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The Six Preparatory Practices and Advice Concerning Ngondro Preliminary Practices

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, November 2012

Session Six: Safe Direction (Refuge) and Bodhichitta

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, November 2012

Unedited Transcript
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We are still in this third part of the six preparatory practices. We have covered setting up the proper seat, and then making prostration, and then sitting in the eightfold posture (after calming down with the breathing). Then we visualize in front of us an object for refuge, for safe direction, and then we take safe direction and develop or reaffirm our bodhichitta motivation.

Safe Direction (Refuge)

Now, there really isn’t time to give a very lengthy discussion of refuge and bodhichitta, but these are not to be trivialized. I prefer the term safe direction rather than refuge because it’s a little bit more active. Refuge is quite a passive word, at least in English. It’s not that we are just passive and “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha – the Three Gems – save me!” But rather we protect ourselves by going in the direction of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the direction that they indicate.

The Three Gems

There are many different levels of these three rare and precious gems (dkon-mchog gsum). This is the way that the Tibetans translate jewel – rare (dkon) and supreme (mchog). So that’s the connotation.

The deepest level of the Dharma Gem, or the Dharma Jewel, is the third and fourth noble truths, to put it very simply. This is talking about true stopping of suffering and its causes. And when we talk about the true path, it’s not something that you walk on; it’s a state of mind – an understanding, a deep awareness – that will act as a path to lead us to the goal. So we’re talking about the understandings that will bring about the true stoppings and the level of understanding or mind that is the resultant level once the true stoppings have been attained.

This is what’s so difficult actually and profound about the Three Gems, which is that we need to understand and be convinced that a true stopping of problems and their causes is actually possible – I mean, obviously we have to understand cause and effect – that the basic nature of the mind is pure in the sense that it is possible to attain this true stopping. There are many different levels that we could approach trying to understand this:

  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentions in one of his texts (in a verse of praise to the Seventeen Nalanda Pandits): if you understand the two truthsdeepest truth and conventional truth of things – then you’ll be able to understand the four noble truths, and if you understand the four noble truths, you’ll be able to understand the Three Gems. I gave a weekend seminar on that in Kiev recently, and very shortly that’ll be up on the website.

[See: From the Two Truths, the Four Truths; from the Four Truths, the Three Gems.]

  • Another way of approaching it is – I think I mentioned this in that discussion of The Inseparability of Avalokiteshvara and the Spiritual Master – the understanding of the four Buddha-bodies will give us a firmer sense of this refuge, this safe direction.
  • Or we could approach this from gaining conviction in the possibility of true stopping and the true paths from the point of view of mahamudra, the natural pure nature of the mind – or dzogchen, for that matter.

The point is that if we’re going to go in this direction, we have to be convinced that it is possible to go in that direction and not just “Well, I could go and try to eliminate suffering, etc., but I won’t be able to reach the goal” (there are a lot of people that go that way). But to really have it firm, we need to be convinced that liberation and enlightenment are actually possible – a true stopping.

This is not something trivial or something easy to understand or easy to become convinced of logically, so it’s something that we need to work on very much actually. Most of us, to start with, presume that it is true – well, if you even think about it, but at best you start with presuming that it is true, hope that it’s true – and then you work in that direction. But if this is sincere within us, this safe direction, it makes an enormous change in our lives. It’s not just that we are working on improving ourselves, which is a big enough change, but we’re convinced that it’s possible to gain liberation and enlightenment. So why suffer? As they say: if you’re in a burning house and you know that it is possible to get out, why aren’t you trying to get out?

The Buddhas are those who have attained these true stoppings and true pathway minds in full and have indicated how to do that.

And the Sangha is referring to the Arya Sangha, those who have already attained some of the true stoppings and some of the true pathway minds but not the complete set yet. So we’re certainly not talking about this Western usage of the word Sangha to just refer to the people who come to a Dharma center. It’s also not just the conventional level, which is the monastic community. That’s a representation of the Arya Sangha, but the actual direction is indicated by the Arya Sangha.

Visualizing the Three Gems

So we visualize in front of us something that represents this direction that we want to go in. This can be an extremely extensive visualization, but there’s also the tradition which is called the All-Inclusive Gem tradition, in which you visualize only Shakyamuni Buddha, who you see is inseparable from the spiritual teacher sitting on a lotus, moon, and sun disk (which represent renunciation, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness) on a throne. If we want to do this in a more tantric type of way, fuller type of way, then you can visualize Vajradhara (with or without a consort) in the heart of Shakyamuni and then a seed syllable in the heart of Vajradhara.

So you see we have something quite similar to what we had in the practice of The Inseparability of the Spiritual Master and Avalokiteshvara. Whether it’s in the form of Shakyamuni Buddha or the form of Avalokiteshvara – same, same. Buddha can manifest in any form.

So the body of the Buddha represents the Sangha (and in the Avalokiteshvara practice, we had the body mandala of Guhyasamaja to make it a little bit more full). The speech of the Buddha is the Dharma. And the mind of the Buddha is… The body is the Sangha, the speech is the Dharma, and the mind is the Buddha, in terms of the Three Gems. Right? You get the idea.

Again I must emphasize: don’t get hung up on the visualization. A lot of people have difficulty visualizing. That’s not the main point. The main point is to just have some object of focus that represents what it is that we are aiming toward. So in the beginning… Tsongkhapa explains quite nicely how you train yourself to visualize. He says: just get something general, something vague, and as your concentration improves, the focus and the detail will come automatically (obviously you have to know what it looks like in order for that to happen). So please try to avoid that pitfall of getting too caught up in the details of visualizations and then getting overwhelmed and discouraged because you can’t visualize them.


After this reaffirming the direction that you want to go in, you reaffirm the bodhichitta motivation. When we speak about motivation, there are two aspects that make up a motivation, what is translated as motivation. Actually the Tibetan word for motivation (kun-slong) is “something that causes you to rise and go toward a goal.” So there’s two parts: One is the goal, the aim; the other is the emotional state that would drive us to achieve that goal. Motivation has these two aspects.

Here the goal is not just going in safe direction up till liberation, because the goal of safe direction is three, either:

  • Liberation – which means becoming an arhat – as a shravaka, a listener to the teachings, when the Buddhas’ teachings are around.
  • [Liberation as] a pratyekabuddha. That would be during the dark ages when the Buddhas aren’t around and you just have to rely on your instincts.
  • Or as a bodhisattva – aiming for enlightenment, not just liberation.

Safe direction is for these three possible goals.

From a Mahayana point of view we’re aiming for enlightenment; nevertheless, we have to attain liberation in order to attain enlightenment. So don’t think that the shravaka goal is irrelevant. You could aim for the shravaka goal with the Mahayana motivation of love and compassion, etc., but you’re going to have to attain that goal as well. And it may very well take a tremendous amount of time – three zillion eons – of building up positive force in order to reach enlightenment, so we probably are going to have to practice during dark eons when the teachings aren’t available, and we will need to have strong instincts to be able to practice like a pratyekabuddha. So it’s not irrelevant.

I think it’s quite important not to have this arrogant attitude: “Oh, I want to be a bodhisattva. I want to gain enlightenment. And these lower beings, the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, they are not only not worthy of respect but irrelevant.” It’s not irrelevant, as I say – especially the pratyekabuddhas (those are the ones that people usually ignore the most). But if you think about it really, about the amount of time that it will take to reach enlightenment, for sure we’re going to be around during dark eons. Now, you could say “Well, Buddhas teach in infinite universes and so on. So when it’s a dark eon here, a Buddha will be teaching in some other place, and we could be reborn there,” but nevertheless you never know. You never know where you’re going to be reborn. “Even if the Buddhas aren’t around and the teachings aren’t available, may my instincts be so strong that I’m drawn in this direction anyway.”

People who have lived through the strongest totalitarian anti-religion regimes I think have a little bit of an idea of the relevance of what I just explained.

Now, with bodhichitta the aim is enlightenment. And again a Buddha that we visualize in front of us, inseparable from the spiritual teacher, represents enlightenment, the aim. And the emotion that is driving us toward that is love, compassion, and this exceptional resolve that we take the responsibility not just to help others with the up and down of life but to bring them all the way to liberation and enlightenment. That’s why I always emphasize that when I speak about motivation. It’s not just our usual helping them with being hungry, and so on, but to help them to overcome the basis for the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change (the ordinary happiness), namely the all-pervasive suffering (uncontrollably recurring rebirth). So take the full responsibility to help them all the way to overcome that. That’s the exceptional resolve.

We are not aiming, however, to achieve the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni nor enlightenment in general, but it is our own individual enlightenments that we are aiming to achieve. But that enlightenment has not yet happened, but it can happen on the basis of the natural purity of the mind, the voidness of the mind – that it’s possible to attain the true stoppings of suffering and its causes – and the so-called two networks (the two collections) of positive force and deep awareness.

Let us take a break here, and then we’ll continue.