really clarify in our mind what the spiritual direction we’re taking in our life is.

Principal causes for taking refuge

The two principal causes—and then in Mahayana, they talk about three principal causes—the first one is the sense of caution. The second one is a sense of faith, or confidence, or trust. The third one is compassion. The stronger these three causes are, the deeper our refuge and our connection with the Three Jewels—and thus the more optimistic mental state we’re going to have because of the connection with it.

First cause for taking refuge: a sense of caution

There is a sense of caution that will motivate us to take refuge. Here we look at the fact that our life is not under our control 100%, that we are under the control of our afflictive emotions, of our karma. Because of that we want to be cautious about what we say and do, and what we think and feel. All these mental, verbal, physical actions create karma. If we’re not cautious, if we’re not careful, it could create the karma—the actions—that bring forth an unfortunate rebirth; or bring forth suffering. It’s an awareness of the situation that we’re living in and the sense of caution that that brings.

We don’t want to just follow any old thought that comes into our mind. We want to have some discriminating wisdom about what thoughts and emotions we follow, what thoughts and emotions we believe in, and what thoughts and emotions we let guide our life. There’s that sense of caution because we realize that these thoughts, emotions, and actions create the cause for what we’re going to experience. That’s the sense of caution that we want to have.

Then, the second main factor for taking refuge is the sense of faith and confidence in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to be able to guide us from the possible sufferings that we may experience if we’re not cautious. To take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we need to know a little bit about what they are.

Taking refuge in the Triple Gem

The Dharma is the real refuge. The Dharma refers to the last two of the Four Noble Truths. It refers to the true cessations of sufferings and their causes, and to the true paths that lead to their cessations. The Dharma refuge is what we develop in our own heart, in our own mind. The more we have actualized the Dharma in our mind, the more we have protection from suffering already. When we say that the Dharma is the real refuge, it doesn’t mean just believing in the Dharma. It means practicing and actualizing it, transforming our own mind and heart into the Dharma—transforming them into the path to enlightenment; and thereby actualizing the stopping of the afflictive mental states, the stopping of the karma that creates rebirth, the stopping of suffering. These stoppings are cessations. That’s the real joy that we can actualize.

The Dharma refuge is the real one that we actualize in our mind. As we’re actualizing that, we become the Sangha, those beings who have realized emptiness. Then, as we actualize the Dharma more and more, we become a Buddha, somebody who has completely realized the Dharma.

Internal and external refuge

That Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha that we will become, that is the real refuge. And that’s often called the inner refuge. It’s inner because it’s inside our own mind. Now, to generate that inner refuge—our own realizations, the inner refuge of ourselves becoming the Sangha and the Buddha—to do that we have to rely on the external objects of refuge. These are the Buddhas, Dharma, and Sangha that are external to us. In this case, the Dharma refers to the teachings and they are symbolized by the scriptures. The Sangha refers to all the beings who have actualized the realization of emptiness, who have seen the nature of reality completely clean clear through direct perception. That’s the real meaning of Sangha. And then, the Buddha is the one who has purified his mind completely and thus teaches the Dharma—a founding Buddha who teaches the Dharma in our world. These are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha that are external to us; the other living beings who have actualized the Dharma in their life.

To actualize our internal refuge, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha that we’re going to become, we need to, in the beginning, have an external refuge—the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha that already exist in the universe.

What that boils down to is that we need spiritual guidance. We cannot make up the path to enlightenment on our own. We’ve been in cyclic existence since beginningless time so we’ve had plenty of time to make up our own path, and we’ve probably done it lots and lots of times. But it hasn’t liberated us because we’re still here. This is a lifetime where we have some fortune to actually meet the Buddha’s teachings, and meet the Dharma and Sangha. And so, instead of making up our own path to enlightenment and falling flat on our face, now we can actually rely on a reliable guide.

The Buddha is reliable because he’s completely purified all of his negative qualities—his or her because there can be female manifestations and male manifestations of the Buddha. A Buddha is someone who’s completely abandoned all defilements in their mindstream and developed all their good qualities to full fruition. Sometimes, when we hear that, it seems a little bit abstract. But think about it. If you’re a Buddha, it means you never get angry again. Can you imagine that? Somebody who never gets angry, no matter how many people insult them or call them names or destroy their homes or whatever. That’s quite an incredible quality, isn’t it? To never get angry. A Buddha is somebody who not only doesn’t get angry, but has love and compassion for the person that harms them. When we think about these kinds of qualities and we compare them to our own self, then we really see that Buddhahood is quite an amazing state. There’s no jealousy in a Buddha’s mind, no competitiveness, no laziness, no resentment, no anxiety and depression. But rather, a Buddha is somebody who’s fully optimistic because they see that suffering comes from causes, and those causes can be eliminated. The Buddha has eliminated those causes by knowing the nature of reality.

We can see that the state of Buddhahood is like a further development of where we’re at. We have the Buddha nature or Buddha potential right now. We have the seeds of Buddha qualities inside of us but we need to develop these. We need to apply the counter forces to our own ignorance, anger, and attachment. When we do that, we too can become a Buddha. We rely on the Buddha, the external Buddha, to teach us and to guide us—a Buddha because they’ve eliminated all obscurations from their mindstream. From their own side they don’t have any interference in being of benefit to us or to anybody else. A Buddha effortlessly and spontaneously appears whenever there’s the opportunity to help a sentient being. When you think about our compassion, we have to really generate some effort, don’t we? Sometimes, somebody needs some help but, “Oh, I’m so tired today. I don’t really feel like it.” We’ve got some interferences to acting out our compassion. We can’t manifest bodies spontaneously in order to be of benefit whereas a Buddha can manifest many different forms, many different bodies, without even trying when there’s an opportunity to benefit others.

Now, of course, sentient beings have to create that opportunity to be benefited because if we don’t create the receptivity, a Buddha may be trying to benefit us but not be able to. Here an analogy is given, like a bowl that’s turned upside down. The sun might be shining very brightly and the sunlight goes everywhere spontaneously, without hindrance from the side of the sun rays, but it can’t go inside the bowl because the bowl has turned itself upside down. When our mind is full of garbage—Lama Yeshe used to call ignorance and attachment garbage mind when our mind is sitting there just ruminating about “Me, Me, Me,”—it’s like the bowl being turned upside down. Even though the Buddha’s sitting in front of us, we’re going to watch television instead of paying attention to the Buddha.

We have to do some purification and to create some merit or positive potential so that we can be like a bowl that’s turned right side up, and create the causes so that a Buddha can manifest in our lives and be a benefit to us. Of course, when the Buddhas manifest in our life, they don’t come knocking on the door and say, “Hello, I’m the Buddha. I’m here to benefit you.” The Buddha’s much more subtle than that. We don’t really know who’s a Buddha and who isn’t, or how the Buddhas and bodhisattvas actually work to benefit us because they don’t announce it. They don’t wear a name tag, “Hi, I’m Kwan Yin and I’m here to help you.” It’s more up to us. If you’re aware and astute, you receive help from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The Buddha has the ability to benefit us from his or her own side because they’ve purified their mind and developed all the good qualities.

The Sangha that we take refuge in are those beings who have understood directly the empty nature of phenomena. That doesn’t mean the non-existence of phenomena; that means the emptiness of fantasized ways of existence of phenomena. Somebody who has that high realization is also a reliable guide because they understand reality. They aren’t going to be under the influence of their ego self-centered mind. They are really going to be able to show us the path. So the Sangha is a reliable guide, and, of course, the Dharma, being the path and the teachings. They’re reliable because they are what the Buddha and the Sangha have followed and actualized in their own mind, that have brought them to their own joyful levels of realization.

That’s a little bit about the qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. When you read the sutras or you read the commentaries, they explain in much more depth the qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It’s really inspiring to read it because it gives us a whole different vision about what we can become and about what human beings are. If I just compare it to the six o’clock news, what do we see as a vision for human beings? Saddam Hussein, George Bush, fashion models, athletes and movie stars! I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be like any of those people! I don’t find any of them very inspiring!

The analogy of the patient

When we think about the qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, which the six o’clock news does not report, but which is actually more important, then we have a sense of hope and vision about what we can become if we have good role models to follow. In the process of going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, the analogy is often given of somebody who’s sick going to a doctor and getting medicine, then having the nurses help them. I think this is actually quite a nice analogy that shows us what taking refuge in the Three Jewels means.

We’re like the patient. We’re sick, in a spiritual sense. What do we suffer from? We suffer from not getting what we want, from getting what we don’t want, from getting what we want and then being disappointed in it. We suffer from being born and then getting old and getting sick and dying. We suffer from not having control over everything in our lives. We suffer from separation from the people and things that we care about. We suffer from anxiety, despair, and fear.

What does the patient do when they don’t feel well? They go to the doctor. The doctor is the Buddha. What does a doctor do? A doctor diagnoses the illness and then prescribes the medicine. The Buddha looks at our suffering state and diagnoses its causes. What causes the state of cyclic existence that we’re caught in? Ignorance, clinging attachment and hostility—those are the causes. Then a doctor, knowing what the causes are, prescribes the medicine. What’s the medicine? The three higher trainings—the higher training in ethical discipline, higher training in concentration, higher training in wisdom; also, the meditations to develop love, compassion, and bodhicitta—that’s the medicine that the Buddha prescribes to us.

We fill the prescription, we take the medicine home. Now, we get home and, in an ordinary sense, sometimes we forget how to take the medicine, don’t we? The doctor gave us a whole bunch of bottles and we forget, “Is it one green pill in the morning and two red pills in the afternoon, and three blue ones at night? Or, is it one blue one in the morning and then two yellow ones at noon and three green ones at night?” I mean, we sometimes forget. The Sangha is like the nurses, and they’re the ones who remind us how to take the medicine. They encourage us.

Sometimes, the doctor gave us these medicines and they’re these big kind of things. They don’t taste very good, so we go, “Ugh, I don’t want to take it. Even though it’s going to make me better, I don’t want to take it.” The Sangha is the one that mashes it up and mixes it with applesauce, and then takes a spoon and goes, “Open wide! Mmmm!” and helps us take it. The Sangha is a little like the nurses. They encourage us, they inspire us, they set a good example, they help us to practice the Dharma. In that way the patient gets cured—because the patient goes to the doctor, gets the medicine, and practices according to what the nurses or the Sangha encourages them to do.

Now the thing is, what we sometimes do is, we don’t go to the doctor when we’re sick. If we don’t go to the doctor, it’s like not turning to the Buddha for refuge. If you don’t go to the doctor, you don’t get an accurate diagnosis and you don’t get any medicine. If we don’t go to the Buddha for refuge, we’re not going to understand what causes our misery. And, we’re not going to get the medicine, the Dharma antidote for training our mind, that will help us cut those causes.

Sometimes we go to the doctor, we get the prescription, we bring the medicine home, we line it up in our room, but we don’t take it. We look at the bottles, we read the labels on the bottles, but we don’t take the medicine and put it into our mouth. If we don’t take the medicine, we don’t get well. That is analogous to—we might go to Dharma teachings and Buddha gives us the teachings, but then we don’t practice. The Dharma goes in one ear and out the other. And sometimes it doesn’t even make it in one ear because we’re too distracted!

Having a distracted mind when you’re listening to teachings, or forgetting the teachings afterwards, or not putting them into practice, or writing them down or getting the recordings but then not reviewing them so you don’t know what to practice—that’s like not taking the medicine. That’s why it’s really important that we not only receive the teachings but we try and remember them and we try to put them into practice.

Now, it’s much easier to practice when we’re with other people. That’s the purpose for having a Dharma center or a monastery or an abbey or a temple. It’s a place where people go to practice together, and it becomes much easier to practice when there are other people. You know that your friends are there at the center, and you know if you go that you’re going to get some practice done.

We often say, “Oh, I don’t want to drive to the center. It’s too far. I’ll practice at home.” Do you really practice at home? “Well, no.” The phone rings or, all of a sudden, you remember you have to write some e-mail, it’s tremendously important! It’s been there for three weeks but now, today, this moment, you have to answer. Or a TV program comes on that you’ve always wanted to see, and that’s definitely more important than the meditations.

We so easily get distracted. When we really have a commitment to come together with other people and practice, then we know that our Dharma friends are there and they’re waiting for us. We know that their energy inspires us and we give our energy to them—our energy inspires them! In that way we get ourselves to the Dharma center. That’s important. So many people nowadays, they have so many excuses why they can’t go to a teaching, why they can’t go on a retreat. I’ve always thought of writing a book, 5,949,401 Excuses Why I Can’t Practice the Dharma. It’s all just excuses! It’s all just our lazy mind! When we really see the value of the practice, then that’s our number one priority and everything else comes secondary. If Dharma is our number one priority, practice becomes very easy.

Why do you think people are workaholics? Because money is their number one priority, they find it easy to become workaholics. I’m not advocating you become a Dharmaholic. Anyway, there’s no such thing. What I’m getting at is, when the Dharma is a priority in life, practice becomes easy and we take the medicine easily. When we practice together in a group, we also create much more merit or positive potential than we create when we practice alone. It’s like, if you have one little fiber of something and you try to sweep the floor, it’s going to take a long time to sweep the floor. If you have a broom, which is a collection of many fibers, it’s easy to sweep the floor, isn’t it? Similarly, when we try and practice alone, we’re like one little fiber trying to clean our mind. When we practice together with other people, the amount of positive energy, positive potential, that we create is much greater. It’s like a broom trying to sweep the floor. That’s why I really encourage people. Here at Maha Bodhi Society you have practice evenings or teachings or retreats. Come and practice with your Dharma friends. Or, if you want to come when I’m teaching in Washington State at the Abbey or somewhere else, then please come! You might have to get a plane ticket and make some effort. But when you go on vacation you get a plane ticket and make some effort. So, it’s not like it’s asking too much.

What I’m getting at is, when we have the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in our life, we should really take advantage of that and not be lazy, not be apathetic, because we’re not going to live forever. We don’t know if we’re going to have such a great fortune again in future lives. At the time we die, what’s going to be of benefit to us is our connection with the Three Jewels. All the money in the world can’t help us when we die, it’s totally useless at the moment of death. Whereas the depth of our refuge and the positive potential and merit we’ve created—that makes dying something quite easy, even something that can be fun. Think about that, death being fun. You’re not afraid, you don’t have any regrets. I’ve seen people die like that. Some of my teachers have died in that way. It’s just an example of how we can practice, what we can attain.

Second cause of taking refuge: faith, confidence, trust

When we know something about the Three Jewels of refuge, then we can increase our faith, confidence, and trust in them. That’s the second cause of taking refuge. Sometimes, they talk about three different kinds of faith, or confidence, or trust, in the Three Jewels. I think this is helpful to talk about because the word faith is often used, but it’s not a very good English word to describe what the Buddhist word is—what the word in Pali, or Sanskrit, or Tibetan, or Chinese is. It’s often translated as faith. The English word is not a very good translation for that word.

When we think of faith in America, we usually think of faith without investigation, don’t we? Especially with the revival of fundamentalism and evangelical traditions that emphasize, “You just believe and you don’t ask questions. Anyway, even if you ask the questions you’re not going to get answers because it’s beyond our range of comprehension.” You’re just supposed to believe because somebody said so, or because it’s written in a book, or something like that. From a Buddhist viewpoint, that kind of faith doesn’t really make a spiritual practice very solid. That faith is often motivated by fear, paranoia, or lack of understanding, or peer group pressure. It’s not a very stable basis for spiritual practice. Whereas in Buddhism, when we say the word faith it doesn’t mean that kind of undiscriminating, unquestioning faith. It means a kind of confidence or trust that is based on understanding.

Three kinds of faith

There are different levels of understanding. At the beginning, we hear about the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and we admire those qualities. That’s called admiring faith, or admirational faith. That’s the first kind of faith. We hear about what an enlightened being is, what the Dharma is, what the Sangha is—and we admire those qualities. That creates some joy in our own mind, just knowing there are people like that in this universe. That’s the first level of faith. We admire their qualities.

As we learn more, we begin to understand that we can actualize those qualities, that we have the Buddha potential in our own heart, and it’s possible for us to not just admire those qualities, but to develop those qualities in our own heart. That becomes aspiring faith. That’s the second kind of faith or confidence, where we really aspire to become the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha because we have some sense, some feeling, that we can. That gives us an incredibly positive view about our own life and our own potential.

The third kind of faith is called convictional faith, or confidence with conviction. This comes from really studying the teachings and thinking about them deeply—through thinking about them and seeing their validity because we’ve actually thought about them and tried them out. On that basis we have confidence and trust. That’s a very deep kind of confidence and trust that can’t be shaken because it’s based on learning the teachings, and thinking about them, and really understanding them.

Teachings are to be understood and experienced

The Buddha, all along, he stressed that his teachings are things to be understood and experienced, not just believed in and worshipped. It’s very clear, especially in the Pali Canon, the earliest sutras. The Buddha compares his path to the teachings and path described by other spiritual leaders of his age. Many of those spiritual leaders used rhetoric and some kind of “logic” to explain their path, but nobody could ever really realize it. Or some people just taught something that was written in the holy book and said, “It’s written in the holy book. Believe it.” Some people taught a path that has just been in the tradition of their family for many generations. They don’t even know where it began, but because it’s been in their family tradition, they taught that path and said, “Okay, we’ll read this and practice this.” The Buddha said, “No. My practice isn’t based on some kind of rhetoric, or some kind of tradition, or some kind of old scripture. It’s based on actual experience.” He said it was his living experience, and it can be our living experience, too. He really differentiated the path of the Dharma he taught from other things that were present at that time. I think the same differentiations can be made between Buddhadharma nowadays and other spiritual paths that are available to us. It’s a very important distinction to make.

The Buddha really emphasized this in the Kalama sutra. The Kalamas were a group of people, when the Buddha went to their land, who said, “We’re so confused because all these people come and they teach all these things. We don’t know what to practice.” The Buddha said, “No. You don’t do it just because someone said so, because of an authority figure, or because of tradition, or because of scripture, or because of rhetoric. You try it out yourself, and you experience through your own understanding of that experience.”

Now, sometimes, what has happened in Buddhist communities over the years is, people have forgotten about this. They have subsided into being content with simply worshipping the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. You will find Buddhist temples and communities where people don’t listen to the teachings, where they just do prayers or they just do chanting. It’s very good to do prayers and chanting, but that’s not sufficient. We really need to have teachings. We need to think about the teachings. We need to practice the teachings in meditation and practice the teachings in our daily life. Just making offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, just singing praises to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, these are not sufficient for gaining realizations. They’re good practices for accumulating merit, but just doing those alone aren’t going to bring us the transformation in our heart and mind that we’re really longing for.

I find that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is consistently and continuously stressing the importance of listening to teachings and the importance of doing what we call analytic meditation, the meditation where we think about the different teachings point by point. It’s for that reason that I made the collection of lamrim CDs. Some of you may have these. It’s a set of guided analytical meditations that lead you in how to think about the teachings.

This kind of practice is very important. It requires a little bit more energy on our own part, because we have to think. We can’t just sit there and visualize the Buddha and make prayers. It’s easier to just think of the Buddha and say, “Buddha, pleeeease make me compassionate.” Now, of course, the Buddha has so much compassion that if the Buddha could, by his own force, transform our mind into compassion, the Buddha would have done it already! The Buddha can’t transform our mind. We have to transform our own mind. Practicing Dharma is like eating and sleeping. You have to do it yourself! If I’m exhausted, I can’t say, “Look, I’m really busy, can you sleep for me?” Or, “I’m really hungry and I don’t have any time to eat. Can you eat for me?” It doesn’t work, does it? Well, practicing the teachings is similar. We have to do it our self. We can’t just make offerings and request somebody else to do a puja. I mean, it’s nice to make offerings and it creates merit, but that’s not going to be the thing that actually changes our mind. We have to really put the effort in.

Many of you have kids. You know that if all your kids did was just pray, “May I pass my SAT,” is that going to give your child the ability to get into college? No. You don’t tell your children to just pray to pass their exams. You tell them, “Look, you sit down and you open the book. You study and you put in energy. You remember what your teacher taught you, you remember what’s in the book. You think about it and you try and understand.” That’s what you teach your kids. That’s even in secular studies. When it comes to a spiritual path, which is much more difficult than secular studies, of course we can’t just sit there and pray, “May I become a Buddha. May my suffering end. May I win the lottery. May my son marry a nice girl and my daughter marry a nice boy.” That’s not what it’s about. You have to really practice.

Don’t be fooled if you go to places where people are just doing a lot of chanting and stuff like that because they may not understand it, Also, there are people with different levels of aptitude. For some people, it’s better that they do chanting and so on than that they don’t do anything at all. I think doing chanting and pujas and these kind of activities is very good. We should do them. But what I’m saying is, it’s not sufficient. We really have to learn and we have to practice. When you do, that’s when you’re really taking the medicine and you do get a taste. When you start to get a taste of the Dharma, it’s so delicious that you want to go back for more. Then practice becomes much more easy.

This is also the purpose of going on retreat. When you go on retreat, it’s not just going to a teaching on a Sunday morning, and it’s not just doing a weekend thing. But it’s doing maybe ten days of really dedicated practice. We just had a three-month retreat at the Abbey. Three months of dedicated practice. When you do this, it’s delicious because you really get a taste of the Dharma in your own life, and you understand yourself so much better.

Holding refuge in our hearts and relying on it

That’s a little bit about faith, confidence, or trust that we develop in the Three Jewels. When we have that in our mind, there’s a sense of really deep connection with the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And it’s not just an intellectual connection. It’s really something that’s in your heart. When you have that in your heart, it’s like having your best friend with you all the time. Anywhere you are, anything that’s going on, your best friend is there in your heart. You can turn your attention to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and receive that understanding, that nourishment that you need.

Since we never know what’s going to happen any particular day, having that availability of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha there to take refuge in, in our own heart is really important! Sometimes things happen to us completely by surprise and we’re going, “What do I do?” Well, if we have that strong connection with Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we just do a quick 911. 911 to the Buddha! “Help!” And then you figure out what Dharma practice you’re supposed to think about at that time that changes your mind and helps you deal with the situation. It becomes very useful, very helpful. You never feel alone, even though you might be alone. You don’t feel alone. There’s always that connection, especially at the time we die—we can take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Then it prevents any kind of negative karma from ripening and guarantees that we’re going to have positive karma ripen, which will ripen in our having a good future rebirth. Taking refuge at the time of death is very important. If you want to help yourself and help the people you care about, at the time of death, at least the people who are Buddhist anyway, or have that leaning or tendency, remind them of the Three Jewels. Remind them of their spiritual teacher because then they can take refuge and feel that connection, and die very peacefully. Turn off the television! Don’t let somebody die in the hospital with the television on! I’m just totally horrified now at sometimes the situations people are in.

That’s a little bit about refuge. I talked about two of the qualities: A sense of caution, and then faith, or confidence, or trust.

Third cause for taking refuge: compassion

The third cause for refuge in Mahayana refuge is compassion. This leads into the other part that I was going to talk to you about. But I started out at the beginning of the talk, in terms of what Buddhism can provide to people nowadays, and that’s the techniques for developing love, compassion, and altruism. That helps us to connect with other sentient beings. Refuge is the connection with holy beings, bodhicitta is the connection with sentient beings. You can see that compassion for sentient beings can also be a cause for us taking refuge. These things are not separate and unrelated, but they’re very much related.


When we talk about bodhicitta, we’re talking about having the aspiration in our heart to become a fully enlightened Buddha in order to most effectively benefit sentient beings. This is the most noble intention, most noble motivation that we can possibly have in our life. Why? Because it’s something that’s very extensive. It’s caring about the happiness of each and every living being. Isn’t that incredible? To think that we can open our hearts to really include everybody! It’s not just having compassion and love, wanting others and our self to be free of suffering and to have happiness, but it’s actually the aspiration to become a Buddha. In other words, to eliminate all our own obstructions to really being of the greatest benefit, knowing that there’s a path to eliminate all these obstructions so that we can become a Buddha, so that we can make our lives the most meaningful that we possibly can in terms of having the qualities of a fully enlightened Buddha that will enable us to benefit everybody most effectively.

To develop this bodhicitta mind, we need two things. First, we need this altruistic intention to benefit sentient beings. Second, we need to understand that it’s possible for us to become Buddhas and that the method exists for us to become Buddhas. Now, to develop this altruistic intention, there’s a whole series in the teachings on how to develop bodhicitta, how to develop love and compassion. (Actually, I think we have that whole series of teachings on CD. Maybe we can all listen to them together because I don’t have time to explain it. That series was a series of talks that I gave over some time, so it’s more elaborate.)

It’s basically opening our eyes to see that others want to be happy as much as we do, and want to be free of suffering as much as we do. Furthermore, they’ve all been kind to us. When we can really see this in a deep way, we see sentient beings as lovable. Seeing them as lovable doesn’t depend on how they act towards us. It simply depends on seeing them as kind, seeing them as wanting to be happy and free of suffering. This frees our mind from attachment to friends, aversion to enemies, and apathy to strangers. It enables us to really have a sense of care and concern for everybody in an equal way because we see that the categories of friend, enemy, and stranger change all the time. They’re not fixed categories. When we were born, everybody was a stranger. Then some of the people became friends, some became enemies. Then some of the friends became enemies, some of the enemies became friends. Some of the enemies became strangers, some of the strangers became friends, some of the strangers became enemies, some of the friends became strangers—these relationships are always changing. We’re looking beyond those changeable, superficial relationships we have into something deeper. And everybody is exactly like us, not wanting suffering. Everybody has, in one way or another, been kind to us and contributed to our welfare.

On the basis of this we see others as lovable and we can wish them happiness. Wishing sentient beings—and that includes our self—to be happy, that’s the definition of love. Wishing sentient beings—and that includes our self—to be free of suffering, that’s the definition of compassion.

Based on love and compassion, we generate what’s called the great resolve, which means, “I have to get involved and do something. I can’t just sit here and pray again, you know, ‘Buddha, everybody’s suffering! Please will you cure their suffering? Meanwhile, I’m going to lie down and take a nap.’” No! We’ve got to engage. We have the great resolve and that gives rise to the aspiration to become a fully enlightened Buddha because we see that, as a Buddha, we’ll have the best opportunity to be the greatest benefit.

Now, to actualize that bodhicitta we’ve also got to see that it’s possible for us to become Buddhas. We’ve got to understand that the nature of our mind is something clear and undefiled—that the ignorance, anger, attachment, and karma are like clouds that obscure it. But they aren’t the nature of the mind, so they can be purified because they’re based on misconceptions. Then, we need to understand how to eliminate those misconceptions. We do that through developing the wisdom that understands reality—the wisdom that understands that things lack inherent existence. They don’t have their own inherent essence, even though they do exist on a conventional level. When we’ve developed all of those realizations, then we can really actualize that bodhicitta intention and become fully enlightened Buddhas ourselves. This means that then we have become the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—which is the internal refuge.

Do you see how these things kind of all link together? I went through this last part very quickly because I want to leave some time for questions. But if you go back and maybe listen to it, and think about how all these different facets of the Dharma link together, it will really help you understand them all. I basically spoke about refuge today, and somewhat about bodhicitta, how bodhicitta relates to refuge, and so on, and really showed how refuge is a way to be alone with the holy beings. Bodhicitta is a way to feel connected to other living beings because we really open our heart to them.

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.

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