Making Our Refuge Firm

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Ultimate Dharma Refuge Is in the True Stoppings and True Pathway Minds

Refuge is an active process of putting some sort of safe direction in our lives as indicated by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – the Three Rare and Precious Gems. And we saw that there are many different levels of understanding of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And on the deepest level, the Dharma refuge or Dharma Gem is referring to the third and fourth noble truths, basically.

So we’re talking here about the true stoppings of all the shortcomings, disturbing emotions, their tendencies, confusion, karma – all of that – so that they no longer can be – to use the technical jargon – they can no longer be imputed on the mental continuum. In other words, they’re no longer there. “No longer there” means that they can never arise again, which is possible because the nature of the mental continuum, our mental activity, is not innately stained by this disturbing side which is all based on confusion.

The other aspect of this Dharma, ultimate Dharma refuge, is the fourth noble truth, which is the true paths, which means the true pathways, or ways of understanding – realization and so on – which also are on the basis of our mental continuum. All of these realizations, all of these good qualities, are possible to develop on a mental continuum – our mental activity – because that mental activity has all the potentials, the abilities, to understand anything, to have love and concern for absolutely anybody, and so on. Even though now, because of our limited hardware, basically – our limited bodies and limited minds – these are very limited. We only understand a little bit. And often it’s confused. We only have concern for usually just ourselves, and maybe extend it to our family and loved ones, but not to everybody. So it’s limited.

The Nature of the Mind

So when we speak about all of this in terms of the nature of the mind, the nature of the mental continuum, it’s something that requires a great deal of thought in order to be convinced that it is possible to achieve this Dharma Gem – that such a thing actually exists and we are capable of achieving it. Because it’s only on the basis of being convinced that such a thing is possible – these true stoppings and true pathway minds – that we can then have confidence that the Buddhas are those who have achieved this in full and the Arya Sangha are those that have achieved it in part. Otherwise, if we think that it’s impossible, how can we possibly believe that a Buddha or the Arya Sangha has their attainments?

So, without going into too much detail, the basic quality of mental activity – what the activity involves – is making some sort of appearance of a mental hologram. It could be a mental hologram of a sight, of a sound, a smell, of a thought, whatever – of an emotion. And there’s cognitive involvement or engagement with that, which can be either understanding, confusion, sort of level of concentration, etc. But what it always includes here is some level of happiness or unhappiness. So if we want one word that describes this process, we would call it “experience.” This is moment-to-moment experiencing something, even if it’s experiencing sleep, or experiencing being unconscious, or even experiencing death. There’s always experiencing. And this is what experiencing means – arising of a mental hologram and some sort of cognitive engagement, without some separate “me,” separate from this whole activity, which is either observing it or controlling it. Although this mental activity is individual for each of us and we can label “me” on top of it; nevertheless, that “me” is not something separate from this activity.

This mental activity – subjective, individual – can also be described from a physical point of view. There’s some energy or some physical basis for it, like a body; and this energy somehow radiates out. So we have communication, what’s usually just referred to in the Buddhist jargon as speech. But speech doesn’t necessarily just mean words, but it’s basically communication.

If the mental activity involves giving rise to mental holograms, well, actually it could give rise to a mental hologram of anything. In fact, it could give rise to the mental hologram of everything. And the cognitive engagement could be confusion, of course, but it could also be with complete understanding, and complete love and patience, and all of these sort of things.

When we talk about the innate nature of mental activity – “innate” means that it’s an integral part of this mental activity – we’re just talking about the structure of how it works. We’re not talking about the actual content, of what kind of hologram it gives rise to – what the content of that is, or what level of cognitive engagement there is. That’s more the content side. When we talk about this innate nature, we’re just talking about the structure of how it works. So the content could be limited, like we’re only able to perceive what’s directly in front of our nose. And often there’s a lot of projections there as well. And the engagement could be with a lot of confusion. But that’s the content; that’s a limitation of the content. But the structure remains the same, regardless of what the content is.

The Problem Is the Limited Hardware of Our Human Body

If we ask what’s the problem here, the problem is that the limitations of our mental activity are pretty much determined – determined is maybe too strong a word – but conditioned by our limited hardware. Look at this limited hardware of a human body, despite it being the optimal type of hardware that we could have in a rebirth: First you’re an infant, then a baby. You don’t understand anything. You can’t communicate. All you can do is cry. As we go through adolescence then we’re under the influence of all these hormones, and so we have strong sexual desire and we get aggressive. And all these things are big limitations, aren’t they? And our body gets sick. And as we get older and older then it starts to break down, and you can’t remember things so well, and you get confused, and all of this. It’s a big limitation of the hardware. And we can only see things that are directly in front of these two holes in the front of our head, and we can’t see things outside of that range, and we certainly can’t see anything besides just what’s happening right now.

So all these sort of limitations that we have in what we can be aware of, and how much cognitive engagement we can have with it, basically are hardware problems. And because we’re confused, because we think that what we perceive is the totality of reality, then through a very complex mechanism known as the twelve links of dependent arising, we perpetuate having more and more of this limiting hardware, life after life. But if we think just in terms of the structure of the mental activity, that structure by itself is unlimited. It’s what we call “pure.” It is not stained by these limitations caused by the hardware and the confusion. And if it didn’t have this type of hardware, and didn’t perpetuate always generating more and more hardware, then because it has all the potentials and ability to perceive absolutely everything, and to have complete understanding, and complete love, and complete concern, and fantastic communication, without any limitation, that would be great. Wouldn’t it?

It’s not that we’re going to solve the problem by committing suicide and then we’re free of this limiting hardware. Because, by the force of our confusion, and all the karmic potentials, and so on, that we’ve built up by acting on the basis of this confusion, we’re just going to generate more limited hardware and probably even more limiting than what we have now. But at the deepest cause of having limited hardware is our confusion. And we see that the mind is capable of correct understanding. Confusion cannot be validated; correct understanding can be. Then we can start to become convinced more and more that it’s possible, based on the innate purity of this mental activity and its innate abilities, to actually achieve a true stopping and true pathway minds – third and fourth noble truths – what is the ultimate Dharma refuge.

Could There Ever Have Been a Buddha?

So here we have the basis of thinking about this and thinking about the logic of this. Then we can have confidence that there is such a thing as a Dharma refuge, that there is such a thing as true stoppings and true pathway minds that it is possible to attain. Then, of course, the question arises: if it’s possible to attain, does that mean necessarily that anybody has actually attained it? That’s not an easy one to answer, I must say. Because this is the real question: Could there have ever been a Buddha? And why aren’t there a lot of them now – even though maybe the Tibetans will say there are a lot of them now, but can I really believe that? I must say that’s a difficult one to answer.

Now we analyze. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes – the great masters always emphasize – we have to analyze. I’m going into all this detail because if we talk about a practical application of refuge in daily life, if you don’t really believe that there is such a thing as the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha on this deepest level, how can you actually put this in your life? You’re aiming for a goal that you don’t even believe is possible – liberation, let alone enlightenment – so the whole thing becomes hypocritical if we’re not confident that there actually is a Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – that we can go in the direction of them. So, you see, this is what I think sabotages being able to have this refuge be a very central, important thing in our lives. Either we have no idea what it actually means or, even if we know what it means, we don’t believe that it’s actually possible. And even if we believe it’s possible, we don’t know how to actually put that into our lives. So that’s why I’m going into a little bit of detail here on this analytical side, not on the side of listing all the qualities of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Just off the top of my head, analyzing: Given beginningless time and given the fact that these stains – that’s the jargon – the stains that are tainting our mental activity – that’s real jargon, but perhaps you know what I’m talking about now – that they can be removed forever, and the qualities can be totally realized, all the potentials can be realized. On the basis of that, then there is – pardon the now scientific mathematical jargon – but there is a "quantum possibility" that somebody actually has achieved this. You can’t say that there is no quantum possibility of this. I hope you understand what quantum possibility means. Quantum possibility is: where is the location of this particle? And it could be anywhere, but there’s a more high possibility that it’s here rather than there. But it could be anywhere. So there’s a quantum possibility that there could have been a Buddha, and here is the one that everybody says in the text was the Buddha, and then you look at what the Buddha taught and you start to put it into practice and you see that you get the results that Buddha said, then you can become convinced that there actually was a Buddha.

Now Buddhism is quite different from some other Indian philosophies in the sense that Buddhism does not say that everybody will inevitably reach liberation and enlightenment. Everybody can reach liberation and enlightenment because the basic nature of mental activity – our individual mental activity – is pure, but that doesn’t mean that everybody will necessarily reach liberation and enlightenment. And the reason for that is that given infinite time, beginningless time, if everybody could reach liberation and enlightenment, they already would have done so. But that obviously is not the case. Therefore, although everybody can reach liberation and enlightenment, it doesn’t mean that everybody necessarily will.

But if there’s a quantum possibility that somebody went all the way in this purification process, became a Buddha, then there’s also a quantum possibility that there are those who have gone part of the way – they haven’t finished the process. So that’s the Arya Sangha. And therefore there’s a quantum possibility that I can achieve liberation and enlightenment as well. Therefore it’s not just wishful thinking to put this direction in my life – of working toward achieving the ultimate Dharma Gem in my own mental continuum, the way the Buddhas have done and the way the Arya Sangha is doing. It’s not hypocritical. It’s not just wishful thinking.

And what’s significant here is that although we could, without being convinced that it’s possible to achieve the ultimate goal, we could put that direction in our life just with the idea that, “Well, if I go further than I am now, even if I can’t reach the goal, it will be an improvement.” And if we’re only thinking in terms of an improvement and not going all the way, because it’s not possible to go all the way, then our Buddhist practice has devolved rather that evolved; it’s devolved into just a psychology. All right? The Buddhist teachings just become another school of psychology, and the Buddhist practice just becomes another school of psychotherapy. It is certainly not that. Although we could practice Buddhism on that level, this is what I call “Dharma-lite”; it’s not the real thing. Of course it has its benefits. We can’t say that there are no benefits to thinking just in terms of working on myself to improve this lifetime, but that’s not really what refuge is talking about.

The Possibility That There Never Was an Enlightened Buddha

There’s one more thing that I want to add about our discussion concerning whether or not there ever has been a Buddha. In terms of probability, whether we speak in terms of quantum probability or just regular probability, that there is a possibility that there’s been one Buddha or two Buddhas or three Buddhas, etc. But, also, there’s a probability that there was never any Buddha. So this is a very interesting problem. You can look at it, you can analyze, from several points of view.

In terms of probability, well, there’s a probability that there could have been one Buddha, there could have been two, there could have been three, there could have been four, five – all the way up to the finite number of sentient beings. So there’s a very large probability, much more, in terms of all these possibilities than the one probability that there were never any Buddhas. I mean to say there’s a larger probability that there was a Buddha than there never was a Buddha.

But there’s another way of analyzing. One of the features of a Buddha is that a Buddha exerts enlightening influence, which is like a magnet that draws others toward liberation and enlightenment. And one of the aspects of Buddha-nature, that we all have, is that our mental continuum can be stimulated; it can be affected by this enlightening influence in order to grow, to go on the spiritual path of self-improvement. So if there was never an enlightening influence, if there was never a Buddha, so if there never was the enlightening influence of a Buddha, so then you could ask the question: how could anybody ever have made spiritual progress? Because obviously there have been people who have worked on the Buddhist path and have made spiritual progress, and we can see that even in ourselves if we try out the teachings.

Obviously that requires a little bit of deeper thought about what an inspiration is, and what is the importance of being inspired or stimulated by someone else’s example – or their teachings or whatever – to try to improve our situation. We have to think quite a bit about that. If we say, well, they could have gotten enlightening influence from just teachers who weren’t Buddhas – well, where’d they get their enlightening influence from? And if there were a first Buddha, where did that Buddha get inspiration from? So, by this type of way of thinking, we come to the conclusion that there was never a first Buddha. But there’s still the question of was it a Buddha? Was there always a Buddha that exerted this enlightening influence?

So we then look at the teachings of the Buddha. Mind you, there were an infinite number of Buddhas, and all the Buddhas taught something slightly different, but let’s leave that aside. Let’s just look at what Buddha Shakyamuni taught. If we put into practice the teachings, at the level which we can put it into practice, then empirically we know from our own experience that actually it works: it helps to diminish our suffering and problems. And we’re not talking here about the methods that Buddha taught which are shared in common by almost all Indian philosophies and systems, like the methods for achieving concentration, etc. These are common things, not specifically Buddhist. But what is specifically Buddhist are the four noble truths – in general, for both Hinayana and Mahayana – and within the Mahayana context, the teachings on voidness. And we can know empirically, from our own experience, that the more and more we understand voidness, the more and more we apply it in our daily lives, the less and less our problems are. It really works.

And if we look at these steps that Buddha taught, and we find empirically that so many of these steps, as far as we can go, work, then – as we find in the arguments in the texts – – is there any reason for Buddha to have lied about the following steps, the completing steps? Well, the only motivation for achieving enlightenment was compassion. Therefore there’s no reason for Buddha to have tried to fool us when he declared, “I’ve achieved enlightenment, and the earth is my witness to this.” There’s no reason for Buddha to have lied. That’s the classical argument. Also, if we look at all of the activity of the Buddha, then it doesn’t fit in that the Buddha lied about this aspect, since everything else that he did was pretty good.

But if you analyze this more – and now I’m analyzing as I’m speaking – I could raise an objection. If you look at the later stages of the path, the more final stages of the path, what it’s saying is that – aside from all the other things that I think are secondary – is that if you could have the understanding of voidness perfectly, non-conceptually, all the time, then the ignorance, the unawareness, would never arise again. So that’s how you get liberation and, if it’s strong enough with bodhichitta, you get enlightenment. So you could say – here’s my objection – that, well, Buddha, like us, maybe went a few steps more than we did and saw that, well, if he had the understanding of voidness non-conceptually a great deal of the time – much more than I could possibly have achieved – and he saw that it got better and better and therefore, by inference, he inferred that if you had it all the time you wouldn’t have the source of the problems at all, ever. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he actually achieved it. He could have inferred it. And that would be a valid inferential understanding. That’s as far as I’ve gotten in my analysis because I can’t answer that question.

But I think that it’s an important question, in terms of the relevance of refuge in our daily lives. And that’s the point of: Was there actually a Buddha? And is it actually possible to achieve Buddhahood? And if there was never a Buddha, and it’s impossible to achieve it, what am I doing in terms of taking refuge? Am I taking as my source of direction something which is impossible? Is it like striving to become Mickey Mouse? Or what is it? So then does my Buddhist practice really go more in the direction of just trying to improve things as much as possible? And if it does, without thinking that I could ever become fully enlightened – or even liberated, for that matter – then fine. But I think it needs to be a little bit clearer, in terms of not fooling ourselves: What actually are we striving for and what do we actually think is possible?

We’re talking about having this direction, this refuge, very secure and stable in our minds, without any doubts. And this is what I’m introducing here, is the type of doubts that could arise. I think many of us probably never even doubt it. You just sort of accept it. But after a while, you start to question this. And what happens is that either you give up and say this is impossible, what I’m striving to do, and nobody ever has achieved it, so who am I fooling to think that I can achieve this? So, give up. Or it could be, well, I’m satisfied with going as far as is possible in this direction. Because there’s a big difference between being convinced… and we can be convinced, logically, that theoretically it is possible to gain liberation and enlightenment. There are enough enough lines of reasoning and methods for actually gaining valid inferential understanding that it is actually theoretically possible. But then the question is, well, practically though is it possible? And that’s a very interesting dialectic between what’s theoretically possible and what is actually possible.

The only way that we can be convinced that practically it is possible is to do it ourselves. Because it says that only a Buddha can recognize another Buddha. So how do we even know that anybody’s actually a Buddha? Just because they say they’re a Buddha? A lot of crazy people say they’re Buddha. So that’s interesting. We can only know by inference that somebody else is a Buddha because, unless we’re a Buddha, we can’t really know directly. So we could say, well, theoretically I can infer that there must be a Buddha; but in order to really be convinced, I have to become a Buddha, and so I will work in that direction. This might be the solution.

The Devotional Side of Refuge

One extreme that we need to avoid in terms of refuge, which is thinking of Buddha as my personal savior and so on. But one might think that, well, then Buddhism is really just a very intellectual type of thing, working with our emotions and so on, like a form of psychotherapy. Just work on yourself. That sounds like psychotherapy, doesn’t it? And that actually is another extreme that we need to avoid. Because, in a sense, it’s just forgetting that there are three Precious Gems and just considering one – the Dharma. But, hey, there’s the Buddha and there’s the Sangha, the Arya Sangha. And, unlike the therapist, the Buddha and the Arya Sangha are our role models. These are the ones that we want to become like. The therapist isn’t exactly our role model; if we know them personally, we’d find that they probably have a lot of problems too. And Buddhism involves ethics. Psychotherapy doesn’t necessarily involve ethical teachings. In fact, some psychotherapy schools want to avoid any sort of ethical advice.

Buddhism does have a devotional side. It’s not something that we should negate. There is also an emotional side, and this is very important in terms of inspiration and some sort of ritual expression of our emotional state – I’m talking about a positive one. And this is something which perhaps we could direct to the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas, and Tara, and Chenrezig, and all of that. For some of us that might work. Guru Rinpoche, Milarepa, etc. But we have to avoid the dangers of making them into saints and personal saviors.

For many of us who can’t quite relate to Buddha himself – Buddha Shakyamuni and Chenrezig – then what represents this are the spiritual teachers, what represents them. And we’re not just talking about somebody that others and they themselves call a spiritual teacher. They might not be terribly well qualified. We’re talking about the most qualified ones, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Anybody can call themselves “lama” and convince others to call themselves “lama” as well, but that doesn’t signify anything. Well, actually it does signify something. It doesn’t signify good qualities. It signifies being charismatic and able to influence other people, and being ambitious.

But, in any case, this inspiration factor – which is often translated as “blessing,” which I think is a very misleading translation – but this aspect of inspiration helps to give us the energy and the encouragement to actually go in this direction in our lives. And that we get from the spiritual teachers. Through them we can get some sort of understanding of the Buddhas and the Arya Sangha. And through them we get the teachings, explanations of the teachings. Although we can read it in a book or on the Internet, often it’s not so clear. So you need somebody that can explain, that can answer our questions. And not only that, but embody what we are aiming for, so we have a much more realistic idea of what all these teachings are talking about.

[See: "Blessings" or Inspiration?]

Having a Role Model

To put this safe direction in our life on a practical daily level, what is I think really very, very important is to have a role model. If we don’t have a role model, and a role model that we can relate to. It’s hard to relate to Guru Rinpoche as a role model: born from a lotus, and able to go through fire and not be burned, and stuff like this. That’s really hard to relate to as a role model, isn’t it? So I’m not in any way diminishing the importance of Guru Rinpoche, and that example of Guru Rinpoche can be inspiring for a lot of people, but for some people it’s very hard to relate to on a personal level. How is this relevant to me as a role model of what I can do? That’s why our ordinary spiritual teachers, and the really advanced ones, are a model that we can relate to a little bit better. And even if we can’t relate to somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, well, there are lesser accomplished spiritual teachers that maybe we can relate to a little bit easier.

What I found very interesting is that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that for him the role model that he tries to follow, and that he’s inspired by, is the role model of Shakyamuni himself, Shakyamuni Buddha himself. Because, if you think about it, His Holiness very commonly is teaching an audience of a hundred thousand people, or even more than a hundred thousand people – and obviously we have never had that type of experience – and influencing so many people around the globe, and then he can start to relate to a much more advanced, higher role model of a Buddha that’s able to teach everybody simultaneously type of thing. So each of us at our levels will have a more advanced role model, going all the way up to the Buddha. So, even for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the role of inspiration from a spiritual teacher, or from Buddha himself, is very, very important, very central.

What Significance Does Refuge Have in Our Lives?

What have we established so far? We’ve established that what is this ultimate direction that we’re trying to put in our lives, which I put in very simple language of working on ourselves to get rid of our shortcomings and the disturbing side and to realize all our positive potentials. And I’ve given some indication of how we could start to think or analyze and become, hopefully, convinced that it is possible to go all the way, to get rid of all the disturbing side and to realize all the positive side. It is possible. And there are Buddhas who have done that and taught us how to do it. And there is Arya Sangha, those that have done it partway and are still working toward that goal. And there are spiritual teachers who maybe have not reached that arya stage where they’ve really gotten true stoppings and true pathway minds yet; but, nevertheless, they are more advanced on the path than I am. And through all of these, depending on my level, I can get great inspiration. And role models. And I’m capable of going all the way in this direction. And with the help of the spiritual teachers, and so on, and a lot of hard work, I’ll be able to really achieve this goal. At least of liberation. And, if we do this in a Mahayana sense, enlightenment.

So if this really is going to become the central purpose of my life, meaningful to me all the time, this refuge, this safe direction – all these things that I’ve just mentioned – we have to be quite convinced of, and we need to be inspired, and so on, and have role models, and so on, to be able to actually put that direction in our life and to actually have it be relevant. When we have some episode of difficulty in our life, to not get down by it, to realize, “Yes, I am able to handle this. It will be possible. Maybe now it’s not so easy, but I can overcome my anger. I can overcome all these difficulties that I face. So I’m going to work on that.” So when problems come up in our daily life, not that I’m going to deny them. It’s not that I’m going to try to forget about them and just turn to alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or television, or whatever, to somehow make things a little bit better. But I have this direction in my life. I’m actually going to turn to Buddhist methods to try to deal with this situation. Then we actually have this direction in our life. Then we’ve actually taken refuge.

So let’s take a few minutes to just sort of reaffirm the ground that we’ve covered so far. And I think part of this reflection needs to be, well, if I consider myself a Buddhist, does refuge have any actual significance in my life? What does it mean to me? And does it have a meaning similar to what we’ve been discussing, or is it something very trivial and sort of a very – a side thing in our life? It doesn’t mean very much. And if it doesn’t mean very much, that’s quite sad. We’re missing out on a lot.

What is Special about Buddhism: The Goal and the Method

The next point that I want to mention is that, of course, we could believe in any system as being teaching the truth and any sort of charismatic spiritual leader from any tradition. So what’s different here? So we have to look at two things here: the goal and the method. There could be many religions that can teach us, as the goal, going to heaven. And they may teach methods that actually work, that will bring you to heaven. And we could believe in that, and be confident in that, and follow it, and have a very beneficial spiritual path. Or we could have a goal of liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which of course assumes that there is rebirth; there’s that type of goal, but most Indian religions teach that. And we have, in Buddhism, enlightenment – that you can help others achieve this goal of liberation, which not all Indian religions assert – something similar to that. In fact, I can’t think of any other Indian system that teaches that.

But these other Indian systems, what they consider liberation and the methods for achieving it, the cause of not being liberated, of having uncontrollably recurring rebirth – they even use the same word, "samsara" – and what they say the understanding we’ll get out of that, from a Buddhist point of view that is partial. It’s only partial. The understanding is not quite correct. To really have this refuge, this direction in our life, what we become convinced by is not just everything that we’ve discussed so far. That’s part of it. But the additional part of it, a very important part of it, is the method. What the goal is that we’re talking about, and what the method is. And is the method – the understanding of what we call “voidness” in Buddhism, and the ways of developing compassion, etc. – will that actually work?

So to really put this direction in our life on a daily level, we have to also have some understanding of the method which is involved with working on ourselves, and be convinced that it will actually work, and have some clear idea of what goal we are aiming to achieve. And, of course, as we’ve been discussing, that it’s realistic, that it’s possible to achieve this goal by means of the method. So now we have to bring in the three principle paths as discussed by Tsongkhapa. Determination to be free, what’s called renunciation. To go in this direction, we have to identify what is our suffering situation and the causes of it, and really renounce it – “This, I want to get out of” – and be determined to get free of it. Without that, refuge doesn’t make any sense, does it? Putting that direction in our life doesn’t make any sense. What are we doing it for?

And what, in addition, is necessary is correct understanding of voidness (emptiness). And voidness, to put it very simply, is talking about how, although we project all sorts of impossible things of how everything exists, what we project is garbage. It’s not referring to anything real. “Voidness” means an absence, a total absence, of an actual referent object to our projections.

It appears to me as though – let’s say – when somebody is treating me very badly and is very nasty to me, and so on – it appears to me only that this is the way that the person is. They’re a nasty person. And that’s the only thing that appears, because of my limited hardware. That’s just what I see in front of my eyes, just what’s happening right now. And it seems as though that’s just the way that they are. They’re a nasty person. That’s their true identity, independently of all the millions of factors that have influenced the way that this person has developed in terms of their family, in terms of their life experiences, in terms of the economic situation of the world, in terms of past lifetimes, etc. So that appearance of somebody just existing – what we would call “inherently” – as a nasty person, just by the power of how they are acting right now, that’s their solid true identity. They’re truly established as nasty. Well, such a person – such an appearance of a person – is not referring to anything real. Nobody exists that way. That’s a projection. You know, they actually appear like this to me because of my limited hardware. And then, because of my confusion, the projection is that they actually exist that way, the way they appear to be. And because I believe in my projection that they really are a nasty person, then I get angry with them, and I yell at them, and so on. I have no tolerance for them. I have no understanding.

The Understanding of Voidness Helps Us to Avoid Extremes in Terms of Refuge

So how does this apply to our topic of refuge? The danger that we need to avoid – and some understanding of voidness will help us to avoid – is while working on myself to overcome my shortcomings and realizing my potentials, I do this as a perfectionist. So here I am. I am a solid existent “me” who is in pretty bad shape. So that’s my true identity. And I have to be perfect. This solid “me” has to be perfect. And all these shortcomings, and so on, that’s horrible. To use Christian terminology, that’s the work of the Devil. So that we have to get rid of. So we make that into some solid thing, and the “me” that has to be perfect and overcome it. And this goal that I’m trying to achieve, to attain the Three Jewels in terms of myself, this is some solidly existing thing out there, that’s so fantastic. And either I really want to get that, so it’s so fantastic, or it’s so impossible, it’s so above me, that I can’t possibly attain it.

And this is a commonly occurring danger that happens among some Dharma practitioners, that they approach the Dharma as a perfectionist, and they become very, very stiff and very inflexible, and actually very unhappy. They take everything totally literally. They are just unbelievably strict with themselves. Often it goes with this low self-esteem of “I’m not good enough,” so you sort of beat yourself when you aren’t being perfect, and so on. It’s a very neurotic way of practicing the Dharma that just brings a great deal of unhappiness along the path. With this, we even make a big solid thing out of our motivation. “Oh, I have love for everybody!” and all of this. “I have to be so loving and wonderful.” And, again, we can’t live up to it, and then again we beat ourselves: “I’m not perfect!”

We could, of course, discuss all of this in terms of analytical meditation on voidness, and so on, but what does that really mean on a practical level? Or if we even don’t have such a profound understanding of voidness? And I think on a very practical level, it just means don’t make a big deal out of our Dharma practice. We just do it. We do it. We work on ourselves. We try to be more patient. Just do it. Without this projection of a “me” that has to be perfect and has to have all of this, and so on. Without any of these thoughts. When these thoughts come up, just try to understand this is garbage. This is just making a big neurotic unhappy trip out of Dharma, and I don’t want to make Dharma into a big ego trip, which is often what perfectionism is.

So when we say, “Just do it,” that doesn’t mean just do it in a mechanical way, with no feeling, because that also is another extreme that we can go to. Mechanically, I’m in the habit of – when I wake up in the morning I do three prostrations, and I set up the water bowls, and do all of this. And it can be totally mechanical, and I’m just doing it. Not thinking in terms of “Me, I’m such a holy practitioner. I have these water bowls and a stick of incense.” Big deal! But we need to have a motivation, without making a big deal out of the motivation. So this is why we have this whole list of things to do to be able to train in having this positive direction, this safe direction in our life.

[See: Actions for Training from Taking Refuge]

Just as a little introduction, one of these is to actually have a spiritual teacher, so we get some inspiration, so we have a role model. And to actually remind ourselves of this direction we’re going in each day, and the benefits of having this direction in our life, so that we have some motivation. In this way, try to avoid the extreme that we could go to that would prevent our having a safe direction in our life, in a practical, down-to-earth, beneficial way, and not in a neurotic way, or not in a trivial way. And not in a sectarian type of way, which again is based on big “me” and “My tradition is such a big deal,” and “I am following the correct path. And you, you’re not following the correct path.”

I have some students who have discussed with me one of the problems that they have, which is arrogance and pride at being a Buddhist: “I have found the light! I have found the true way! And I’m so much better off than my friends that I went to school with who are just lost in worldly pursuits.” And so on. And so they feel better than these others; and even if they develop compassion for them, it is sort of pity, looking down on them. And again, the problem here is not having some understanding of voidness. You’re making a big deal out of “me” and what I’ve done, the direction I’ve put in my life, and then we feel proud and arrogant in terms of that. And you don’t have that, so you are sort of lower than I am. If we’re not careful, it can go into a very heavy direction of: “I have seen the light. I’m going to be saved and you’re going to hell.” There are a lot of problems that could develop because of that.

The Importance of Renunciation in Taking Refuge

So renunciation, some understanding of voidness – and very important to have this direction in our life to be stable; they’re not neurotic. Renunciation – it’s not that, well, I’ll just give up a little bit of things, get out of a little bit of things, but I want to keep some of my shortcomings because it makes life more interesting. That could be one sort of naive approach. Or just because, well, I happen to like sex, or ice cream, or whatever it might be. Now, of course, again we want to avoid being a fanatic – that now I will give up absolutely everything – when it’s just going to drive us crazy. We’re not capable of that. But to have the goal. Direction. That’s why I use this word “direction.” We’re working on that: I’m not able to put full time into my Dharma practice. I have family responsibilities. I have things like that. But I would love to be able to devote full time to this. And that’s something that even if not in this lifetime, some future lifetime – the direction that I’m going on. And I’m not able to overcome my attachments to whatever it might be: sex, ice cream, television, whatever it might be, friends. It doesn’t mean that I never have to have any of this stuff, but we’re talking about the attachment to it, the addiction to it – that this is the source of ultimate happiness. That I want to get rid of. And I’ll work on that – slowly, slowly, but steadily.

Now as for the third of the three principal paths, bodhichitta, that is if we’re going to put this direction in our life in terms of a Mahayana context. Refuge itself is within the context of aiming for liberation, so it’s in common for whether we are following a so-called Hinayana or Mahayana path. So when we’re talking about the true stopping and true pathway minds in the context of refuge, we’re talking about the state of being liberated, liberated from uncontrollably recurring samsara. So an arhat is somebody who is liberated. That’s the goal in Hinayana.

But, similar to bodhichitta, we would look at the liberation that we have not yet attained, but which could be attained – in terms of our own individual liberation in our mental continuum – and we’re aiming for that. Bodhichitta is aiming for our not-yet-attained enlightenment that we could attain, and aiming to achieve it, our own individual enlightenment. So similarly, by analogy, we could aim for our not-yet-attained, not-yet-happening liberation. And the way to achieve that is not just understanding voidness, the description of voidness they have in Hinayana, but also there’s love and compassion. So, along the way, I’m going to help others as much as possible, because in the Hinayana path, as well, we need to build up positive potential, positive force. So that’s through love and compassion. So we shouldn’t think that’s absent from the Hinayana path; it’s not.

But we can also put this direction in our life in a Mahayana sense: that we’re aiming not just for liberation, but we’re aiming for enlightenment. And not only that we’re going to practice love and compassion as much as we can along the way, but when we achieve enlightenment we’ll actually be able to help others as fully as is possible.

So renunciation adds this dimension of what we want to get rid of, what we want to overcome in going in this direction. And either aiming for liberation or bodhichitta (aiming for enlightenment) gives us the goal that we are aiming for. And what are we going to do with that goal. And some aspect of what will help us to reach the goal, this love and compassion aspect, and the understanding of voidness. So it gives us how we are able to do this realistically, what actually will be the main thing that overcomes the shortcomings. And how do we do this in a non-neurotic way? Through the guidance and the very good example, inspiring example, of the spiritual teachers. Mind you, the properly qualified spiritual teachers.

So let’s take, again, a few minutes to digest that, and then we have time for some questions that you have.

Fear of Worse Suffering as a Motivation for Taking Refuge

One further point comes to my mind that I’d like to share with you. When we look at the traditional presentation of the causes for refuge (putting a safe direction in our life), it is fear of even more suffering in the future – we’ve discussed how that could be non-neurotic – and confidence that there’s a way to avoid this making things worse for ourselves. And, if we’re going to do this refuge in a Mahayana sense, compassion for others. I want to go in this direction to help others overcome suffering.

In Berlin, where I live, I’m having a weekly course on the lam-rim (the graded stages of the path). When we started the topic of karma, I asked people to examine themselves honestly: Why don’t you cheat? Why are you honest? Why are you not dishonest? Is it for the reason that is given in the Dharma text, because you are afraid of the negative consequences of being dishonest: worse rebirths, and trouble, and stuff like that? What actually is the reason why you don’t cheat? (Assuming that they don’t cheat, of course.) Or steal. These sort of things. But we can ask that same question in terms of why work on ourselves. In a few words, what we’ve been talking about. Why work on yourself? Is it because you actually fear things getting worse if you don’t? So take a minute or two to examine yourselves honestly.


What most people reported, myself included, was that I’m honest and I don’t cheat because it’s the right thing to do. It just feels right. It doesn’t feel right to cheat or to lie or to be dishonest. It makes me feel uneasy. We feel more comfortable; it’s the right thing to do, to be honest. And why work on myself to try to improve? Well, what else is there to do in life? That’s the only thing that really seems to make sense. Again, it seems like the right thing to do. Everything else just – as they say in the Dharma – just seems to bring more problems. How do I want to spend my life? Watching more television, or what?

So this becomes very interesting, actually. How relevant is the Dharma discussion of the role of fear for us in terms of fearing consequences in the future, and “I don’t want to experience this,” and confidence that there is a way out? That’s not an easy issue to answer, I must say. What you could say is that having thought about all these disadvantages, and having thought about the possibility of avoiding them, and so on, then this direction becomes so stable within us, that going in this direction and being honest, and so on, just seems like the right thing to do. And if we haven’t done all of that in this lifetime, maybe this is coming from some instincts or tendencies from previous lifetime practice, and maybe it’s being reinforced by the religious or cultural ethic of the society or the family in which I was raised – from whatever.

But if we’re thinking in terms of practical daily application and relevance in our lives, then I think we also have to examine the relevance and practicality of the classical motivations that are explained. And is this something that we really feel? And how does it work? Because doing all of this because it just seems right to us to do this, that could also work. But, underlying it, I think there has to be at least some sort of confidence in all the things that we’ve discussed so far: That there is a goal. That it is possible to achieve it. That it’s worthwhile to do that. That there is something that I want to avoid. And so on. And then confidence in all of this. And then, based on that, it seems right. Otherwise, I don’t know… There’s not that much depth in “It seems as though it’s right.” But I think it could work.

What I’m saying is that I think that without some underlying understanding, and without some underlying emotional motivation – let alone this whole devotional side of being inspired, and so on – that just going in this direction, and being honest, and so on, because “it seems right” doesn’t have the depth and strength that it could have if it had these other factors reinforcing it. And just doing something because it seems right, well, it could go in the direction of “Because I want to be good. I want to be a good person.” And that has some danger, in the sense of going in the direction of perfectionism that we’ve pointed out.

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

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

The Conventional "Me" That Takes Refuge

The next question is who is the "me" who wants to be happy and not unhappy, and so puts the safe direction of refuge in his or her life? It's the conventional "me," the mere "me." We have a continuum of mental activity. I shouldn’t say we have one, as if there were a separate “me” that possesses this, neither in the manner of “I have a cow” or “I have an arm” – either possessing something that’s part of me or not part of me. But rather, we should say that there is an individual continuum of mental activity which generates moment to moment to moment, based on behavioral cause and effect, or karma, so it follows a logical sequence of what is experienced with this mental activity. And being individual and subjective, then, it can be labeled in terms of “me.” But that “me” which can be labeled, although it refers to, conventionally, “me” – I’m experiencing rebirth after rebirth; I’m experiencing moment to moment – that what it refers to, conventional “me,” it doesn’t correspond to something. In other words, we have to make a difference between what something refers to and what corresponds to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, in the end, it just comes down to "Just do it!"

Original Audio from the Seminar