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Home > eBooks > Unpublished Manuscripts > Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra > Session Four: Precious Human Rebirth, Death and Impermanence, and Safe Direction (Refuge)

Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
Barnet, Vermont, USA, August 1982
Translated by Alexander Berzin
Edited by Lucy Costa and Alexander Berzin

Part I: The Lam-rim Graded Stages as Preparation Shared in Common by Sutra and Tantra Mahamudra

Session Four: Precious Human Rebirth, Death and Impermanence, and Safe Direction (Refuge)

A Precious Human Rebirth

It is very important to appreciate the fact that we have a precious human body as a working basis and that it enjoys all the various respites from all the difficult situations with no chance to practice and that it also has the enriching factors of various opportunities to improve ourselves. It is on this basis that we can practice ethics and always act constructively, because if we were reborn as an animal, for instance, there is no way we could follow any type of ethical behavior. This human body that we have isn’t something that you can go out to a store and buy. It’s not something that you can acquire through going to work every day, saving up money from your salary and then go purchase somewhere. It is something that is extremely difficult to come by.

To be reborn as a human being in order to have a precious human body requires a cause, and the cause for this is observing ethical self-discipline. The fact that we do have a human body now is an indication that in the past we’ve acted in a very ethical fashion. Therefore, having met with all these preventive measures of the Dharma now, in this lifetime, it is extremely important for us to maintain very pure ethical conduct. In addition to this, it is necessary to continue to practice such things as generosity, patience, energetic enthusiastic perseverance for what is positive, mental constancy or concentration, and discriminating awareness. These things are also necessary.

If we look at ourselves, we find that, instead of being generous and giving, we’re just the opposite, we’re rather miserly; instead of being very patient and tolerant, we are prone to anger and have very little tolerance. If we act like that, it is going to be very difficult to continue obtaining precious human rebirths in the future.

In addition to these factors, as a further cause, we need to have made pure prayers to attain a precious human rebirth. But if we look at ourselves, we very rarely make any prayers and, even if we do pray, we pray for things for this lifetime only: that we have good health, that we don’t get sick, that we live long and so forth. Again, this indicates how difficult it will be to obtain another precious human rebirth in the future.

It’s extremely rare to find someone who actually is spiritually oriented, in the full sense of what a spiritual practice of Dharma entails: someone who is interested in benefiting their future lifetimes. If you look in the area around here, how many people are even interested in these matters? If you count, only fourteen or fifteen persons have actually showed up for these teachings from all the people who live around here.

Therefore, we look at what we have achieved already and we realize that have a precious human rebirth now. This is the result of a great deal of work and effort that we’ve put in during previous lifetimes. Unless we do something about it, it will be very difficult for us to achieve this again in future lifetimes. If we work very, very hard, we will prepare all the causes to continue being reborn with such a precious human rebirth, a precious body with all its opportunities. If we do nothing about it, then it’s going to be extremely difficult for us to be reborn with such a good chance again in the future.

Furthermore, we can accomplish a lot more with this precious human body that we have because, in fact, we can become totally clear-minded, we can become fully evolved and reach our fullest potentials by becoming an enlightened Buddha. If we ask “Well, who has actually done that?” then there is the example of the great Milarepa who became enlightened in his very lifetime.

As for the working basis of a human body that Milarepa had and the ones that we have, there’s no difference. They are exactly the same: both are human. But Milarepa was someone who put the main emphasis on future lifetimes instead of on things for this lifetime; and who, between concern for self and concern for others, put his main emphasis on working for others; and between worldly activities and spiritual activities, put his main emphasis on spiritual matters. By placing his priorities on these things, he was able to achieve enlightenment in his very lifetime.

He went to his teacher, the translator Marpa, and began his practice and studies when he had already reached the age of forty and started his practice and continued from there. If we think of his example, then we all have the ability to work very hard, there’s no excuse. We can all achieve the same attainments as Milarepa and we all can become enlightened in our very lifetime. All of that can be accomplished on the basis of having a precious human body.

You need to think about these things that we’ve spoken about in terms of abandoning, refraining from ever committing the ten destructive actions and try always to act constructively, to do the ten constructive actions, keep this type of strict morality and take full advantage of your precious human rebirth. It’s by working on building up steps or stages that you actually will be able to achieve enlightenment on this foundation.

Being Mindful of the Certainty of Death

If the excellent working basis of our human body were to last for a very long time, then we could sit back and take it easy; but since that is not the case, it is necessary to work very hard to take advantage of it. Furthermore, if this body were something that was not subject to death at all, then there would be no need to take any preventive measures for the future in terms of practicing the Dharma, or even if you did take some preventive measures you could do it whenever you felt like it. However, as we discussed earlier, even the Buddha himself demonstrated passing away. If you look at all the great masters of the past, all the learned pandits, the mahasiddis, the highly realized masters of India, and look at all the great masters of Tibet, from all the different traditions, Kagyu, Nyingma, Gelug and Sakya, there were masters equal in numbers to stars in the sky. Yet it’s not heard that any among them did not pass away, did not die. Even in terms of ordinary beings, there’ve been thousands of great historical figures, kings and so on, but there are none among them who did not die. Once you’ve been born, there’s nothing left but to die. It has never been heard of someone who has been born and didn’t die.

These are things that you need to consider and think about. When you want to meditate on something, these are the things you should meditate on. You need to build up beneficial habits of mind by thinking over and over again that nothing remains static; everything is impermanent, especially our own lives.

With respect to this, what is the point of meditating and building up the habit of mind of always being mindful of impermanence? The point is that, if you think of all the negative potentials that you have built up and apply the various opponent forces to purify yourselves of the disastrous consequences which would follow from these potentials, then when the time for you to die actually comes, you will have no fears. When your time is up and it’s actually time for you to die, it doesn’t matter how many good hospitals there are, they’ll be of no help. Whether you are in India and you want to come back to the West for treatment, or go to Western hospitals there, or go to a Tibetan doctor, none of it matters, because when your time is up, it is up, and no hospital is going to help. It doesn’t matter how many friends or relatives you might have, even if you are a king and have a tremendous number of subjects and people under you. As a king or a ruler, you could have your entire army around you, but it will make no difference at all. When it’s time to die, you won’t be able to bring even one person along with you.

So if the conclusion that you reach when you think about all of this is “Now I must really take some preventive measures and practice the Dharma; aside from that, there will be no method and no way to handle the situation of my upcoming death,” that will be very good, you’ve made some progress. But if you think of putting off taking some preventive measures for your death until tomorrow, next week, next year, or something like that, you can’t put it off because there’s no certainty as to the exact time when you are going to die.

There is no certainty as to the time when death will come. You could very easily be killed in a motor accident in the prime of your youth. Death can come to you unexpectedly at any time. For instance, people who were alive yesterday have died today; people alive in the morning are dead in the afternoon. It’s very easy and there’s no way of saying when exactly your death is going to come.

If you think that when you are young and in the prime of your life it’s not necessary to take any preventive measures for the future, that you can leave it till later, you are making a big mistake. Not only can you die when you are young, but you might for instance go crazy and find yourself in a mental institution later on in life, or you can get some horrible disease and find yourself in a hospital, and in those situations you won’t be able to handle it at all. So when you think about taking these preventive measures of the Dharma, it’s necessary to do so immediately, starting right now.

If our bodies were as strong as diamonds or as hard as a rock, then that would be something else. But if you think about it, our body is made out of flesh and bones and blood; the insides of our body are like a very delicate watch, something that just the slightest jarring will break. So think about how all your inner organs, your heart, your lungs, your liver, all the various veins and arteries in your body, the nervous system and so forth, are like a very, very delicate watch and it’s very, very easy for it to break.

Furthermore, you need to consider how there are so many circumstances that can cause you to die, whereas the conditions that can cause you to stay alive are very scarce and few. If you are sick and go to the hospital, medicine can perhaps keep you alive, but the process to cure you of some serious illness is going to be very long and difficult. Whereas if you think about what could cause your death, even food, which you would think is something that normally keeps you alive – simply eating a minute amount of the wrong thing can kill you. A potato farmer that I knew in India had put some oil in a frying pan and was frying a piece of bread for his lunch, and when he had that going on the fire, he stepped outside for a moment and dropped dead.

So thinking about things in this way, how you can drop dead at any moment in the middle of doing anything, you need to take the firm decision that right now, starting at this moment, you are going to start taking these preventive measures of the Dharma, you are going to start practicing. What practicing refers to here is that, from now on I’m going to be a very ethical person. I’m going to stop acting destructively. I’m going to try to be very constructive and positive in everything that I do, say and think, and try to have a very kind and warm heart. To practice and take preventive measures doesn’t mean to sit up in some pompous position pretending to meditate, but rather changing the type of person you are and having kind thoughts and a warm heart.

For instance, we’re all afraid of the danger of some huge war coming, but when you think about it, there is no way of being certain whether the next huge world war is going to happen or not. Your own death, however, is not like that. It is something that will definitely come; it’s not a matter of wondering and speculating whether the world is going to end with the next world war or not. There is no way to bribe your way past the Lord of Death. You are going to die no matter what and, therefore, it’s simply a matter of taking preventive measures so that you can die properly without being in a completely terrified mess. Therefore, make a firm decision that, from right now on, you are not going to waste any amount of time; you are going to start taking the preventive measures and practicing the Dharma right now.

When your death comes you are going to have to leave behind your body. You are going to have to leave behind whatever material possessions, money and wealth you might have. You are going to have to leave behind all your friends and relatives. Even if you have hundreds of thousands of dollars, there’s no way you’re going to be able to take even one small bill with you. The only things you will be able to carry with you are the positive potentials that you’ve built up from acting constructively and the negative potentials built up from acting destructively. These are the only things that come with you, the potentials that you’ve built up. Since the Dharma, taking these preventive measures, is the means through which you build up these positive potentials, you need to take a firm decision that this is what you are going to devote all your time and energies to: a spiritual practice to build up positive potentials, and that you are not going to waste your time in mere material pursuits of worldly life.

Even though you might decide that you are going to devote your entire life to spiritual pursuits, there may be some of you who have a great deal of wealth that you’ve gotten as a result of having built up positive potentials in past lifetimes. If you are a very wealthy person, you may think that in order to follow spiritual pursuits, you should throw all your money and possessions in the river, but there’s no need to do that. That’s not proper at all. What you should do with whatever money you might have as a result of the positive potentials, the merit, you’ve built up in past lifetimes, is not to waste it, but use it properly. Use it to help the poor and needy, or use it to make offerings to the Triple Gem and, especially, don’t be miserly about it. Take advantage, wisely and properly, of the wealth and possessions that you have in order to further your spiritual pursuits.

If you think about the material possessions and wealth that you might have, on an ultimate level they are not things that can ultimately help you; on the contrary, they are things that can cause you a great deal of troubles and harm. For instance, once you’ve gotten a lot of money and possessions, then all you have from them is a great deal of worries about them and problems centered on the wealth that you have accumulated. Consider the example of Buddha Shakyamuni. He himself was born as a prince, but he renounced and gave up his princely life and devoted himself entirely to spiritual pursuits.

Although Milarepa had all the necessary realizations to be able to fly through the air and have all sorts of miraculous powers, he didn’t use this in order to make money. He spent all his time in intensive practice in cave retreats. As you see in his pictures, his body had turned bluish-green because he sustained himself by living on nettles made into nettle soup. And he didn’t have any salt with it, he didn’t have any meat or fat or any other delicacies to eat, but he did an intensive practice living merely on nettle soup. Therefore, to meditate on and learn about death and impermanence is something that you don’t have to learn from books; you don’t have to rely on gaining experience and understanding of this from texts. Rather, just look around you. When you go around and pass, for instance, a cemetery, think about how it’s only a matter of time before each of us ends up in a cemetery.

Thinking like that, you may get the feeling of a strong dread of dying. This is something very positive because it will move you to actually take the preventive measures and practice the Dharma. If you look at the picture of Milarepa, he has a skullcup as a bowl, which he keeps in his hand and from which he eats his food. The reason for this is so as to be always mindful of death and impermanence. If you always keep in mind the fact of death and impermanence, that you can die at any time, and the fact that you have a precious human rebirth at this point, but that you will lose it, these are very important foundations because they will move you to actually do something, to actually practice the Dharma.

Who and What Can Provide Us with a Safe Direction or Refuge?

If we have spent our lives and have never built up any negative potentials so that there is no danger of any horrible rebirth awaiting us, then there is no reason for us to be afraid of dying. But if during our lives we’ve mostly built up negative potential from being very destructive and negative, then what awaits us when we die is a rebirth in one of the worst states possible, the lower realms. In such a situation, it is extremely difficult to regain such a precious human body as we have now. A rebirth in one of the worst states is not something very distant and far off; it’s something that can happen just as you breathe out and then you don’t breathe in again; and, at that time, you die and there it is, you are in the lower realms. It is not far away at all; you are right on the brink.

Although we can’t really see or appreciate the types of suffering and horrors that the hell creatures and hungry ghosts endure, we do see all the sufferings, problems and difficulties that animals go through. These are very plain and visible to us. We think how horrible it would be for us to experience those problems and difficulties were we to be reborn as an animal, and so we look to who and what can provide us with a safe direction or refuge out of having to experience those things. Other than the Triple Gem, that is the Buddhas, the preventive measures (the Dharma that they’ve taught), and the intent community around them (the Sangha), there’s nothing else that can provide us with a safe and sound direction out of this happening.

Think about the shravakas, the listeners to the teachings, who have rid themselves of their own disturbing attitudes or delusions and have gained a great deal of extra-physical powers, powers of emanation and so forth. Although they have all these powers, they cannot ultimately lead us out of all our predicaments. The mother of the great listener, the highly realized Maudgalyayana, was reborn in a hell beneath a far, far distant world system. Since he was still a limited being with a limited mind, not a fully enlightened Buddha, his powers were limited. Although he had extrasensory perception, he could not see as far as this extremely remote world system where his mother had been reborn in a hell. However, the Buddha with his limitless extrasensory powers could see that effortlessly.

Maudgalyayana, who couldn’t see where his mother had been reborn, asked the Buddha about it and the Buddha told him, “Your mother has been reborn in a hell underneath that extremely distant world system.” In that hell realm underneath that system, the mother was inside a house that was inside another house, and this, in turn, inside another house, and all of these houses lacked doors and windows and were made of flaming red hot iron. Maudgalyayana used his powers to fly there and beheld this site, but he couldn’t figure out a way to help or free his mother. He came back and asked the Buddha what to do. The Buddha pointed to his monk’s staff and said, “If you go back there and take this staff and pound it on the ground three times, then you’ll be able to handle the situation.” So Maudgalyayana went back with the Buddha’s staff and he pounded it on the ground three times and the house where his mother was trapped crumbled down. So a Buddha is someone who has such fantastic abilities to know how to handle all situations and to see all things. Therefore, only a Buddha can give us a totally safe and sound direction in life, only a fully enlightened Buddha can give us refuge. Likewise, we ourselves can become fully enlightened and become a Buddha as well. The Buddhas that we will become also provide us with a safe and sound direction to go in.

It’s important to think about death and impermanence and the possibilities of being reborn in all these situations and develop a strong feeling of dread of that happening. This is a very important thing to develop because with this feeling of dread, you will look for some refuge or safe direction to take that will save you from having to experience these horrible things. Then when you will look around and investigate, you’ll discover that only the Buddhas and only the preventive measures of Dharma that they’ve taught and the intent community of the Sangha have the ability and power to actually provide you with a safe direction to take, can actually provide you with a refuge. Therefore, thinking about how, in fact, they have the ability to do so, you develop a great feeling of confidence in that, in being able to turn to them and that they can actually provide you with a safe and sound direction to take.

On top of this, you need to think not only of taking this for yourself alone, but that everybody needs a safe and sound direction to take in life; everyone needs a refuge. In this sense, when you have as your causes all of these, which are the causes for a vast-minded or Mahayana way of taking a safe direction in life, then you actually turn your mind completely to the direction that they provide and indicate. This is what is actually known as taking refuge, or taking a safe and sound direction in life.

The Qualities and Features of a Buddha

As for the good qualities and features of a Buddha, a totally clear-minded and fully evolved being, these include, with respect to his body, the thirty-two excellent signs and the eighty exemplary features, such as, for instance, he has this great protrusion on the crown of his head. He has a hair that grows from the middle of his brow and which is curled, and when pulled, it extends for an infinite length. He has wheel imprints on the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet and so forth; he has many extraordinary physical features.

In terms of the good qualities of a Buddha’s speech, it has the sixty features of enlightening speech. For instance, it doesn’t matter whether you are sitting close or far away from a Buddha; when he speaks everyone can hear the Buddha at the same volume level and, furthermore, everyone can understand and hear the Buddha speaking in his or her own language: the Buddha has the ability to speak in all tongues.

In terms of a Buddha’s enlightening mind, a Buddha has the omniscience to be able to know all phenomena whatsoever. So a Buddha can see everything as clearly as we can see a small object held in the palm of our hand.

All of these qualities of enlightening body, speech and mind of a Buddha came from causes. The Buddha himself, in the various historical accounts describing the five hundred impure lives with an impure body and the five hundred lives with a pure body that he had while on the paths, told how he practiced and built up tremendous positive potential during those lifetimes. For instance, we talked this morning about the time when the Buddha in a previous lifetime was a large ape who had used his body as a bridge to allow all the animals to cross over a river. Likewise, there are many accounts of when a Buddha gave away various parts of his body in the practice of generous giving. He gave away his head, he had his throat slit, he gave away his eyes, and so forth, and all of this was done in order to help all limited beings. As a result of this, he became totally clear-minded and fully evolved as an enlightened being.

He practiced in this way in order to benefit everyone, without any partisanship. He wasn’t practicing out of attachment to friends and relatives, and with hostility and hatred for enemies, and indifference to strangers. He worked with complete generosity, giving to everyone equally and following a complete practice of giving and ethical discipline. As a result, he abandoned or got rid of all shortcomings, gained all good qualities and became a fully enlightened being overcoming all fear that he might have for himself. This is the type of person that we need to turn to in order to provide us with a safe and sound direction to take in life. This is someone who can provide us with a safe and sound refuge.

Furthermore, not only is the Buddha free of all fear for himself, but anyone to whom we would turn for a safe direction and who can provide us with that safe direction must, in addition, have all the necessary methods to help everybody become free of their fears. In a previous lifetime, the Buddha was born in the form of something like a lion that had brilliant light coming out from each of the hairs of his body. Once, he was in a thick forest and saw someone who had fallen over a cliff and was in a really difficult position because it was a lonely isolated place in the thick forest, with nobody to help and no way to climb back up. This wild beast of the jungle, who was the Buddha in a previous life, had deep loving concern for this person and jumped down to help him up and save him from where he was stranded at the bottom of the cliff. But this lion at first didn’t have the strength to carry this man up, so he trained himself by carrying rocks on his back. First he carried a small rock and then he carried larger and larger rocks until he gained the strength and ability to carry this man on his back and in this way he trained himself and rescued him. After training himself, he was finally able to carry the man and he took him up. So the lion jumped down and, with great compassion and concern for this person, climbed back up carrying him on his back. Then, after rescuing him, the lion said to the man, “Don’t tell anybody about me, that I’m here in the jungle.”

It so happened that the king of a nearby kingdom one night dreamt that there was some fantastic animal in the jungle and he ordered all the hunters in the kingdom to go and catch this beast. But the hunters couldn’t catch this beast. The king then had signs posted all over saying that if anybody could catch this animal, he would give a big reward. The person who had been rescued by this lion had of course seen this animal and, since he was desirous of getting the reward, he came forth and said he’d seen the beast. The hunters followed the instructions he gave to find the animal and they killed it and brought the hide back to the king. This is how the Buddha worked during many previous lifetimes to help different beings, even those who were never grateful.

Now these are accounts of the Buddha before he became enlightened. After he became enlightened, how much more he helped beings regardless of what they did for him! Once there was a wealthy family whose child was completely deformed and ugly. When the child got a little bit older, the family took this ugly deformed child out and abandoned him in the woods. The little boy stayed in the forest and was completely depressed that his family didn’t want him and nobody wanted him because he was so ugly and horrible looking. Although he was a human being, any place you looked on his body was deformed and ugly. So he lived in the woods, and one day, as he was wandering around, he came across somebody who was even uglier and more deformed than he was. Seeing someone who was even uglier than himself, he became a little bit happy and glad that he wasn’t the world’s worst mess. So he sort of bullied this other person into becoming his servant. This uglier person was an emanation of the Buddha who was doing this to help the little boy. As time passed, the Buddha showed himself in a more and more perfect form and instructed the boy, and eventually the boy was able to transform himself in such a way that his body was no longer so ugly and horrible looking.

This is an illustration of how the Buddha is skillful in methods to help others overcome all their fears and problems. There are many examples and accounts that can be told to illustrate this. The Buddha helps everyone regardless of whether or not the other person has helped the Buddha; it’s not that the Buddha only helps those who have helped him and ignores those who have done nothing for him. Furthermore, the Buddha has no favorites and no partisanship, he doesn’t have some people whom he considers close to him, like his friends and relatives that he takes care of, and other people he considers very far and distant and so he forgets about them. It’s not like that at all. The Buddha has no favorites; he is the same toward everyone.

For instance, consider Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who was jealous of the Buddha and always competing with him, and intended setting himself up as a rival to try to teach and get followers of his own. There was also a king called Ajatashatru, who had assassinated his own father in order to take over the kingdom. The two of them, Ajatashatru and the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta, always planned together to do nasty things to the Buddha. For instance, they would try to throw rocks and boulders at the Buddha using catapults and all sorts of paraphernalia, like nowadays we have cannon and similar things that can hurl heavy objects. They likewise used all sorts of different methods to harm the Buddha; but of course, the Buddha being an enlightened being, could not be harmed by such methods. The Buddha worked equally for everybody, even those hostile beings.

The body of a Buddha is very strong; he has the strength for instance, to knock over an elephant with just a flick of the finger. There was in the kingdom an enormous elephant and when this elephant died, there was no way to remove its body because there were no big machines or vehicles or things like that to cart it away. The carcass of this elephant was rotting and giving off some really bad odors and causing all sorts of epidemics in the area. So the Buddha came and with one slight flick of his foot was able to kick the carcass off to a remote area.

There were great physicians at the time of the Buddha and they presented the Buddha with some medicine, and because the Buddha had such incredible physical strength, they offered him medicine of extremely great potency. Devadatta, who was always competing with the Buddha, insisted that these doctors also give him a dose of medicine of the same strength as they had given to the Buddha, saying he wanted to take as strong a medicine as the Buddha could take. The doctors told Devadatta that the Buddha could take an extremely strong and large dose because of his incredible physical strength, but “You don’t in any way have the same strength to take that.”

Devadatta got really annoyed at them and kept on insisting that he could indeed take such a dose. As Devadatta wouldn’t listen, the doctors finally had to give in and gave him a larger dose than what they would normally give to regular people, and Devadatta took it. Of course, because the medicine was so strong and powerful, it made Devadatta thoroughly sick and he was on the verge of death. He was just sort of lying on his back, rolling over and groaning and moaning, deadly ill. The Buddha came over to where Devadatta was writhing on the ground, and said, “If I make no difference in my feelings toward my own son Rahula and you, who are always trying to hurt me and compete with me, and are always being a complete pest; if I have no difference of attitude between you and my own son, then may you be cured.” He then laid his hand on Devadatta’s head and Devadatta was in fact cured. He recovered, looked up at the Buddha and the only words that he could say to the Buddha were “Get your filthy hand off my head”.

So the Buddha is someone who has no favorites and is willing to help others no matter how nasty they might be toward him. It’s only this type of person, a fully enlightened Buddha who can provide you with refuge, a safe and sound direction to take in life. Therefore, there are all these incredible qualities of the enlightening body, speech and mind of a Buddha. You can learn about these from studying the various texts. The more you know about these, the greater the confident belief, faith and respect you’ll have for the Buddha as someone who can indeed provide you with a safe and sound direction and refuge in life.

As for the different types of Kayas or Bodies of a Buddha, we’ve already discussed the Dharmakaya, a body that encompasses everything, and the different types of Form Bodies, the Sambhogakaya, which is a body of full use, and the Nirmanakayas, the various types of emanation bodies. There is no need to go over that again. You can actually recognize and know what a Buddha is, for instance, by considering someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Furthermore it is important to recognize and look at all the various depictions of a Buddha, such as paintings and statues, with the greatest respect. Even the smallest Buddha statue the size of your fingernail, look at it and feel that this is actually a Buddha, because when you’ve developed the actual spiritual pathways of mind, they will speak to you. There are five actual pathways of mind. The first of these is known as the path of collection or an accumulating pathway of mind, and is divided into three parts: a small, a medium and a great accumulating pathway of mind. When you have achieved the stage of a great accumulating pathway of mind, at that point you will be able to receive teachings from all those various depictions that you have looked at and recognized as being a Buddha; they will actually speak to you. Therefore, it’s important to establish now this recognition of all these depictions as being actual Buddhas. It is said that there is more benefit in meeting with these various depictions that you recognize as a Buddha than in meeting the actual Buddha himself.

The Dharma and Sangha Jewels

As for the Rare and Precious Gem or Jewel of the Dharma, the actual qualities on the mental continuum of a Buddha are set as the Dharma refuge or the Dharma Jewel. When you are practicing, then you can look at the various texts, which come from these qualities of mind, as being the Jewel of Dharma.

As for the Jewel of Sangha, the intent community, this actually refers to the community of arya, or highly realized, beings who have beheld reality. Even if it’s a householder who has perceived reality nonconceptually, that person would also be a member of the Jewel of the Sangha, since he or she had entered the ranks of the intent community of arya beings.

As for what represents the Jewel of Sangha, the arya beings, that is referring to a community with a minimum of, for instance, four monks who are working together toward a positive goal. If you have only one or two monks, that cannot be considered a sangha or an intent community, it can only be considered one or two monks.

The Individual Roles of Each of the Three Gems

The Buddhas are the actual ones who teach you and demonstrate the safe and sound direction in which to take refuge, by, for instance, teaching us to abandon the ten destructive actions and practice the ten constructive ones. The actual safe and sound direction to take would be, for instance, the Dharma of following the ethical self-discipline of abandoning the destructive actions and practicing the ten constructive ones. This is what was taught by the Buddha and the actual development of that ethical self-discipline on your mental continuum would be the actual safe and sound direction or refuge. The Sangha, or intent community, are the friends that will help you in this pursuit of taking safe direction.

There’s an account of a child of the gods, Stiramati, that will help you understand the distinctions between the Three Gems. Once in the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods there was a child of the gods by the name of Stiramati, which translates as “the firm-minded one.” In this god realm, the ground and everything is absolutely beautiful and stunning, covered with all sorts of precious gems and stones. And so this child of the gods was surrounded throughout his life by everything extremely beautiful and lovely and he was completely happy without any worries.

However, nearing the time of death in the god realms, you receive various signs that you are going to die and when you receive those signs, you experience a tremendous amount of suffering. How do these signs appear? Well, for instance, these gods all wear flower garlands around their necks, which always stay fresh, but seven days before they die, these garlands all of a sudden start to wilt and give off a bad smell. Likewise the gods, who always smell lovely, start to stink when about to die and at that point none of your god and goddess friends, who always used to come and play various games and have a good time with you, will come near you anymore. Among the gods, there are some who are a little bit more steady friends than others, but even the steady ones will, at most, sort of look at you from a distance and then go away; they won’t have anything to do with you.

Furthermore, when you are about to die in one of the god realms, all of the positive potential you have built up to be there is exhausted, and you are able to see the next rebirth that awaits you, the place that you are going to fall into. This type of vision that the gods have is similar to extrasensory perception. So this child of the gods, Stiramati, received the signs of his upcoming death and was able to see that he was going to be reborn first of all in a hell, and after that he was going to be reborn as a pig. The amount of mental torment that he experienced at this was just unimaginable. The physical sufferings and pain that you have in the hells are the greatest type of physical suffering, but in terms of mental suffering and anguish, no one experiences more than the gods when they have such visions at the time before they die.

Stiramati just couldn’t take it anymore and so he went to the king of the gods, Indra, and said, “I’m so miserable. I have this anguish at this set of rebirths awaiting me, please can you help me? Do you have any method for me to get out of this?” Indra said, “No, I’m sorry I can’t help you, I don’t know any method, but I’ll take you to the Buddha and we’ll ask him.” So they went to the Buddha and the Buddha told the god that he should do the practices of a personal meditational deity called Ushnisha Vijaya, or Namgyelma in Tibetan.

Usnisha Vijaya is a female deity. She has three faces and eight arms; the central face is white, the right one is yellow, the left one is blue. In the first set of arms she is holding a crossed vajra in one of the eight hands and in the other one, a lasso. In the next three hands, on the right she’s holding a small Amitabha Buddha, then an arrow and then, the bottom one on the right, is in the supreme giving mudra or gesture. The first left hand is in the threatening, mesmerizing gesture at the heart with a lasso, and the next ones on the left are first holding a bow, then in the supreme giving gesture, and then the fourth hand, bottom on the left, is in the gesture of total absorption on her lap holding a vase filled with nectars. The Buddha told this child of the gods to meditate and do all the ritual practices of this personal female deity.

In the thangka for this practice, to the right of the central deity, on a moon disc, is Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara, white and holding a white yak tail fan in the right hand and a white lotus in the left hand. To her left, on a sun disc, is Vajrapani sitting and holding in his right hand a yak tail fan and in the left a blue utpala lily marked with a vajra. To the east, on the front is a blue forceful deity called Achala, who is holding a vajra, and on the right to the south is Takkiraja, who’s also forceful and is holding a jewel. At the back is another forceful deity called Niladanda, holding a blue staff, and to the north, on the left, is the forceful deity Mahakala holding a trident. Above are two gods holding jeweled vases filled with nectars which they are pouring down, making an offering of ablutions. So this is a set of nine deities.

This child of the gods then did all the ritual practices of this set of deities and was able to purify all the negative potential of being reborn as a pig. Moreover, he built up a great deal of positive potential and as a result was reborn in the Tushita heavenly realm of joy, which is a god realm higher than the Heaven of the Thirty-three. Although the gods have the ESP to see realms lower than their own, they lack the power to see any of the realms higher than the one they’re in. Thus, Indra, the king of the gods and ruler of the Heaven of the Thirty-three, was unable to see that this child of the gods had been reborn in Tushita heaven, a higher realm than his own, so he asked the Buddha where Stiramati had been born. So he had to rely on the Buddha to find out, and the Buddha was able to tell him.

As you can see from this example, the Buddha has the ability to teach all different types of beings so that we can avoid having to be reborn in a hell. Thus, the Buddha is the one that can provide us with a safe and sound direction to take; he can provide us with refuge to avoid these horrible predicaments. And the thing that can actually provide us with this safe direction or refuge would be, for instance in this example, doing the various practices of this personal deity Ushnishavijaya, because by doing this, this child of the gods was able to avoid being reborn in a hell. As for the intent community, or Sangha, being the ones who help us take a safe direction, the example here would be Indra who helped this child of the gods come to the Buddha and learn about these methods.

The Refuge Practice

The way in which you build up this beneficial habit of taking refuge, taking a safe and sound direction, is to visualize in front of you, for instance, the form of a Buddha and to repeat this formula, “I take safe direction from the gurus; I take safe direction from the Buddhas; I take safe direction from the preventive measures of the Dharma; I take safe direction from the intent community, the Sangha.” You repeat this three times. Then you imagine that lights and nectars come forth from the Buddha visualized in front of you and purify you and all limited beings, whom you visualize surrounding you. This is the way in which you actually practice taking this direction.

If you repeat “I take safe direction from the gurus,” – from the spiritual masters – seven times, for instance, you imagine that during the seven repetitions, lights issue forth from the body of the Buddha and enter your body, completely filling you, purifying you, sweeping out all the negative potentials that you have built up from destructive actions of the body. You imagine that all these negative potentials, obscurations and blocks that you might have leave you in the form of black coal and soot like in a liquid form coming out of you, and also, for instance, as filthy wash water – like after you’ve washed some really filthy clothes and you have really horrible black, filthy water left. So you imagine all of these negative potentials leaving your body in that form. Then also all the various pollutions and filth that you might have in your body as a result of the various negative things that you’ve done in the past, you imagine that all of this leaves your body in the form of feces, urine, snot and so forth. Finally you imagine that the various sicknesses that you might have, these types of difficulties, leave you in the form of snakes, scorpions, spiders and frogs.

Then, when you do the next round of seven repetitions and continue repeating “I take safe direction from the spiritual masters or gurus,” you imagine lights come to you again and now they purify all the negative potentials, blocks, pollutions, sickness and so forth, in terms of speech. You imagine that all these various things come out of you now from the bottom up, and out of the upper orifices of your face.

In the third round of seven, you imagine again that the lights come and now they purify you of all the negative potentials and so forth that you have built up in terms of the mind, in terms of having had covetous thoughts, thoughts of malice and holding distorted views. You imagine that all of the negative potentials from these destructive types of thought are in your heart in the form of a big black horrible clump. You then imagine that these lights come in and, with a brilliant flash, vaporize and disintegrate that entire clump.

Then, with the fourth repetition of this formula seven times, you imagine again that lights come and, this time, all three of these visualization processes happen at once and you completely eliminate all stains of body, speech and mind. At the conclusion of this you feel, just as when you have finished cleaning a crystal vase that is now completely clean, pure and transparent, that similarly, now your entire body has become clean, pure and transparent. At the end, again you imagine lights and nectars coming and completely filling your body, and you imagine that you now have become full with all the blessings and inspirations to be able to have complete, positive potential, lifespan, wisdom, insight and so forth.

You can do this repeating these groups of four either seven times each, which would make twenty-eight repetitions, or three times each, which makes twelve, or a hundred times, which makes four hundred. Regardless of the number you do, this is the basic type of practice that’s involved. When you do this practice you can visualize simply the form of a Buddha in front of you, feeling that the Buddha incorporates all aspects of safe direction and refuge condensed into one. Alternatively, you can do an elaborate visualization with all the gurus, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and dakas, dakinis, Dharma protectors, yidams, and so forth. You can either do an extremely elaborate visualization with lots and lots of figures, or simply a visualization with one figure, whatever suits you, it doesn’t make any difference. In doing this, you should take safe direction three times each day and three times each night and in this way reaffirm the direction you are taking in life.

Offerings and Other Practices

Likewise, you should make offerings to the Buddhas daily. You can do this in a simple fashion, just using your coffee mug or whatever, filling it with water and making an offering of that, or making an offering of bread or cookies, or whatever it is that you eat. You all eat three times each day and so, before you eat, take your food or cup and make an offering of your food before you start eating. This is a very simple way to do this kind of practice. It’s quite sufficient to just say, in English, “Please partake of this, O gurus please partake of this, O Buddhas please partake of this, precious Dharma please partake of this, precious community please partake of this,” and in this way you make an offering. You don’t have to do it in exotic Asian languages.

When you have various depictions of the Buddha and of these Three Gems, you shouldn’t put anything on top of them: not your clothes or your rosary or anything like, it’s disrespectful. Also, when you look at paintings of the Buddha, you shouldn’t criticize them, saying that this Buddha has crooked eyes or its nose is funny and so forth. If you find fault you can say, for instance, that the painter wasn’t a very good painter; you can say that, but you shouldn’t say the Buddha has a crooked eye or this is a lousy Buddha, because that’s putting down the Buddha. Furthermore, you shouldn’t use Buddha statues and things like this as collateral in order to get money in, say, a pawn shop.

There’s an account of someone who found a small earth statue of a Buddha on the ground and, as it was starting to rain and he was afraid that the Buddha statue would dissolve in the rain, this person took off his shoe and put it over the statue to protect it. Another person came by and saw this, and thought that putting a shoe over a Buddha statue was completely wrong, and so he moved the shoe away. When you look at these two persons, both of them had a very pure mind for what they were doing. Furthermore, you have to use common sense, for instance, generally you shouldn’t put your rosary on top of a text, but if there is a strong wind, then the circumstances call for you to put something on top so that the pages won’t be blown away. In that case you have a pure thought and reason, so you can put a rosary on top of a text although normally you wouldn’t be permitted to. So you need to use common sense.

In general you shouldn’t use any type of paper with written or printed words on it for any sort of dirty purpose. For instance, using newspaper, which is printed word, to wrap garbage or to wrap your shoes is being disrespectful to the written word. Putting your books on the ground without some sort of cloth underneath is likewise disrespectful. Furthermore, when turning the pages of a book you shouldn’t wet your fingers with saliva. If you have to moisten your fingers in order to turn the pages, then you should have a little bowl of water, or a sponge or something nearby and use that; don’t use spit. And furthermore, selling books for profit and things like that is also improper. If you are running a press, then to use the money that you make from selling the books in order to be able to print and publish more books is alright, but to use the profit that you make from making and selling books simply to buy your own food and make a living, that’s something improper.

It is important to think about all these points, about the precious human rebirth that you have; the fact that you can lose it, that you will lose it with death; that no situation will remain static; that your death will come for sure; and think of falling to all these possible lower rebirths. Use all of that to motivate you to take some safe and sound direction out of that in your life, to find some refuge.

So you think, for instance, what would it be like if I were to die right now and I were to be reborn in a hot hell completely surrounded by flames? Or if I were to be reborn inside a boiling hot cauldron, what would I do then? Thinking about that happening to you, you experience a great deal of dread and horror and you use that to motivate you to repeat, “All gurus give me a safe direction out of that, give me direction,” and you practice like that.

The first step is to think that you are already reborn in one of the hells and you ask for safe direction out of it. In the next round you think that you haven’t yet been born in one of the hells but you are just about on the brink, you are just about to die and fall to that, and then again you repeat and ask for safe direction out of it. Then, in the third round, you think that you neither have already been born in a hell, nor are on the brink of falling, but you have a month or so to go before you fall, and then, on those grounds, you think very strongly, “O masters, O gurus, give me a safe direction out of this.” These thoughts provide you with a strong motivation. Then you again repeat this refuge formula and motivate yourself strongly to take all the preventive measures. This is the way you actually do a good practice of taking safe and sound direction in life, putting this direction in your life and taking it from the masters, Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha.

The Practice of Generating Bodhichitta

After you have done this, you should dedicate your heart totally to achieving a state of enlightenment. You would dedicate your heart totally to others and to achieving a state of enlightenment in order to be able to help them all. In other words, you develop bodhichitta. The way of practicing is to do these various rounds with the nectars and lights coming to you, to take a safe and sound direction in life for refuge, and after that, to dedicate your heart totally to others and to achieving enlightenment. At the conclusion, you imagine that the Buddha visualized in front of you comes and dissolves into you and you yourself become enlightened. You actually become a Buddha, and you visualize yourself in the form of Buddha Shakyamuni. Then you imagine that you emit rays of light and so forth, going from you to all beings around you.

Previously, when doing the practice of taking safe and sound direction, you were doing it in order to help everybody. Then you dedicated your heart to be able to help everybody by becoming enlightened, and now you imagine you have become enlightened, you are Buddha Shakyamuni giving off these rays of light, and you actually enlighten everybody else and remove all their problems. All of them turn into Buddha Shakyamuni and you visualize everybody in that form. If you do this type of practice you will find it extremely beneficial. Any questions?

Participant: It goes back to the point where Rinpoche was saying that due to your virtuous actions previously, you now are quite well off, with money or possessions or whatever, and it’s improper to just dispose of them.

Alex: Throw them in the river Rinpoche said.

Participant: Right. Then the example of the Buddha just simply abandoning them comes to mind, he didn’t throw them in the river but he renounced them. He went on and never laid claim to any of them and that confused me a bit. Also, the Zen master Dogen, who brought Soto Zen to Japan and was considered one of the greatest masters in Japan, used this example to explain the mind of firm renunciation. A fairly rich merchant who gained the mind of interest in the Dharma took all his valuable paintings, put them in a big cart and started rolling them toward the ocean, which is quite like throwing them in the river. Someone stopped him and told him how stupid he was and how many people could use them, and the merchant said, “Well, I view these as a burden. Why would I want to give them to anyone else?” This was pointed out as a great example of total involvement in the Dharma.

Serkong Rinpoche: First of all, the first example of the Buddha renouncing everything and leaving: he didn’t take all his wealth and throw it in the garbage, but he left it to his wife and child, and that’s how he left it. That doesn’t mean he threw it away, because he provided for his wife and family. The example you mentioned of the Zen master is making a different point. You need to try to understand that various teachings are given in order to make different points, the point of each of which can be equally valid. So the point I trying to make before is that you shouldn’t think that you need to throw everything you own in the garbage in order to practice the Dharma. That would be a waste and you would be missing the point. You need to use what you have constructively, that’s the point being made there, whereas in the Zen example it is making another point.

In Tibet also there are many different lamas with different styles of teaching and they do various things in order to make different points. For instance, there was one lama who lived up on a mountain and when he was given offerings he threw them down the mountain to a place where there was nobody around. The lama saw that the person offering them had an impure motivation and the point he was making by throwing them away was that such offerings are useless. On the other hand, the earlier example was speaking of us here as ordinary people. We shouldn’t think that in order to practice the Dharma we have to take everything we have and thrown it in the garbage; that’s not at all a sensible way of proceeding. But if, like Dogen, you threw away something that you think is only giving you troubles and difficulty, and that it would just give trouble to anybody to whom you could give it, that is an entirely different matter. That also is a way of practicing the Dharma; it’s a proper type of spiritual attitude. But if you use your wealth in order to support some spiritual community that is having difficulties so that they can all eat and have the proper conditions to practice, that’s a very good use of your wealth. That is why I was saying earlier that there was one person who took off his shoe and put it over the clay statue of the Buddha, and there was another person who took it off the statue, and both of them were doing very pure and sincere Dharma practice, although they had completely different points in mind.