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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > The Relevance of Refuge and Karma in Daily Life > Session Three: Actions for Training in Taking Safe Direction

The Relevance of Refuge and Karma in Daily Life

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, August 2010

Session Three: Actions for Training in Taking Safe Direction

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:54 hours)

Let’s begin with some questions, if you have any. Anybody? 

Question: What is it that is getting reborn? 

Alex: What is getting reborn? Not a very simple question, so not a very simple answer. What we would say is the mere “me,” but that needs to be explained. We have a continuum of mental activity. I shouldn’t say we have one, as if there were a separate “me” that possesses this, neither in the manner of “I have a cow” or “I have an arm” – either possessing something that’s part of me or not part of me. But rather, we should say that there is an individual continuum of mental activity which generates moment to moment to moment, based on behavioral cause and effect, or karma, so it follows a logical sequence of what is experienced with this mental activity. And being individual and subjective, then, it can be labeled in terms of “me.” But that “me” which can be labeled, although it refers to, conventionally, “me” – I’m experiencing rebirth after rebirth; I’m experiencing moment to moment – that what it refers to, conventional “me,” it doesn’t correspond to something. In other words, we have to make a difference between what something refers to and what corresponds to that. 

Let me explain the difference. We’re feeling an emotion. There’s a feeling of an emotion. And there are many, many different instances of similar types of emotion or feeling (let’s talk about a feeling here) and we can label them all through like a category, and that category would be happiness – happy, feeling happy. So all of them are instances of feeling happy. Although obviously it’s changing from moment to moment; the level of happiness, etc., or the quality of it, is always slightly different. So when we say that I’m feeling happy, it refers to something. I mean, we’re actually feeling something, But there is no solidly, separately existing happiness that corresponds to this, that is somewhere existing, who knows where, that I’m somehow connecting with and now I’m feeling it. So when we talk about things corresponding to labels – corresponding to these categories – it would be things existing somehow like in boxes, like entries in the dictionary, or something like that, and then just sort of sitting somewhere, and somehow we connect with them. So this doesn’t correspond to anything real. Nothing is like that. 

When we talk about voidness, we’re talking about an absence of something that corresponds to these labels. Nevertheless, conventionally I can say, “I feel happy,” and that happiness that I’m feeling refers to something. It’s not just totally nothing. Conventionally, I am feeling something and conventionally I call it “happiness,” and most people would call it “happiness.” Although, of course, it’s subjective and individual: How do they know what I’m feeling? 

So “me” is the same thing – or the self, or person, or the individual, whatever you want to call it. You can label on this continuum – individual subjective continuum of mental activity – “me,” and it refers to something. But there is no sort of separate “me” or some sort of entity existing by itself, separate from all of this, either observing it, or controlling it, or living inside the body like living inside a house, or – nothing like that. So that continuum has the mental activity, the way that we have explained it: with potentials, and so on, and energy communicates, and all of these things. And it can be labeled “me,” individual “me,” and it continues moment to moment, without anything solid passing from moment to moment that remains static and is moving from one moment into the next moment, like on a conveyor belt. 

So if we think of a holographic movie, one that’s sort of just “here it is, happening”, though it’s never the same from moment to moment to moment. There’s nothing solid that goes from moment to moment in our holographic movie but, nevertheless, there’s continuity. And we can even say that this holographic movie has a plot, but it’s not that the plot was written somewhere else and it’s sort of following that plot. But, looking over time, we can impute on it: well, there’s a plot, there’s a pattern. So that’s sort of the karmic pattern of what’s going on. 

So, tying this in with our discussion of refuge and my point that it’s very important not to be a perfectionist about all of this, then we see that, well, it’s the conventional “me” – what can be labeled on this mental activity – that can go in this positive direction, this safe direction, that can reach liberation or enlightenment. But not some solid, separate thing that has to be perfect and is not good enough, and so on. So this is when I was saying, well, just do it. Just work on ourselves. That means without feeling that I am a separate “me” and now, in a dualistic way, I have to get myself – as if there are two “me”s here – to do this, to work on myself. Or is it three “me”s already: I’ve got to get myself to work on myself. So this is absolutely a confused way of looking at things. And that third “me,” the one that needs to be worked on, is not good enough, and so I’m going to have to get myself, the slave driver, to work harder to tame this lazy self over here. So this is really very neurotic. 

So just doing it means that, well, we have, certainly, decisiveness, we have willpower, we have attention, we have perseverance. All these things are mental factors that are going to accompany our mental activity, but without some separate “me” at the control board pushing the button: “Now, work harder.” Now I’m going to take this sort of thing from the box called “willpower and self-control,” and I’m going to connect to that, plug the wire into that, and so on. I mean, that’s not the way that it’s working. So when you just sort of do it, you just do it. I mean, it just sort of happens, without feeling that there’s a separate “me” that’s actually doing it. Although, of course, I’m doing it; nobody else is doing it. 

There’s one thing that I wanted to add to what I was mentioning at the end of the last session, which concerns going in this direction and not being dishonest or cheating, and so on, because it feels right. And if we analyze a little bit more deeply what does it mean that it feels right, then I think we would have to say that I feel happier acting in this way. And if I were to cheat and be dishonest, or if I was just wasting my life and it was going nowhere, I was unhappier and it felt more uncomfortable. It just doesn’t feel right; it’s not comfortable. And so that underlies the basic teaching that everybody wants to be happy; we don’t want to be unhappy. And having this safe direction in our life and being more honest, and so on, brings more happiness. And the contrary: if we don’t have this, it brings more unhappiness. So it just reaffirms this basic principle that we have in Buddhism. 

Now of course we can object to that and say, well, there are some criminals that cheat, and do all sorts of illegal things, and they feel very good about it and got away with it. And so on. So one could object. But then one would have to analyze a little bit more deeply how long that type of feeling of satisfaction lasts, and is it something which is valid or not. 

Okay. Any other questions? Okay, counted up to three and no more questions. So we’re at the end of the question session. 

Now what I wanted to discuss or present this afternoon – and in not a tremendous amount of detail, since we don’t have so much time – are the various types of training that are specified, in terms of how we train ourselves to actually put this direction in our life, this safe direction of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, because that gives a very clear indication of the practical application of all of this in daily life. So what do we actually do in order to maintain that direction? And here we have two lists. One list comes from a text written by an ancient Indian Buddhist master called Asanga, and one derives from what’s called the “guideline instruction.” Guideline instructions actually can be either written or just oral but, anyway, it’s not specified that it comes from a certain text. 

So let’s first go through the list that comes from this specific text by Asanga. There’s a list from the text. It’s the guideline instruction that has the two divisions. Parallel to taking safe direction from the Buddhas, we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to a spiritual teacher. So here we’re going to have a list of things that are parallel to each of the Three Jewels individually and then to all three in common, and that’s what we’ll have in both of these sets of lists. 

So, you remember, we were discussing quite a bit the importance of having a role model, and inspiration from a role model, in order to be able to go in this direction. For that, we need a spiritual teacher. A spiritual teacher is not just somebody that gives us information – we can get information from a book or the Internet – but somebody who can actually inspire us by their living example, and of course answer questions, and so on, and correct us when we’re making mistakes. And if we haven’t found a spiritual teacher yet, we need to try to make some effort to find one. Yeah, that’s very difficult, especially when we have a limited choice. Not that many teachers come to where we might be living; and even if they do, they don’t stay; and there’s so many other students, they don’t have time to deal with me individually. But there are many different levels of spiritual teacher. I have a whole book about this, Relating to a Spiritual Teacher; you can find it on my website. 

So there can be teachers that just give us information. There can be teachers that show us how to sit properly, and so on. There can be teachers that just help us with discussion. There can be teachers who are actual spiritual guides who advise us in our lives. But really what we’re talking about here is the one that inspires us, and the person who inspires us personally might not inspire anybody else. Just because other people find this teacher so great doesn’t mean that we’re going to find that person so inspiring. There has to be some sort of – to use the Western jargon – personal chemistry involved here; or, to use the Buddhist jargon, some karmic relationship. But that teacher that we find so inspiring, that’s really going to give us the energy along the path. And the role model doesn’t have to be the one that actually we get a lot of information or personal guidance from. It could be someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama that we might never meet individually, one to one. And, obviously, if we attend teachings by His Holiness, or listen to his tapes or books, that’s much better. 

And in terms of taking refuge, there is a formal ceremony that can be done, which is, in a sense, making this into an event – that, okay, now I really am doing this seriously. And we do this with a spiritual teacher, but that doesn’t mean that this person actually becomes our guru, our spiritual teacher. We show respect to them because, in a sense, they’ve opened the door for us, but that’s all. And it also doesn’t mean that we have now joined the tradition of Buddhism that this person from whom we received the refuge follows. We haven’t joined that person’s club and now we are exclusively part of their Dharma “football team.” We’re taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; we’re not taking refuge in the person that conducts the ceremony. 

So, very important, if we’re going to go in this direction, to have some role models, someone that inspires us, some spiritual teacher. That’s the main function, when you look in the texts, of what does a spiritual teacher provide. They provide the inspiration, the energy to get us started on the path, to maintain us on the path, and to give us the energy to complete the path. Because, as I explain, although in theory we can gain that inspiration from the example of Buddha Shakyamuni himself and the aryas, for most of us that’s pretty difficult to relate to, and we certainly don’t meet any of these people. 

Then to maintain a Dharma direction in our life, the first thing that we need to train in is to study the Buddha’s teachings. That’s very, very important. Without actually studying – and this, His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes over and over and over again – without actually studying the teachings – which means to learn them; don’t think of the model of school in which you might have some negative connotations – but if you haven’t learned the teachings, you don’t understand anything. You just do rituals, and things like that, with no understanding. It’s not going to bring much results. To go in that direction, we have to know what the direction is. We have to learn what the methods are. If we haven’t learned it, how can we possibly go in this direction? If you want to read, you have to learn how to read. I mean, there’s no way around it. 

And the second training here, in connection with the Dharma, is focusing our attention on those aspects of the teachings specifically for overcoming our disturbing emotions. So there’s teachings about all sorts of things, but to just learn the length of life span in each of the different realms – well, nice to know, but it’s not specifically directed at helping us to overcome our anger, for example, or our greed, or selfishness. So, within the teachings, focus on those aspects that are going to help us to overcome our disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes

And to maintain this direction from the Sangha – referring to the Arya Sangha, these highly realized practitioners – the training is to follow their example. So here we’re not talking about the example of a monastic. It’s not that we have to become a monk or a nun. But rather, what it’s saying is that we have to work – because an arya, after all, can be either a monastic or not – but what it’s saying is that we need to follow their example of working really, really hard on learning and practicing so that they gain this high level of realization, this nonconceptual cognition of voidness, four noble truths, etc., and then they continue working on toward liberation and enlightenment. So that’s the example we need to follow. 

So, relevance in daily life: “I have some sort of model, a spiritual teacher; it’s very inspiring to me when things are going roughly. And I am learning the Dharma methods and I’m focusing, within that, on the methods that can help me to overcome my anger, and greed, and selfishness, etc. And I’m following the example of the Arya Sangha of trying to put it into practice all the time, whenever difficulties arise; and even when difficulties aren’t arising, as some sort of preventive to avoid difficulties arising.” And we’re just doing it. And underlying it: “I don’t want things to get worse, and I understand that if I do like this it will help me to be happier and to avoid problems. And doing it, it feels right. I feel happier, more peace of mind. I’m not just a victim of the difficulties that happen in my life; I’m, in a sense, working to overcome them.” So it gives us some strength. 

And then, parallel to the safe direction from all Three Gems as a whole, then, first of all, we withdraw our minds from the pursuit of sensory pleasures – and they sort of fly off to them – and work on ourselves instead as the primary task in our lives. As one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, used to say, “We should stop being a tourist of samsara” – that we have to go and do all the different possible things that samsaric life can entail. Because just pursuing sensory pleasures and these sort of things, this is what’s called the “suffering of change,” if you really look at it, because they don’t satisfy, they don’t last, we always want more, and if we have too much at a time it makes us sick. All right? Like if eating our favorite food was true happiness, the more we ate at one time the happier we would be. But obviously there’s a limit there. 

Whereas, if instead of doing this as our primary pursuit, we make our primary pursuit working on ourselves and trying to overcome what causes us to lose peace of mind, then obviously, as a result, we’ll have more peace of mind. We will in fact be happier in a much more stable way. It might not be so dramatic as a sexual encounter, but it is much more stable and secure. So that doesn’t mean that we have to give up completely all entertainment, and all good food, and sexual experience, and stuff like that – give away all our money – but what it does mean is to put that in a certain perspective. Sometimes we need to relax. We need to relax in order to be able to get back and work more efficiently. But if we take this relaxation almost in a manner of a medicine – We have this in one of the dedication prayers, in terms of food. I take this food not out of greed, not out of desire, and so on; I take it as a medicine to be able to give me more strength to be able to continue working to help others. So if we look at our relaxation – going to the movies, or whatever it is – as some sort of a medicine to regenerate our energy, then fine. Because then it stays within certain limits, certain moderations, so we don’t overinflate the pleasure that we might get from that. 

So it’s not that… There’s this joke: whoever at the end of life has accumulated the most toys, the most material possessions, wins…. It’s not like that. It’s not as though the whole point of life is to accumulate as many gadgets and electronic devices, and have seen more movies than everybody else, or that we have on our bank account there’s a larger number than somebody else’s bank account, or we’ve eaten more food than anybody else. This is… it’s not the point of life, is it? And it’s not going to give any sort of lasting satisfaction, particularly if we think in terms of future lives. 

Okay. So that is something that really sets the whole tone of our daily life, that our primary focus is not on entertainment – listening to more and more music, or something like that. You know, these people that are addicted to listening to music all day long and walk around with their iPods, and so on. That’s not the big primary thing in our life. The primary thing in our life is working on going in this direction, trying to overcome our greed, our selfishness, etc. But, again, not as this perfectionist type of way. 

But we can still have fun. Well, that’s a very interesting concept. What is fun? My favorite story of that was: I was with my teacher Serkong Rinpoche, the old one, and we were in Holland. And we were staying with a wealthy family, and they had a very large yacht, a very large boat, which they kept in a very small lake. And they took us for a ride in their yacht, and we were in this small lake with a lot of other yachts, and we just went in a circle very slowly as if we were on some sort of children’s ride in an amusement park. And Rinpoche turned to me and said in Tibetan, “Is this what they consider fun?” So what is fun? 

Shantideva says if our Dharma work is fun for us, then we’re not happy unless we are doing this type of Dharma work – helping others, working on ourselves, etc. So that’s what perseverance is all about. It’s enjoying what we’re doing. If we can enjoy what we do, then we’ll continue with it. And there is a great deal of joy involved in improving ourselves, getting rid of or lessening various disturbing emotions, various internal conflicts, and so on. That’s very enjoyable. Hard work, but enjoyable. And as we get more and more results – which of course is going to go up and down; it’s not linear – then, wow, it’s fantastic; I’m actually doing something. 

I’m thinking of the analogy of somebody that’s training in a sport. It’s really hard work to swim all the time, or run all the time, and so on. But if we’re able, through the training, to be able to endure or run farther, or run faster, or all of these sort of things, we really feel great, don’t we? And, despite the difficulty, we enjoy it. So the same thing: I’m training and training and, wow, I was able to go to a family dinner with all the relatives that I really find very irritating and I didn’t lose my temper. I was able to be patient, and it was okay. I got through the meal perfectly okay. In fact, I even enjoyed it. All right? Despite my mother or my father saying, “Why aren’t you getting married yet?” and “Why don’t you have children?” and “Why don’t you make more money?” and “Why don’t you call me more often?” and “Why don’t you come here more often?” I was able to keep my peace of mind and deal with it. And you really feel good that you’re able to do that. Okay. 

Then the next one… so it was withdrawing our minds from the pursuit of sensory pleasures. I guess we got a little bit off the track there. But the point being that Dharma practice, and so on, is in fact more enjoyable than just listening to more and more music. 

Then the next one is adopting the ethical standards that the Buddhas have set. This is a very important thing, and this we’ll discuss further when we talk about karma tomorrow. All right? To go in this direction in our life means that we have to avoid destructive behavior and act in a constructive way. So this is following the basic Buddhist ethics. Because if we act destructively, based on our disturbing emotions, it’s just going to produce more unhappiness, especially for ourselves and possibly for others. If we act constructively, it will bring more happiness. Buddhist ethics is not based on obedience. That’s not the principle of ethics here. In other systems, these are the laws, either set by some divine authority or set by legislation, and you have to be obedient and obey the laws. Buddhism isn’t like that. But rather, the whole point is learning to discriminate ourselves between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. All right? What’s helpful, what’s harmful. And based on that discrimination to – “discriminating awareness” we call it – to then refrain from what would be harmful. 

What’s harmful is what would be self-destructive, what would have us go in just worse and worse directions, like getting more and more addicted to some sort of destructive habit, whether we’re talking about destructive from a health point of view, like smoking, or destructive from a social point of view, whatever. And do what would be helpful for improving ourselves and improving our ability to help others. 

And the next one is trying to be as sympathetic and compassionate to others as possible. So I don’t think that needs terribly much explanation. Even if we’re just working for our own personal liberation, we certainly need to be kind to others and to help them, etc. 

And then the last one is making special offerings of fruit, flowers, and so on, on Buddhist special days, such as the anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. That’s an interesting one, actually, because we might have the attitude that I don’t need to celebrate special holidays. What’s the whole point of that? This is… Let me think of the example of how commercialized Christmas has become, and so on, in the West. “What do I need this for? Is this just a Buddhist version of putting up a Christmas tree? And instead of putting lights on a Christmas tree, I’m putting lights in little bowls on an altar. I mean, what is this all about?” 

I think the whole point here is just showing respect for the Buddha, and the tradition, the masters, and so on. It’s just a token of respect. You don’t have to make a big, big deal out of it. And we don’t have to wait for a certain holiday, Buddhist holiday, in order to show that respect. That’s something that we can do every day. We shouldn’t make it like: “I’ll only go to church on Sunday, and the rest of the week I’ll do whatever I want.” But observing a religious holiday makes us also feel part of a larger community, so – like a support group – so I think it also serves some sort of social function. 

So when we look at these trainings, we find that there are certain things that don’t sound exclusively Buddhist. Being compassionate and sympathetic to others, and following ethics, and so on, that’s pretty universal, isn’t it? So I think that what makes it specifically Buddhist are the earlier items in this list. Look at the examples of the great Buddhist masters as your role model; study the teachings, specifically the teachings that are aimed at lessening your disturbing emotions; and follow the example of the great highly realized beings – really work hard. And in the context of that, that means the general picture of following ethics, and being kind and sympathetic, and not following heavily these sensory type of desires, but staying pretty straight in terms of our priorities, and showing respect for the tradition. 

So we had a group of trainings for each of the individual Gems and then for the three in general, here, coming from Asanga’s text. So, similarly, we have from the guideline instructions some trainings for each of the specific Gems and some for the three all together. So, in terms of the individual Gems, we have one action to avoid and one action to adopt in relation to each of the three. So when we take our safe direction from the Buddhas, put that direction in our life, the thing that we need to shun or avoid is taking our main direction from elsewhere. 

This is an interesting thing to observe in ourselves: When I’m really feeling terrible – I feel bad, in a bad mood; things are not going well, in a conventional sense – what do I turn to for refuge, for comfort? Is it chocolate, for example? I’m really feeling bad and so I’ll go out and stuff my face with a big bar of chocolate, and somehow have a little bit of pleasure, and it makes me – it’s not so bad. “There’s still chocolate in the world; life can’t be all that bad.” It’s interesting what we turn to when things are going poorly. Is it that I’ve got to talk to a friend? Is it sex? Is it… what is it? Are we like a dog – we need to be patted on the head and then we’ll wag our tail? Or what is it? 

And here it’s saying that, okay, it’s all right to have some chocolate if you’re feeling a bit depressed, and so on, but that’s not the ultimate source of direction in our life – is chocolate. How about applying the Dharma methods to deal with the difficult situation? I find it quite interesting that people who are so, so strongly into Dharma – supposedly – and even the Dharma teachers, Western Dharma teachers, they have difficulty in their marriage, or whatever, and they go into psychotherapy rather than trying to apply the Dharma methods. This I always find a little bit strange. Because if we sincerely take this as my direction in life, Dharma, then supposedly we are convinced that the Dharma offers a solution to the problems that we have in life. Obviously that doesn’t mean that if we have cancer or something like that, well, I’m just going to sit here and meditate and Dharma will solve all of that. Don’t be silly. We go to a doctor. It doesn’t mean that. 

But if we feel that we need to go to a therapist in order to be able to discuss our problems with somebody and get another point of view, and so on, fine. But that would just be an adjunct, something extra, in terms of actually trying to apply the Dharma methods. But the main refuge, the main direction, the main thing that I’m looking at in order to help me overcome my shortcomings are the Dharma methods. Maybe I need some guidance in how to apply them, but I have confidence that Buddha understood how to get rid of problems. 

Now often when this point is brought up – of not taking our paramount or ultimate direction from elsewhere than the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – what is mentioned is, well, don’t take your ultimate refuge from worldly gods and from – this is from a Buddhist point of view that they’re worldly gods; obviously, various religions wouldn’t call their god a worldly god – but from other religions and, within Buddhism, from protectors and things like that. 

When Serkong Rinpoche was asked about: “Well, I’ve become a Buddhist but can I still go to church?” He was asked this in Italy. Rinpoche replied, “Well, are the Christian teachings on love contradictory to the Buddhist teachings on love?” And obviously they’re not. So there’s no problem if you want to go to church. But the thing is: what is the ultimate direction that you’re going in, in your life? You have to make some sort of decision of what I’m doing. Now that doesn’t mean that we have to cut out everything else, but just have it clear what we are doing in life. And if there are positive things that we can learn from other traditions, fine. That’s no problem. But don’t mix everything into a stew, if we are talking about practices. We don’t go into a church and do prostration, for example; and while you’re in the church, when certain things that they do you don’t like, so then you’re sitting there with Om mani padme hum and all of that. [Concerning] that, you can do things individually [in their own context and place]

But what they always talk about here, in the text, is the sort of worldly spirits which sometimes are set up as protectors. These are not reliable. They’re going to let you down. And we don’t want to get into worshipping of ghosts and spirits and stuff like that. So this is perhaps more relevant for a Tibetan or Indian audience, but there are some Westerners who are fascinated by these various spirits and so on – these protectors – and they get into that. Especially this word “protector” – sounds as though they are going to protect us. Now of course in some traditions within Buddhism, within Tibetan Buddhism, they say some protectors are emanations of Buddhas, and so on. And now we get into almost like a biological taxonomy of the different classes of spirits and the different classes of protectors, and all this almost becomes, as I say, like a biology lesson. 

But the thing to recognize is what is the basic thing that we can do in terms of protection from suffering? And the primary thing to rely on is basically our karma. In other words, the inspiration and the example of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, then what we do, how we act, is going to affect what we experience in the future. So these protectors, what they can do is perhaps bring about certain circumstances or conditions which will enable us to burn off some of these negative potentials, by experiencing them in minor ways so the positive ones can ripen more quickly. It’s the same thing, like doing rituals for the Medicine Buddha; they can just provide circumstances or conditions for, if we have positive potentials to overcome this sickness, for that to ripen. But the point is, if we haven’t built up these positive potentials from our previous behavior, it doesn’t matter how much we rely on a protector or a Medicine Buddha or whatever – we don’t have the basis for experiencing a more happy situation. So it’s very important in our Buddhist practice for it to not become protector worship – or Buddha worship, for that matter. Everything is dependent on what we ourselves do – how we act, how we communicate, how we think. And we have models; we have teachings; we have the goal that we could achieve, and so on. But we have to actually do it. 

So we need to be clear what our ultimate direction is. And although we can turn to other things temporarily for a little bit of help, keep the main track clear. 

Then, in terms of having the safe direction of Dharma, what we need to avoid is causing harm or mischief to others – humans, animals, whatever. We’re obviously trying to help others, not trying to hurt them. And that of course is quite difficult because we could say something to somebody else, and we had perfectly good intentions, and we didn’t mean anything nasty or whatever, and for some reason they got highly offended by what we said, misunderstood it, and got very, very upset or angry. And if we walk on the ground, which most of us do when we walk, then inevitably you’re going to step on something. So the point is to try to minimize the harm that we do to others, and certainly not intend to do harm. But just because of this limited hardware that we have, and the limited hardware that others have, inevitably we’re going to hurt others. So the point is to try to minimize that as much as possible. 

And then, from taking safe direction from the Sangha, what we want to avoid is associating closely with negative people. Now this is a very delicate issue here. What we’re talking about is when we’re not strong in our spiritual path, then the company that we keep could very easily influence us one way or another. So if we’re with others that are always indulging in rather negative things – whether we’re talking about some sort of street gang that’s involved in petty crime, or we have a group of friends that are always taking drugs or always getting drunk with alcohol, etc. – then it’s very difficult not to be influenced by them if we’re not strong. We want to be accepted; we don’t want to offend them, and so on. And so we drink, and take drugs, and go around and scratch cars, and stuff like that – graffiti all over the place. And after a while, we ourselves become addicted to that. And so this doesn’t mean that we have to tell them, “Oh, you’re terrible people.” etc., but the thing is to not hang out with them, not spend all our time with these people, when they really are going to be negative influences on us. And if we really are very weak, then it’s best to avoid them altogether. Like, for instance, if you’re trying to overcome being an alcoholic, you really need to stop being with your alcoholic friends. And so you go into this other group, Alcoholics Anonymous, and you’re with a group of people that will support you for overcoming alcoholism. So it’s a little bit like that. 

So it’s very interesting, because all these points interconnect with each other. So we can start to say, well, what is the most important thing in my life? Is the most important thing in my life to be accepted and liked by this group of friends who are into very negative habits? Is that what is the most important thing in my life? Is that going to bring me long lasting happiness? Or is overcoming these shortcomings in myself and being better able to help others, and so on – is that more important? Of course that doesn’t mean that we give up having concern for them, love for them, and so on. Of course we have. And we wish for them to be happy. But also, I mean, we have to be careful here. On the one hand, you don’t want to become influenced and just fall into their patterns; but on the other hand, you don’t want to go to the extreme, as we’ve pointed out before, of “Well, I’m Buddhist. I’m so much better than you,” and so on, “And eventually I’m going to save you from your sin, your life of sin.” This is obviously a terrible attitude to have. 

But people grow apart. It’s sort of a natural thing that happens in life. So without giving them the feeling that you disapprove of them, or that they’re no good, or anything like that, the point here is when we could be strongly influenced by them, best is to avoid them. That doesn’t mean you then have to go live in a holy, holy Buddhist community and wear all white clothes and be a vegan. It doesn’t mean that. But just watch out what kind of influence we have, what type of influence we’re subject to. So we try as much as possible to avoid detrimental influences. And that detrimental influence could be not only from people: it could be from television, it could be from looking at pornography on the Internet, it could be from watching violent movies, playing violent video games – all of this. It’s the type of influence that just increases your desire or your hostility

Then the three actions to adopt as a sign of respect: In terms of the Buddhas, we show respect to statues, paintings, and other artistic depictions of Buddhas. And we would show respect to all books, particularly Dharma books, in terms of Dharma direction. And respect to all persons with monastic vows, Buddhist monastic vows, and even to just the robes, the monastic robes. So, as a sign of respect, we want to avoid disrespect. So you don’t hang a beautiful Buddha painting in the toilet. You don’t sit on your Dharma books, or put them under the chair so that the chair doesn’t wobble, or under the table. And if there are Buddhist monks and nuns at our Dharma center, we don’t treat them like the servants or the ones that should provide all the facilities for us because we are the great holy practitioners and they’re the ones that have to make tea, and collect the money at the door, and clean up afterwards – which unfortunately happens at many Dharma centers. The monastics are the ones that are most interested in receiving the teachings, and they’re the ones that are not able to go to them because they have to be the administrators and organizers! Of course, this is not proper. So it’s not that we’re worshipping the statues. It’s not that we’re worshipping the books or worshipping the monks or nuns or their robes. But the whole point is to show respect: these represent the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. 

Then we have six trainings which are shared in common for all the Three Gems. Again, to just review what we’ve just covered, we want to put this safe direction in our life, so what are we doing? We are avoiding our primary direction from other things, and we are basically not causing harm to others, and we are avoiding negative influences of other people, and showing respect to symbols of the direction that we’re going in. That makes sense. It’s something that we can do as part of our daily life. 

So this has relevance in our life, doesn’t it, that we are respectful of certain things; that we keep clear what’s the most important thing in our life; and we watch out for negative influences that can turn us away, that could divert us. Also we try to find conducive conditions that will help us go in this direction. And by showing respect to Buddha paintings and Dharma books and monastics, well, that’s an external sign of showing respect; but also internally we need to show respect to what we’re doing and what we’re doing with our life. And that also is very important, because we might be in circumstances in which we can’t make an external show of our Dharma practice, let’s say if we’re in prison, or in the army, or something like that, or even in a hospital. If you’re in a ward of other people, you can’t necessarily light incense, and put up Buddha statues, and things like that. But it’s our attitude of respect for ourselves and what we’re doing. It’s very important. 

You’re staying for the weekend in a one-room dacha with your parents. Well, not so cool to do prostrations right there in front of your parents. They might think that’s pretty weird and start to ask all sorts of uncomfortable questions. So you don’t have to do that. It’s very important to be flexible according to the conditions in which we’re in, but keep our direction quite clear and our priorities clear. 

Then these trainings shared in common from all the Three Gems, according to guideline instructions. First of all, we reaffirm our safe direction by continually reminding ourselves of the good qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Now remember we were speaking earlier about how “just do it,” just go in this direction. Well, that could become a little bit mechanical, so it’s important to reaffirm motivation, and so on. So by reminding ourselves of the good qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, of going in this direction, the benefits of it, and so on, then this helps us to have some – what we would call “feeling” behind doing all of this. 

And next, in gratitude to their kindness and the spiritual sustenance, the spiritual energy and so on that they help give us, that they help provide us, to offer the first portion of our hot drinks and meals each day to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And you can put a little portion of your first tea in the morning, or something like that, out on some altar. Or it could just be in our imagination. It doesn’t matter. But if you do put something out, you don’t just leave it there to rot or, like in India, wait for the mice to come and eat it, but you offer it. Obviously, the Buddhas don’t need our little cup of tea or a piece of fruit, and they’re not going to eat it, actually, but it’s a token. So, after a little while, you imagine that they give it back to you and you eat it. And if it’s a tea offering or something like that, you don’t just flush it down the toilet. That’s not very respectful. So better to drink it yourself. 

Now, of course, the problem is what happens with your water bowls. If you have quite a large amount of water, you’re going to have to drink that every day? Well, no. Do I have to water my plants with it every day? I’d probably drown them if I used all that water every day. But at least down the sink, not down the toilet. And not like – I’m thinking of some examples in some countries in the world where they would just throw it out the window. That also wouldn’t do.

In any case, it’s not necessary to recite a special verse in a foreign language that we don’t understand. As I mentioned yesterday, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche was saying if the Tibetans had to recite a verse in German that they didn’t understand every time they made an offering or whatever, they certainly wouldn’t do that. So the important point is to make some sort of offering. We can just say, as Serkong Rinpoche used to say, “Buddhas enjoy this.” That’s all you have to say, and you don’t even have to say it out loud. “Buddhas enjoy this.” And what I usually say is “I offer this to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and all beings. May everybody enjoy such wonderful food.” And we don’t have to put on a big show – like “OM AH HUM,” and then sit there and do some sort of dedication of the food for five minutes – and everybody at the table is dying to eat and just waiting for us: “When is he going to finish already?” But you just do it in your mind. Nobody has to know what you’re doing. Let everybody do it at their own pace. 

Participant: But that’s much more impressive. 

Alex: But it’s much more impressive, of course – especially if you start in a very deep voice, “OM AH HUM.” 

So we don’t need to make a show of our Dharma practice, especially if it’s going to make other people uncomfortable, or they’re going to start making fun of us. That’s very important. You don’t want to set yourself up that other people make fun of your spiritual practice. That takes all the energy out of it. Our Dharma practice really needs to be something which is private. Then, in a sense, it becomes something sacred to us. And this is important. 

And then the third one: mindful of the compassion of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, indirectly encouraging others to go in their direction. That doesn’t mean that we go out and are missionaries and we try to save everybody and convert everybody. Certainly not. But if others are receptive, if others are interested, you know, we give them some encouragement. And the best encouragement is speaking from our own example and our own experience. “This was beneficial to me. And whether it’s going to be beneficial to you or not, I don’t know, but it helped me.” You know? So indirectly you encourage them to try it out themselves. 

Then remembering the benefits of having a safe direction, formally reaffirming it three times each day and three times each night. That’s usually when we wake up in the morning and before we go to sleep. Just repeating – we’re not just repeating the words – but I take my safe direction from the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. So just reminding ourselves of this direction very explicitly. And often this is done with making prostrations three times, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be done that way. 

Fifth one: whatever happens, relying on our safe direction. So, in terms of crisis and so on, this is what we’re going to rely on. Not just “Buddha save me from this,” but “What would the Buddhist advice be for how to handle this?” and try to implement that. Friends may give us sympathy and help, and they may help with mechanical things – like I’m having problems with my computer or with my car – but with personal problems in life, and so on, then friends are limited. They have problems of their own. And, unfortunately, friends inevitably let us down, which is – disappoint us, that means. That we have great hopes that they’re going to help us, but we lose sight of the fact that we are not the only thing that is happening in their life, and that why should we be the most important thing that they devote all their time and energy to? That’s very self-centered, isn’t it? So, inevitably, they’re going to let us down. They have other things to do; they have other concerns; they have other problems. 

And our teachers may be busy; might not have time. They might be off in some other country, or whatever. But the inspiration of the teachers is always available. The teachings themselves, something that we can apply, are always available, so that’s not going to disappoint us. If we actually are receptive to that inspiration, we actually try to put those methods into practice. 

And the final commitment is never giving up this direction in life, no matter what happens. The nature of samsara, the nature of life, is that it goes up and down. So you look at the experience of some of these great Tibetan Buddhist masters in Tibet. They’ve been such strong practitioners all their life and then they end up in a Chinese concentration camp for twenty years. So it could be quite possible that they just give up. “My Dharma practice was useless. Look what happened to me. I practiced so much in my life and then I contracted a horrible painful cancer at the end of my life.” But, as one Tibetan master said very succinctly, what do we expect from samsara? We expect that everything is going to go well? That things are going to get better? I mean, the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. And sometimes it’s going to go down, and sometimes we’re going to experience very unpleasant things, regardless of the positive things that we’ve been doing before. And so we try to not get discouraged by that and, no matter what happens, continue going in this positive direction. 

Sometimes the Tibetans love to use examples from the animal world. And Serkong Rinpoche always loved to go to the circus or to these aquariums where they have trained dolphins or seals or things like that. And so when we do our Dharma practice and we do something positive, do we expect that we’re going to be like a trained seal or a trained dolphin, and the Buddha’s going to throw us a fish every time that we do something positive, and we get a reward for it? Obviously this is not the way that we’re trained. In order for things to go well, as the result – a so-called fish that we get to eat? So that gives us something to think about. Are we just doing our Dharma practice, in a sense, like a trick? Like a trained animal, to get a reward? Or are we doing it to basically improve our lives? And whether we get things going well or they don’t go well, we are convinced that, in the long term, things will go better. 

So these are the various points that we train in. And I think they give us quite a clear indication of the practical application of having this direction in life – what we’re actually going to be doing each day, and the guidelines that will pertain to each day, in terms of having this direction in our life. It’s not just being a nice person, but studying the teachings, learning them, showing respect to our spiritual path, to others who are following it, etc. etc. – all these points. 

So let’s end with a dedication for today, and tomorrow we’ll speak about karma. So we think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has been built up by this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all.