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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Identifying the Objects of Safe Direction (Refuge)

Identifying the Objects of Safe Direction (Refuge)

Alexander Berzin
December 1998, revised April 2002


Taking a safe direction in life (skyabs-'gro, taking refuge) is an active process, not a passive one of seeking protection from higher powers, as the term taking refuge might imply. By striving in this direction, we protect ourselves from fear and suffering.

To put a safe direction in life, we need to identify correctly the objects that indicate that safe direction (skyabs-yul). These are the Three Rare and Supreme Gems (dkon-mchog gsum), usually called the Three Jewels of Refuge, the Triple Gem, or the Three Precious Gems. They are the Buddhas (sangs-rgyas, clear evolved ones), the Dharma (chos, preventive measures), and the Sangha (dge-'dun, intent community or network).

Although there are several formulations of the Triple Gem, the sutra traditions of all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism follow the Mahayana presentation of them found in the texts of Maitreya, the future Buddha.

Apparent and Deepest Level Rare and Supreme Gems

According to the tradition based on Maitreya's Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamaya-alamkara), each of the Three Gems has an apparent (kun-rdzob-pa'i dkon-mchog, superficial) and a deepest (don-dam-pa'i dkon-mchog, ultimate) level. The apparent level gems conceal the deepest level ones. The presentation accords with the definitions of the Three Gems that Maitreya gave in another of his texts, The Furthest Everlasting Continuum (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra). Except for the apparent level Dharma Gem, all the others fulfill these definitions.

Let us look at the explanation of the two-level Gems by the seventeenth-century Gelug master Jetsun Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) in The Ocean Playground of the Fortunate Naga King: The General Meaning of the First Chapter [of "A Filigree of Realizations"] (sKal-bzang klu-dbang-gi rol-mtsho zhe-bya-ba-las skabs-dang-po'i spyi-don).


  1. The apparent Buddha Gem is a Buddha's rupakaya (gzugs-sku, bodies with form, corpus of enlightening forms, Form Body). This network of bodies with form include both sambhogakaya (longs-sku, bodies of full use, corpus of full use, Enjoyment Body) and nirmanakaya (sprul-sku, bodies of emanations, corpus of emanations, Emanation Body). The former teach arya (' phags-pa, highly realized) bodhisattvas, who have nonconceptual cognition of voidness, while the latter are emanations of the former and teach ordinary beings with the fortune to meet them. 
  2. The deepest Buddha Gem is a Buddha's dharmakaya (chos-sku, bodies encompassing everything, corpus encompassing everything, Truth Body). This network of bodies encompassing everything includes both a jnana-dharmakaya (ye-shes chos-sku, body of deep awareness encompassing everything, corpus of deepest awareness of everything, Wisdom Truth Body) and a svabhavakaya (ngo-bo-nyid sku, essential nature body, corpus of essential nature, Nature Body). The former refers to a Buddha's enlightening mind, which has the full network of all true pathway minds (lam-bden, true paths) that have brought about the elimination forever of all suffering and its causes, and of all mental obscuration. The latter refers to the voidness of a Buddha's omniscient mind and is equivalent to the network of its true stoppings (' gog-bden, true cessations) of the two sets of obscuration. The two are the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) – obscurations that are disturbing emotions and attitudes, and which prevent liberation – and the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) – obscurations regarding all knowables, and which prevent omniscience.


  1. The apparent Dharma Gem is the twelve textual categories of teachings proclaimed by a Buddha's enlightening speech.
  2. The deepest Dharma Gem is the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuum of an arya, whether a layperson or a monastic.


  1. The apparent Sangha Gem is the individual person of any arya, whether lay or monastic.
  2. The deepest Sangha Gem is the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuum of an arya.

Variant Presentation

The tradition based on Maitreya's Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras (mDo-sde rgyan, Mahayana-sutra-alamkara) presents an apparent and deepest level for only the Buddha Gem. It presents the deepest Dharma Gem as Maitreya does in Filigree of Realizations, but presents that text's apparent Sangha Gem as the deepest level Sangha Gem.

The Deepest Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha Gems Share the Same Essential Nature

The deepest Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha Gems, as formulated in Filigree of Realizations, share the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig), but are different conceptually isolated items (ldog-pa tha-dad). They each refer to the same aspect of a phenomenon, namely the true stoppings and true pathway minds on a mental continuum. They can be conceptually isolated and differentiated from each other since they describe this aspect of a mental continuum from different points of view.

[See: Relationships between Two Objects in General.]

Consider the case of the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuum of a Buddha. As guides that are the sources of inspiration (byin-rlabs, blessings), they are the deepest Buddha Gem. As preventive measures that are the sources of actual attainments (dngos-grub, Skt. siddhi), they constitute the deepest Dharma Gem. As a network that brings enlightening influence (' phrin-las, Buddha-activity, virtuous conduct), they function as the deepest Sangha Gem. Like a nurse, they bring us support and help while on the path.

Ultimate and Provisional Sources of Safe Direction

The deepest Dharma and deepest Sangha Gems include the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of all aryas – from those with seeing pathway minds (paths of seeing) to those with an attainment of liberation as an arhat or of enlightenment as a Buddha. With the attainment of nonconceptual cognition of the four noble truths and thus seeing pathway minds, aryas begin to have true stoppings and true pathway minds on their mental continuums. They achieve the full networks of both only with the attainment of Buddhahood.

Thus, only Buddhas are the ultimate sources of safe direction (mthar-thug-gi skyabs-gnas), because only Buddhas have realized the full networks of true stoppings and true pathway minds. Only Buddhas have rid themselves forever of the two sets of obscuration. Aryas with attainments less than those of a Buddha, then, are only provisional sources of safe direction (gnas-skabs-kyi skyabs-gnas). They cannot provide safe direction all the way to enlightenment because they have not yet achieved enlightenment themselves. This is the meaning of Maitreya's statement in The Furthest Everlasting Continuum that, in terms of the deepest level Gems, only Buddhas are the deepest source of safe direction.

Another reason behind Maitreya's statement is that the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of aryas who have not yet achieved enlightenment are examples of only deepest level Dharma and Sangha Gems. They are not deepest level Buddha Gems. Only the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of Buddhas serve as all Three Gems. Therefore, only Buddhas are the ultimate sources of safe direction.

Formulated in another way, Buddhas are primary because they are the source of safe direction all the way to enlightenment and are the endpoint of the Sangha. They became Buddhas because of Dharma, through the stages of being Sangha.

Causal and Resultant Sources of Safe Direction

Taking safe direction in life from the apparent and deepest level Triple Gem is the mere taking of safe direction (skyab-'gro tsam-pa-ba). It is also called causal taking of safe direction (rgyu'i skyabs-'gro), since the sources of safe direction are the persons or phenomena that act as causes for our own attainments of the Three Gems.

The special taking of safe direction (skyabs-'gro khyad-par-ba), also called resultant taking of safe direction (' bras-bu'i skyabs-'gro), takes as its sources of safe direction the Triple Gem that we will attain in the future, based on actualizing our Buddha-natures.

Consequently, when we offer prostration to the Triple Gem, with both the mere and special taking of safe direction, we show respect not only to those who have become aryas, arhats, and Buddha themselves, and to their attainments, but also to ourselves and to our own future achievements of the same.

Nominal Gems

Each of the Three Rare and Supreme Gems has a representation, which is merely a nominal gem (brdar-btags-pa'i dkon-mchog), but not an actual source of safe direction. Since actual Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha Gems are not readily available as objects that we can encounter, representations of them serve as focuses for showing respect.

  1. The nominal Buddha Gem includes paintings and statues of Buddhas.
  2. The nominal Dharma Gem includes printed Dharma texts from the twelve categories of teachings.
  3. The nominal Sangha Gem refers to an assembly of four or more fully ordained monks (dge-slong, Skt. bhikshu) or fully ordained nuns (dge-slong-ma, Skt. bhikshuni), with purely kept vows and on the level of from an ordinary being (so-skye) (someone who is not yet an arya) on upwards.

Since nominal Gems are not actual Gems, the practice of Buddhism does not entail the worship of idols, books, or monks and nuns.

The modern Western usage of the term sangha for the members of a Dharma center or organization, as if it were an equivalent term for the congregation of a church, is a nontraditional use of the term. If members of the monastic community include emotionally disturbed and even unethical persons who are neither qualified nor reliable to serve as actual sources of safe direction, how much less so are the wide variety of members of a Dharma center.

Causes for Putting a Safe Direction in Life

In general, the two causes for taking the safe direction in life indicated by the Triple Gem are dread (' jigs-pa) and believing a fact to be true (dad-pa).


Dread, in this context, is a state of mind focused on the first two noble truths (true facts of life) – true problems (true suffering) and their true causes. Often misleadingly translated as "fear," it is not a disturbing emotion. With fear, we inflate the negative aspects of suffering and its causes and project truly established existence (bden-grub, true existence) onto them and onto ourselves. We then feel that the truly existent objects of our fear will overwhelm the truly existent "us," and although we wish to be free of the objects of our fear, we feel helpless to do so.

Dread, on the other hand, regards true suffering and its true causes objectively, without inflating them or projecting onto them or onto ourselves truly established existence. With dread, we deeply wish not to continue experiencing the objects of our dread. It does not imply, however, feeling helpless; although, in this case, we acknowledge that we need help. Rather, it leads to renunciation (nges-'byung), the determination to be free from true problems and their true causes.

[See: Renunciation - The Determination to Be Free.]

The scope of our understanding of the first two noble truths expands as we progress through the three levels of lam-rim (graded) motivation. On the initial level, true problems include rebirth in one of the worse realms and the experience of gross suffering; the true cause is acting destructively, based on unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. On the intermediate level, true problems include any uncontrollable recurring samsaric rebirth and all forms of suffering experienced therein; the true causes are the emotional obscurations that prevent liberation. On the advanced level, true problems include the inability to lead others to liberation most effectively; true causes are the cognitive obscurations that prevent omniscience. On this highest level, an additional cause for taking safe direction is compassion – the wish for others to be free from true problems and their true causes.

Believing a Fact to Be True

The second cause for taking in life the safe direction of the Triple Gem is believing as true the fact that the Three Rare and Supreme Gems have the ability to help us free ourselves from true problems and their true causes. In other words, we need to believe as true the fact that the deepest Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha Gems – the third and fourth noble truths (true stoppings and true pathway minds that bring the attainment) – have the ability to remove the first two noble truths forever. Moreover, we need to understand this fact on two levels.

On the level of causal taking of safe direction, the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of aryas, arhats, and Buddhas show us the way. Putting their direction in our lives, we gain inspiration, actual attainments, and nurture from their enlightening influence all along the path. What actually eliminate our true problems and their true causes, however, are our own attainments of true stoppings and true pathway minds – our future attainments of Triple Gems ourselves. With resultant taking of safe direction, then, we work toward that goal.

Believing a fact to be true – in this case, that the second two noble truths eliminate forever the first two noble truths – is not blind faith. When properly developed, it has three aspects.

  1. Believing a fact to be true based on reason (yid-ches-kyi dad-pa). For a stable taking of safe direction, we need a deep understanding of the four noble truths and of the reasons why the last two truths eliminate forever the first two truths.
  2. Clearheadedly believing a fact to be true (dangs-ba'i dad-pa) clears the mind of disturbing emotions and attitudes. When we correctly understand the four noble truths, our belief in their facticity clears our minds of hopelessness and despair. The further we strive in this safe direction and begin to achieve the Triple Gem ourselves, we gradually clear our minds of all disturbing emotions and attitudes forever.
  3. Believing a fact with an aspiration toward it (mngon-'dod-kyi dad-pa). When we understand not only the four noble truths, but also our Buddha-natures that enable us to achieve resultant Triple Gems ourselves, we naturally aspire to put this safe direction in our lives, based on belief that we are able to reach this goal. As with the two stages of bodhichitta (the aspiring and the involved stages), we not only aspire to go in this direction, but we actively put this safe direction in our lives.