Refuge: A Safe and Meaningful Direction in Life

Taking refuge is the foundation for all the Buddhist teachings and practices. It’s called “the gateway for entering the Buddhist path.” When we understand that taking refuge means working on ourselves, then we see that it is an active process of putting a safe and meaningful direction in our lives. We work on ourselves by following the methods Buddha taught for ridding ourselves of confusion, disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior and for developing all good qualities. This is what all the Buddhas have done and the highly realized masters are doing, and what we try to do by following in their footsteps.

Dispelling Confusion about the Purpose of Buddhist Practice in Our Lives

I’ve been asked to speak about the relevance of refuge in daily life. This brought to mind 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. There weren’t really qualified teachers. In fact, there weren’t any teachers around who could really explain things more clearly. Although there were a number of texts that were translated, obviously not many people could read and there weren’t many copies. Even if they could read, it was very difficult to find any clarification of what they were reading.

To help with this situation, one of the kings in Western Tibet sent some very brave students to India to invite a great Buddhist master to return with them to Tibet. They had to travel by foot, learn the languages, and deal with the climate. 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. What he taught for the many years he was there 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.

Atisha’s example is quite relevant nowadays. These days too, there’s a lot of confusion about Buddhism and what its practice means on a daily level. Again, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about tantra and other advanced teachings. People jump to these practices with little or no foundation in the basic Buddhist teachings. They imagine that performing a somewhat magical ritual is what it means to practice Buddhism. By trivializing the relevance and importance of refuge, and the difference it makes in our daily lives, they are missing the point.

No matter what our situation in life may be, Buddhist practice is intended for working on ourselves, trying to improve ourselves to become a better person. It’s not something that we just do just on the side, like a hobby or a sport, for maybe a half hour every day, or once a week after work for a short session when we’re very tired. Rather, it’s something practical that we try to do all the time – always working on ourselves. This means to recognize both our shortcomings and our good qualities, and then to learn methods to weaken the force of the former and strengthen the latter. The aim is eventually to rid ourselves of all shortcomings and realize all good qualities in full. This is not just for our own benefit, although certainly we would benefit from that in terms of being happier in life. This is also for being more effective in helping others, and thereby for the benefit of others as well. This is what Buddhist practice is all about. What makes it distinctly Buddhist are the methods involved for being able to accomplish these goals, and refuge means we turn to those methods and adopt them in our lives.

Refuge Isn’t Passive

Refuge in the Three Precious Gems – the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha – is central to all the Buddhist teachings. In fact, taking refuge is singled out as the dividing line between being a Buddhist or not. Briefly put, the Dharma signifies the methods for working on ourselves and the goal we can all achieve; the Buddhas are those who have taught these methods and attained that goal in full; and the Sangha are those who have attained it in part. The word “Dharma,” in fact, means “preventive measures” – steps we take to prevent creating problems for ourselves and possibly also for others. They are steps we take to protect ourselves.

Although the original Sanskrit term usually translated as “refuge,” sharana, means “protection” and can even be used for “shelter,” we need to understand it correctly. The connotation fits with the meaning of Dharma. It is not that we just need to passively surrender ourselves to some external source that will give us protection. In the Buddhist context, “taking refuge” is very active; we need to do something to protect ourselves.

Consider the following example that my teachers often used. Suppose it’s raining and there’s a cave nearby. If we just said, “I take refuge in this cave; I’m going to go to the cave for shelter,” and then just stood outside in the rain and keep on repeating this phrase, it’s not going to help. We have to actually go inside the cave. Likewise, if we just say, “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and go to them for shelter,” but don’t actually go in their direction and put them in our lives, it also won't help. We need to implement what they represent, so as to shelter ourselves from problems. That’s why I use the terminology “safe direction” and “putting a safe direction in our lives.”

To continue the image of the cave, it’s not enough to just go inside the cave and then stand there hoping that merely being inside is somehow going to save us from all our problems in life, not just save us from getting wet. The point is that we need to continually work on ourselves to try to approach the ideal that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha signify. When we think that it’s enough to come under the shelter of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, then it’s very easy to mix this with a Christian idea of a personal savior and that Buddha is somehow going to save us. In that case, Buddha is like God and the Sangha are like saints. After all, most Western societies have some underlying current of Christian influences. With such thinking, we pray that somehow some transcendent power is miraculously going to save us. To use the Buddhist terminology, it would be to miraculously liberate us from all our problems and suffering.

If this were the case, all we’d have to do is get a Buddhist name in Tibetan, wear a red string, recite some magic words of a mantra, pray hard, and somehow we’d be saved. Especially if we’re reciting the prayers and practices in Tibetan, of which we don’t understand one word, then we might think it has even greater mystical power. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, a very great lama, was recently in Berlin, where I live. What he said was really very profound. He said if Tibetans had to recite all their practices in German, transliterated with Tibetan letters, and they had absolutely no idea about anything that they were saying, he wondered how many Tibetans would actually practice Buddhism. Of course, everybody laughed. But if we think about it, that’s really quite profound, isn’t it? It’s very important to overcome any tendency that we might have to look at refuge in terms of offering us some sort of magical, mystical solution to all our problems, and that all we need to do is, in a sense, surrender to a greater power.

The real issue that’s involved here is: “What am I doing with my life?” “Is my life going anywhere?” Many of us may have come to the realization that our life is going nowhere; it just seems to be going around in a circle. We don’t have to talk about a deeper circle in terms of rebirth, and all of that, but just our daily life seems to be going nowhere, and seems pointless. Why are we actually alive? Feeling like that is a very sad state, isn’t it? It’s not a very happy state. We need, therefore, to have some meaningful direction in our life, some sort of purpose or an aim. And that’s something we need to put in our lives ourselves. It’s an active process. With some meaningful purpose or aim in our life, then somehow we know what we’re doing. It makes us feel a bit more secure, a bit safer, doesn’t it?

Having a Meaningful Aim in Life

What kind of aim could we put in our lives? Usually we define that aim in terms of the unsatisfactory situation that we’re currently in and somehow want get out of by putting this goal in our life. On the most fundamental level, we could say that everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. That’s sort of a given axiom in Buddhism, and there’s some biological truth in that. We want to avoid pain. We want to avoid suffering. We want to avoid difficulty. Even insects and worms want that, don’t they? That’s our goal.

The question is what amount of suffering or dissatisfaction are we looking at? Will the goal that we’re aiming for not only take care of that problem, but all the other problems that we have as well? For example, our problem could be that we’re poor, in economic difficulty, and so our goal is to find a good job and make a lot of money. If not a good job, then maybe become a good criminal and get rich quick. No matter what, somehow make a lot of money. But, if we investigate people who have a lot of money and speak with them sincerely and they speak honestly about their lives, we find these people aren’t necessarily 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 people who, let’s say, had a billion dollars, but due to the present economic difficulties in the world, now have only half a billion dollars. They no longer will give any donations or participate in any type of philanthropic work, because now they only have half a billion and they feel insecure. They feel that they have to save it, and somehow get back to a billion before they can share their wealth with anybody. Then they’re always looking at the stock market reports and always worrying every day about maybe they’re going to lose a fraction more of the money that they have. They might also have to hire private guards and other security methods like that, because they’re afraid that people are going to steal things from their house or kidnap their children. This is common with the wealthy in Latin America. In addition, they never really feel that people are friendly with them for any reason other than to try to get their money. They always suspect that anybody that’s nice to them is just after their money. Obviously, although they might not have the problem of being poor, there certainly are other problems that come with having a lot of money.

Worldly Goals Have an Unstable Basis

There are many other so-called “worldly goals” mentioned in Buddhism besides a lot of money. The word “worldly,” however, has a negative connotation in English and seems almost judgmental. That’s not the point. My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, explained that the two syllables of the Tibetan word translated as “worldly” – jig-ten – reveal the actual connotation. They imply something with a basis (ten) that is going to fall apart (jig). If we’re aiming for a goal that will crumble, then obviously it can’t bring us lasting happiness. It’s just going to bring more problems, because it has no firm foundation.

For example, suppose our goal in life is to have a wonderful family, to raise a lot of children, assuming that they will take care of us in our old age, and we’ll be so happy and secure. Well, that doesn’t always work out so ideally, does it? Another example is to strive to be famous. The more famous we might become, the more people bother us and try to take our time. We can look at movie stars who 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.

If we looked seriously at our lives, then just having some sort of comfortable material situation or an emotionally comfortable arrangement with those around us is not really going deeply enough in terms of helping us to overcome all our problems in life. This is because when we still have anger, attachment, greed, jealousy, arrogance, naivety and all these sorts of things, then we’re still going to have problems, no matter how successful we are on the so-called “worldly” level.

Disturbing Emotions

Buddhism speaks in terms of future lives and discusses all the suffering and horrible things that could happen to us in future lives when we have what are called “disturbing emotions” and we act compulsively on the basis of them and build up negative potential. The Buddhist presentation makes it clear that this is awful and must be avoided if we know what's good for us, because negative potential brings on problems and unhappiness.

But, as most Westerners don’t believe in future lives or are not convinced of them, we can discuss this point even in terms of just this lifetime. Looking at our own lives now, if we investigate deeply, we discover that the real source of our emotional problems are internal. External factors are just the circumstances that trigger them. It is, in fact, our disturbing emotions – our anger, attachment, greed and so on – that are robbing us of peace of mind and happiness. They are what are preventing us from using whatever good qualities we have. We may try to help somebody, and that’s a good quality, but then we get angry with them. We try to give them good advice, but they don’t take it or they argue with us and we lose our patience. These disturbing emotions prevent us from really helping anybody.

This is especially difficult when it’s happening with our children, when we’re losing our patience and getting angry with them when we think we know what’s best for them and they’re not doing what we tell them to do. This creates a very difficult relationship with our children, doesn’t it? The point is to realize that if we don’t do something about it, it’s just going to get worse and worse. Maybe we might become a little bit mellower as we get older because we don’t have as much energy, but that doesn’t mean that our anger and these sorts of things go away by themselves. They don’t wear out.

The term that is used in Buddhism for what we need to develop in relation to these prospects is “fear.” But “fear” is a difficult word in most of our languages. It doesn’t have a good reputation. Sometimes I prefer the word “dread,” but it’s not so easy to translate into other languages. “Dread” has more the connotation of “I really don’t want this to happen.” For example, we have to go to a really boring meeting at work. It’s not that we’re afraid of the meeting, but we dread going to it. We really don’t want to do it.

But, to be more precise, we need to differentiate two types of fear, whether we’re talking about fear of horrible future rebirth, or fear of miserable old age, or a fear of anything. There is the fear with which we don’t see any way out, and we feel helpless and hopeless. That leaves us pretty much paralyzed, doesn’t it? I think that is an unhealthy type of fear, although often we experience it. But the type of fear that’s discussed in the context of refuge is quite a different flavor of fear, because we see that there is a way to avoid the problems. Therefore, it’s not hopeless, and we’re not helpless at all. But, as I said earlier, it’s not that there’s going to be some transcendental power or being that is going to save us from our fearful situation, and all we have to do is pray hard enough and we’ll be liberated and saved from our fear.

The point is that we can, in a sense, protect ourselves. What is it that will enable us to avoid all the problems that we face in life? What makes it possible? In the largest context, it’s the fact that all these disturbing emotions that cause problems – our anger, greed, attachment, etc. – all stem from confusion about reality. All of these disturbing emotions are actually not an innate feature of the mind. They can be removed forever, so that they never recur. The Dharma Gem indicates that they can be “truly stopped.”

The Mind or Mental Activity

When we talk about mind in Buddhism, without going into it in great detail, we’re speaking about mental activity. It’s the individual, moment-to-moment mental activity that takes place even when we’re asleep. Mind refers to the subjective experiential aspect of that mental activity, while brain science describes its physiological basis. In either case, the basic nature of that mental activity is not something that necessarily has to have confusion with it, or anger, or any of these things. Basically what’s going on in each moment is that there’s some arising of what we can describe as a mental hologram. For instance, from a physical point of view, photons come into the eyes and are translated into some sort of electrical impulse that goes to the brain through neurotransmitters, and the brain somehow makes an internal hologram out of it. That’s called “seeing” something, isn’t it? Of course, this is going to be very different if this is happening through the cells of a human eye as opposed to the cells of a spider’s eye or a fly’s eye. Likewise, through a similar process involving the vibrations we call “sound waves,” we experience hearing. Mental holograms can be of any sense or even just of thought.

In terms of seeing, the process is not the same as photons coming into a camera and getting translated into some electric impulses and then making a picture. It’s not the same as that because the arising of a mental hologram of something is also some sort of “cognitive involvement” with it. Either you are conscious or unconscious, aware or unaware of something, but still it’s some sort of cognitive feature.

Mental activity is also not the same as what a computer has. We press these little keys and some electric impulse goes into the machine, and the machine somehow translates this input into an image that arises on a screen or a sound on a speaker. We could say the computer has, in a sense, some cognitive awareness, because with artificial intelligence it processes information. But, a computer is not quite the same as a living being. What differentiates us from a computer is that, in addition, we experience some level of happiness or unhappiness associated with our mental activity. A computer doesn’t. A computer doesn’t feel happy or unhappy about anything. It’s not thinking, “O dear, I just had an internal error, and when I rebooted, I deleted the file I was working on” and feels unhappy about that. It’s not like that, is it? On the other hand, we could get very unhappy when something like that happens.

This moment to moment mental activity is what’s going on every single instant of our lives. There is some sort of arising of a mental hologram, some sort of mental involvement with it, and some feeling of a level of happiness or unhappiness. Even when we’re asleep, the hologram can be of darkness and the involvement is that we’re unaware. But, there’s still a little bit of awareness, otherwise we would never hear the alarm clock. It’s not completely shut off. There’s some sort of feeling, even a neutral feeling, neither happy nor unhappy, when we aren’t dreaming. If we’re having a dream, then obviously some feeling of happy or unhappy could be there, along with anger, greed, and all these things. But, these disturbing emotions are 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 the basic purity of our mental activity. This is not really the occasion for that. But, the more we think about it, the more we will become convinced that it is possible to get rid of all the disturbing content of our mental activity.

The definition of a disturbing emotion, after all, is something that, when it arises, causes us to lose our peace of mind and to lose self-control. Consequently, we act compulsively in all sorts of disturbing ways based on anger, greed, and so on, and that just creates lots of problems. For instance, we lose self-control and yell at somebody saying things without really thinking and later we really regret what we said. Nevertheless, it builds up so-called “negative potential” to feel unhappy later on.

If we really want to avoid future problems on a deeper level, we need to get rid of all these disturbing emotions and confusion. It is actually possible to get rid of them because they are not part of the innate nature of the mind, this mental activity. In addition, if we think more about this type of mental activity that we have every moment, one of the fantastic features is that it is possible for that mental activity to understand things. We can understand something. We can also have other positive qualities, like love and compassion, and so on. These positive qualities are things that can be developed more and more.

Now what’s the difference? The disturbing aspects are based on confusion. Positive aspects such as understanding are based on what’s reality. To give a very simple example: Confusion could be thinking, “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. Therefore, when we are not the center of attention and if we don’t get our way, we get angry. Like a dog, we either bark or growl at somebody. “You didn’t do it the way that I want it to be done.” That’s all based on confusion. The reality is that we’re all here and we all are equal. Everybody wants to get their own way, but that’s not possible. The reality is that we somehow have to learn to live with everybody.

True Stoppings

The more that we investigate, the more we see that our confusion just doesn’t hold up. It’s false. On the other hand, correct understanding is something verifiable. It’s true. Because of that, understanding is stronger and can outweigh confusion. If, with concentration and discipline, we could have correct understanding of reality all the time, then confusion would never have the opportunity to arise again. It would be finished.

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? That goal is to achieve a “true stopping” of all this confusion, to get rid of it completely so that it never arises again. This confusion is the real cause of our problems, whether we talk about it in this lifetime or in future lifetimes. 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. Bereft of confusion, we no longer have disturbing emotions and no longer create problems and suffering for ourselves.

There are two aspects involved. One is that we can get rid of all this disturbing side forever, and the other aspect is that we can increase and develop the positive side. The positive side is correct understanding. We can put this in the context of what’s usually translated as the “Four Noble Truths,” or the main theme or structure of what Buddha taught. The first truth is that we have true suffering, referring to all the many different problems that we have. Next, there are true causes, and this is our confusion. The third is that it’s possible to achieve a true stopping of all of this so that it never rises again. Lastly, we achieve that true stopping through what’s called a “true path.” But, with the use of this word “path,” we need to understand it as “a way of understanding that acts as a path.” It’s the understanding that will bring about this true stopping, and the understanding that will result from getting rid of all the disturbing components.

Clearly, this is the direction that we want to put in our life – the direction of attaining true stoppings and true pathway minds. This is the Dharma Refuge. When we say we are working on ourselves, when we use that terminology it is referring to this.

We’re trying more and more to get rid of this disturbing side, and more and more to realize our potentials for this positive side. We do this because we fear, in a healthy way, that if we continue the way that we are now, and even if we get a huge amount of money, have so many friends and are so very famous, still we’re going to have problems. This is because we’re still going to be greedy and insecure. We’re still going to get angry, and so on. We’re afraid of that, but see that there’s a way to avoid it. It’s like we might be afraid of getting burned by fire, but we see if we’re careful, we can avoid getting hurt. There’s a fear, but it’s a healthy fear. We’re not talking about paranoia.

We see if we continue getting angry and yelling, especially at our relatives and friends, what’s going to happen when we get old? We’re 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 we’re such a pain to be with. All we do is complain and yell at people, so who’s going to want to be with us? Nobody will. The solution is not just to have a lot of children who will feel obligated to take care of us, or have enough money in the bank so that we can be in a comfortable nursing home, because we’re still going to be miserable. What we really need to do is work on our personalities, to put it in very plain language.

Everyone Is Capable of Change

How often we think that our personalities are fixed and that this is the just the way that we are. “I have a bad temper and you’d better learn to live with it.” That doesn’t work, does it? It is possible to get rid of all this disturbing side and to realize all our good qualities. 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 these disturbing aspects and possible to increase and strengthen the positive, then we put this safe direction in our life.

If we wanted to do this in the so-called “Mahayana” Vast Vehicle way, we would add compassion to this. Basically, the Mahayana view is how can we be of help to anybody if we’re getting angry with them? We really want to be able to help others and we really are afraid that we’re just going to absolutely mess it up by getting angry with them, or attached, or jealous, and all these other things. We’ve got to get rid of all of these disturbing emotions and confusion so we can be of best help to others. It’s this feeling that we would really like to be able to help others, but we’re afraid that we won’t really be able to do much. We don’t have enough patience, or we don’t have enough understanding. We’re afraid we’ll cause more harm than good. Perhaps we’re even afraid that we will fail in terms of raising our own children. That would be quite awful, wouldn’t it? That fear is what drives us to put the safe and sound direction in our lives of working on ourselves.

Truly, this Dharma work is very relevant to our daily life. In terms of refuge, it’s being very honest about our situation and problems. We all have them. We all have these disturbing emotions. That’s nothing special. Maybe some are stronger than others with all types of variations, but we all have these emotional difficulties. We’re not talking here about someone who is deeply psychologically disturbed. We’re talking about what most people would consider normal. But the danger is that we consider it normal that sometimes we’re going to get angry, sometimes we’re going to be greedy and selfish and jealous, and so on. We think that this is normal and it’s okay. Well, it’s not okay, because it produces problems, both for ourselves and for the others that we might be trying to help.

Our goal is not just to learn how to live with our anger or to keep it under control while it’s still churning inside. Our goal is not to just weaken it, but to get rid of all this disturbing stuff completely. We don’t want to just develop a little bit of understanding some of the time, but to develop a full understanding of reality, to know how we exist, how everybody exists, how the world exists, and to have all of that all the time. It is entirely possible, because the nature of mental activity is basically pure and has all the potentials of good qualities.

The Good Qualities of the Apparent Level of a Buddha

When we talk about the objects that indicate the safe direction, or refuge, we talk about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. There are several levels of understanding these three: each has an apparent level, a deepest level, and something that represents them. Let's look first at the good qualities of the apparent level of each.

The body of a Buddha has extraordinary physical qualities and very special features. For instance, Buddhas are able to go anywhere instantly, multiply their bodies into infinite forms, be everywhere at the same time, and so on. It’s all rather fantastic and not so easy to believe. In addition, when a Buddha speaks, everybody understands it in their own language, and no matter how far away they are they can still hear the Buddha clearly. More than that, a Buddha is an all-loving, omniscient being who loves everyone equally and understands and knows everything simultaneously.

Again this all sounds pretty fantastic, and hard to believe. So if we were to stay on just this level of thinking of Buddhas like this, there’s a great danger of getting the wrong idea. It sounds like it’s going in the direction of some fantastic transcendent being, almost a God, doesn’t it? But, the point of being omniscient, for instance, 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, and all the factors that influence them. When a Buddha teaches a person this or that, it is with awareness of what all the consequences will be, not only the effect on this person, but the effect on everybody else that this person will interact with. As a result, a Buddha knows exactly the best method to teach everybody. That’s pretty good, isn’t it? That would be really nice to be able to do.

We have some confidence that a Buddha understands and could know what the best thing is to help us. Buddha speaks my language and can come to me instantly whenever I have the need. If we were 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, but Buddha will.” But we know that 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.” A Buddha has equal love for everybody and the bonus seems that it doesn’t matter what we do. We don’t have to pray or make offerings to the Buddha. Buddha’s going to help you anyway. So it’s cheap. We don’t have to pay anything. What a bargain! In addition, because Buddha has so much patience, he’s never going to get jealous if we 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. It’s pretty safe.

This is a common mistake, whether consciously or unconsciously. We look to Buddha as a substitute God figure that is a bargain and safer. In the teachings, it says a Buddha’s not going to let you down, and all these sorts of things. It sounds great. But then we might read that a Buddha can’t really pull out our suffering like pulling out a thorn from our foot. Buddhas are not omnipotent. But, we don’t really take that terribly seriously. That’s the apparent level of a Buddha, the commonplace way of thinking of one. But just to leave it on that level without a deeper understanding carries with it the danger of considering Buddha as a substitute personal God who’s going to save us.

Buddhas are represented by the statues and the paintings. Okay, they’re pretty, but are we going to confuse it with an orthodox Christian icon? What is it? Are we into idol worship, as the Muslims might accuse? What really is going on here? Do we really have to bow down in front of a statue? 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. On this level, it’s as if there were almost a God-like figure, represented by statues and paintings, and we worship them.

The Good Qualities of the Apparent Level of the Dharma

The apparent level of the Dharma are all the teachings. This is what the Buddha realized in himself and what he taught. The commonplace way of understanding this would be that we have our personal God, Buddha, and we have our scriptures. Instead of a Bible or a Koran, now I have Buddha’s texts. It’s like my Buddhist Bible and every word in it we take as being sacred. 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.” Buddha always encouraged his followers to be critical of what he taught. But when we are lazy, then we don’t want to analyze and check everything. In terms of daily life, the relevance is, on this level, that Buddha loves us, Buddha understands us, and here are all the rules in the holy book and we just follow that. Certainly, 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.

The Good Qualities of the Apparent Level of the Sangha

Then, what about 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. But, for many people, “Sangha” just means the members of our congregation, our Buddhist church. When some of these members are very disturbed people, then do we really take refuge in them? Now, I don’t mean to minimize the importance of having a spiritual community of like-minded people aiming for the same type of goal who can give us some support, some feedback, and so on. This is very, very important, but that’s not an object of refuge.

On another level of Sangha, we can understand it as the monastic community, so the Buddhist monks and nuns. But, again, we don’t always find perfect examples of monks and nuns, do we? There are some very disturbed people who wear robes. Still, it is very important to be respectful and supportive if they are sincerely trying to work on themselves by becoming monastics. But, 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!

There is still another level of Sangha. We might hear from these tantric masters that actually the Sangha are these so-called “tantric deities” that we have, such as Chenrezig, Tara, Manjushri, and so on. Now we might begin praying to the Holy Mother or Saint Tara, and she is going to save us. Certainly these Buddha-figures, as 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.

The Deepest Meaning of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha

If we look at the deepest meaning of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we discover that the deepest meaning of Dharma is the true stoppings of all this confusion, and the true realizations or the true so-called paths or pathways of mind on a mental continuum. That is the actual Dharma. That is what will protect us from suffering if we were to achieve it in our own mental continuum. We can achieve this state with all the confusion, disturbing emotions, attitudes, and problems gone, and all the realizations there in full. The Buddhas are those who have accomplished this in full and taught us how to accomplish it ourselves. The Sangha is actually referring to those known as the “Arya Sangha,” very highly realized advanced practitioners who have achieved some, but not all of these true stoppings and true realizations. You see, there are actually many levels and degrees of confusion that we need to rid ourselves of and many progressively stronger levels of realization that will counter them. The process of getting rid of them occurs in stages. The Arya Sangha haven’t achieved getting rid of all of them yet, the full package, but some, and they are on the way to achieving more.

In our daily lives, the Buddhas and the Arya Sangha, these great Indian and Tibetan masters and so on, of the past, and some of the present, are very inspiring. This gives us a great deal of hope. We see someone or meet someone inspirational like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. How did he become like he is? It’s through the Dharma. Whether he’s a Buddha or not yet a Buddha is irrelevant. If we could become like him, that would be pretty good. I’m not just talking about his ability to teach almost anything in the Dharma field, or that he is the expert, most learned, and most profound of any of the teachers. It’s not just the type of schedule that he keeps, and constant travels around the world, 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. 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 still have love and compassion for them? He’s not upset, and he’s able to do everything that he does with a happy, peaceful mind. That’s unbelievable, isn’t it? How could we accomplish any of that unless we’d gotten rid of these disturbing emotions and had gained realization? It wouldn’t be possible. It’s irrelevant whether he’s all the way to being a Buddha or not.

We may not be able to relate to all the qualities of the Buddha himself, but at least we can see the qualities of someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It’s very inspiring. If it was possible for someone like him to reach this level of attainment, then, considering that the nature of the mind is pure and has all these potentials, there’s no reason why we can’t do that as well. There is no reason 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. If the Dalai Lama were analogous to the Buddha, then some of the current great lamas that are teaching, perhaps they don’t have all the qualities of the Dalai Lama but, analogous to the Sangha, they have some of these qualities. That also is very inspiring.

What do they have in common, the Dalai Lama and these other great masters? They’ve gotten rid of, to varying degrees, anger, greed, hatred, jealousy, and all these sorts of things. They have gained tremendous good qualities such as understanding, compassion, patience, etc. We see the varying gradations of this that can be achieved in terms of these various lamas. This is, as I’m saying, a much more living example (if we have exposure to them) than just thinking of Buddha, or Milarepa, and other historical examples, who perhaps are harder to relate to. We may feel that they’re good stories, but do we really believe that there was somebody like that? We read that Guru Rinpoche was born from a lotus and can we really believe that? That might be hard to relate to. But, instead, we can 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, who are like the Buddha and the Sangha here right now. We realize that we are capable of doing that as well. This is the Dharma, and that these true stoppings and true pathway minds are achievable goals. It is possible that we can do this and this gives us a safe, stable and meaningful direction that we can put in our lives.

Refuge or Safe Direction in Our Daily Lives

What does putting this direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in our lives mean on a practical level? It means we are always working on ourselves. In doing that, when, for instance, we get upset, when we get angry, or when we act selfishly, 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 thinking, “I’m so bad or I’m so terrible because I still get angry.” Certainly not that, and certainly not the other extreme of thinking it’s just part of being normal. In that case we just notice it, thinking, “So what? I will continue being like that.” It’s not that either. But even just being aware of our disturbing emotions and regarding them as things that we want to get rid of, weakens their force.

But the point is, during our daily lives when these disturbing negative things come up and we notice them, the most ideal thing to do is to learn some methods and to try to overcome them. We need to realize that if we are angry, we need to develop patience. When someone is acting in a horrible way toward me, that indicates that they are very unhappy. There’s something disturbing them. Rather than getting angry with them, feel a little compassion for them.

To clarify, we’re not on the one side, angry with ourselves for getting angry. On the other side, we’re not treating ourselves like a baby and saying that it’s okay or it’s all right. But, we’re going to try our best to overcome our anger, because we realize that it is possible to do so. Maybe we can’t get rid of it so quickly, and for sure, we won’t be able to get rid of it so quickly, but this is this direction that we want to work on throughout our life. We’re going to do this because we know that it actually is possible to get rid of this stuff. It’s not a futile attempt of idealistic thinking to head in this direction.

When we’re faced with a difficult situation and we have a little bit of patience, or a little bit of understanding, or a little bit of a benevolent feeling, we need to realize that this is something that can increase. We can make this stronger and stronger. It is possible to do that. Others have done it and we can do it as well. There’s nothing special about the others and nothing special about us. This is our refuge, this is our safe direction in life, because the more that we go in this direction, the more we save ourselves from trouble and from problems.


We need to understand what is meant by refuge, this safe direction, and what the reasons are for putting it in our lives. It’s considered the most important, the most fundamental thing in Buddhist practice. Many people tend to trivialize it, which is really a shame. Whether we have this direction in our lives or not is supposed to be the most significant change and make the biggest difference in our lives. Refuge shouldn’t just mean 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 that is quite meaningless.

The question that we all need to ask ourselves is: “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?” If taking refuge has not made a significant difference in our life, then this is something that we really need to work on. To try to follow any more advanced practices without this foundation it is highly unlikely to bring success.