Reaffirming Safe Direction and Bodhichitta


In outlining this third of the six preparatory practices, the texts say first you do prostration, then you sit down, then you clear the mind by focusing on the breath, and only then do you reaffirm your motivation of refuge (safe direction) and bodhichitta. But from my experience, I’ve found that when people, before a teaching or before meditation, just do prostration without anything before that and then sit down, the prostration is quite mechanical. So because it says to sit down first and then focus on the breath and then the refuge and bodhichitta, I think that this indicates that you also would need to reaffirm your motivation before that initial prostration; otherwise you have no motivation.

The whole point of focusing on the breath is to get your mind in a neutral state – what’s called unspecified (it’s not specified by Buddha to be either constructive or destructive) – and on that basis, then you can generate a positive state of mind. If you just try to generate a positive state of mind on the basis of starting with your mind all jumbled with the busyness of the day or of the traffic of getting here, and so on, then it’s very difficult. So first a neutral state, which is attained through just focusing on the breath, and then the positive motivation. Therefore, in the manner in which I teach, I have added this preliminary or preparatory step of focusing on the breath and setting the motivation before doing the initial prostration and sitting down. One can repeat it again, of course, in the proper order. I think there’s no fault in doing it twice.

What we want to try to avoid is having our practice become mechanical, and that is very, very, very easy to have – a mechanical type of practice in which there’s very little feeling. You just sort of rush through it because you feel – for whatever reason – obligated to do it, you would feel guilty if you didn’t do it, or it becomes such a strong habit it’s like brushing your teeth and you wouldn’t think not to do it but nevertheless there’s no feeling in it. Once your practice becomes mechanical and you’ve built up a habit of doing mechanical type of practice, it’s very hard to break that habit.

So if you’re just starting out, try to be careful not to establish a habit of doing mechanical practice with no feeling behind it. Because it’s very easy to get into that habit. Why? Because our lives are very busy. We don’t have very much time. You have to get ready in the morning and go to work or take care of the kids. You want to get through the practice, and even though you have this very strong intention that you’re always going to do the practice every day, the tendency is that you want to rush through it and get it finished as quickly as possible because there are so many other things you have to do during the day. This is the reality that we have to deal with. This is why it’s important to be able to generate the motivation, the intention, the feeling, etc., instantly, although that, of course, can only come after a great deal of familiarity and meditation. Although we reaffirm our motivation, our motivation needs to be there all the time on some sort of an almost unconscious level. So before making prostration and sitting down, we visualize in front of us an object for refuge and then we take safe direction and reaffirm our bodhichitta motivation.

Safe Direction (Refuge)

Although this is not the occasion to explain in length refuge and bodhichitta, but these are not to be trivialized. I prefer the term safe direction rather than refuge because it’s a little bit more active. Refuge is quite a passive word, at least in English. It’s not that we are just passive and “O Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, save me!” But rather we protect ourselves by going in the direction of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – the Three Gems – the direction that they indicate.

There are many different levels of these three rare and precious gems (dkon-mchog gsum). This is the way that the Tibetans translate jewel – rare (dkon) and supreme (mchog). So that’s the connotation. The deepest level of the Dharma Gem, or the Dharma Jewel, is the third and fourth noble truths, to put it very simply. This is talking about true stopping of suffering and its causes. And when we talk about the true path, it’s not something that you walk on; it’s a state of mind – an understanding, a deep awareness – that will act as a path to lead us to the goal. So we’re talking about the understandings that will bring about the true stoppings and the level of understanding or mind that is the resultant level once the true stoppings have been attained.

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

  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentions in his Praise to the Seventeen Nalanda Pandits: if you understand the two truths – deepest truth and conventional truth of things – then you’ll be able to understand the four noble truths, and if you understand the four noble truths, you’ll be able to understand the Three Gems.
  • Another way of approaching it is as in The Inseparability of Avalokiteshvara and the Spiritual Master – the understanding of the four Buddha-bodies will give us a firmer sense of this refuge, this safe direction.
  • Or we could approach this from gaining conviction in the possibility of true stopping and the true paths from the point of view of mahamudra or dzogchen, the natural pure nature of the mind.

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

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

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

Visualizing the Three Gems

For taking refuge, we need to visualize in front of us something that represents this direction that we want to go in. This can be an extremely extensive visualization, but there’s also the tradition called the “All-Inclusive Gem” tradition, in which you visualize only Shakyamuni Buddha, whom you see is inseparable from the spiritual teacher. He is seated on a throne atop a lotus, moon and sun disk, which represent renunciation, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness. The body of the Buddha represents the Sangha, ,the speech is the Dharma, and the mind is the Buddha.

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


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

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

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

Safe direction is for these three possible goals.

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

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

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

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

We are not aiming, however, to achieve the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni nor enlightenment in general, but it is our own individual enlightenments that we are aiming to achieve. But that enlightenment has not yet happened, but it can happen on the basis of the natural purity of the mind, the voidness of the mind – that it’s possible to attain the true stoppings of suffering and its causes – and the so-called two networks (the two collections) of positive force and deep awareness. If we are convinced that the goal is attainable in terms of the natural purity of the mind and so on, then the various Buddha-nature factors will be causes in relation to that. A cause, after all, can only be a cause in relation to the possibility of there being an effect).

Actually the deeper that you think, aside from the whole emotional side of compassion, love, and so on, the bodhichitta aim requires a tremendous amount of understanding – based on this safe direction of the true stopping and the true pathway leading to it being possible – understanding cause and effect and the voidness of cause and effect in terms of how the various factors on my own mental continuum can act as causes for bringing that about. This becomes a very deep, profound topic, which we unfortunately don’t have time to go into. But when we speak in terms of bodhichitta, the conventional bodhichitta and the deepest bodhichitta, the deepest one is the understanding of voidness. Really that is very important to have in order for the conventional bodhichitta aiming for our individual enlightenments to be firm.

Now, the guru and Buddha in front of us, inseparable from each other, represent that aim of what we are striving for. This is very interesting. You have this comment from Gampopa: “When I realized the inseparability of my own mind and the spiritual teacher and Buddha, then I understood mahamudra.”

After reaffirming our safe direction and bodhichitta aim, then from Serkong Rinpoche’s instructions, we can do one of the following:

  • We can imagine that a duplicate of Buddha Shakyamuni dissolves into us.
  • We transform into a Shakyamuni Buddha with a HUM in our heart.
  • We send out various rays of light, and this purifies and transforms and brings all beings to a state of Buddhahood, and they all transform into Shakyamuni (so we imagine them all in the form of Shakyamuni Buddha).

Then we realize, we understand, that this is just a visualization: they’re not yet enlightened (neither are we, for that matter). So why aren’t they enlightened? Because they don’t have equanimity, to start with. So this leads, in a logical progression, to the meditation on the four immeasurables:

1. Immeasurable equanimity – “How wonderful it would be if they had equanimity. May they have equanimity. I will definitely bring it to them. Inspire me, O Buddhas, to bring that about.

2. Immeasurable love – “May they all be happy and have the causes of happiness.”

3. Immeasurable compassion – “May they all be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.”

4. Immeasurable joy – not just the usual types of sufferings and happiness, but “May they attain the bliss of enlightenment and never be parted from that.”

And then the more usual instructions that you find – and then following from that, the next step:

  • The visualized Buddha in front of us gets smaller and smaller and enters between our brows and disappears like melted butter. That’s a less tantric flavor of practice.
  • The alternative visualization is that the Buddha raises up, and when we visualize the bountiful field in the next step, the Buddha comes back down and merges with it.

So there are two variants.