The Relevance of Refuge and Karma in Daily Life
Riga, Latvia, August 2010
Session One: Refuge – A Safe Direction in Life
This weekend I’ve been asked to speak about the relevance of refuge and karma in daily life. And actually I’m quite happy to be teaching this because I was asked, actually, what could be of benefit in terms of helping people to put their Dharma practice on a more practical level. Because, in the past, either I or other teachers who have come here have explained rather complicated advanced topics, and probably many lamas have come here and have given tantric initiations, and there’s undoubtedly some confusion that has arisen about all of that in terms of: does this really make much of difference in my life? And this is not a situation which is unique here in Latvia. I think it’s a situation that is found in most places around the world at Dharma centers.
And so I thought of the example of Atisha, the great Indian master who went to Tibet at the end of the tenth century. He was one of the great masters who helped to revive Buddhism in Tibet after it had declined from its initial introduction from India. The situation in Tibet at that time was that there was a great deal of misunderstanding, particularly about tantra and some of the more advanced teachings. And there weren’t really qualified teachers – in fact, there weren’t any teachers around who really could explain things more clearly. Although there were a number of things that were translated, obviously not many people could read. And even if they could read, it was very difficult to have any explanation of what they were reading.
So one of the kings in Western Tibet sent some very brave students to India to travel by foot and to learn the languages, to deal with the climate, and to invite back a great master from India to help with this situation in Tibet. And many of them died, either on the journey or once they were in India. But, in any case, they managed to invite Atisha, this great master from India, back to Tibet. And if we look at what he taught for the many years that he was in Tibet, it was primarily refuge and karma. In fact, he was known as “the refuge and karma lama.” That was the name that the Tibetans gave him.
So, thinking of that example, that’s why I chose this topic. Because I think, as I said, that there’s a lot of confusion nowadays about the Buddhist practice in terms of what does it mean in a practical daily level. Because it’s very important to understand that Buddhist practice is not something which is separate from our lives. It’s not like some sport or some hobby that is not part of the mainstream of our lives. It’s something which needs to be the main focus within our lives, within the context of whatever type of life we are leading, regardless of being married or single, having this profession or that profession – that doesn’t matter.
But, regardless of our situation, what the Buddhist practice is intended for is working on ourselves, trying to improve ourselves to become a better and better person. And that’s not something that we just do on the side for maybe a half hour every day, or only once a week after work for a short session when we’re all very tired. But rather, it’s something that we try to do all the time, always to work on ourselves, which means to recognize our shortcomings and our good qualities, and to learn methods for being able to lessen or weaken the force of our shortcomings so that eventually we get rid of them all, and methods to strengthen our good qualities so that they become full. And this is not just for our own benefit, although certainly we would benefit from that in terms of being happier in life, but also for being able to help others more; so for the benefit of others as well. So this is what our Dharma practice is about. And what makes it distinctly Buddhist is, of course, the methods that are involved for being able to accomplish these goals.
So the structure for all of this, what’s known as the dividing line between Buddhist and not Buddhist, is usually translated as “refuge.” And I often find some problems with the traditional ways of translating these terms. I don’t know exactly how it’s translated in your language, Latvian, but in English “refuge” has a very passive connotation, and the concept here in Buddhism is very active; it’s not passive. And, therefore, I prefer to translate it as “putting a safe direction in our life.” When we think in terms of some passive concept like refuge… Perhaps you should tell me what’s the connotation of the usual Latvian word.
Participant: Well, if you’re kind of like hiding from something, something where you can… Kind of like shelter, something like that.
Alex: Shelter. Okay.
So if the word that we’re using has some idea of shelter then, in a sense, we’re looking at some external source to give us protection. And I must say that in some of the Buddhist texts we have a description that is reminiscent of this, of a shelter. In the reference that I’m thinking of, it’s saying that if it’s raining and there’s a cave, if you just say, “I take refuge in this cave. I’m going to go to the cave for shelter,” and you just stand outside in the rain and keep on repeating this, it’s not going to help. You have to actually go inside the cave. So, likewise, if we say, “I take refuge or find my shelter in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha,” that just to say that and for it to not have any meaning or implementation in our lives is not enough. We have to actually go in the direction of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. That’s why I call it safe direction, putting a direction in our lives.
But, in many languages, when you say “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, offer me refuge,” it sounds like a very passive type of thing. To use our image of the cave, it would be like just going inside the cave and then just standing there and hoping that just being inside the cave is somehow going to save us. Now, of course, being inside the cave – if we just take the analogy literally – is going to save us from getting wet from the rain. But this analogy is not meant to be taken so literally. The point is that we need to continually work on ourselves to try to approach the ideal that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are signifying. Because if we think that it’s just enough to come under the shelter of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, then it’s very easy to mix this with a Christian idea of some sort of personal savior and that Buddha is somehow going to save us. So the Buddha is like God, or whatever, and the Sangha are like saints. Like that. We all of a sudden get everything confused in Buddhism with some ideas in Christianity, whether or not we are actively Christian. I mean, after all, our society – even societies that formally were under the Soviet Union – still have some underlying current of Christian influence in their thinking: that somehow, some transcendent power is miraculously going to save us. Or, to use the Buddhist terminology, liberate us from our suffering – from “samsara,” we call it in Buddhism.
So all I have to do is get a Buddhist name, a Tibetan name, and wear a red string, and recite some magic words of a mantra, and pray hard, and somehow I’ll be saved. And especially if we are reciting the prayers and practices in Tibetan, which we don’t understand one word of, then it has even greater mystical power. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, a very great lama, was in Berlin, where I live, recently. And what he said was really very profound. He said if Tibetans had to recite all their practices in German which was transliterated with Tibetan letters, and they had absolutely no idea of anything that they were saying, he wonders how many Tibetans would actually practice Buddhism. And so, of course, everybody laughed. But if you think about it, that’s really quite profound, isn’t it? So it’s very important to overcome any tendency that we might have to looking at refuge particularly in terms of offering us some sort of magical mystical solution to all our problems – that all we need to do is, in a sense, surrender to a greater power.
So the real issue that’s involved here is: “What am I doing with my life?” “Is my life going anywhere?” And I’m sure that many of us have realized that if our life is going nowhere, that it just seems to be going around in a circle – and we don’t have to talk about a deeper circle in terms of rebirth, and all of that, but just our daily life – that it seems to be going nowhere, and seems to be pointless, and why am I actually alive? If we’re feeling that, then that’s a very sad state, isn’t it? Not a very happy state. And we need, therefore, to have some direction in our life. Some sort of purpose, an aim. And if we have some purpose or aim in our life, then somehow we know what we’re doing. It makes us feel a little bit more secure, doesn’t it?
So what kind of aim could we put in our lives? Well, usually we define that aim in terms of what is the unsatisfactory situation that I’m in now that I want to somehow get out of by putting this aim or this goal in my life. Now the most fundamental basic level – biological even, we could say – is that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. That’s sort of a given axiom in Buddhism, and I think there’s some even biological truth in that. So we want to avoid pain. We want to avoid suffering. We want to avoid difficulty. Even insects and worms do that, don’t they?
Now the question is what amount of suffering or unsatisfactoriness are we looking at, and will the goal that we’re aiming for not only take care of that problem, but what about all the other problems that we have as well? So our problem could be that I’m poor, I’m in economic difficulty, and so my goal is to get a good profession and make a lot of money. And if I can’t get a good profession, maybe become a good criminal and make a lot of money. But somehow make a lot of money. But if we look at people who have a lot of money and you speak with them honestly, if you’re able to, or if they speak honestly about their lives, you find these people aren’t happy at all: They never have enough money. It doesn’t matter how many millions they have, they always want more. They’re never satisfied.
I find it so interesting. There are these people who, let’s say, have a billion dollars. And we have all this economic difficulty, and now they only have half a billion dollars. And they will not give any donations or any type of philanthropic work because now they only have half a billion and they feel insecure, and have to save it, and somehow get back to a billion before they can share their wealth with anybody. And then they’re always looking at the stock market reports and always worrying every day about maybe they’re going to lose a tiny fraction of the money that they have. And they have to have maybe private guards and things like that because they’re afraid that people are going to steal things from their house or kidnap their children – if they live in, let’s say, South America. And they never really feel that people are friendly with them for any reason other than to try to get their money. So they always suspect that anybody that’s nice to them is just after their money. So, obviously, although we might not have the problem of being poor, we have all sorts of other problems that come with having a lot of money.
And then many other sorts of what we would call “worldly goals” in Buddhism, and unfortunately that has a negative connotation and it’s not really fair. The word “worldly,” my teacher explained, is something that has a basis that is insecure, something that doesn’t have a firm basis. It has a basis that’s going to fall apart. That’s the literal meaning of the word that’s usually translated as “worldly.” So if we’re aiming for a goal that doesn’t have a secure basis, that’s going to fall apart – has a basis that will fall apart – then obviously it can’t bring us lasting happiness. It’s just going to bring more problems, because there’s no firm basis to it.
The same thing if we want to have a wonderful family, if that’s our goal, and raise a lot of children, and they will take care of us in our old age, and we’ll be so happy, and so on. Well, that doesn’t always work out so ideally, does it? The more famous we are, the more that people bother us and try to take our time. We look at these movie stars; they can’t even go outside without wearing some sort of disguise because people mob them and want to tear off pieces of their clothing, and stuff like that. It’s actually quite a hell to be a superstar.
So if we look seriously at our lives, then just having some sort of material, comfortable situation – or emotionally comfortable in terms of people around us – is not really going deeply enough in terms of helping us to overcome problems. Because if we still have anger, if we still have attachment, if we still have greed, jealousy, arrogance – all these sort of things – naivety, then we’re still going to have problems, no matter how successful we are on the so-called worldly level. So Buddhism, of course, speaks in terms of future lives, and thinking of all sorts of suffering and horrible things that could happen to us in future lives if we have all these what we call “disturbing emotions” and we act on the basis of them and build up negative karma that ripens into really even worse situations in future lives – that this is awful and we want to avoid that.
But even if we don’t believe in future lives or we’re not convinced of it – which is the case with most Westerners – then we can even think in terms of just this lifetime. So I realize that the source of my problems is my disturbing emotions – my anger, my attachment, etc., my greed – this is what is robbing me of peace of mind and of happiness. That prevents me from using any good qualities that I have. If I get angry… I’m trying to help somebody, so there’s a good quality, but then I get angry with them. I try to give them good advice, and they don’t take it or they argue back with me, and then I lose my patience. And so it prevents me from ever helping anybody. And especially when this is happening with our children, and we’re losing our patience and getting angry with them when they don’t do what we tell them to do, that is what we think is the best for them, then a very difficult relation for children, isn’t it? And the point is to realize that if I don’t do something about it, it’s just going to get worse and worse and worse. Maybe we could become a little bit more mellow as we get older because we don’t have as much energy, but that doesn’t mean that your anger and these sort of things go away by themselves; they don’t wear out.
So the term that is used in Buddhism is that we need to develop what’s called “fear.” Now “fear” is a difficult word in most of our languages. It doesn’t have a good reputation. And sometimes I prefer the word “dread,” which is not so easy to translate into other languages, so I don’t know if you can do it in your language. But dread has more the connotation of “I really don’t want this to happen.” We have to go to a really, really boring meeting at work. And it’s not that I’m afraid of the meeting, but I dread going to it. I really don’t want to do this.
But I think to be more precise, we need to differentiate two types of fear – whether we’re talking about fear of horrible future rebirth, or we have fear of miserable old age, or a fear of anything. One fear is fear with which we don’t see any way out, and so we feel helpless and hopeless, and so that leaves us pretty much paralyzed, doesn’t it? And so that, I think, is an unhealthy type of fear, although often we experience that. But the type of fear that’s discussed here, in the context of refuge, is quite a different flavor of fear, because here we see that there is a way to avoid the problems, and so it’s not hopeless, and we’re not helpless at all. But, as I said a little bit earlier, it’s not that there’s going to be some transcendental power or being who’s going to save me from my fearful situation, and so all I have to do is pray hard enough and I’ll be liberated, I’ll be saved from my fear.
The point is that we can, in a sense, protect ourselves. And what is it that will enable us to avoid all the problems that we face in life? What makes it possible? And this is, if we look in the largest context, it’s the fact that [since] all these things which are causing my problems – anger, and greed, and… – all of it comes down to confusion about reality, and so on, then all of these are not an innate feature of the mind. When we talk about mind, without going into it in great detail, what we’re speaking about here is mental activity – moment-to-moment mental activity – even when we’re asleep, or whatever. And the basic nature of that mental activity is not something that necessarily has to have confusion with it, or has to have anger, or any of these things. Because basically what’s going on in each moment is that there’s some arising of a mental hologram, we would say. Like light rays come into the eyes and they are translated into some sort of electrical impulse, which is going to be very different if it’s doing that through the cells of a human eye as opposed to the cells of a spider’s eye or a fly’s eye; so it’s going to be different. And then these electric impulses and chemical things go to the brain, and the brain somehow makes an internal hologram out of it, so that that’s called seeing something, isn’t it?
And it’s not the same as some impulses, light impulses, coming into a camera and getting translated into some electric impulses and then making a picture. It’s not the same as that because, in addition, there’s some sort of what we would say “cognitive involvement” with it; either you are conscious or unconscious, or aware or unaware, but it’s some sort of cognitive feature. It’s not the same as a computer, either. You press these little keys and some electric impulse goes into the machine, and the machine somehow deals with this information, whether it’s a hologram or whatever. But it has some, in a sense, a cognitive awareness of this, you could say. I mean it’s not quite the same as a living being, but it processes this information and does something with it. So it’s not like that. What differentiates us from a computer is that, in addition, we have some level of happiness or unhappiness associated with this. A computer doesn’t. A computer doesn’t feel happy or unhappy about: “Ooh you made a mistake. You’ve made a typing mistake!” and now the computer gets unhappy. It’s not like that, is it? Whereas we can get unhappy.
So this is what’s going on every single moment of our lives. Some sort of arising of a mental hologram, some sort of mental involvement with it, and some feeling of some level of happiness or unhappiness. And even when we’re asleep: The hologram can be of darkness. The involvement is that we’re unaware, but there’s a little bit of awareness there. Otherwise, we would never hear the alarm clock. So it’s not completely shut off. And there’s some sort of feeling of – a neutral feeling, neither happy nor unhappy, if you’re not having a dream. If you’re having a dream then obviously some happy or unhappy could be there. And anger, and greed, and all these things – that’s not a necessary part of this whole process that’s going on from moment to moment.
Obviously there are a lot of very complicated lines of thinking that we can go through to become more and more convinced of that. This is not really the occasion for that. But the more that we think about it, the more we will become convinced that it is possible to get rid of all this disturbing content of our mental activity. The definition of a disturbing emotion after all is something that, when it arises, it causes us to lose our peace of mind and to basically lose self-control. So we act in all sorts of disturbing ways, based on anger or greed and so on, and that just creates lots of problems by what we do – it builds up so-called negative karma. You lose self-control and you yell at somebody, and you say things without really thinking, and later you really regret what you said.
So if we really want to avoid future problems on a deeper level, what we need to do is to get rid of all these disturbing emotions and confusion and so on. And it is actually possible to get rid of them because they are not part of the innate nature of the mind, this mental activity. And, in addition, if we think more about this type of mental activity that we have from every moment, one of the features that is really fantastic about it is that it is possible that that mental activity can understand things. We can understand something. And we can have positive qualities, like love and compassion, and so on. And these positive qualities are something that can be developed more and more.
Now what’s the difference? The disturbing aspects are based on confusion. Positive aspects – understanding and so on – are based on what’s reality. We give a very simple example: Confusion could be: “I am the center of the universe. I am the most important one. I should always have my way. I should always be the center of attention,” and so on. And if I’m not the center of attention and if I don’t get my way, I get angry. And like a dog barking at somebody, we either bark or we growl at somebody. We get angry. “You didn’t do it the way that I want it to be done.” So that’s confusion. The reality is that we’re all here and we all are equal. Everybody wants to be the center of attention. Not everybody can be the center of attention. Everybody wants to get their own way, but that’s not possible. And so the reality is that we somehow have to learn to live with everybody.
So the more that we investigate, we see that our confusion just doesn’t hold up. It’s false. So if we get rid of the confusion, the correct understanding is something which is verified. It’s true. So, because of that, the understanding is something which is stronger. It can outweigh the confusion. And if we can have that understanding all the time then – which of course requires concentration – but if we can have that all the time – and discipline of course – then that confusion would never arise. It would be finished.
So this is the central point of refuge. What sort of direction are we putting in our life? What sort of meaning? What sort of goal are we going to have? And that goal is to achieve what we call a “true stopping” of all this confusion, get rid of it completely so that it never arises again, because that’s the real cause of our problems, whether we talk about it in this lifetime or in future lifetimes. And it is possible to get rid of it completely, forever, because it’s not an innate feature of our mental activity. It can be gotten rid of by substituting correct understanding.
And so there are two aspects here. One is that we can get rid of all this disturbing side forever, and the other aspect is that we can increase and develop this positive side. The positive side is correct understanding. So if we put this in the context of what’s usually translated as the “four noble truths,” the main theme or structure of what Buddha taught: we have true suffering (all the different problems that we have); the true causes, which is our confusion; and it’s possible to achieve a true stopping of all of this so that it never rises again; and we achieve that true stopping through what’s called a “true path.” But when we use this word “path” here, we need to understand it as “a way of understanding that acts as a path.” So it’s the understanding that will bring about this true stopping, and the understanding that will result from having gotten rid of all this disturbing side.
So this is the direction that I want to put in my life. When we say “working on myself” – when I use that terminology – it is referring to this. I’m trying more and more and more to get rid of this disturbing side, and more and more to realize my potentials for this positive side. Because I fear – here in a healthy way – that if I continue the way that I am now, well, even if I get a huge amount of money and have so many friends and am so famous, still I’m going to have problems because I’m going to be greedy, I’m going to be insecure, I’m still going to get angry, and so on. And I’m afraid of that, but I see that there’s a way to avoid it. It’s like you might be afraid of getting burned by fire. But you see if I’m careful, I can avoid getting burned. So there’s a fear, but you see that there is… I mean it’s a healthy fear. We’re not talking about paranoia.
We see if I continue being angry and yelling, even at my relatives, and so on, what’s going to happen when I get old? I’m going to be a lonely old woman or a lonely old man that nobody wants to go visit, nobody wants to take care of, because I’m such a pain to be with. All I’m going to do is complain and yell at people, so who’s going to want to be with me? Nobody. So the solution is not that I’ll just have a lot of children that will feel obligated to take care of me, or that I have enough money in the bank so that I can be in a comfortable nursing home, because I’m going to be miserable. So what I really need to do is work on my personality, to put it in very plain language.
How often we think that our personalities are fixed and that, well, this is the way that I am. “I have a bad temper and you’d better learn to live with it.” That doesn’t work, does it? And so it is possible to get rid of all this disturbing side and to realize all our good qualities. And so, out of a healthy sense of fear of what would happen if we don’t work on ourselves, plus a confidence that it is possible to get rid of this disturbing stuff – that it is possible to increase and strengthen the positive stuff – then we put this direction in our life.
And if we want to do this in a so-called Mahayana way, then we would add to this, compassion. Basically that how can I be of help to anybody if I’m getting angry with them? And so I really want to be able to help others. And I am really afraid that I’m just going to absolutely mess it up if I continue getting angry with them, and getting attached to them, and jealous, and all these other things. And so I’ve got to get rid of all of this disturbing stuff and this confusion so I can be of best help to them, to others. This feeling that I would really like to be able to help others, but I’m afraid that I’m not good enough, I won’t be able to do it, I don’t have enough patience, I don’t have enough understanding, and so I’m afraid I’m going to be a failure in terms of even raising my own children – that would be quite awful, wouldn’t it?
So this Dharma work is very relevant to our daily life. And in terms of refuge, it’s being very honest with ourselves about my situation and that I have these problems. We all have them. We all have these disturbing emotions. That’s nothing special. Maybe some are more strong than others; there’s all these variations, but we all have these emotional difficulties. We’re not talking here about somebody who is deeply psychologically disturbed. We’re talking about what most people would consider normal. But that is the danger, is that we consider it normal that sometimes we’re going to get angry, and sometimes we’re going to be greedy and selfish, and sometimes we’re going to be jealous, and so on – that this is normal and it’s okay. Well, it’s not okay, because it produces problems, if you really think about it.
And our goal is not just to learn how to live with it – or to keep it under control, but it’s still churning inside – and not to just weaken it, but get rid of all this disturbing stuff completely. And not to just develop a little bit of understanding, some of the time, but to develop a full understanding of reality – how I exist, how everybody exists, how the world exists, and so on – and to have that all the time. Because the nature of this mental activity is basically pure, and it basically has all the potentials of good qualities.
So when we talk about the objects that indicate the same direction, we talk about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And there are many levels of understanding these three. So we could look at the good qualities of the Buddhas, and the good qualities of the Dharma, and the good qualities of the Sangha. And with the Buddhas, we have all their various physical qualities; they have very special physical features: they’re able to go everywhere, and multiply their bodies, and be everywhere at the same time; and so on. It’s rather fantastic. Not so easy to believe. And there’s the qualities of the speech of a Buddha: a Buddha’s able to understand every language; and when a Buddha speaks, everybody understands it in their own language; and no matter how far away they are, they can still hear what the Buddha says; and so on. And again this sounds pretty fantastic, hard to believe. So if we stay on that level, of just thinking of Buddhas like this, it’s starting to go in the direction of being some fantastic transcendent being, going in the direction of almost a God, doesn’t it?
And then we look at the qualities of the mind of a Buddha. A Buddha understands and knows everything simultaneously – omniscient. Well, the point is not that the Buddha knows everybody’s telephone number on the planet, but that the Buddha knows what are the causes for everybody’s situation, going all the way back – all the factors that influence them. And if a Buddha teaches this person this or that, what will all the consequences be – in terms of not only the effect on this person, but the effect on everybody else that this person interacts with. As a result, a Buddha knows exactly the best method to teach everybody. So that’s pretty good, isn’t it? That would be really nice to be able to do.
So I have some confidence that a Buddha understands me and could know what is the best thing to help me. So if we’re going in the direction of thinking of Buddha as a God, now it’s becoming a little bit personal. “He can help me personally. He’ll understand me. Nobody understands me; Buddha understands me.” And then a Buddha has equal love for everybody. “Great. Although I would prefer if he had more love for me than everybody else. But, still, okay.” Equal love for everybody. And what’s a bonus here is that it doesn’t matter what you do. You don’t have to pray, you don’t have to make offerings to the Buddha. Buddha’s going to help you anyway. So it’s cheap; I don’t have to pay anything. And it’s a real bargain, because Buddha has so much patience: he’s never going to get jealous if I go to some other teacher in some other tradition, and is never going to be wrathful and strike me down with lightning, or anything like that. So it’s pretty safe.
So this is a common mistake, whether consciously or unconsciously, that we look to Buddha as a substitute God figure that is a bargain and safer. And in the teachings it says a Buddha’s not going to let you down, and all these sort of things. So it sounds great. But then we read that a Buddha can’t really pull out our suffering like pulling out a thorn from our foot and, well, we don’t really take that terribly seriously. So that’s the Buddha. I think that, as I say, that’s just in a sense the conventional level – what we would call the ordinary level – of thinking of Buddha. And to just leave it on that level without understanding a deeper level has this danger of considering Buddha as a substitute personal God who’s going to save me.
And Buddhas are represented by the statues and the paintings. And, okay, it’s pretty, but are we going to confuse it with an orthodox Christian icon? Or what is it? Are we into idol worship, as the Muslims might accuse? Or what really is going on here? Do I really have to bow down in front of a statue? So I think there are problems involved if we just leave our understanding of a Buddha on this level. There’s opportunity for misunderstanding. But for some people obviously it can be very helpful to think of a Buddha in that way, but that’s not the deepest understanding. All right? There’s almost a God-like figure, and we represent them by the statues and paintings, and we worship it.
Then the Dharma, the conventional, superficial level is in terms of all the teachings: what the Buddha had realized – I mean, what the Buddha realized in himself – and what he taught. So here I have my personal God, Buddha, and I have my scriptures. It’s represented by the scriptures. So, instead of a Bible or a Koran, now I have Buddha’s texts. So it’s like my Buddhist Bible. And every word in it we take as being sacred. Well, yes, we need to have respect for it, but Buddha said himself: “Don’t believe anything that I said just because I said it, out of respect, but test it yourself as if buying gold.” So Buddha always encouraged his followers to be critical of what he taught. But if we’re lazy, then we don’t want to analyze and check everything. And in terms of daily life, in our daily life, what the relevance is: if we just have the relevance in daily life that, well, Buddha loves me, and Buddha understands me, and here are all the rules in the book and I just have to follow that – well, that could have a place in daily life, but this really isn’t Buddhism. Now of course it could work for some people, but the intention is not to make Buddhism into another variation of Christianity.
Then what about the Sangha? The Sangha… Unfortunately in the West, we’ve gotten into the habit of referring to all the members of the Dharma center that we go to as our Sangha. That was certainly not the intention of this word in Sanskrit or Tibetan. So, for many people, “Sangha” just means the members of my church, which is my Buddha’s church. And then when many of these members are very disturbed people, then do I really take refuge in them? Now, I don’t mean to minimize the importance of having a spiritual community of like-minded people who are aiming for the same type of goal, and who can give us some support, some feedback, and so on. This is very, very important, but that’s not the object of refuge.
And, another level of Sangha, we can understand it as the monastic community, so the monks and nuns. But, again, among the monks and nuns we find not always perfect examples of monks and nuns, do we? Some very disturbing people who wear robes – or disturbed, I should say. Although it is very important to be supportive of them, to respect them, if they are really sincerely trying to work on themselves by becoming monks and nuns; but, as I say, some monks and nuns take the robes just to escape from difficulties in life and, as one friend of mine says, to get a free lunch.
But, anyway, there’s another level of Sangha. We might hear from these tantric masters that actually the Sangha are these so-called deities that we have: Chenrezig, or Tara, or Manjushri, and so on. And all of a sudden we start praying to Holy Mother, Saint Tara, that she’s going to save us. And certainly these Buddha-figures, I call them – these so-called tantric deities – are in no way saints that are going to somehow be intermediaries and help us to get closer to God Buddha.
So if we look at the deepest meaning of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, then we discover that the deepest meaning of Dharma is these true stoppings of all this confusion, and the true realizations – the true so-called paths or pathways of mind on a mental continuum. That is the actual Dharma. That is what will protect us – if we achieve it in our own mental continuum – from suffering. If we can achieve this state of all the confusion and disturbing stuff gone and all the realizations there in full. And the Buddhas are those who have accomplished this in full and taught us how to accomplish it ourselves. And the Sangha is actually referring to what’s known as the Arya Sangha, which is referring to these very, very highly realized advanced practitioners who have achieved some of these true stoppings and true realizations in part. They haven’t achieved all of them yet, the full package, but some.
So, in our lives, in our daily lives, the Buddhas and the Arya Sangha – these great masters, Indian and Tibetan masters, and so on, of the past, and some of the present – are very, very inspiring, gives us a great deal of hope. You see someone like or meet someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and how did he become like he is? Through the Dharma. So whether he’s a Buddha or not a Buddha is irrelevant. If I could become like him, that would be pretty good. And I’m not just talking about his ability to teach almost anything in the Dharma field, and is the expert, most learned, and most profound of any of the teachers, and the type of schedule that he does, and constantly traveling around the world, and trying to teach and help others, and all of that. But add on top of that that he is public enemy number one of China. So could you imagine what it must be like to have more than a billion people consider you the devil, and do all sorts of terrible things to your people, and that he still has love and compassion for them, and he’s not upset, and he’s able to do everything that he does. That’s unbelievable, isn’t it? How could you have that unless you had gotten rid of all these disturbing emotions and had gained some realization? It wouldn’t be possible. So it’s irrelevant whether he’s all the way to a Buddha or not.
So if we can’t relate to all the qualities of the Buddha himself, but at least you can see the qualities of someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And it’s very, very inspiring. And if it’s possible with someone like him then, considering the nature of the mind is pure and has all these potentials, there’s no reason why I can’t do that as well – why everybody can’t do that. Obviously it will take a tremendous amount of work, but it is possible and it is very worthwhile to go in that direction. So if the Dalai Lama is analogous to the Buddha, then we see a lot of these great lamas – of course there are much lesser ones – but the really great ones that go around, well, maybe they don’t have all the qualities of the Dalai Lama but, analogous to the Sangha, they have some of them, some of these qualities. And that also is very inspiring.
So what do they have in common, the Dalai Lama and these other great masters? They’ve gotten rid of, to varying degrees, anger, and greed, and jealousy, and all this sort of stuff – hatred – and they have gained tremendous good qualities: understanding, compassion, patience, etc. And we see the varying gradations of this that can be achieved in terms of these various lamas. All right? This is, as I’m saying, a much more living example (if we have exposure to them) than just thinking of Buddha, and Milarepa, and these sort of examples, which are very hard to relate to. They’re good stories, but do I really believe that there was somebody like that? Or Guru Rinpoche, born from a lotus, and all this sort of stuff – can I really believe that? That’s hard to relate to. So if we focus on the absence of these negative qualities and the presence of these positive qualities, as exemplified by the Dalai Lama and these great masters, or the Buddha and the Sangha, and we realize that I’m capable of doing that as well – so we’re talking here about the Dharma – these are achievable goals, possible, that I can do, then this gives us a much more stable direction we can put in our lives.
So what does this mean on a practical level? This means on a practical level when we get upset, when we get angry, when we act selfishly, that we become more and more aware of that. We notice it. It’s not that we then are very heavy with ourselves and punish ourselves: “I’m so bad, I’m so terrible: I still get angry.” Certainly not that, and certainly not the other extreme that, well, okay, that’s part of what’s being normal, and so I just notice it, but then: “So what? I will continue being like that.” Not that either. But even just being aware of it and noticing it – and noticing it as something that I want to get rid of – weakens the force of these things.
But the point is, during our daily lives when these disturbing things, these negative things, come up and we notice them, the most ideal thing to do is to – if we’ve learned some methods – to try to overcome them. To realize that, well, if I’m angry, I need to develop patience. If somebody is acting in a horrible way toward me, that indicates that they are very unhappy; there’s something disturbing them. So rather than getting angry with them, feel a little compassion for them.
So we’re not, on the one side, angry with ourselves for getting angry. On the other side, we’re not just sort of treating ourselves like a baby and saying, “Well, okay, it’s all right.” But we’re going to try our best to overcome this, because we realize that it is possible to overcome this. And maybe I can’t get rid of it so quickly – well, for sure, I won’t be able to get rid of it so quickly – but this is a direction that I want to work on throughout my life. And I’m going to do this because I know that it actually is possible to get rid of this stuff. So it’s not a futile attempt of idealistic thinking that it is possible.
And when I’m faced with a difficult situation and I have a little bit of patience, or a little bit of understanding, or a little bit of benevolent feeling – to realize that this is something that can increase. I can make this stronger and stronger and stronger. It is possible to do that. Others have done it; I can do it as well. There’s nothing special about the others; there’s nothing special about me. And this is my refuge – this is my direction in life – because the more that I go in this direction, the more that I save myself from trouble, from problems.
So that’s sort of our introduction and overview of the relevance of refuge in daily life. We need to understand what is meant by refuge – this safe direction – and what are the reasons for putting this in our life, and what does it actually mean. And it’s considered the most important, the most fundamental thing in Buddhist practice. And we tend to trivialize it, which is really a shame. Whether we have this direction in our life or not is supposed to be the most significant – make the biggest difference in our lives. And if refuge for us just means that we went to a ceremony, and had a little piece of our hair cut, and got a Tibetan name, and now we wear a red string around our neck, and we’ve joined the club, this is really trivializing the whole issue and making it into something which is really quite meaningless.
Okay. So let’s take a few minutes now at the end to sort of digest what we’ve heard. And try to review in your minds, in a few sentences, what are the main points of what we have discussed this evening. What have you understood from what we have spoken about? Because unless we, in a sense, review it at the end and make it a little bit clear, it’s not going to make any impression on us. Otherwise it sort of goes in one ear and out the other ear. And like, for most of us, a dream: when we wake up we know that we had a dream, but I don’t remember what it was. So, similarly, we walk out of here we don’t remember anything of what we spoke about. So let’s try to not have it be like that. So let’s review in our minds.
Good. So I guess the question that we all need to ask ourselves is: “If I consider myself as somebody who has taken refuge and who is a Buddhist, am I actually putting this direction in my life? Does it have any significance in my life other than just having joined a club?” And if taking refuge has not made a significant difference in your life, then this is something that we really, really have to work on, because to try to follow any more advanced practices without this foundation is hardly able to bring success.
Okay. Thank you. We’ll continue with this tomorrow.
We end with the dedication. Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
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