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The meaning of refuge

The meaning of 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.

  • Meaning of taking refuge
  • Understanding fear
  • Choosing a reliable path
  • Establishing faith and confidence in the Three Jewels
  • Fortifying our own Buddha nature

Essence of Refined Gold 16 (download)

We’re studying the text The Essence of Refined Gold. It’s one of the eight great lamrim texts and it was written by the third Dalai Lama. We are currently on page nine right now: it’s the section entitled ‟Taking Refuge.” Also, Glenn Mullin translated this book and he transcribed and edited His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s commentary to it, and so you can get that. It’s published by Snow Lion. It’s called The Essence of Refined Gold. That has the original text plus His Holiness’s commentary that he gave several years ago in Dharamsala. For the beginning teachings on this text that we did during the retreat and also a few teachings in March [of 2007], then if you go to, there’s a section there for The Essence of Refined Gold teachings and you can access all of them and listen to all the ones that came before this.

Demarcation of the label Buddhist practitioner 

We are right at the section on taking refuge now. I’m not going to summarize the previous teachings because that might be a little incentive for you to go back and listen to them. But also because taking refuge, it might be the middle of the lamrim but it’s actually the beginning of the Dharma practice. Since all the people that we let know about this series of teachings are already Buddhists, I’m assuming that you have some background. You’ve heard the beginning part of the lamrim. Now here we are, taking refuge, the point where we are actually beginning the Buddhist practice. Refuge is the demarcation between being a Buddhist and not being a Buddhist. If you’ve taken refuge in the Three Jewels then you’re, technically speaking, a Buddhist; and if you haven’t, then you’re technically speaking, not a Buddhist. Of course, that’s only a label but this just gives you some way to differentiate here.

Why refuge is that demarcation line is because when we take refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—we’re really saying that this is the path that we want to follow. This is the teacher who we trust— the Buddha. This is the community that is going to support us and act as our role models—in other words, the Arya Sangha. We’re really entrusting the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha with our spiritual development. That’s why it becomes the demarcation line between being a Buddhist and not being a Buddhist.

Causes of refuge

There are two causes for refuge; or if you’re a Mahayana practitioner then there are three causes of refuge. The first one is dread [or alarm or wisdom fear]. Sometimes it’s translated as fear. But fear is a confusing word for us in the West, because we hear ‟fear” and for us the word fear is very negative. We just think of people panicking, shaking in their boots, and screaming. We don’t see fear as anything virtuous that we want to generate as a cause for taking refuge. But actually what does fear (or dread) mean here? It means an awareness of the danger. We are aware of the danger of cyclic existence. In other words, we’ve done some contemplation about what cyclic existence means, what it means to take a body repeatedly under the influence of afflictions and karma, what it means to have a mind overwhelmed by ignorance. We see the danger in that. Or, if we aren’t quite ready to see the danger in all of samsara, then the level of fear or dread could be dreading have a lower rebirth, in other words, being born in a lower realm as a hell being, a hungry ghost, or as an animal. When you really think about the possibility of having these lower births, it gets kind of scary.

Achala, my kitty, is lying right here in front of me, fast asleep. Manjushri [her other cat] is back on the sofa, also fast asleep. They’re here present at the teachings but they don’t know to listen to the teachings. They can’t understand. So even though they have the karma to be here and some imprint is getting put on their mind just by hearing the teachings, they don’t understand. Even when we try to teach them about keeping good ethical conduct, like keeping the first precept of not killing, they may listen while we talk to them, and then they go right out the back door and chase the closest chipmunk. Or chase the closest mole, or mouse, or something like that. If you think of what it might be like to be born as this kind of animal, it gets a little scary.

Now I know some of you who like to sleep a lot may think, “Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. I can just curl up on the sofa of the Abbey, there’s not much suffering in that situation.” But if you think long term, with that kind of mental state there’s very little opportunity to create good karma. You might sleep most of your life on the Abbey sofa but after you die, it’s going to be really hard to have a good rebirth because you haven’t had the chance to create a lot of good karma during that life. I think being born as a kitty at the Abbey is pretty fortunate. There are so many other animals … there are a lot of cats in other countries that are just out on the streets.

When I lived in India there were many animals who were just forced to labor, and beaten and whipped. So when you really think about it, it’s not such a good rebirth. You might think, “Oh, well I’ve always wanted to be famous. So I could be Shamu the whale at Sea World,” and everybody’s going to cheer you and yell for you. You’ll be very famous. You’ll eat a lot of live fish and create a lot of negative karma and be confined in this itty-bitty pool your whole life! I don’t think that’s such a good rebirth. If we see that we don’t have a clear spiritual path and we don’t observe karma and its effects, that there is the possibility and the danger for this kind of rebirth, then we have some awareness of that danger, and that is what is called fear.

Here what we mean by fear is a kind of awareness of danger that’s imbued by wisdom. It’s like when you’re merging on the highway, you’re not all panicked going, “Aaay, I’m merging on the highway!” But you are aware that it is dangerous and you need to pay attention. You are afraid in that sense that you’re really trying to be quite aware; because if you’re not, you could get in big trouble. This kind of fear, or dread, or awareness of danger is the first cause and it makes us seek some protection or something that is going to help us.

It’s very important when we’re seeking refuge, when we’re seeking help, that we choose those who are reliable and we choose a path that actually works. Because you can be in a lot of danger, and if you’re not careful you run right into the hands of the person who’s threatening you the most—because you haven’t really checked out which direction you should go in.

When we’re taking refuge, the second thing we’re looking for is to develop confidence or faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. That means we have to know the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and have some faith in them. Then we become confident that they are a viable source of refuge who can protect us, first from lower rebirth and second from any rebirth in cyclic existence. Developing that kind of faith and confidence means we have to know about the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I’m going to talk about that a little bit later.

Then the third quality or factor for taking refuge applies if you’re taking Mahayana refuge. In other words, you really want to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. Here, great compassion is that factor. It’s that third factor that we need to have in order to take refuge. Having great compassion not only for ourselves but for every single other living being, then we turn to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in order to learn the path to full enlightenment, so that we will be able to fulfill our motivation, our deepest inspiration and aspiration and wish to be able to be of the greatest benefit to all living beings. Those are the three causes that we cultivate in order to take refuge.

Deepening our refuge

Sometimes, when we feel like our refuge isn’t very strong or is a little bit wishy-washy, then go back and meditate on these three causes. Think a little bit about what it means to be stuck in samsara. Think a bit about the qualities of the Three Jewels. Contemplate great compassion for all living beings and think about what kind of path you need to follow if you really want to be able to benefit most effectively. If you do that, then you’re enhancing your causes to take refuge. And then, of course, the depth of your refuge also increases.

I think it’s important to realize, too, that refuge isn’t an on-and-off switch, even though we say that it’s the demarcation between being a Buddhist and not being a Buddhist. In that sense, it’s either yes or no—you’ve taken refuge or not. But actually, when you look a little bit deeper, you see that refuge is more like one of those light switches that’s a dial and it turns, and it gradually gets brighter. When we’re baby beginners, we have some awareness of the danger of samsara, some awareness of the qualities of the Three Jewels, a little bit of compassion. To the extent that we have them, then to that degree we have taken refuge. Then as we practice more we’ll find that our understanding of what it means to be trapped in samsara deepens. So does our knowledge about the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. As well, our compassion and bodhicitta get deeper. So in that way, the deeper those three factors are then the stronger our refuge or deeper our refuge becomes.

Refuge is something that really develops over time. We always say a refuge prayer at the beginning of every practice we do. In fact, I hope that before you called into the conference call [to listen to this teaching live] that you said the refuge prayer, and contemplated refuge a little bit, and developed your motivation, because those are important factors. So please, in the future, try and remember to do those before we actually begin the teachings.

Let me read a little bit from the text by the third Dalai Lama. He says, “What are the methods to cut off the path to lower rebirth? These are the awarenesses of the danger of the sufferings of lower rebirth as explained above and the recognition that Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha have the power to protect you from such rebirth. Generate awareness of danger by means of meditation and then take refuge in the Three Jewels from the depths of your heart.” That’s pretty clear. The next paragraph goes on and he says, ‟How do the Three Jewels have the power to protect you from the terrors of the lower realms? The Buddha Jewel is free from all fear. Being omniscient, he is master of ways that protect from every fear. As he abides in great compassion that sees all sentient beings with equanimity, he is a worthy object of refuge for both those that benefit him and those who do not. Because he himself has these qualities, it follows that his teachings and the Sangha established by him are also worthy. This cannot be said of the founders of many religious schools—few of whom were transcendental, or of many doctrines—most of which are filled with logical faults, or of many religious traditions, most of which are fragmented. Because Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha possess these sublime qualities, they indeed are worthy.

Four reasons why the Buddha is a suitable object of refuge

First quality: The Buddha is free of all fear

In the more expanded version of the lamrim it talks about some qualities that the third Dalai Lama briefly mentions here. The reason why the Buddha is a suitable object of refuge: There are four reasons. The first is that he is free from all fear. What that means is that the Buddha is free from the fear of cyclic existence; in other words, free of being born under the influence of afflictions and karma. He is also free of self-complacent peace; in other words, free of having attained nirvana for himself alone. The Buddha has attained what we call the non-abiding nirvana. This means that he doesn’t abide in samsara and he also doesn’t abide in self-complacent peace, the nirvana of an arhat. This is a special kind of nirvana attained only by a Buddha. And so, the Buddha is free from the fears of both of these, even though you might say, “Well, what’s there to be afraid of?”

First of all, in cyclic existence there’s a ton to be afraid of because you’re born haphazardly. Well, not actually haphazardly. We create the causes for it. But we’re born again and again, up and down and across in cyclic existence, which is no great fun. So, that’s the fear of samsara.

But then the fear of self-complacent peace is that we will abide in a deep realization of the nature of reality in deep meditative equipoise, which is incredibly blissful. That’s the realization of an arhat, and we can abide in that for eons and eons, for so long after we’ve freed our own mind from samsara. But if you have great compassion, if you have bodhicitta, then you’re very afraid of abiding in your own self-complacent state of peace. This is because all the other sentient beings who have been your mothers and who have been kind to you are still stuck in cyclic existence. So while you’re blissed-out in nirvana, everybody else is still being tormented by their afflictions and karma. Somebody with compassion is very terrified of that because they see other sentient beings suffering as their own suffering. They fear it as their own, okay?

The Buddha, by not abiding in either samsara or self-complacent peace, then he’s free from all fears. In that way he has the ability, because he has actualized the path to full enlightenment, to teach it to us and to lead us to that same attainment. The most reliable person who can teach us how to get somewhere is someone who has been there themselves. In that sense since the Buddha is a fully-enlightened being and is free from those two fears, then he is the most well equipped being to teach us the Dharma and lead us from those two fears our self.

Second quality: The Buddha has the skillful means to free others

Then the second quality that makes Buddha a suitable object of refuge is that he has the skillful means to free others. How does the Buddha free us? It’s not that he comes down and scoops us up with his hand and takes us out of samsara and puts us in a lotus in Amitabha’s pure land. That’s not how the Buddha free us. But rather, the Buddha frees us by teaching. And that’s why it’s said that the Dharma is, of the three refuges of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, so important, because it is the teaching itself. The Buddha’s greatest gift that he gives to all of us is his teachings.

Buddha is also very skillful in giving teachings. How or why? It’s because he knows the different dispositions of the different people who are in the audience. Every sentient being is a little bit different. In terms of food, some people like rice and some people like noodles and some people like bread—and you all know that I like chocolate! The Buddha knows that different sentient beings have different dispositions, different things that they’re attracted to. They have different ways of thinking and different interests. They also have different capabilities, different levels of what they’re capable of understanding at any particular time. Because the Buddha is omniscient and knows all the states of mind of all sentient beings; and because he’s omniscient and knows all the various paths that he can teach to these different sentient beings; and he knows these paths through his own experience—therefore he becomes the most suitable spiritual guide that we can ever rely on. And so, because the Buddha is skillful and knows about sentient beings’ disposition and knows the Dharma well, therefore he is a suitable guide. That was the second reason.

Third quality: The Buddha has equal compassion for everyone

The third reason that the Buddha is a suitable refuge is that the Buddha has equal compassion to everybody. Whether we are close to him or not, whether we have faith in him or not, the Buddha helps us. This kind of equanimity, an equal compassion towards everybody, is really quite special. I don’t know about you, but when I look at my compassion, my compassion is definitely biased. First of all, I have great compassion for myself and very little compassion for other sentient beings. Then even when I do manage to think a little bit about other sentient beings, I definitely play favorites—and have more compassion for the people who are nice to me, say nice things, give me presents, remember my birthday, praise me. I definitely have more compassion for those people and much less compassion for all those idiots who don’t know how wonderful I am, and who criticize me, and blame me, because, you know, whatever they blame me for, I’m definitely innocent of!

When I look at myself, I kind of lack that quality of equal compassion for everybody. When I think about what it would take to have equal compassion for everybody. That would be definitely a big change for me. I mean a big change! Just think about, if you happen to be like me, what it might mean in your mind to have equal compassion for everybody. Whether they had faith in you or not, whether they were close friends to you or not, whether they gave you presents or not, that you had equal care and concern, and willingness to help. That’s quite an amazing attainment of a fully enlightened being.

By taking refuge in someone with this kind of attainment, we know that we’re never going to be left out. The Buddha is never going to go, “Well, you don’t have an altar in your house and you don’t give me a banana every day, so why should I teach you the Dharma?” The Buddha is not going to do that. And when we go through hard times and our faith is a little wobbly, Buddha is not going to abandon us and desert us, and say, “Oh forget that one. I taught them for so long and they still don’t have faith in me.” The Buddha doesn’t do that.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that it’s more us that desert the Buddha. The Buddha doesn’t desert us—it’s us. It’s so strange. We have all these hang-ups about being abandoned, don’t we? You know, we’re always so worried about being abandoned and deserted, and we go to therapists about it. But we’re the one who abandon most other people, including the Buddha. I mean, here’s the Buddha, a fully enlightened being whose purpose is only to benefit sentient beings, only to lead us to enlightenment—and we abandon the Buddha.

What do we abandon the Buddha for? A good television program that’s happening at the same time as the Dharma teaching. What do we abandon the Buddha for? Well, we have to go to work, earn money. Or we just get tired of the teachings. You know, you go to Dharma teachings for a while and then you go, “I’ve heard that already. You know? My teacher all the time says the same old thing. It’s not very entertaining now. It was at first, but not so good now.” And so we abandon the Buddha. But the Buddha doesn’t abandon us.

The Buddha is sitting there, hoping that we’ll come to our senses and will come back to the Dharma. Sometimes we come to our senses and sometimes we’re too busy spending our senses to pay any attention to the Buddha. But from the Buddha’s side there’s always great compassion there. And I think that gives us a certain amount of security because often we’re so afraid of other people disapproving of us, or judging us, or just saying, “You know, you’re just such an idiot. Bye bye!” that it’s hard for us to trust.

Yet the Buddha does not have the capability to have a judgmental or critical mind. That is not within the Buddha’s capabilities. Why? It’s because the Buddha has eliminated all ignorance, hostility, and attachment, and has actualized the great compassion. There’s absolutely nothing that could ever cause him to not pay attention to us. So that means that we can trust all the buddhas to always be there if we pay attention to them. At the beginning, like when you first take refuge in a ceremony, we always say, “Preceptor, please pay attention to me.” Like when you take the eight precepts or something, we’re always saying, “Preceptor, please pay attention to me.” Or, “Buddhas and bodhisattvas, please pay attention to me.” In actual fact, they’re paying attention to us all the time! It’s us who are spaced out. So even though we say, please pay attention to me, what we’re really saying, to ourselves, is, I need to pay attention to them. Because they’re already there.

Fourth quality: The Buddha fulfills the purposes of others whether they help him or not

Then the fourth quality that makes the Buddha a suitable object of refuge is that he fulfills the purposes, or the wishes, of others whether they’ve helped him or not. He acts to benefit others, again, not paying favoritism. The third quality was equal compassion; and this one is more like equal benefit. He fulfills the Dharma wishes of everybody, no matter whether they’ve helped him or harmed him. Now, I don’t know about you but I can’t say as much. When people harm me I have a hard time thinking nice things about them, doing nice things for them. Buddha doesn’t have that same problem. Buddha reaches out to help everybody, whether they’ve been nice to him or haven’t been nice to him. It’s, again, quite an incredible quality. Again, here we can see that the Buddha doesn’t play favorites. Whether we are rich or poor, of high rank or low rank, whether we know important people or don’t know important people, whether we’re high status or low status, or well educated or not, or who knows what—the Buddha is there and prepared to guide us.

The basic thing is for us to turn our attention to the Three Jewels! The Buddha has those qualities and he taught the Dharma, which was the path that he realized by himself through his own wisdom, and the Sangha community of the Aryas who have realized emptiness, so they’re all very reliable. That was explained by the third Dalai Lama in this verse; and then he said that the Buddha is a worthy object of refuge because he himself has these qualities. I should say that although we are calling the Buddha ‟he” here, because we are referring, for example, to Shakyamuni Buddha—actually there are infinite Buddhas. Buddhas are not all male. Some of them manifest in female aspect. And actually, they’re not even male or female to start with because that’s only on the level of appearance. If you look at an enlightened mind, it’s neither male nor female. So when we say ‟he” we’re talking about the historical Buddha. But actually, all the buddhas have these four qualities that make them suitable objects of refuge, and they’re all there ready to help us.

How Buddhists think about other religious traditions

The third Dalai Lama contrasts the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha with other traditions. He first says, because he himself [the Buddha] has these qualities, it follows that his teachings (in other words the Dharma) and the Sangha that he established are also worthy. Because the Buddha has those qualities, then the Dharma he teaches has them. This is because the Dharma is the exact path and the realizations that the Buddha himself attained. The Dharma is the last two noble truths, so the Buddha is just describing his own realizations and his own state of mind when he teaches the Dharma.

The Sangha that he established here refers to the Arya Sangha, so that means any being who has realized emptiness directly and non-conceptually. The third Dalai Lama then contrasts this with other leaders. He says, ‟This cannot be said of the founders of many religious schools, few of whom were transcendental.” “Transcendental” here means that somebody has realized emptiness directly. The leaders of many other religious schools, they may have had many good qualities or been very special people, but very few of them have actually realized emptiness directly with their own mind. Since the emptiness of inherent existence is the ultimate nature, if they haven’t realized it properly, then it’s difficult for them to teach it to others.

In addition, many of their doctrines are filled with logical faults. I think many of us who started out in other religions maybe have left those religions because of the logical faults that we found present in them. For me that was certainly the case. When I was taught that God created everything and that Creation was the beginning, then I was confused because it seemed like God existed before the beginning, so something existed before the beginning. Then who created God? And if God is permanent then how did he change and create? I say this because creation always involves change. And, why did God create suffering? I couldn’t figure that out. These are some of the logical faults that left me, for one, dissatisfied. Whereas, in Buddhism, we’re really encouraged to investigate things very deeply and use logic and reasoning to see if they’re true.

He also says that the Buddha’s teachings are different from many religious traditions, most of which are fragmented. Various other traditions may have other good things and be beneficial but they don’t have the complete teaching. There are fragments here, fragments there.

Buddhism has always been very tolerant of other faiths and in fact, we say it’s really good that there are many religions. This is because everybody has different disposition, different mentality, different ways of understanding. By the fact that there are a variety of different religions, then everybody can find something that suits them. We respect all religious faiths because of that, and because they all teach about love and compassion and ethical conduct. But we can debate the various tenets of those faiths.

While we don’t criticize the faiths or the believers of those faiths, it is possible—and I think very recommended—to have some discussion about the tenets of those faiths and to check for ourselves whether they are true or not true. In the same way that when we come to the Buddha’s Dharma and we hear, what the Buddha teaches. We check and we see whether it’s true or not true; whether it is logical or not. Whether we can pick holes in it or can’t pick holes in it.

We need to use our discriminating awareness and not just say, “Oh, well, all religions are one” because they do teach different things. We can still respect other religions and still be a strong advocate for interfaith dialogue and for religious harmony, but we don’t need to say that all religions are the same in order to live harmoniously with people from other religions. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been very forthright about that when he has interreligious dialogue with others. There are differences between faiths and we need to look at them and not just mush everything together and say they’re all one.

I think what’s really incredible about the kind of tolerance Buddhists have for other faiths is that we don’t need to say that they’re all identical in order to respect them. We can say that other faiths are different and we still respect them. Whereas somehow in our society we seem to feel that the only way we can respect anybody is if they are exactly like us, which is just a wee bit self-centered, don’t you think? That might actually be part of the reason why we quarrel so much with others, because we’re trying to make them like us and they don’t want to be. Learning to respect others who are different from us, I think, is quite important.

How do you take refuge in the Three Jewels?

Let’s continue here with what the third Dalai Lama said. He said, ‟How do you take refuge in the Three Jewels?” and then he answers by saying, ‟Chant three times: ‘I take refuge in the perfect Buddha. Please show me how to free myself from samsaric sufferings in general and from the lower realms in particular. I take refuge in the Dharma, the supreme abandonment of attachment. Please be my actual refuge and lead me to freedom from the terrors of samsara in general and the lower realms in particular. I take refuge in the supreme Sangha, the spiritual community. Please protect me from the miseries of samsara and especially from the lower realms.’ While reciting these lines, generate an actual sense of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha from the depths of your heart.” That is one refuge formula that we can say.

Some of you may have already taken refuge, or at least I should say, taken refuge in a ceremony (because there is a ceremony in which we say something that’s very similar to this and we repeat it after one of our spiritual mentors). It’s like a declaration to ourselves, to those around us, to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, in which we are declaring the spiritual path that we want to follow. Taking refuge involves having that clarity and being unafraid to state that, either to ourselves or to others.

I’m not trying to force anybody to take refuge but I just want to comment that I find it very interesting that many people may have studied the Buddhadharma for years and years; but when somebody comes up and asks them, “Are you a Buddhist?” They kind of go, “Ah, um, ah,” and they feel a little bit uneasy and they say, “Well, I go to Buddhist teachings,” or “I attend a Buddhist center.” Many people have told me that they feel uncomfortable saying, “I’m a Buddhist.” Maybe it’s this ‘commitment phobia’ that we seem to have. The ‘c’ word—it’s not cancer; it’s commitment that terrifies us? You know? Commitment is more scary than cancer? So we can’t get ourselves to say, ‟I’m a Buddhist.” We can only say, “Well, I go to a Buddhist center.” Now, we may have gone to a Buddhist center for ten years but we can’t yet say, ‟I’m a Buddhist.” Rather we say, ‟I go to a Buddhist center,” or ‟I listen to Buddhist teachings.”

That’s a step in the right direction but I think it’s very interesting to look in our own minds and ask ourselves, “Well, what is the reason? Why do we hesitate to say we’re a Buddhist?” Many people may have many different responses to that. But I think it’s something that is very worthwhile to examine within ourselves. Instead of just saying, ‟Well, I just go to a Buddhist center,” look inside and “Okay, what is it? What’s happening in me?” This is an excellent method to actually get to know ourselves better and to learn to be honest with ourselves. Just to say, “Well, what it is in me that hems and haws when it comes to saying I’m a Buddhist?”

Now for one person it might be, maybe when they were little, they were always saying what their religion was. “I am a this, and I am a that,” and maybe they felt like that separated them from other people. For those people they don’t want to feel like they’re separating themselves from other people by saying “I’m a ‘ist’” as a Buddhist. Catholic, Jewish, you could be an ‘ist’ or an ‘ic’ or an ‘ish.’ Or Muslims—you could be an ‟im”! You could be a lot of these different things. Is it because when we were little we felt like we were separating ourselves out? Or maybe we felt that other people said that they were an ‘ist’ or an ‘ish’ or an ‘im’ or an ‘ic’ and they separated themselves out and wouldn’t be friends with us. Maybe that’s what the problem was. For some people that might be it. If you find that’s the problem, you hesitate. So then really contemplate if that is still the same thing that’s happening now when you’re an adult. If that event that happened or whatever happened when you were little is something that still applies when you’re an adult, or maybe it’s different.

For another person, they may be hesitant to say that they’re a Buddhist because everybody at work is into Christianity; and they don’t want to be different than everybody. As much as we all want to be individuals, we don’t want to be different from everybody. So if everybody else is an ‘ic’ or an ‘ist’ of another faith then we may be a little bit, ‟Well, if I say I’m a Buddhist they’re going to think that I’m one of these weird people, who shaves their head and sit on a meditation cushion looking at their belly button all the day. And I don’t want them to think badly of me. I want to fit in at my workplace. I want people to like me!” What do we have there? One of the eight worldly dharmas, of attachment to reputation: “I want everybody to like me and I don’t want to look different in any way.” For some people maybe that’s the issue.

Other people, a third person, may not want to say that they’re a Buddhist because they just feel that their faith is something private. They don’t feel like discussing it with, let’s say, their colleagues at work or their neighbors or whoever. Maybe their neighbors are people of other faiths who are trying to convert them, and they don’t want to say they’re Buddhist because maybe their neighbors might try harder to convert them.

I’ve actually found that when there are people who are trying to convert me, and I have the karma to sit next to them on a lot of the airplanes I ride on. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat next to people who have tried to convert me on airplanes. It’s really hard because you’re sitting in that seat and where are you going to move to? The flight’s full! But, I’ve discovered a way to handle them and it stops the discussion. Very often I just say, “Thank you very much, I have my own faith. If you follow the ethics and teachings on love and kindness in your faith, you’ll be a very good person. And I’ll follow them in my faith, and we’re aiming for the same thing. Thank you very much.” I just end the conversation.

In one case there was one young man I was sitting next to who was like 18 years old. He couldn’t figure out why his mom found him hard to be around, because he was talking about religion day and night, and trying to convert her, which he thought was very compassionate. Clearly his mother didn’t think so. But anyway, he was trying just as hard to convert me, and offering me books. I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll trade you, because I have some of my Buddhist books here and I’ll take your books and here, you can have one of my books!” He went silent. He was only 18 years old and he just said, “Ah, um, well, I better ask my pastor about that. I’m not sure if I can do that.” So I said, “Well, then I can’t accept your books either,” and that took care of that conversation. There are ways in which to work with people without being rude to them. But you definitely let them know that you have your own integrity and your own convictions; and you respect them for theirs and you do not want them to push theirs on you.

I feel perfectly okay saying to people, “I’m Buddhist.” I better, I mean, sometimes in the airport they look at me and they say, “You’re Buddhist, aren’t you?” [Venerable Chodron is a Buddhist nun with shaven head and maroon robes.] So I better say, “Yes!” But I don’t see it as differentiating myself in a standoffish way from anybody. Since Buddhism is so much a religion of peace, and talking about peace and non-hostility and non-clinging, which is definitely better than the present state of my mind. To say “I’m a Buddhist,” meaning I’m aspiring to generate those qualities, I find actually rather encouraging. Like I said, a lot of times people see me on the street and I guess they find it encouraging too. I say this because they’ll come up to me and they’ll say, “Oh, you’re a Buddhist?” And they’ll be quite excited. Or, “Do you know the Dalai Lama?” One time on a plane one young man came and kind of confessed to me—I think he had had a little bit of alcohol on the plane and he needed to confess! I was the recipient. You know, it was nice—I was able to provide a useful service for somebody. I didn’t mind at all.

These are just some things to think about. How you feel about calling yourself a Buddhist.

Causal and resultant refuge

Next we’ll talk a little bit about causal and resultant refuge. The causal refuge are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha that already exist. That means, for example, the causal Buddha would be Shakyamuni Buddha, all those beings who are already Buddhas; the causal Dharma is the realizations of the true paths and true cessations in their mind; the causal Sangha would be all those beings who have already realized emptiness directly. They’re called the causal refuge because by taking refuge in them it causes us to develop the same qualities as they do. They act as the cause for us being protected from the fears of samsara.

The resultant refuge is the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha that we ourselves will become in the future. We’re not presently the Buddha but one day we will be, so we take refuge in the future Buddha that we will become. We don’t have the realizations, at least I don’t, I don’t know about you, I can’t speak for you, of the true paths and true cessations in my mind. But one day I will, so that future Dharma in my mind is the resultant Dharma refuge. The Sangha: when I realize emptiness directly one day, then becoming the Sangha. That’s the resultant Sangha. We can take refuge in the resultant Sangha, too, by understanding that we have the Buddha nature and the potential to become the resultant Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I find this actually very encouraging because, the causal Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha already exist and we take refuge in them and they guide us so that we become the resultant Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They’re able to guide us because we have the Buddha nature: that potential within us at this very moment. I find that rather helpful.

In other faiths, sometimes there’s a huge gap between the supreme being and human beings. It’s like the supreme being is miles away and we can’t ever become like them. We can maybe be devoted to them or propitiate them or something like that, but we can’t ever become that supreme being. Whereas in Buddhism we have the potential to become a fully enlightened being, which I find actually incredibly encouraging and very invigorating and joyful to think about. It gives us a lot of confidence.

Next week I’ll talk a little bit more about the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and I’ll describe a little bit what is the Buddha Jewel, what is the Dharma Jewel, what is the Sangha Jewel.

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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