Uttaratantra: Sources of Refuge and Jewels of Refuge

Sources of Safe Direction

In terms of objects that provide refuge or safe direction, there are the ultimate and provisional sources of safe direction. Sources of safe direction that can bring us to the ultimate or final endpoint of the path are referred to as ultimate or final sources of refuge. Only the Buddhas are the ultimate sources of refuge. The highly realized bodhisattva aryas needing further training are provisional sources.

We should not confuse this pair with the pair of apparent (or conventional) and deepest Gems (Jewels of Refuge). There is a big difference. The deepest Gems, however, also bring us to the ultimate endpoint of the path, since they refer to the Three Rare and Supreme Gems on the mental continuums of the Buddhas. In this case, the ultimate Gem and the deepest Gems are synonyms. Only the Three Gems on the mental continuums of the Buddhas – also called the arya Buddhas – then, are the ultimate sources of refuge. Anything less is either a provisional or a conventional source of refuge.

We can take refuge or safe direction from a causal state or from a resultant state of our own attainment of the Three Gems. We take refuge from a resultant state of them when we take refuge in the Three Gems that we ourselves will become. We take refuge from a causal state when we take refuge in the Three Gems as found in the mental continuums of others – the aryas needing further training and the Buddhas.

Buddhas as the Ultimate Sources of Safe Direction

As we have seen, there are ultimate and provisional sources of safe direction, refuge. Of the Three Rare and Supreme Gems, only the Gem of the Buddhas is the ultimate source of refuge. In terms of the Dharma Gem and the Sangha Gem, some aspects of them refer to these Gems on the mental continuum of a Buddha are so are included as ultimate sources of refuge, while other aspects of them are provisional sources of refuge.

The Buddha Gem includes a Buddha’s Rupakaya, a Corpus of Forms (Form Body), and also a Buddha’s Dharmakaya, a Corpus Encompassing Everything. A Buddha’s Corpus Encompassing Everything is the deepest Buddha Gem; his Corpus of Forms is an apparent Buddha Gem. Within Dharmakaya, the Jnana-Dharmakaya, a Corpus of Deep Awareness Encompassing Everything, is an object that can only be known among the Buddhas themselves. The bodhisattvas do not know it. A Rupakaya, a Corpus of Forms, includes a Sambhogakaya, a Corpus of Full Use, and a Nirmanakaya, a Corpus of Emanations.

A Sambhogakaya, a Corpus of Full Use, has five certainties about it:

  • With respect to its body, it is certain or definite that a Sambhogakaya form of a Buddha will have 32 major marks (excellent signs) and 80 minor marks (exemplary features).
  • The second certainty is that a Sambhogakaya will give teachings of the Mahayana Dharma with speech that is continuous without any break.
  • The third certainty is that a Sambhogakaya will teach the Dharma exclusively to arya bodhisattvas, highly realized dedicated beings.
  • The fourth certainty is that a Sambhogakaya will live continually without ever demonstrating a passing away into parinirvana.
  • The fifth certainty is that the place where a Sambhogakaya will abide and teach is an Akanishta pure realm, a “realm beneath nothing else.”

A Nirmanakaya, a Corpus of Emanations from a Sambhogakaya, includes Supreme Emanation Bodies. We now are living in a fortunate eon. In such an eon there are 1,000 Buddhas who will appear as universal teachers. Of these, the first was Krakucchandra, the second Kanakamuni, the third the Buddha Kashyapa and the fourth was the Buddha Shakyamuni. These are Supreme Emanation Bodies and can be met by bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas, shravakas and by ordinary beings. However, only someone who has the special karmic potential or causes for meeting a Supreme Emanation Body will meet with one. Beings like us don’t have the causes or potentials to be able to meet a Supreme Emanation Body with the 32 major and 80 minor signs.

There are two other types of Emanation Bodies. The Buddha manifested in the Emanation Body of an Artisan in order to tame the prideful king of the heavenly musicians. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an example of an Emanation Body as a Personage. Since we have had the fortune to meet with such an Emanation Body, we must have accumulated the positive karmic potential to actually meet with someone like His Holiness. There have been incidents in Tibet when His Holiness was actually present but certain people lacking such potential were unable to see him, although he was in plain sight.

When we practice, we should believe that the representations of the Buddhas, such as statues and paintings, although only nominal Buddha Gems, are really Buddhas. If we have this kind of attitude, then when we attain the great stage of a Mahayana building-up pathway of mind (a path of accumulation), we will be able to receive teachings from these statues. In this respect, it is considered more beneficial to meet with paintings and statues that represent the Buddhas than it is to meet with the actual Buddhas themselves. The more we can offer candles, flowers and incense before the various representations of the Buddhas, the greater the benefit will be.

Identifying the Dharma and Sangha Gems and Sources of Safe Direction

In terms of the Dharma Gem, the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of the Buddhas are ultimate sources of safe direction, while those on the mental continuum of bodhisattva aryas needing further training are provisional. The true stoppings on the mental continuums of Buddhas are their Svabhavakayas, their Corpus of Essential Nature Encompassing Everything. However, of the four noble truths, true stoppings and true pathway minds in general are the deepest Dharma Gems. In terms of practice, we recognize the scriptural categories that talk about these deepest Dharma Gems, true stoppings and true pathway minds, as being apparent Dharma Gems. The material Dharma texts are merely nominal Dharma Gems.  

The apparent Sangha Gems are the individual persons who are highly realized aryas who have non-conceptual cognition of voidness. They include both arya Buddhas (ultimate sources of safe direction) and arya bodhisattvas needing further learning (provisional ones). The true stoppings and true pathway minds on either of their mental continuums are the deepest Sangha Gems. In terms of practice, any group of four persons who wear the three robes of a monastic, from a novice on upwards, are recognized as a nominal Sangha Gem. Thus, four persons who wear monastic robes are considered a Sangha or a spiritual community. Only one person wearing such robes may be considered a monk or a nun, but not the Sangha.

We need to be extremely certain about what constitutes these Three Gems that are the sources of safe direction, the sources of refuge. The Dharma has two aspects that indicate it. There are the scriptural indications of the Dharma and the realized indications of the Dharma. The scriptural indications that the apparent Dharma Gem are the 12 categories of the scriptural texts. In terms of practice, the nominal Dharma Gems that are the material Dharma texts themselves. The realized indications of the Dharma – the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of all aryas ­– are the deepest Dharma Gems, although those on the mental continuums of aryas needing further training are not ultimate sources of refuge, only provisional sources.

The Three Gems in Terms of the Aspirations and Actions of Practitioners

Those with the family traits (gotra) of a bodhisattva have a strong intention toward the Buddha Gem. Since they have the intention to become Buddhas, they have fervent regard and aspiration for the various actions of a Buddha and aim to perform such actions.

Those with the family traits of a pratyekabuddha, a self-realizer, are primarily interested in gaining the realization of dependent arising. They aim to gain realization of the 12 links of dependent arising in order to attain liberation by themselves. Thus, their main activities are associated with the Dharma Gem they aim to realize.

The main interest of those with the family traits of a shravaka, a listener, is the Sangha Gem. Shravakas are focused on the actions of the spiritual community in order to gain the qualities of that community.

Only the Buddhas Are Ultimate Sources of Safe Direction

The words and letters of the teachings in the texts (the scriptural indications of the Dharma) and the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of aryas needing further training (the realized indications of the Dharma) are not ultimate sources of safe direction. They are not stable or ultimate sources of refuge because once we have attained the enlightened state of a Buddha and need no further training, we no longer need to rely on them. This doesn’t mean that it is not necessary to have the scriptural and realized indications of the Dharma, but that we no longer need to rely on them after enlightenment.

In the total absorption (meditative equipoise) on voidness of an arya needing further training, it may appear that all of the fleeting stains have been removed from the mind. However, that is a false appearance, because the stains are not completely gotten rid of. For that reason, the total absorption of an arya needing further training is also not an ultimate source of safe direction.

In the mental continuums of arhats, the liberated beings of the shravaka and pratyekabuddha classes, there is no concern about the first two noble truths, true sufferings and true sources of sufferings, because they have been pacified. However, these beings still have the fears that come from having the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience, because they have not yet abandoned them. As a result of these two facts, shravaka and pratyekabuddha arhats are also not ultimate sources of refuge.

In summary, the scriptural indications of the Dharma with its various words and letters, the realized indications of Dharma on the mental continuums of aryas needing further training, and the Sangha composed of aryas needing further training are not ultimate sources of safe direction. The only ultimate source of refuge is the Buddha Gem itself. However, we still have the Three Gems in terms of a Buddha. The deepest Gems of the Dharma and the Sangha are on the mental continuum of a Buddha, so the ultimate source of safe direction is in the Three Rare and Supreme Gems on the mental continuums of the Buddhas.

All of this is covered in the text in the following verses:

(19) There is a presentation of three sources of safe direction in terms of the ones who indicate them, their indications and the ones who are training, as this has been made under the influence of there being three vehicles of mind and those with fervent regard for three types of actions.
(20) Because it is to be gotten rid of, because it is an item that is fallacious, because it is a non-existence and because it has fear, the preventive measures in their two aspects and the highly realized assembly are not continual supreme sources of safe direction.
(21) So, on the deepest truth, the source of direction for wandering beings is the Buddhas alone, because the Able Ones have a Dharmakaya Corpus that Encompasses Everything and because they are the ultimate endpoint for the intent Sangha community.

Where the text says because they are to be gotten rid of, this refers to the fact that the scriptural indications of the Dharma no longer need to be relied upon once we achieve enlightenment. Therefore, the scriptural indications are not an ultimate source of refuge. Once we have crossed a river, we no longer rely on the boat.

Reasons for Taking Refuge

Whether or not it is an ultimate source of refuge or a provisional source, in terms of our practice we should go to the Dharma for our safe direction in life. There are two reasons or causes for taking this as our safe direction. The first is a state of dread, and the second is having great confidence in the qualities of the objects that can provide us with a safe direction. Therefore, it is important to know these qualities.

What is this state of dread? It is the dread that is associated with having to die, as everyone dreads dying. There is then the dread associated with having to go into the bardo, the in-between state, and the dread of taking rebirth due to the fear of being reborn in one of the worse states. We can even dread being reborn as a human being if we reflect on all of the problems that a human has to face. It is extremely important to be mindful of this state of dread.

The problems and sufferings involved in taking birth are extremely great, but we do not remember them. If we think about it, staying inside a womb for nine months and ten days is something that is not at all pleasant. We can imagine being locked inside a tiny closet, with no windows or doors, completely dark, and with no way to get out. It would be very difficult to stay there even for a day.

The suffering of aging starts the second moment after conception and happens gradually over a long period of time. If we turned from being a small child into an old person overnight, the suffering would be unbearable. If aging were to manifest very quickly it would be like a 16-year-old putting on the mask of an old person.

The suffering of sickness is terrible. Not only do we have the physical suffering of the body, but we also have the mental suffering of worrying that we might die. When we are sick, even if we get well and do not die, we might still have the mental suffering of worrying about dying. Regardless, the recovery is only temporary, because having been born, at some time we all have to die.

When we actually have to die, we must face the greatest problem and suffering in life. When we are sick with many people working to make us better, they can help us to get well. Nevertheless, when it is actually time to die, those people are of no help. They can’t stop us from dying and they can actually create extra problems and worries for us in addition to what we already have.

Regarding the bardo, the in-between state, if we have built up a large amount of negative potential during this life, in the bardo we will meet with horrible, fearsome appearances. When we were sick it was possible to have some help from friends but when we die, we die alone. We must face all the fearsome events in the bardo completely alone. If we have built up a large amount of negative potential, then during the bardo our body will have the appearance of a bird walking around upside down.

We will experience an immense amount of fear and dread in such a state from having built up tremendous negative potential. We have an expression, “The very precipitous path of the bardo.” For example, if we are walking along a rugged mountain path and there is a very sharp drop along the side of the path, it is very dangerous to walk along that path. That is a precipitous path. Often the bardo is compared to a precipitous path. If we walk along this type of precipitous path, we may also encounter dangerous thieves and wild animals. We would be absolutely terrified. The same is true of all of the fearsome things on the precipitous path of the bardo.

However, if we were on a precipitous path on a mountain, it would be possible to bring a friend or a guide to help us. However, when we are on the precipitous path of the bardo, there are no friends we can take along. Only the Triple Gem can show us the safe direction to take in the bardo. Only the Triple Gem can provide refuge and offer safe direction and liberation from the precipitous path of the bardo.

The request had been made to me by Lama Yeshe to teach the text called Liberation from the Precipitous Path of the Bardo, the Bardo Trangdrol (Bar-do ‘phrang-sgrol.) This was written by the First Panchen Lama, with a commentary by Akya Yongdzin. However, since I don’t have the text, it is not possible for me to teach it. But this subject matter is of importance and what I have been explaining now is the essential point for liberation on the precipitous path of the bardo.

The Three Precious Gems Are Rare and Supreme

I have been talking about the first three of the seven vajra points. These concern the Three Gems. They are called Rare and Supreme Gems because of six analogies with precious gems. This is straightforward and easy to follow, so I will just give the oral transmission of the verse explaining this point:

(22) Because their occurrence is rare, because they are stainless, because they have strength and because they become adornments for those with a perishable basis, because they are what is supreme and because they are inalterable, they are the rare and supreme (gems).

We can attain the Three Gems for ourselves if we so wish. The last vajra points are the source or cause for this attainment:

  • The actual state of bodhi or purified growth
  • The qualities of the state of bodhi
  • Bodhi’s enlightening influence.

We can attain the state of enlightenment, the resultant state of a Triple Gem, because our mental continuums contain the cause or family traits that allow us to achieve this clear evolvement. There are two types of family traits that can be distinguished: the ones mentioned above as the three family traits of bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas and shravakas and also the family traits as another term for Buddha-nature. In terms of Buddha-nature, there is the abiding family trait that abides as one’s own self-nature, and the evolving family traits that bring about the attainment of the clear evolvement of Buddhahood.

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