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Guidelines after taking refuge

Guidelines after taking refuge

Part of a series of teachings on Essence of Refined Gold by the Third Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Sonam Gyatso. The text is a commentary on Songs of Experience by Lama Tsongkhapa.

Essence of Refined Gold 21 (download)

Recalling our fortune at having this precious human life, having the interest in the Dharma and the opportunity to hear it, and having an open mind to the Dharma, willing to take it in, willing to think about it, contemplate it. Even if we may not agree with everything when we first hear it, rejoice that we have enough merit to continue to think about something even though we don’t understand it at the beginning, or even though we may initially disagree with it. Let’s rejoice at just our opportunity to listen to the teachings and let’s place this within the broader perspective of serving all sentient beings. So by listening to the Dharma and improving our mind, may we progress along the path. While we’re on the path and after we’ve attained the result, may our motivation be solely to benefit sentient beings, solely a mind of love and compassion with no arrogance or egotism contaminating our motivation for Dharma practice. Let’s really generate that aspiration for full enlightenment to benefit all beings.

Mindfulness of refuge precepts

We’re going to continue on with the text, The Essence of Refined Gold, because we haven’t read it for a while; we’ve been off on some other topics, so we will return to the text today. It’s on the section on refuge.

We left off with the paragraph that says, “However, taking refuge but then not observing the refuge precepts is of very little benefit, and the power of having taken it is soon lost. Therefore, always be mindful of the precepts.” That’s what the Third Dalai Lama says and it’s really true because lots of times we think, “Oh, taking refuge is very good.” We run in and take the refuge ceremony, and then afterwards we get distracted by ten thousand things and then our interest in the Dharma fizzles and we wonder why we have no energy to meditate. These different refuge guidelines or refuge precepts were made in order to keep us on track. Having taken refuge then, if we try and keep the refuge precepts, it keeps our interest up in the Dharma, it keeps our mind on the practice. It’s very beneficial to keep these precepts.

In the next few sentences the Third Dalai Lama is going into the guidelines in terms of each of the Three Jewels. Some of you may have the blue prayer book Pearl of Wisdom I, and if you do it’s there. We’ll read the Third Dalai Lama and we’ll also read from Pearl of Wisdom I.

The Third Dalai Lama says, “Having taken refuge in the Buddha, no longer rely upon worldly gods such as Shiva and Vishnu, and see all statues and images of Buddha as actual manifestations of Buddha himself.” First of all, having taken refuge in the Buddha, who has purified all defilements and developed all good qualities, what purpose is there in taking refuge in any lower deity of any sort—anybody who doesn’t have the full realizations and the full abandonments of defilements that the Buddha has? It doesn’t make any sense when you have refuge in the ultimately wonderful being to take refuge in some kind of worldly god or spirit or something like that.

The Third Dalai Lama mentioned Shiva and Vishnu. But incorporated in that, in our context, would also be the Christian or Judeo-Christian idea of a creator god. Why wouldn’t you take refuge in a creator god if you’ve taken refuge in the Buddha? It’s because the viewpoints of these two religions are quite different. The Buddha teaches from his own experience. The Buddha is not a creator, instead he described how karma and its effects operate and teaches us how to create the causes of happiness and abandon the causes of suffering. We don’t have to propitiate or please any external being in order to gain their favor when we take refuge in the Buddha. When we take refuge in a creator or in somebody who is a “manager” of the universe then there’s always this kind of dualistic relationship and we have to please them. They set up the rules and then we have to follow them. It’s a very different viewpoint on spirituality. We want to keep our refuge in the Buddha very pure.

Another thing that might interfere with our refuge in the Buddha is if we take refuge in worldly gods and worldly spirits. Sometimes it feels like, “Well, why would anybody do that?” Then you see people do that. Somebody might get into channeling and there’s some spirit or deity or somebody that’s channeling and then you think, “Oh, wow, they know all about my life. I take refuge in them!” Actually, they’re just samsaric beings like us. They have no ability to lead us out of suffering in the way that the Buddha does. I think we get kind of enchanted with these kinds of channeling and all that kind of stuff, any kind of thing that’s mystical and magical and especially because it’s about “me”!

I remember once, it was very soon after we moved into the Abbey, there was some kind of holistic fair going on in Spokane. Somebody called us and offered us a free booth to come there. I went and we brought some Buddhist books and Buddhist materials and sat at our little booth. Our little booth was between two psychics. The psychics had a whole lot more business than we did. People would look at a Buddhist book and move on. But with the psychic they would pay, I don’t know how much, money to go to the psychic. And then, of course, who does the psychic talk about? He talks all about them. Here, we go to the psychic and we are the star of the show. Somebody’s going to talk all about me—even if I have to pay them $75 an hour—they’re going to talk all about me.

I would watch these people who went to the fortune teller, or the psychics, and they just sat with these big eyes, looking at the psychic as if they were seeing God, or Buddha, or something miraculous. Soaking it all in as the psychic told them all about themselves. Of course, whether it was true or not, who knows, but it was about me anyway! Sometimes our egotism, our self-centeredness, can very easily take us away from the Dharma and attract us toward some other thing that seems spiritual but it only seems spiritual basically because it’s feeding our self-centeredness. We don’t want to take refuge in those kinds of worldly beings.

We try and practice respecting the statues and images of the Buddha. Now, we don’t idol worship. This is something quite important. When we are showing respect to Buddha images and statues, we’re not worshiping the material. This has nothing to do with idol worship. Rather, the images and statues act as symbols or representations of the Buddha’s qualities and they invoke in us mindfulness of the qualities of the Buddha. That’s why we respect them. It’s in the same way when you go far away from your family or people that you’re very attached to, you take pictures of them with you. You might look at the pictures and think about the people, but you’re not worshiping the pictures, are you? You’re not falling in love with the pictures. They’re just reminding you of the people you care about. Similarly, with Buddha images and statues, we’re not idol worshiping but we’re using them as reminders of the Buddha’s qualities. Because they are the reminders, we show them respect.

In Judaism it’s a very big thing not to do idol worship. In previous years when I went to Israel to teach, I remember we were having a retreat at one kibbutz and we set up a little altar in the room that we made as a meditation room. Some of the people at the kibbutz would see us outside when we were doing walking meditation and they were very impressed. Here are all these people walking very peacefully, very calmly, and they were very impressed with that and commented on it to us, how that affected them in a good way. Then, a couple of people came into the meditation hall and they saw us making prostrations and of course, there’s an image of the Buddha in front. I remember there was one woman there who was totally horrified. She said, “You’re worshiping this idol and he’s a human being with genitals, how can you possibly do this?” She was really upset. I tried to explain to her that we are not worshiping idols, that the Buddha is not an ordinary human being. I tried to explain this whole thing about symbols, because every religion has symbols that are meaningful to them, which invoke in them remembrances of their spirituality.

I said to this woman, “Well, if you aren’t Jewish, if you go to Jerusalem and—let’s say you’re from Tibet—and you don’t know anything about Judaism. You go to Jerusalem and you go to the Wailing Wall and you see all these people praying to a wall; and you say, ‘What kind of thing are these people doing? They’re praying to a wall! How can a wall possibly bring them spiritual benefit?’” Some of the people in the group when I made that analogy, then they perked up and they realized what I was talking about. If you don’t understand, then of course you see it as something very strange. But then, one of the people—it was so funny—he said, “But at least those are our images, you know?”

What I’m getting at is, when you’re familiar with an image, you know how to relate to it and you know it isn’t idol worship. But when you’re not familiar, it’s very easy for the mind to project all sorts of wrong conceptions on this.

I’ll tell you another funny story if I can get off the track. In 1990 there was a Jewish delegation that came to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. On Friday evening—that’s the Jewish Sabbath—they invited some of the Tibetan lamas over to Kashmiri cottage, the name of the hotel where they were staying. It’s a tradition in Judaism that, as the sun is setting, you turn towards Jerusalem, the holy city; and you sing and you dance and you say prayers facing towards the holy city of Jerusalem. When you’re in America you face east to face Jerusalem; and when you’re in India you face west. Here were all these Jews praying and chanting and doing all their religious services facing west, which was the direction where the sun was setting. After all of this was over, I remember one of my Tibetan teachers said to me, “Are they worshiping the sun?” He said this because they were facing the sun when they were doing their prayers. Of course he thought they were suns worshipers! Now, they weren’t doing that. But it just proves the point that when you don’t understand the meaning and the symbolism, it’s very easy to misinterpret things. That’s why it’s very important to be clear in Buddhism. We’re not worshiping statues and idols and things like that; such a thing would really be kind of silly, wouldn’t it?

I should also add that we do respect the images of the Buddha. For that reason when we’re in a temple, if we have to stretch our legs, we don’t stretch our legs toward the Buddha images. In your bedroom if you have an altar, don’t put it where your feet point towards your altar when you sleep. We don’t put Buddha images in the bathroom; and we don’t step over them; or put your tea cup on top of them; make business with them with the intention of, “Oh gee, I can up the price on this statue of the Buddha and then I’ll have a lot of money!” In actual fact, it’s highly recommended that any kind of funds we get from selling holy objects, we keep apart and we use for only Dharma activities. We don’t use them for our food or clothing or worldly needs. That’s very much what we do here at the Abbey. We keep the royalties from my books apart. That money can be used to buy statues, to buy Dharma books, you can give it if somebody is building a temple or building a meditation hall. You can give it for any kind of worthwhile project, to some kind of charity that benefits people.

The Third Dalai Lama continues and he says, “Having taken refuge in the Dharma, do not harm any sentient being or be disrespectful towards the Holy Scriptures.” This is really the essence of the Dharma, not harming other sentient beings. His Holiness always says, “Benefit others as much as you can and if you can’t do that, don’t harm them.” That’s the bottom line. If we really have taken refuge in the Dharma then our chief practice is going to be not harming sentient beings. That includes not harming ourselves and not harming others. That means not harming physically, attacking them, or stealing their things, or misusing sexuality. It also means not harming them verbally by trashing them behind their back or saying cruel and mean things to their face. It also means to really do our best not to harm them mentally by having our judgmental mind working overtime with all of these opinions about everybody else’s faults and defects. Sometimes we can really get into that, can’t we? “Yes, just sit on the sofa, relax, and think of what’s wrong with everybody else!” Of course, if everything is wrong with everybody else, that only means that, of course, I am the wonderful one remaining!”

We always try to respect the Dharma scriptures as well, to keep them clean, and not to step on them or over them. Not put them on the floor, not throw them in the rubbish when they’re “old and we don’t need them.” It’s fine to recycle Dharma materials; that’s perfectly okay. But you don’t want to use Dharma papers to line your garbage can. We don’t put our food on the floor so we don’t put our Dharma texts on the floor either. We try and keep our food clean, so similarly we respect the Dharma texts, because food benefits us in one small way, but the Dharma texts contain the path to enlightenment in them.

It becomes a very good mindfulness practice for us to watch how we react and relate towards the holy objects. It really makes us much more attentive, and then that makes our mind think of the qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha much easier and more often.

Avoid unhelpful or misleading friends

The Third Dalai Lama says, “Having taken refuge in the Sangha, do not waste your time with false teachers or unhelpful or misleading friends, and do not disrespect saffron or maroon cloth.” We’ve taken refuge in the Sangha, and remember here it’s the Arya Sangha—those beings who have realized emptiness directly—then let’s not waste our time with false teachers. When we have refuge with the Sangha, who have realized the nature of reality, why would we go and learn from a confused person who is teaching some other philosophy or spiritual tradition that doesn’t lead to enlightenment? Especially nowadays, when anybody can declare themselves a spiritual teacher—all you do is put an ad in the New Age newspaper, and then have a pretty smile, and everybody comes to you. You can really sell yourself. Why would we follow somebody who’s just teaching something that they invented or that somebody else invented, or something that has a very nice theory but nobody else has actually experienced it? Let’s not waste our time with that.

Similarly, let’s not waste time with unhelpful or misleading friends. When Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey taught this he always said, “Oh, when we think about ‘bad friends’ we think of people maybe who have horns on their head and scowl, and carry weapons, and they’re going to beat us up. We think of those as bad people.” He explained that actually sometimes the unhelpful or misleading friends are the people who, in a worldly way, generally care about us very much. These people don’t have the viewpoint of past and future lives; they only have the viewpoint of this life and they only have the viewpoint of the happiness of this life. From their perspective, happiness comes from having a good job, material possessions, and a lot of money. Happiness comes from going to the movies, going on vacations, going to the bar and having a drink, smoking a joint, buying more clothes. Happiness comes from sports equipment and being popular and having as much sex as you possibly can with as many people as you possibly can. They just see happiness in this way. Or they think happiness comes from having a family and having kids, your car, your mortgage, your insurance, all your hobbies, and all of these kinds of things.

These people genuinely wish us well and they want us to be happy. Yet their viewpoint on happiness, because they don’t know the Dharma, is very limited happiness. It’s the happiness of this life. Because they care for us, they really encourage us to have this kind of happiness. When we try and say, “Well, I’m not so interested in it,” or “I would rather spend the evening meditating and putting some good energy in my mind or purifying my mind,” they kind of look at us as if, “Are you completely wacko? Are you nuts? What are you talking about? Get a life!” Or, “What are you doing sitting there on a cushion looking at your belly button?” Or, “What are you doing watching your breath? How is that going to benefit anybody?”

Because they don’t understand the Dharma, the advice they give us can be very misleading. If we aren’t very clear and strong in our viewpoint of what samsara is, and what causes happiness and what causes suffering, our determination to practice the Dharma can really begin to waver, and we start thinking, “Oh, well maybe these people are right!” Sometimes these misleading friends can even be people who are Buddhist but who have a wrong conception of Buddhism. It might be somebody who comes along and says, “Oh, well, come and practice tantra and you can drink and you can have sex and you can do everything you want, and it’s real cool because you’re practicing the Dharma and you’re liberated and you can do all these other wonderful things and enjoy yourself because it’s tantric practice!”

These people, they’re Buddhist and they may even have taken tantric initiation, but they haven’t studied the tantra and they really misunderstood it. Maybe they’re a little inflated by their own ego, thinking, “Oh yes, I can drink and meditate at the same time; and I can smoke a joint, and whoa, what a far-out meditation!” They’re just deluding themselves. They haven’t really studied the scriptures very well. Maybe they’ve heard this or that from some teacher or another, but they haven’t sat down and actually studied the scriptures—especially the Buddha’s sutras and the texts from the Nalanda tradition in ancient India. So they themselves have all sorts of wrong ideas about the Dharma and especially about tantra, and so they can be misleading friends even though they mean well. It’s through their own ignorance that they do this. It’s nothing intentional.

Keep the Buddha’s teachings in our mind

We always need to keep in our mind the Buddha’s teachings that we heard; and keep in mind the higher training in ethical conduct, in concentration, and in wisdom; keep in mind the bodhicitta and the six far-reaching attitudes. And then always compare our mind and our lifestyle to what the Buddha taught. If our mind and our speech and our body is in accord with these general Buddhist things, then we know we’re going in the right direction, even if a ton of people around us say, “What in the world are you doing?” Our confidence, our spiritual path, doesn’t waver because we’ve studied and we know what to practice and what to abandon, and our wisdom eye—not a literal eye but our wisdom—can determine the results that come from practicing different things. If we hear people say all sorts of strange things, it doesn’t bother us or make us lose confidence or make us think, “Oh, gee, maybe I don’t understand tantra. I should go drinking with these people—they’ve been involved longer than I have and maybe they know something?” Then you all have a hangover together!

When we’ve really taken refuge in the Arya Sangha, the beings who have direct perception into emptiness, then to follow the advice of people who mean well but do not have a correct Buddhist view doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes we really have to hold our ground on this because we all want people to like us, don’t we? This is one of our big things—“I just want everybody to like me!” If you’re at work and somebody says, “Where are you going next week?” and you say, “I’m going to Cloud Mountain to do the Chenrezig retreat and hear about compassion” and your colleague at work says, “What?! Who is Chenrezig?” You show him a picture and he goes, “Eleven heads and 1000 eyes? What’s the story here? Are you doing devil worship?” Then your mind begins to wonder, “Oh, gee, hmm, who is Chenrezig? I don’t understand. Maybe this is something strange. Maybe I should go back to the Bible. At least I can say the names there: Mark, Mary, John, Luke, Paul. It’s much easier than all these complicated Tibetan names!”

Sometimes we can lose our confidence, so we really have to think deeply about our refuge and maintain very clear confidence in what we’re doing. Then, when other people say things to us, we can just respond. We don’t get defensive; we don’t get angry at them; we just say, “Thank you very much” and we do our own spiritual practice the way we know is right in our own heart. If somebody says, “Oh, you’re strange!” [then we think], “Well, okay, you want to think I’m strange. That’s your business.”

What I’ve always found, because a lot of people think I’m strange, I mean, I shave my head. What woman in her right mind shaves her head? I don’t dye my hair. I mean, my goodness! And I don’t wear makeup. I mean, that’s pretty strange, isn’t it? People might think I’m strange or I’m wearing strange clothes. But what I’ve consistently found is that when you smile at them and if you’re happy and you’re polite, then they relax. Within one minute they’re relaxed. They may initially say, “Oh, what you’re doing is strange” but if you’re friendly and you’re happy and you’re a considerate person, our behavior communicates so much to other people and people can’t deny that. We don’t really need to worry about it if people like us so much or not.

Respect for the Sangha

The Third Dalai Lama also recommended not disrespecting saffron and maroon cloth. Saffron and maroon are the color of the robes. In the Chinese tradition it might be gray or black or brown, but what it’s getting at here is, do not disrespect monastic robes. It’s not so much because it’s the cloth. But what it’s really getting at is don’t disrespect monastics. In other words, when you see monastics and especially when there’s a community of four or more monastics, then use that as a symbol to invigorate your own practice. Now you might say, “Well, why should I respect these monastics? I mean, they don’t work! We live in a Protestant culture and everybody has to work, and they don’t work, and they expect me to give them lunch!” Bob Thurman has a very nice way of calling the Sangha the “free lunch club” but he really talks about how beneficial it is to support the “free lunch club” because these people are really trying to do the Dharma practice.

We don’t respect monastics because there’s some kind of hierarchy and because somebody’s telling you that you have to. But rather, if you look at the monastic precepts and you think, “Oh, could I keep those precepts?” Then you go, “Hmmm, it might be a little bit difficult there.” Even though we might find difficulty keeping the precepts, we can still have some aspiration and regard in our own mind that someday we would like to be able to keep the precepts—and therefore we have regard and respect for people who do keep them. We don’t respect the Sangha because of a hierarchy. We don’t just do anything monastics say simply because they’re wearing robes—that’s not very wise. We’re not respecting people so much as individuals, because monastics as individuals, people do have faults. We’re not enlightened beings. It benefits our own mind when we respect people who are keeping good ethical conduct; and it benefits our own mind when we respect people who have any good qualities whatsoever. Especially in terms of the monastic Sangha, we are respecting the fact that they hold the vows, and that can give us a lot of inspiration.

One of my friends lived in India for several years and had been around monastics a lot and then went back to New York City. He was living and working in New York City and he was in the middle of busy New York life and he didn’t see very many monastics. He told me that at Penn Station one day, out of the corner of his eye, he saw red robes going by. He said he just chased after that monk until he caught him because he was so happy to see somebody who was ordained, and who was keeping ethical conduct, and really trying to live the Dharma. He didn’t know the person at all but the robes just spoke to his heart. It’s the same kind of thing for us.

As monastics, the people that are monastics, we’re taught that when people do show us respect, to remember that it’s not respect towards us as individuals. It’s respect towards the vows that we keep; and therefore, we really have a responsibility to keep our precepts well and to be good examples and not to deceive other people.

Also as monastics, we’re taught to respect other monastics. This is very important because sometimes, when you’re a lay person you respect monastics. But then when you ordain you think, “Oh, well, all these other people are just like me so, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been ordained, it doesn’t matter what they’ve done, they’re just like me! We all wear the same clothes.” That’s not a very beneficial way of thinking for our own mind when we do that. Rather, when we look at other monastics, especially those who are senior to us, then to really have regard for what they’ve accomplished in their practice. And just the fact that they’ve been able to hold the precepts and hold the ordination as long as they have—that’s something really to respect. Sometimes when we’re junior we get a little bit puffed up: “Okay, now I’m a monastic and everybody should respect me. I don’t have to respect anybody except my teachers.” That’s not right. That kind of attitude doesn’t help our mind at all.

I know this from my own experience. I should preface this by saying that, whenever we’re with monastics, we usually sit in ordination order according to our seniority. I remember years ago, when I hadn’t been ordained very long, whether I looked up the line of monastics or down the line of monastics I found fault with everybody. The people who were senior to me, “Oh, they’re too uptight. They’re too this. They’re too that,” and the people who were junior to me, “They’re too this. They’re too that.” Just a very critical mind. Yet my teachers always emphasized, even to us Sangha, that we should respect the Sangha. Now, it’s amazing. When I sit in that same line with the same people, I look and I see people who have accomplished incredible things. Rather than be envious of them or rather than be critical of them, I just feel joyful at, “Wow, these people who are senior to me or even the people who are junior to me have done really marvelous things with their life; and how they’ve studied, how they’ve practiced; everything they do to benefit other living beings.” When you have that kind of attitude, then when you look up the line or down the line, your heart is very happy and you feel inspired. That was about keeping our refuge in the Three Jewels.

Make offerings to the Three Jewels

The Third Dalai Lama continues and he says, “Also, understanding that all temporary and ultimate happiness is a result of the kindness of the Three Jewels, offer your food and drink to them at every meal and rely upon them rather than upon politicians or fortune tellers for all of your immediate and ultimate needs. According to your spiritual capacity, show others the significance of refuge in the Three Jewels and don’t ever forsake your own refuge, not even in jest or to save your life.”

In the Pearl of Wisdom I book this is the section that is called “Common Guidelines.” “Mindful of the qualities, skills, and differences between the Three Jewels and other possible refuges, repeatedly take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” We really take refuge all the time. That’s why at the beginning of any meditation practice we take refuge, when we wake up in the morning we take refuge, and before we go to bed at night we take refuge. If you really train your mind to think of the qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and to take refuge in them, it really has such a positive effect on our mind. It makes our mind really quite happy.

We should offer our food to them before we eat. In Pearl of Wisdom I there are the various recitations that we do to offer our food. Sometimes, if you’re with a group of people who are not Buddhists, you can still offer your food but you don’t have to make a big production out of it. You don’t have to say, “Okay, everybody, be quiet—I’m going to offer my food,” and then you sit in the restaurant and you go, “Om ah hum. Om ah hum. Om ah hum.” and do your prayers out loud. That’s a little bit too much. What I advise doing, what I do myself, is, when I’m with people who don’t pause to offer their food, then I just let them talk and in my own mind I do the recitations and the visualization and generate the feeling of offering the food. I’ve also noticed that sometimes, even when around other Buddhists, they don’t stop and offer their food. They just… I don’t know what it is. But I think it’s always good, especially when we’re with other Buddhists, to really stop and reflect and offer our food properly. Of course, sometimes you’re in the middle of a meeting or a conversation and you’re going to take a glass of water so then you say, “Om ah hum” to yourself. You don’t have to stop everybody to do it.

By offering our food, it’s just a way of reminding ourselves of the Three Jewels on a daily basis and a way of accumulating a lot of virtuous karma by making offerings to them. This is because the Three Jewels are very powerful objects of karma. We can create good karma or bad karma with them. Because of their spiritual realizations we rely upon them rather than upon politicians or fortune tellers for all of our needs. I think that’s really something because, when we have a problem, do we go for refuge? We often don’t go for refuge first when we have a problem; we often seek the immediate result of somebody who can help us. Now I’m not saying, don’t accept help in a worldly way because when you’re sick you should take medicine. But you should also take refuge, not just take medicine. Sometimes we might have some problem with the government, so we take refuge in the politicians, we make offerings to them. They grant us some boon and give us what we want. I told you about the psychics. You go to a fortune teller and make offerings—far more money we will give to a fortune teller than we will to our Buddhist teachers. When it comes to dana [Sanskrit for generosity] in class, “Ohhhh…” When it comes to giving money to a fortune teller? We have enough money for that. It’s misplacing our refuge.

Put life experiences into a Buddhist framework

It’s really important that no matter what we’re experiencing, we put it into a Buddhist framework. Taking refuge enables us to do that. For example, we have bodies that get old and bodies that get sick. When we get sick, of course we go to the doctor and we take medicine. But we should also take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Our refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha should be just as strong and just as conscientious as our refuge in the doctor and the medicine are. If we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and do some Dharma practice, the Dharma practice works on purifying the karma that causes the sickness. It works on purifying the karma that causes the pain. It’s a different kind of healing. It may not bring you quick relief like a little pink pill, but it brings long-lasting relief and it really transforms our mind.

The point is, whatever we’re doing in our life, bring refuge into it. When we go to work, take refuge before we go to work because if we do then we’ll know, “Okay, I’m taking refuge in the Dharma—that means I should be taking refuge in non-harmfulness and in kindness. I should be taking refuge in having a positive motivation for going to work, not just going to work to earn money and to be a big shot.” When we take refuge it always brings us back to our practice and it brings us back to the Buddhist values that we’re trying to cultivate in our own mind. That’s very important and very helpful for us.

Then: “According to our spiritual capacity show others the significance of refuge in the Three Jewels.” “According to our capacity,” that’s an important point here. If we are beginners, we don’t set ourselves up as teachers. And even if we have been practicing for a while, we don’t set ourselves up as teachers. If people come and ask us for help, we give it, but being a Dharma teacher is not a career that we should actively pursue because if we do that then it’s very easy for ego to get involved. Rather, our basic thing should be being a practitioner, and then when others request help, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama advises, seeing ourselves as an elder brother or sister in the Dharma helping people.

Instead of puffing ourselves up and making ourselves a big deal, “I’ve gone to one meditation course, so now I’m going to sit in the tea shops and teach everybody.” Or, “I’ve studied Dharma for five years so now I’m going to teach everybody.” Sure, answer questions, help people, share your experience with the Dharma with other people. Don’t be shy about that. Talk about how you practice and the benefit the Dharma has had in your life. What I’m talking about is, when we don’t have the capacity to actually be a qualified teacher then let’s not act like one and puff ourselves up.

Humility versus the danger of pride

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says—and this really struck me—he said it not too long ago when he was teaching. He said, “When we first begin the Dharma we tend to be very humble because we don’t know very much, so anything anybody teaches us we take in and we realize we don’t know very much.” But, he says, “As you learn more about the Dharma then there’s the real danger of pride arising.” Because you’ve learned something, then it’s easy to think, “Oh, well, I learned this!” Even though we may not have understood it properly, we think, “Oh, I know this, I can teach it to others!” Or, even though we don’t practice it, we think, “Oh well, I can do this and that!” He said that it’s so important not just to be aware of pride when it arises when we’re new in the Dharma but especially as we are in the Dharma longer and longer, because it’s so easy for that to happen.

On one hand, we don’t want to put ourselves up as big shots and try to help people in the Dharma when we’re not qualified. On the other hand, we don’t want to go to the other extreme and say, “Oh, but I don’t know anything, I can’t answer any question, I can’t do anything,” because that’s not true either. If we have learned something then we can share it with other people. If people ask us a question and we don’t know the answer then there’s no need to be embarrassed. We just say, “I don’t know the answer. I will go and do some more research and ask my teacher; or read some books; and I’ll learn something in the process of doing that and I’ll get back to you with whatever I learn.” We shouldn’t go to the other extreme of lacking any confidence at all. This is important. We should have confidence and lead meditations and talk about the Dharma, but not try and pretend to be a big shot.

We do, as the Third Dalai Lama is telling us here, show others the significance of refuge in the Three Jewels. We encourage others to take refuge. That doesn’t mean that we stand on street corners and pass out Dhammapada books. It doesn’t mean we pressure people. But we should definitely feel free to invite people to come to Dharma centers when they express interest in what we’re doing. Or, if they’re interested in a Dharma book that they see us read, give them a Dharma book as a gift. We should do these kinds of things and not just be too private about our faith.

“Remembering the benefits of refuge, do so three times in the morning and three times in the evening, by reciting and reflecting on the various prayers for taking refuge.” This is very good to do. When we first get up in the morning—make three prostrations and take refuge; and right before we go to bed in the evening—make three prostrations and take refuge. When you lie down, put your head in the Buddha’s lap and think of the Buddha’s qualities, and go to sleep very peacefully.

Then he recommends, “Don’t ever forsake your refuge, not even in jest or to save your life.” Don’t joke about our refuge and be flippant. Also don’t give up our refuge—even if threatened by somebody else. Really try and do all actions by entrusting ourselves to the guidance of the Three Jewels.

What advice would the Three Jewels give?

I think this is very helpful and very important whenever we have a problem to think, “Well, what kind of advice do the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha give to handle this?” A lot of times we forget, don’t we? We study the Dharma but then when we have a problem, all of a sudden we feel, “Oh, I don’t know what to do! What do I practice?” It’s just like all the Dharma has just gone totally out of our mind. This is one reason why we need to really listen attentively at teachings, and then review our notes, contemplate what we’ve heard, meditate on it. Then slowly learn to practice the different meditation techniques and the different perspectives according to the external situation we find ourselves in and according to what is going on in our mind at any particular moment.

When we find that we’re getting upset and angry, instead of just going, “Ahhhhh, I don’t know what to practice—I’m so angry!” Just say, “Okay, what’s the antidote to anger? Oh, patience! How do I practice patience?” Take out Shantideva’s text and look up chapter six. Take out Working with Anger and look up the antidotes. We remember to do that. Sometimes if we’re sick, instead of going, “Ahhhh, I’m sick, what’s happening? The world’s coming to an end!” It’s like, “Okay, well, what did the Buddha say about this?” The Buddha said that illness comes as a result of karma. “Oh, so I created some negative karma in the past and that’s resulting in my not feeling well today. Hmmm. Well, no sense blaming anybody else, no sense getting angry about it. Actually, I should feel happy that the karma is ripening in this way rather than in some terrible suffering in another rebirth.”

Whatever comes up in our life, we practice. We’re at work and somebody criticizes us. What do we practice then? Or we have a very dear friend and that dear friend betrays our trust—we feel betrayed and worried and wounded. How do we practice then? Taking refuge anchors us in the practice. This is because when we take refuge we’re not just praying to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha saying, “Oh, my best friend abandoned me, please make them come back!” That’s not what taking refuge means. When we take refuge it’s, “Okay, my best friend abandoned me, and my delusions and my mental afflictions are acting up. I’m taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; what would the Buddha tell me to practice in this situation?” You have a little tête-à-tête with the Buddha. You say, “Buddha, my best friend just treated me horribly and betrayed my trust—how do I practice?” And Buddha says, “Oh my dear, look at the Eight Verses of Thought Training. There’s a particular verse right in the Eight Verses of Thought Training just for you; go figure out which one it is!”

This is the benefit of hearing teachings. Hearing a teaching repeatedly helps you get very familiar with it. Then when you have a problem, your mind very easily can remember the antidote. You can sometimes almost just imagine your teacher sitting there telling you exactly what you need to do for the problem you’re having. I do that often myself. When something happens I just think of my spiritual mentors and I think, “Okay, how would they handle this problem?” Or, “What have they taught me about these kinds of problems—external problems or my own internal emotional problems? What did they teach me to handle these particular emotions or how to handle these situations?”

You have that remembrance of your teacher, the teachings, and the Dharma that you’ve heard, and that’s what taking refuge in the Three Jewels means at that moment. You aren’t praying to the Buddha to change the external circumstance but you’re praying to the Three Jewels to inspire your mind so that you remember what Dharma medicine to take at that particular moment. That’s really important to do because at some time or another we’re going to die, and our spiritual mentor may not be there to guide us through. We’re going to have to think very quickly, “Okay, what do I practice now?” We start that practice in our daily life with whatever we encounter, thinking, “What do I practice now?”

Let’s dedicate.

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.