Benefits of taking refuge
Benefits of 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 23 (download)
Let’s begin by cultivating our motivation. Since part of the refuge guidelines is to begin each activity by taking refuge, let’s remember our refuge before we listen to the teachings so that we’re clear on our spiritual direction: we’re following the Buddha, the Dharma, and Sangha.
Being clear on our refuge, let’s practice what the Buddha as our teacher taught. One of the chief things he taught is to cultivate the loving, compassionate thought of bodhicitta. Let’s remember this as our motivation for listening to and sharing the Dharma—that we really want to be of the greatest benefit and the most long-term benefit to each and every sentient being. Therefore, we’re aspiring for full enlightenment.
The benefits of taking refuge
Let’s talk about the benefit of taking refuge first. In the lamrim it lists eight benefits. You might be able to think of more. It’s good to contemplate the benefits of taking refuge because that inspires us to really contemplate the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and to deepen our faith and our refuge in them.
Whenever we see the benefits of doing something, then we want to do it. That’s why a lot of lamrim topics start off with talking about the benefits, because our spiritual mentors are giving us the sales pitch about why this topic is something good that we want to realize. Let’s listen to the sales pitch about taking refuge and if you listen well, for sure you’re going to want to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
The first benefit: We become a Buddhist, a follower of the Buddha
The first benefit is: We become a Buddhist. In other words, we become a follower of the Buddha. We are linked into that stream, that chain of practitioners, that started with an enlightened teacher and has been passed down to us. The refuge that we take is really in our heart. Especially when we do it in a ceremony with a teacher, then we’re making a public statement and we really get that sense of joining in to the Buddha’s family. These benefits of taking refuge accrue whether we take refuge in a formal ceremony or not; it’s just that in a formal ceremony you get the extra added perk. It’s like, you can live with somebody for a long time but when you get married, something special happens because you’re doing a public ceremony.
If we don’t take refuge sincerely then the merit (the positive potential) we create won’t be directed towards the goals that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha direct us in. If our refuge is in some other path or if we don’t have any kind of refuge except the eight worldly concerns, then our energy gets put in those directions and either we don’t create any merit. Or if we do, it isn’t directed towards the goals that the Triple Gem set forth.
The second benefit: It establishes the foundation for taking all further vows
The second benefit of taking refuge is that it establishes the foundation for taking all further vows. Before you take the five precepts, or the one-day vows, monastic precepts, or bodhisattva precepts, or tantric precepts—all of those other precepts are taken on the basis of taking refuge.
I did say yesterday that Lama Zopa got special permission from Trijang Rinpoche for people who hadn’t formally taken refuge and become Buddhists to do the Mahayana one-day precepts, but that’s kind of an exception. Otherwise, to really be able to take any kind of precepts, we need the foundation of refuge first.
By taking refuge we want to follow the guidelines that the Buddha set forth. If we don’t have that refuge and confidence in the Three Jewels, then the motivation to follow the guidelines that they set forth is missing—because we don’t really trust the path that they’re describing. On the other hand, if our refuge is really strong and we have very strong confidence in the ability of the Three Jewels to lead us to liberation and enlightenment, then we won’t back off from the ethical guidelines that they prescribed. We’ll really understand that those ethical guidelines were stated by the Buddha, who’s omniscient and sees clearly through his clairvoyant powers what the cause of happiness and the cause of suffering are. We’ll really trust the ethical precepts that we’ve taken if we trust the Buddha who set them forth.
I should also say that, not only the ethical precepts are taken on the basis of refuge but actually, everything is done on the basis of refuge. If we lack refuge, we may do meditations that resemble the Buddhist meditations but they won’t bring about the result that the Buddha taught. Why? It’s because we aren’t completely convinced in the Buddha’s path because we haven’t taken refuge in it.
For example, the meditation practice we do to develop concentration, like calm abiding or serenity. Non-Buddhists do this meditation also. They do it because you get an extremely blissful mind from generating single-pointedness. They actualize that and actualize the jhanas and the form-realm absorption. But because they don’t have refuge in the Three Jewels and they aren’t paying attention to the Buddha’s instructions (when he said don’t just generate concentration, also meditate on the nature of reality and cultivate special insight), because they haven’t listened to those instructions and they haven’t taken refuge, then they cultivate those deep samadhis and get reborn in those realms. But when that karma runs out, they’re reborn again in unfortunate places or as a human being—their concentration doesn’t lead them to enlightenment.
Similarly, people can do tantric meditations. There’s Hindu tantra and it has mantras and visualizations, and they also meditate on the channels, winds, and drops and practice dissolving the winds and do all these yogic exercises; all of that is done in Hindu tantra. If you do all these practices but you don’t have refuge in the Three Jewels, then you’re not going to actualize the aim of the tantric meditations as the Buddha set them forth. You’re not doing Buddhist tantra, you’re doing non-Buddhist tantra because you don’t have refuge.
Without refuge you’re not going to have any inclination to understand emptiness, and without the understanding of emptiness you can do phowa all you want, you can say all the mantras you want to, you can do all sorts of things, but if we lack a proper understanding and lack refuge then we won’t get the result that the Buddha set forth. Refuge in the Three Jewels is really important for all the other practices we are going to embark on.
If we think, “Oh, tantra sounds good—I want to take tantric initiations” but we don’t want to take refuge, then we should ask ourselves, “Why is it that we’re thinking that we want to do these high practices the Buddha prescribed, but we don’t trust the Buddha enough to take refuge and to take precepts?” You get what I mean? It’s like, something’s out of order here.
The third benefit: It helps purify our negative karma
The third benefit of taking refuge is that it helps us to purify our negative karma. When we take refuge, we will really want to do what the Buddha said and therefore, we change our outlook on life. We learn about the law of karma and its results, and we have some confidence that those karmic actions bring certain results—because the Buddha described that. Therefore, when we look at our life and see the negative actions we’re involved in, we really develop some aspiration to purify them and to engage in those purification practices. That’s how taking refuge leads to our purifying our negative karma.
The fourth benefit: It helps us quickly accumulate positive potential (merit)
The fourth benefit of taking refuge is that it helps us quickly accumulate a great deal of positive karma, positive potential, or virtue, or merit—whatever you want to call it. The reason for this is, again, when we trust the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we follow their instructions, their wise guidelines. The Buddha taught all these practices such as making offerings and meditating on bodhicitta, and doing volunteer work, and doing acts of kindness. He taught all of those. Because we’ve taken refuge in the Buddha and trust his guidance, then we will do those practices—and by doing them we accumulate a whole lot of positive karma. That’s one way that refuge helps us to accumulate positive karma.
Another way is that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are very strong objects with which to create good karma because of the level of their realizations. When we create positive potential in relation to them, that positive potential becomes very strong. That’s why there’s the practice of making offerings to our spiritual mentors and to the Three Jewels. That’s why there’s the practice of bowing to the Three Jewels; and why there’s the practice of offering service to the Sangha community and to the Three Jewels. It’s because they are a very strong object with which we can create positive karma; and this is because of the realizations of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Therefore, it becomes easy for us to create good karma in relationship to them. If we don’t have confidence in them, then when we make offerings, we’re going to make offerings to whoever is our object of attachment. It’s nice but it’s not quite the same as making offerings to the Three Jewels. Chances are our motivation is going to be different when we make offerings to our objects of attachment.
The fifth benefit: We can’t be harmed by humans or non-humans
The fifth benefit of taking refuge is that we can’t be harmed by humans or non-humans. You might say, “Well, how come I can’t be harmed by humans or spirits if I take refuge?” One of the reasons is this. If we take refuge then we practice the Buddha’s instructions; so we stop creating negative karma and we purify the negative karma we’ve already created. When we do that, other living beings can’t harm us—we haven’t created the cause for it. Also, when we practice the Dharma under refuge, we become a nicer, kinder person and so we won’t push other people’s buttons and make them mad so much. So clearly we won’t be harmed by them in return because we’ll be nicer people to be around.
The same thing happens in terms of spirits and certain spirit afflictions. If we don’t create the karma for that or if we purify any karma we may have created for it, then spirits can’t harm us. It’s the same as with any other living being. They only have the door to harm because of our negative mind and our karma. If we practice the Dharma and don’t create the karma, and begin to control our mind, then they don’t have the space to act.
If you ever have the sensation that you have some spirit affliction or something like that, taking refuge is a very good method to deal with it. Even if you have bad dreams or nightmares, whether they’re due to spirits or probably not, if you wake up from your nightmare and you take refuge, all the fear in the nightmare completely evaporates.
Some people tell me that sometimes they’ll have the sensation of something pressing down on them. When I’m in Southeast Asia people have that mentality of thinking about spirits. They’ll say, “Oh, I was falling asleep and I had the sensation of somebody pressing down on me, or I was depressed but there wasn’t any real reason why I was mentally unhappy—maybe there was some spirit interference there.” I always tell these people that if that happens, it’s very important to take refuge because as soon as you take refuge and you’re thinking of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, your whole mental attitude changes and you have a very positive mental attitude. With that positive mental attitude, negative forces can’t affect you. Negative forces only affect us because of what the Tibetans call namtok, our superstitious thoughts, our preconceptions.
There’s this story of Milarepa in the cave and all these spirits came to disturb him and he said, “Why are you here? How come you came to bother me?” They said, “Well, you called us; all your preconceptions and superstitious thoughts—they’re the ones that invoked us here!” It’s the same if we have that kind of superstitious mentality. By superstitious it doesn’t mean black cats and walking under ladders and things like that. Lama Yeshe used the expression “superstitious thought” to refer to, let’s say, our grasping at inherent existence, our attachment and clinging to sense objections, our conviction that some other person is a real enemy and we have to destroy them. Those are also examples of our superstitious thoughts.
The sixth benefit: We won’t fall to unfortunate rebirths
The sixth benefit of taking refuge is that we won’t fall to unfortunate rebirths. Part of this is because we’ll have purified karma and not created the karma for an unfortunate rebirth. If at the time of death we take refuge, our mind is automatically in a very positive, uplifted state. In that positive, uplifted state of thinking about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, there’s no opportunity for negative karma to ripen—the mind is in a positive state. Without that negative karma ripening, then we’re not going to get the lower rebirth right away. That works because if we take refuge at the time of death, because our mind is making a connection with the Buddha and we’re tuning into the Buddha when we take refuge, we’re making that connection. Then by the power of the Buddha or by the power of our connection with the Buddha, it becomes impossible to be reborn in the lower realms in that very next life. Our mind is really in a good state.
That’s why it’s so important for us to really practice taking refuge now and practice taking refuge in every single situation we encounter. If we set up that habit of taking refuge when death comes —and we don’t know when it’s going to come—we’ll have that habit; and so we’ll just take refuge and reap the benefits of taking refuge. Whereas, if we don’t establish that habit of taking refuge now, then at the time of death we’ll revert to all of our old habits.
What do we usually do in our life with our old habits when we’re afraid? We fall into panic, we fall into fear, we blame other people, we curse, and we get angry. Who in the world wants to die with those kinds of mental states? What kind of karma is going to ripen if we fall into our old deluded, afflicted habits of how we deal with discomfort and pain? It’s not going to be a good trip. If we take refuge, the mind is turned in a different direction and we can die very peacefully and have a positive karma ripen.
The seventh benefit: Our virtuous aspirations will be fulfilled
The seventh benefit of taking refuge is that, in general, our virtuous aspirations will be fulfilled; and also many of our temporal goals will be fulfilled. This comes about because of having made the connection with the Buddha and also because of following the Buddha’s instructions about karma. When we follow a reliable guide that teaches us what the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering are—and that’s what refuge induces us to do, to follow that reliable guide— then we create the causes for our temporal goals and our ultimate goals to be successful.
That’s one reason why, before we do any virtuous practice or start any new activity, we take refuge, we do prostrations, we make offerings—because doing that gives us a lot of confidence to be able to carry out the new activity that we’re embarking upon. Before signing the contract to purchase the Abbey—some of you may have been at the retreat—we were taking refuge, chanting mantras, generating bodhicitta, and everything else as a way of creating a lot of virtue so that the Abbey could start off on good feet. That’s why before you break ground on doing a new building or before you start any big thing in your Dharma center or in your life, we take refuge and make prostrations, we make offerings to the Triple Gem, and we make request prayers. If we do that, things will turn out well because our mind is in such a positive state.
Before beginning the work on the gazebo (or our former gazebo—we had to take it down, we’re going to be putting a bust of the Buddha there) we took refuge and made prostrations and offerings, and everything as a way of really directing our mind in a good way so that we can accomplish that.
The eighth benefit: We will quickly attain Buddhahood
The eighth benefit of taking refuge is that we will quickly attain Buddhahood by taking the essence of our precious human life. Refuge is the foundation for practicing all the other practices that will enable us to attain Buddhahood quickly. That’s a big benefit of taking refuge. Understanding those benefits, we really want to take refuge again and again, and we want to take refuge not just from the mouth but from the depths of our heart. We can feel the difference in our Dharma practice when we take refuge from the mouth and when we take it in our hearts. There’s a very distinct feeling between the two things, in the same way that there’s a distinct feeling between when we say the four immeasurables with our mouth and when we actually feel them.
Let’s return to the Third Dalai Lama’s text, The Essence of Refined Gold. I want to read the last paragraph in the refuge section. He said, “With awareness of the need to avoid wasting time on mere words, recite the following refuge formula three times each day and three times each night. It’s good to do in the morning and in the evening. ‘Namo Gurubhya, Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya.’ While doing so, maintain awareness of the unsurpassed qualities of the Three Jewels and of their individual uniqueness and the commitments.” While we say “Namo Gurubhya, Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya,” we are aware of the unsurpassed qualities of the Three Jewels. We talked about those in previous talks in this series. We also talked about the commitments in the last two talks, so we want to be mindful of those.
The unique qualities of the Three Jewels
Now we’re going to talk about the individual uniqueness of the Three Jewels, their distinguishing features. Sometimes a question may come, “Each of the Three Jewels has so many qualities, is it okay just to take refuge in one? Why do we need to think about all three?” The answer is, all three are different because they each have their own unique qualities and, by understanding their qualities, we take refuge in each Jewel in a slightly different way. There are six different qualities that we’re going to go through and see how we relate to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in terms of each one of these.
The first quality: The unique characteristics of the Three Jewels
The first quality we’re going to look at is the characteristics. We take refuge in the Buddha by seeing him as the one who has abandoned all defects and developed all good qualities. We take refuge in the Buddha, understanding that he can see the two truths simultaneously and very clearly; that he is, as any buddha is, omniscient.
We take refuge in the Dharma by understanding the Dharma’s unique characteristics. The Dharma is the true cessations and true paths, and they are what the Buddha taught to meet the needs of sentient beings and to fulfill the spiritual aspirations and purposes of the sentient beings. We take refuge in the Dharma, seeing that teaching the Dharma is the whole reason why the Buddha appeared in the world. It’s the Dharma that actually frees us.
We take refuge in the Sangha, understanding their characteristics, that they’re the ones who have realized the Dharma. In other words, they have understood emptiness directly and non- conceptually, and so they can give us accurate guidance so we can generate that same realization of the lack of inherent existence. The Sangha also proved the validity and the usefulness of everything that the Buddha taught. When we look at the example that the Arya Sangha give us or we look at the example of a monastic community where people are keeping their vows well, we get inspired because they’re practicing what the Buddha taught and so they show us that it’s possible to transform our minds and also that it’s beneficial to transform our minds.
I remember, one friend of mine who is a Thai monk, before he knew anything about Buddhism, he was lying on the beaches in Thailand. He’s British and he was indulging in all the sense pleasures on the Thai beaches and then he went up to Wat Pah Nanachat, which is one of Ajahn Chah’s centers and where a lot of the Sangha resided, especially the Western Sangha. He got there and here are all these monastics living in over 200 precepts and at first his mind is going, “Why do they have so many rules? They can’t do this and they can’t do that, and they’re so restrictive!” That’s our usual Western viewpoint toward such things. Then he realized as he stayed there that here are all these people with all these rules but they were much happier than he was. They were kind of happy, relaxed, content people, and here he was running around, searching for sense pleasure, getting angry at people, and being dissatisfied. Just by the example of the Sangha community, that gave him some guidance as to what he needed to practice. This characteristic is the first of the six criteria here that we’re looking at.
The second quality: The uniqueness of the Three Jewels’ enlightening influence
The second one is, “How we take refuge by seeing their unique qualities in terms of their enlightening influence.” The Buddha’s enlightening influence is enacted by his giving the verbal teachings (sometimes it’s called the scriptural teachings), and also by his embodiment of the realizational Dharma (which means the actual realizations). The Buddha is the one who instructs us on what to practice and what to abandon. He transmits the Dharma in the most effective way for our kind of personality, with our disposition and our interests. We take refuge in the Buddha knowing that that’s how his enlightening influence is enacted.e take refuge in the Dharma because its enlightening influence—in other words, how the true paths and true cessations function in terms of influencing us in an enlightening way—is they eliminate all the afflictions and duhkha, all the suffering. That’s why we say the Dharma is the real refuge, because when it’s in our mind, it eliminates the cause of suffering and the actual duhkha itself.
The enlightening influence of the Sangha is enacted by the Sangha giving us encouragement. They give us a role model, inspiration, and assistance in practicing the Dharma. By knowing that there’s a Sangha community or that there are individual Sangha members who have the direct realization of emptiness, then we know that we’re not alone on the spiritual path. That is very important for us to know—that others have gone before us, having practiced this path and gotten the results, and so we can rely on their guidance. His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks about that because he says sometimes we think about the Buddha, and the Buddha just seems so far away. Like, “How am I ever going to become like a Buddha?” But if we look at the Sangha community then it’s like, “Okay, they’re a little bit ahead of me. I can start to approach where they’re getting to.” That sets a role model for us and gives us some inspiration.
The third quality: The aspirations or fervent regard we have for the Three Jewels
The third distinguishing feature of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is in terms of the aspirations or the fervent regard that we have for each one of them. With respect to the Buddha, our aspiration, or fervent regard, is that we have a lot of devotion and respect for the Buddha. We have a lot of gratitude for the Buddha appearing in the world and giving the teachings, and we show our respect and gratitude to the Buddha for all the help he’s given by giving the teachings, by making offerings, by making prostrations, by being of service to groups that spread the Buddha’s teachings. That’s a way that we show our gratitude or our fervent regard. This may involve, for example, making donations to build a place for the Buddha—in other words, building a temple; or giving donations to send Dharma books to inmates; or to publish Dharma books for free distribution. It’s a way of showing our gratitude to the Buddha for all of his help.
Our aspirations toward the Dharma are that we aspire to put it into practice. We practice the Dharma and use it to transform our minds. That’s our way of showing our gratitude and respect and fervent regard for the Dharma. We don’t just do a lot of worship and, “Oh, there are the texts of the Kangyur and Tengyur, and I make offerings to them.” No, we need to practice what’s written inside of those texts. That’s how we really show our respect and regard for the Dharma.
Showing our fervent regard for the Sangha, we practice together with them. We go to a monastery and practice together with the Sangha. Or if there’s somebody who’s realized emptiness, we practice with that person. We go to a Dharma center and we practice with the greater Buddhist community. What we’re doing in terms of the Sangha is that we’re joining them in our efforts to practice the Dharma and to spread the Dharma, and to make the Dharma a living force in the minds and lives of other sentient beings. We want to share the Dharma with other people not because we want everybody to become a Buddhist and then when they take the census they’ll say that we’re the fastest growing religion and, “My religion is best and everybody will be on my team!” That’s not the reason we share the Dharma. We share the Dharma because we know from our own experience how beneficial it is when you learn it and practice it, and we want other sentient beings to have that benefit. I’m always eternally grateful to the people who put the flyers about meditation classes in bookstores and tea stores, send out announcements and things like that, because that’s how I met the Dharma. I met the Dharma through seeing a flyer in Bodhi Tree bookstore in Los Angeles in 1975. Somebody was practicing very well and put out these flyers, and look what happened to me because of it. We can really see that’s a benefit of wanting to share the Dharma with others.
The fourth quality: How we practice in terms of each of the Three Jewels
The fourth quality is how we practice in terms of each of the Three Jewels. The Buddha is the model for what we want to become and so we practice in relation to the Buddha by making offerings, making prostrations, generating the minds that make us closer to the Buddha. We show our respect to the Buddha as a way of making our mind more receptive to the Dharma teachings and to practicing the Dharma teachings. We’re not just talking about worship here. Any kind of ritual or prostrations or offerings, these things are common in all the Buddhist traditions—they all have rituals and bowing and offerings—but the whole purpose of that is to open our mind and set the stage for us taking the Buddha’s teachings into our lives and practicing them and using them to transform our minds. We’re not doing these rituals and other things just for the sake of doing them, or to win the Buddha’s favor so the Buddha will like us because we gave him some Oreo cookies and a peach tonight. It’s not like that. It’s because these practices really help our own mind.
The way we practice in terms of the Dharma is we meditate on the path and we integrate the path with our body, speech and mind. Remember, the Dharma Jewel is the true paths and the true cessations, so that’s how we practice in terms of them, by hearing, thinking, and meditating on them.
We practice in terms of the Sangha by practicing harmoniously together with the Sangha, sharing the teachings, sharing material possessions, following the example of the Sangha. In a monastic community everybody shares in the offerings equally. The fully ordained people share in the offerings equally, so they share in the material possessions; they share the precepts; they share the teachings; and they share the practice. That’s how you really practice with the Sangha community, instead of it just being, “I want to do this practice so I don’t want to practice with you. I want to sit in my room and do this practice that I feel like doing,” and, “Where shall I go to practice the Dharma so that it’s good for my Dharma practice?” Instead of just being so focused on how my Dharma practice can get ahead, we become really focused on sharing the Dharma with the community. We create so much more positive potential when we practice together with the community. It’s like sweeping a room with a broom versus with one little strand of something. That was the fourth quality.
The fifth quality: The distinguishing differences of the Three Jewels to be mindful of
The fifth quality that we’re going to know, the distinguishing difference of the Three Jewels, is what qualities to remember or what qualities to be mindful of when we reflect on them. When we are mindful of the Buddha, we want to remember that he is free from the three poisons: from ignorance, anger, and attachment; that he has full wisdom, full compassion, an omniscient mind, and that the Buddha is the perfect guide to lead us to full enlightenment. When we recollect the qualities of the Buddha, this is what we want to hold in mind.
When we recollect the Dharma, we want to remember that it brings good results in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end. We can see that as we practice the Dharma; sometimes we really get quite a high at the beginning because things click and we feel like, “Wow, here’s finally something that’s speaking to my heart. The Buddha really understood what I was thinking and he put it into words and he’s showing me a way to deal with it.” We really feel the good result in the beginning. Then as we practice the Dharma, maybe that instant rush goes away but we begin to see some gradual progress in our mind—we remember the good results that the Dharma brings in the middle of our practice. At the end of our practice, sometime when we are attaining the bhumis—the grounds and stages and full enlightenment—we’ll really see the advantages of the Dharma. Our mind will be completely one with the Dharma; there won’t be a difference between the Dharma and our mind.
In terms of the Sangha, the qualities we remember are that they are practicing the Eightfold Noble Path. They’re impartial, they’re true friends for us, and they provide good companionship for us on the path. Some of us have real issues with trust and we find it very difficult to trust others. Dromtonpa said, “Rather than trust sentient beings, put our trust in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” Hmm?
When we trust sentient beings, well, how much can sentient beings really fulfill our trust? They’re under the influence of afflictions and karma, so they may want to do something and be unable to do it. They may tell us one thing and not be able to carry it out. Their minds are changeable, their minds get overwhelmed by afflictions, and they’re moody and everything else. Rather than place our refuge in sentient beings who are not a stable refuge and cannot lead us to enlightenment (and often, it’s hard to even count on them when we have worldly problems), instead of placing ultimate refuge in sentient beings, to really put our refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha won’t abandon us. It’s much more likely that we abandon them, but they won’t abandon us.
Now you might say, “Well, how do I know that? And what does that mean to place trust in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha?” For example, as we age we begin to see that we’re losing our youth, we’re getting older, our body doesn’t function so well, we’re getting more forgetful. We start looking and seeing, “Oh, I’m ‘X’ numbers of years old; more than half of my life is gone even if I live a normal life span, and I might die sooner before that.” We become concerned about what’s going to happen to us in old age. If you are a worldly person, what do you do with that worry and fear that you have of what’s going to happen to you in old age? You buy an insurance policy, you get a 401K, and you have an IRA. You have kids and then talk them into taking care of you and hope that they actually do that. You do a lot of different things to try and establish some security for yourself in old age. But, all those things that we do, it’s not sure that they’ll be around when we need them in old age. The money could have disappeared before that, the kids could have disappeared, our friends could be busy. We may take refuge in all those worldly things but we don’t have any security that they’re going to come through for us in old age.
If we think about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and take refuge in them, then rather than spending our youth chasing after this pleasure and after that pleasure, and doing this and that and the other thing, we’re going to spend our energy practicing the Dharma. When we have very strong refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and we practice well, then we don’t need to be afraid of old age. This is because then even if our body is weak, we still know we have a precious human life and our mind is active. You can be ill, you can be injured, but you can lie in that bed and still create good karma and generate bodhicitta and meditate on emptiness and practice the tantra—you have lots to do when you’re an old person. You’re not just going to be stuck in front of the television. Even if we wind up in an old folks home, we can practice the Dharma and we know that we’ll have some control over our mind as an old person.
Even if we get dementia and Alzheimer’s, at least we’ll be a kind person with dementia and Alzheimer’s. If we practice the Dharma while we’re young, those are the kinds of mental habits that we establish, and then even when we’re out of it, we’re still very kind to other people. Those of you who are DFFers, you know Miriam. I don’t know how old she is now—maybe 85 or something? She has dementia but she is so sweet and loving and it’s because she cultivated those traits when she was younger—and she did that because she had some refuge and some trust in the Three Jewels. [DFF is Dharma Friendship Foundation]
There are some moments in your life where you have to jump and trust the Three Jewels. If you’re always trying to make sure that your worldly life is taken care of completely, adequately, before you do anything, then you’re never going to have the time to practice. I say this because there’s always one more thing that you have to do to make your worldly life secure, and there’s no end to it. For example, I was ordained when I was 24. I didn’t have any money—I had maybe a few hundred dollars in savings and that was it. Here I was, I’m ordaining and one of our vows is not to do business. I interpreted that as, “I am not going to work for money and I don’t care what happens to me, I’m not working for money.” The Buddha said that if you practice sincerely, you’re not going to starve. Here I was, going off to India; there’s no Abbey that supports me, there’s no anybody that supports me, there are one or two friends who gave me a little bit, and I just said, “Well, the Buddha said this and I trust what the Buddha said, that you’re not going to starve.” I haven’t starved and it’s 30 years later. I’ve never gone out and gotten a job. I trust what the Buddha said in that respect. There have been times when I’ve been very poor but I’ve never starved; what the Buddha said was true.
There are just times in your life when you have to jump and do what you need to do for your spiritual practice from your heart. Otherwise, looking at it from the worldly point of view, you can’t do anything. Even starting the Abbey, if I was trying to get everything secure in a worldly way before starting the Abbey, we wouldn’t have an Abbey right now. When I signed those purchase papers we didn’t have enough money; we had enough money for the down payment and that was it. When we were taking out a mortgage, I had no idea how we were going to pay that mortgage off. I made prayers to Tara and the mortgage got paid off. There are times when you just have to kind of trust the Three Jewels and trust your virtuous intention, and the Buddha is going to support your virtuous intention.
The sixth quality: How we gain merit in relationship to each of the Three Jewels
The sixth quality of refuge is how we gain merit or positive potential in relationship to each. In terms of the Buddha, we create merit and positive potential by taking refuge, making prostrations, and making offerings to Shakyamuni Buddha and also to all the other buddhas. We create merit in relationship to the Dharma by developing it in our mindstream because as we practice the Dharma, our mind gets transformed into virtue; that’s how we create virtue or merit. We create merit, or positive potential, in relationship to the Sangha by doing virtuous activities together with them. We practice together, we do our meditation together, we do prostrations together, we listen to teachings together, we go and do social service together, we work together in the Dharma center, we work together in the monastery, and we do things together. We are creating virtuous activities with members of this group and that’s very important.
When we join a group for a specific purpose, we create the karma that the group is creating by fulfilling their purpose, even if we’re not doing it. If you become, let’s say, a soldier with your team to go kill the enemy, then even though you’re not the person who does that, because you’ve joined the group with that purpose, you accumulate that karma when other people do it. If you join a spiritual community, then when people there are doing virtuous practices, you’re part of that community and you’re endorsing their purpose, and so you’re automatically rejoicing in what they’re doing and so that creates a lot of positive potential. We create merit in relationship to the Sangha by making offerings to them and by showing our respect to them. That’s a very important way to create positive potential.
Sometimes in the West I think we have difficulty with that because we look at Asian Buddhists who go to the monastery and make offerings and we say, “Oh, they’re just going to the monastery and making offerings because they’re trying to earn merit for a good future life, and that’s just a temporal aim, a good future life in samsara. I don’t do it with that kind of bad motivation.” Then we don’t make offerings to the Sangha at all. Do you see what we’re doing? We’re shooting ourselves in the foot. You can make offerings to the Sangha with the aspiration for full enlightenment. If you do that, you create incredible positive potential. The Sangha, because they’re practicing virtue, when you make offerings, it really enriches your mind. The people are going to use your offerings in a virtuous way, for a good purpose. Those are the ways of taking refuge by knowing the unique qualities or the distinguishing features of each of the Three Jewels.
What I recommend for you to do in your meditation is to do the analytic meditation or checking meditation on the benefits of taking refuge. Really think about these different points and how all these benefits come about from taking refuge. Really try and understand how that works. By doing that, develop a lot of aspiration and vigor to take refuge. Do that meditation on the benefits of taking refuge. Similarly, go through what we just talked about here, about the unique qualities of the Three Jewels: their unique characteristics, the uniqueness of each of the Three Jewels in terms of their enlightening influence, the fervent regard for them, how we practice in terms of each, how we remember or are mindful of each, and how we create positive potential in relationship to each one. Go through your notes on them, or listen to the teaching again, and reflect on that. When you do, that helps you know how to take refuge in them and how to use your refuge so that it really benefits your Dharma practice.
Audience: I have a question on something I missed. It was this last part and it was the qualities to remember or reflect on. Could you just mention the one that the Buddha…
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): The qualities. I mentioned six qualities in terms of each of the Three Jewels. There were the characteristics, the enlightening influence, the fervent regard, how we practice, what qualities we remember, and how merit is gained.
Audience: The fifth one?
VTC: The fifth one, what qualities to remember. The qualities of the Buddha to remember are that the Buddha is free from the three poisons, that he has full wisdom and compassion, that the buddhas are omniscient, and that they can guide us to enlightenment.
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.