Making Our Refuge Firm

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

Taking refuge is an active process of putting a safe and meaningful direction in our lives as indicated by the Three Rare and Precious Gems: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. There are several levels of understanding the three, but on the deepest level, the Dharma Gem refers to true stoppings and true pathway minds, the Buddha Gem are those who have attained the Dharma Gem in full and the Sangha Gem are those who have attained it in part.

This first aspect of the deepest Dharma Gem, the third noble truth, refers to the true stoppings of all the shortcomings, disturbing emotions, tendencies, confusion, and compulsiveness of karma that occur with our mental activity. This means that they are gone forever and can never arise again. This is possible because our mental activity is not innately polluted by this disturbing side, which is based on confusion. 

The other aspect of this deepest Dharma Gem, the fourth noble truth, refers to the true paths. This means the true pathways of understanding, realization and all other good qualities, such as love and compassion, that are possible to develop in our mental activity. This is because our mental activity has all the potentials and abilities to understand anything, to have love and concern for absolutely anybody, and so on. This is the case even though now, because of our limited hardware – basically our limited bodies and limited minds – we only understand a little bit and often it’s confused. And usually we have concern only for ourselves. Maybe we extend that to our family and loved ones, but not to everybody. It’s limited. 

When we speak about all of this in terms of the nature of mental activity and our personal experience, we need a great deal of thought in order to be convinced that these true stoppings and true pathway minds are possible. Only then can we conceive of Buddhas as those who have achieved them in full and the Arya Sangha as those that have achieved them in part. Otherwise, if we think that it’s impossible to achieve them, how can there possibly be Buddhas and the Arya Sangha that have their attainments? And if they have never attained the Dharma Gem, how can we?

The Nature of Mental Activity

To investigate whether it is possible to achieve the Dharma Gem, it’s important to look at the nature of mental activity, since true stoppings and true pathway minds occur with mental activity. Mental activity, or mind, is the subjective, individual, moment-to-moment experiencing of something. Even if it’s experiencing sleep, or experiencing being unconscious, or even experiencing death, there’s always the experiencing of something. More precisely, it is the arising of a complex mental hologram of an object or thought together with a feeling of some level of happiness or unhappiness and a blend of emotions toward it. This arising is equivalent to a cognitive engagement with the object or thought, and it occurs without a separate “me” or “mind” making it happen or observing it. This is the conventional nature of mental activity.

Our subjective, individual mental activity can also be described from a physical point of view. There is some energy or some physical basis for it, like a brain and a body. This energy somehow radiates out and in this manner we have communication. In Buddhist jargon, this is usually referred to as speech. But speech doesn’t necessarily mean just words. It’s all forms of communication. 

If the innate nature of mental activity is that it gives rise to mental holograms, that means it could give rise to a mental hologram of anything. In fact, it could give rise to the mental hologram of everything. The cognitive engagement could be confusion, of course, but it could also be with complete understanding, complete love and patience, and all other positive qualities as well. 

When we talk about the innate conventional nature of the mind, we’re talking about the structure of how it works, namely with the mere arising of a mental hologram and a mental engagement. “Innate” means that it’s an integral part of this mental activity. We’re not talking about the actual content, or of what kind of hologram it gives rise to, or what level of cognitive engagement there is. 

The content could be limited, like we’re only able to perceive what’s directly in front of our nose. Often there are a lot of projections there as well and the engagement could be with a lot of confusion. But, these are examples of limitations of the content. They do not limit or affect the structure of what is happening with mental activity. The structure remains the same regardless of the content. 

The Limitations of Human Hardware

If we were to ask what the problem here is, the problem is that the limitations of our mental activity are 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, we start out as an infant and, as a baby, we don’t understand anything. We can’t actually communicate. All we can do is cry. As we age and progress through adolescence, we’re under the influence of all our hormones, and so we have strong sexual desire and we get aggressive. All these things are big limitations, aren’t they? 

Our body gets sick and, as we get older and older, it starts to break down. We can’t remember things so well and we get confused. It’s a big limitation of the hardware. Other limitations include only being able to see things that are directly in front of these two holes in the front of our heads. We can’t see things outside of that range and we certainly can’t see anything beyond what is happening right now. 

All these limitations in regard to what we can be aware of and how much cognitive engagement we can have with it are basically hardware problems. Because we’re confused and 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. 

However, if we think solely in terms of the structure of our mental activity, that structure by itself is unlimited. It’s what we call “pure.” It is not stained by the limitations caused by the hardware and the confusion. That means that when our mental activity occurs without this type of hardware, without this perpetual generation of life after life with limited hardware, then because its structure has all the potentials and ability to perceive absolutely everything, our mental activity can be with complete understanding, complete love, 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 to free ourselves of this limiting hardware. By the force of our confusion and all the karmic tendencies and potentials that we’ve built up by acting on the basis of this confusion, we’re just going to generate more limited hardware, probably even more limiting than what we have now. 

Although the deepest cause of having limited hardware is our confusion, still the mind is capable of correct understanding. Confusion cannot be validated, while correct understanding can be. This means that, through repeated revalidation and total familiarity, we can recondition our mental activity so that correct understanding displaces confusion and we attain a true stopping of all confusion and the disturbing factors deriving from it.

The more understanding and conviction we have of how correct understanding can replace confusion, the more convinced we become that it’s possible, based on the innate purity of this mental activity and its innate abilities, to actually achieve a true stopping, the third noble truth, and the fourth noble truth, the true pathway minds. The third and fourth noble truths are the deepest Dharma Refuge. 

Could There Ever Have Been a Buddha?

Based on this logic, 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, and that it is possible to attain them. Of course, the question might arise that if it’s possible to attain them, does that mean necessarily that anybody has actually attained them? That’s not an easy one to answer, I must say. 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 say there are a lot of them now, can we really believe that? I must say that’s a difficult one to answer. 

Now we need to analyze. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the great masters always emphasize that 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 we don’t really believe that there is such a thing as the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha on this deepest level, how can we actually put this refuge in our lives? We’re aiming for a goal, liberation or enlightenment, but we don’t even believe that it is possible. The whole thing becomes hypocritical if we’re not confident that there actually is a Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and we can go in the safe direction indicated by them. 

You see, this is what I think sabotages being able to have this refuge as a central, most important thing in our lives. Either we have no idea what refuge actually means or, even if we know what it means, we don’t believe that it’s actually possible to attain these refuge states. Even if we believe it’s possible, we don’t know how to actually put that into our lives. Again, that’s why I’m going into a bit of detail on this analytical side, and not on the side of listing all the qualities of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. 

Let’s see what we can arrive at from our analysis so far. We have ascertained that the stains that are tainting our mental activity – that’s the Buddhist jargon used to describe it – can be removed forever and all its positive qualities and potentials can be fully realized. We need to add to this the Buddhist assertion of beginningless time. Now, if we may borrow scientific jargon – although perhaps imprecisely – on the basis of these assertions, there is a statistical probability that somebody actually has achieved all these true stoppings and true pathway minds. We can’t say that there is no possibility of this as having ever happened, given that it is theoretically possible, and that time is beginningless. 

From this line of reasoning, the probability that there could have been a Buddha is very high and, add to that, there was someone whom all the texts called the “Buddha.” Then, we investigate what this Buddha taught concerning how he attained the true stoppings and true pathway minds that rendered him an enlightened Buddha. When we put his teachings into practice, we start to experience the results that Buddha said were attainable. Based on this logic, we can start to 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 our individual mental activities is pure, but that doesn’t mean that everybody will necessarily reach liberation and enlightenment. The reason for that is that given infinite, 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. 

[See: Why Haven’t We All Become Enlightened Already?]

But if there’s a statistical probability that somebody went all the way in this purification process and became a Buddha, then there’s also a statistical probability that there are those who have gone part of the way, though they haven’t finished the process. That would be the Arya Sangha. If others could do it, then given that Buddhism also asserts that we are all equal, there’s a statistical probability that we can achieve liberation and enlightenment as well. Therefore, it’s not just wishful thinking to put this direction in our lives, working toward achieving an ultimate Dharma Gem in our own mental continuums the way the Buddhas have done and the way the Arya Sangha is doing.

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 statistical probability, there’s also a possibility that there never was any Buddha. This presents a very interesting problem. We can analyze it from several points of view.

In terms of probability, 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 larger probability, in terms of all these possibilities, than the one possibility that there were never any Buddhas. 

That’s one way of looking at it, but there’s another way of analyzing. One of the features of a Buddha is that an enlightened being exerts enlightening influence, which, like a magnet, draws others toward liberation and enlightenment by inspiring them to work toward these goals. In addition, one of the aspects of Buddha-nature that we all have is that our mental continuums can be affected by this enlightening influence to grow through a spiritual path. So, if there was never a Buddha and therefore there was never the enlightening influence of a Buddha, how could anybody ever have made spiritual progress along the Buddhist path? But obviously there have been people who have worked on the Buddhist path and have made spiritual progress. We can see that even in ourselves if we try out the teachings.

Obviously, that requires deeper thought about what inspiration is and what is the importance of being inspired or stimulated to try to improve our situations by someone else’s example or by their teachings. Is it possible to make progress without it? We need to think quite a bit about that. If we say those who made progress could have received enlightening influence merely from teachers who weren’t Buddhas – well, where did those unenlightened teachers get their enlightening influence from? And if there were a first Buddha, where did that Buddha get inspiration from? Was there always Buddhas that exerted this enlightening influence or did enlightening influence come from spiritual masters who were not yet enlightened? By this type of reasoning, we come to the conclusion that there was never a first Buddha, especially since time is beginningless.

Next, we need to look at what Buddha Shakyamuni taught. If we put into practice those teachings at whatever level we’re able to do that, then empirically we know from our own experience that they actually work to bring about their stated results. They help to diminish our suffering and problems. We’re not talking here about the methods Buddha taught that are shared in common by almost all Indian philosophies and systems, like the methods for achieving concentration, and so on. These are not uniquely Buddhist teachings. 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. When we put these teachings into practice, we experience that the more we understand voidness and the more we apply that understanding in our daily lives, the less our problems become. They really work.

Further, if we look at the graded steps that Buddha taught for attaining liberation and enlightenment, we find empirically, from taking as many as we can, that they all work to produce their stated results. If that’s the case, then as we find in the discussion of this point in the Buddhist texts, is there any reason for Buddha to have lied about the subsequent steps to complete the path and attain enlightenment? After all, the only motivation for Buddha’s achieving enlightenment was his equal, boundless compassion for all limited beings. His enlightenment would not have been possible without that level of compassion. Being so compassionate to help all beings out their sufferings, there’s no reason for Buddha to have tried to deceive us when he declared, “I’ve achieved enlightenment; the earth is my witness.” 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, it doesn’t fit that the Buddha lied about this aspect, since everything else that he did was beneficial and honest.

But if we analyze this more – and now I’m analyzing as I’m speaking – we could raise another objection. If we look at the final stages of the path, we learn that if we could have the understanding of voidness perfectly, non-conceptually, all the time, then our ignorance, our unawareness, would never arise again. That’s how we attain the true stopping of the deepest cause of our sufferings and gain liberation. And if our non-conceptual cognition of voidness is strong enough by having bodhichitta backing it up, we gain the full set of true stoppings of all obscurations and attain enlightenment. 

Now here’s my objection. What if Buddha had the non-conceptual understanding of voidness merely just a great deal of the time – much more than we could possibly have achieved by now – and he saw that the more he had this non-conceptual cognition, the weaker his confusion, disturbing emotions and compulsive karmic behavior became and the less suffering he experienced. What if he merely inferred that if he were to have this non-conceptual cognition of voidness all the time, he would rid himself of the true cause of all suffering forever. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he actually achieved this ultimate state. He could have merely inferred its existence, and that would be a valid inferential understanding. He wouldn’t need to have attained enlightenment himself. That’s as far as I’ve gotten in my analysis, because I haven’t come up with an answer to that objection.

But I think that it’s an important objection to address, especially in terms of the relevance of refuge in our daily lives. That’s the point of questioning whether anyone has actually become a Buddha? Is it even actually possible to achieve Buddhahood? And if there was never a Buddha, and it’s impossible to achieve enlightenment, then what are we doing by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha? Are we taking as our source of safe direction something that is impossible? Is it like striving to become Mickey Mouse? Or what is it? Does our Buddhist practice really go more in the direction of just trying to improve things as much as possible? And if it does, and we follow the Buddhist path without believing that we could ever become fully enlightened – or even liberated, for that matter – then fine. But I think we need to be clear about what we’re doing by practicing Buddhism and not fool ourselves: What actually are we striving for and what do we actually think is possible?

It’s important, when taking refuge, to have this direction, this refuge, be secure and stable in our minds, without any doubts. What I’m introducing here are the types of doubts that could arise. I think many of us never really question the possibility of attaining liberation and enlightenment. We just sort of accept it. But after a while, we start to question. What happens, then, is either we give up and say that what we’re striving to attain is impossible. Nobody has ever achieved it, so who am I fooling to think that I can attain it? So, we give up. Or we accept that attaining enlightenment is actually impossible, but we’re satisfied with going as far as is possible in this direction. We might be convinced, logically, that theoretically it’s possible to gain liberation and enlightenment. There are enough lines of reasoning and methods for actually gaining valid inferential understanding that enlightenment is actually, theoretically possible. But then the question is, on a practical level, is it really 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 to attain enlightenment is to attain it ourselves. After all, the texts say 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 Buddhas? A lot of crazy people say they’re Buddhas. We can only know by inference that somebody else is a Buddha because, unless we’re a Buddha, we can’t really know that directly. 

We could say, “Theoretically I can infer that there must be a Buddha.” But in order to really be convinced, we have to become Buddhas ourselves, and so we decide to work in that direction. This might be the solution to all our objections about whether there has ever been a Buddha and whether enlightenment is even possible.

Buddhism Is Not Just Another School of Psychology

What is significant in this long discussion is that although we could, without being convinced that it’s possible to achieve the ultimate Buddhist goals, still put that direction in our life just with the idea that, if we go further than we are now, then even if we can’t reach the goal, it will be an improvement. However, if we’re only thinking in terms of an improvement and not going all the way because we think it’s impossible, then our Buddhist practice has devolved rather that evolved. It’s devolved into a psychology. The Buddhist teachings just become another school of psychology, and the Buddhist practice just becomes another form of psychotherapy. But 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 ourselves to improve this lifetime, but that’s not really what refuge is talking about. 

One extreme that we need to avoid in terms of refuge is thinking of Buddha as our personal savior. But another extreme is thinking that Buddhism just teaches ways to work with our emotions and behavior, like a form of psychotherapy. “Just work on yourself.” That sounds like psychotherapy, doesn’t it? We need to avoid that extreme because, in a sense, it ignores that there are Three Precious Gems and just considers the Dharma. But, there’s the Buddha and there’s the Arya Sangha. Unlike the therapist, the Buddha and the Arya Sangha are our role models. They are the ones that we want to become like. The therapist isn’t exactly our role model. If we knew the therapists personally, we’d find that they probably have a lot of problems too. In addition, Buddhism involves ethics. Psychotherapy doesn’t necessarily involve ethical trainings. In fact, some psychotherapy schools want to avoid any sort of ethical advice. 

The Devotional Side of Refuge

Buddhism does have a devotional side that can help to strengthen our taking of refuge. It’s not something that we should negate or deny. This devotional side includes receiving inspiration and having some sort of ritual expression for our positive emotional states. We could perhaps direct our devotional practices toward the Buddhas and, as representing the Sangha, bodhisattvas like Tara and Chenrezig, and so on. 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, either the historical Buddha Shakyamuni or Chenrezig, then what represents them are the spiritual teachers – both historical ones like Guru Rinpoche and Milarepa, or present-day ones. We’re not just talking about somebody who just calls himself or herself 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 them “lama” as well, but that doesn’t signify that they have any good qualities. It only signifies being charismatic and able to influence other people and being ambitious. 

But, in any case, this inspiration factor is often translated as “blessing” and I think this can be a misleading translation. Inspiration helps to give us the energy and the encouragement to actually go in this direction in our lives. There is nothing mystical about it. Such inspiration is something we get from the spiritual teachers. Through them we can get some sort of understanding of the Buddhas and the Arya Sangha. Through them we get the explanations of the teachings. Although we can read about the Dharma in a book or on the Internet, often it’s not so clear. Often, we need somebody that can explain and answer our questions. Not only that, we also need somebody who embodies what we are aiming for, so that 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, I think it’s really important to have a role model that we can relate to. Perhaps for some, it’s hard to relate to Guru Rinpoche as a role model. Guru Rinpoche was born from a lotus and was able to go through fire and not be burned, and stuff like that. That’s really hard to relate to as a role model, isn’t it? Certainly, I’m not in any way diminishing the importance of Guru Rinpoche, and that the 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 of course the really advanced ones, are a model that we can relate to a bit better. Even if we can’t relate to somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there are lesser accomplished spiritual teachers that maybe we can relate to a little more easily. 

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 Buddha himself. His Holiness very commonly is teaching an audience of a hundred thousand people or more. Obviously, we have never had that type of experience. He influences so many people around the world and, to be able to do this, he gains inspiration from the much more advanced role model of a Buddha that’s able to teach everybody simultaneously. Each of us can have increasingly more advanced role models as we progress, going all the way up to the Buddha. Even for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the role of inspiration from his spiritual teachers, or from Buddha himself, is very important and central. 

What Significance Does Refuge Have in Our Lives?

What have we established so far? We’ve established this ultimate safe direction that we’re trying to put in our lives. In very simple language, we are working on ourselves to get rid of our shortcomings and disturbing aspects, and to realize all our positive potentials. I’ve given some indication of how we could start to think or analyze and hopefully become convinced that it is possible to go all the way. We can get rid of the entire disturbing side and realize the entire positive side of our mental activity. It is possible. There are Buddhas who have done that and, not only that, they’ve taught us how to do it ourselves. There is the Arya Sangha, those that have done it partway and are still working toward that goal. There are spiritual teachers who maybe have not as yet reached that arya stage of true stoppings and true pathway minds; but nevertheless, they are more advanced on the path than we are. Through all of them, depending on our level, we can gain great inspiration and have authentic role models. We are each capable of going all the way in this direction. With the help of the spiritual teachers and a lot of hard work, we’ll be able actually to achieve this goal of liberation, and in a Mahayana sense, enlightenment. 

Becoming convinced of all this, then refuge or safe direction really becomes the central purpose of our lives, meaningful to us all the time. But for this, we really have to become convinced and we need to be inspired by our role models. We need for our refuge actually to be relevant in our lives. When we have some episode of difficulty in our life, we need to not be discouraged by it. We need to realize that we are able to handle it. It will be possible. Maybe now it’s not so easy, but by putting this safe direction in our lives, we can gradually overcome our anger, for example. We can overcome all these difficulties that we face. We’re going to work on that. 

When problems come up in our daily life, we’re not going to deny them. It’s not that we’re going to try to forget about them and just turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, television or whatever to somehow make things a little bit better. Instead, we have this safe direction in our lives. We’re actually going to turn to Buddhist methods to try to deal with the situation. If we do that, this is a clear indication that we actually have this direction in our life. Then we’ve actually taken refuge. 

Let’s take a few minutes to reaffirm the ground that we’ve covered so far. I think part of this reflection needs to be about: if we consider ourselves to be Buddhists, does refuge have any actual significance in our life? What does it mean to us? Does it have a meaning similar to what we’ve been discussing, or is it something very trivial and sort of a side thing in our lives? Does it mean not very much? 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 we could believe in any system as being the one teaching the truth. We could be motivated by any sort of charismatic spiritual leader from any tradition. What’s the different here with Buddhism? We have to look at two things: the Buddhist goals and the methods for achieving them. There could be many religions that can teach us, as the goal, going to heaven. They may teach methods that actually work and that will bring us to heaven. We could believe in that religion, and be confident in its teachings, and by following them, 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. In Buddhism, we have enlightenment, meaning that we work toward enlightenment so as to best be able to help others achieve this goal of liberation. I can’t think of any other Indian system that teaches that. 

But as for what these other Indian systems consider liberation, the methods for achieving it, the causes for not being liberated, the causes for having uncontrollably recurring rebirth – for which they even use the word “samsara” – from a Buddhist point of view, they are only partial. The understanding they teach is not quite correct. To really have this refuge, this safe direction in our lives, we must be convinced of not just everything that we’ve discussed so far. That’s part of it. The additional part, and a very important part, is to be convinced of the validity of the method Buddha taught for achieving the goal. The Buddhist method involves the understanding of what we call “voidness” or “emptiness” and the various ways of developing compassion. We need to know correctly of what they are and be convinced that they actually work.

Therefore, to really put this direction in our life on a daily level, we also need some understanding of the method involved with working on ourselves, and we need to be convinced that it will actually be effective. In addition, we should have some clear idea of what goal we are aiming to achieve and, as we’ve been discussing, that it’s realistic to achieve this goal by means of the methods Buddha taught.

The Need for Renunciation and a Correct Understanding of Voidness

Now we have to bring in the three principal paths as discussed by Tsongkhapa. The first is the determination to be free, or what’s called “renunciation.” To go in the safe direction of refuge, we have to identify our suffering situation and the causes of it and, dreading that fact that if we do nothing, they will go on forever, really renounce them. We need to know that this is what we want to get out of and be determined to get free of it. Without that renunciation, 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? 

The second principal path is a correct understanding of voidness. Voidness, to put it very simply, addresses the fact that we imagine all sorts of impossible things about how everything exists, but what we imagine and believe in is garbage. It doesn’t correspond to anything real. “Voidness” means an absence, a total absence, of an actual referent object to the mental fabrications of our imaginations. 

For example, when somebody is treating us very badly and is very nasty and so on, it appears to us that this is the only way that the person is. They’re a nasty person. That’s the only thing that appears because of our limited hardware. Our judgement is based merely on what we see in front of our eyes happening right now. They’re a nasty person. It appears that being a nasty person is their true identity, independent of all the millions of factors that have influenced the way this person has developed – their family, their life experiences, the economic situation of the world, their past lifetimes, etc. And it appears that they always have been and always will be a nasty person. We imagine and believe that this appearance of somebody existing “inherently” as a nasty person, just by the power of how they are acting right now, is their solid, true identity. They’re truly established as nasty. 

Well, such a person, or more correctly, such an appearance of a person does not correspond to anything real. Nobody exists that way. That’s a mental fabrication of our imaginations. The mental fabrication is that they actually exist that way, the way they appear. But they appear like this to us simply because of our limited hardware and because of our confusion. And because, out of confusion and not knowing any better, we believe in our fantasy that they really are a nasty person, and so we get angry with them, we yell at them, and so on. We have no tolerance for them and no understanding.

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

How does this apply to our topic of refuge? Some understanding of voidness will help us to avoid the danger of becoming a perfectionist while working to overcome our shortcomings and realize our potentials. It mistakenly appears to us that here we are, a solidly existent “me” in pretty bad shape. We imagine that that’s our true identity and, to overcome that, we have to be perfect. This solid “me” has to be perfect. All these shortcomings and so on are just so horrible. To use Christian terminology, it’s the work of the Devil. We have to get rid of that. We make our shortcomings into some sort of solid thing that the “me” that has to be perfect must overcome.

The habits of our confusion make this goal that we’re trying to achieve, this goal to attain the Three Jewels, appear to be some fantastic, solidly existing thing out there. Either I really want to achieve that goal because it’s so fantastic, or it’s so above me and impossible that I can’t possibly attain it. 

This is a commonly occurring danger that happens among some Dharma practitioners. They approach the Dharma as a perfectionist, and they become very stiff and 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” and they psychologically beat themselves up. It’s a very neurotic way of practicing the Dharma that just brings a great deal of unhappiness along the path. In this mistaken approach, 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.” Again, we can’t live up to it and then, again, we beat ourselves up for not being perfect. 

We could, of course, discuss all of this in terms of analytical meditation on voidness, but what does that really mean on a practical level? What if we don’t have such a profound understanding of voidness? On a very practical level, I think it just means we don’t make a big deal out of our Dharma practice. We just do it. We work on ourselves. We try to be more patient. We just do it without this mental fabrication of a “me” that has to be perfect and without any of these thoughts about having to be this or do that perfectly. 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 we don’t want to make Dharma into a big ego trip. This is often what perfectionism becomes. 

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. For example, mechanically, we might be in the habit of doing three prostrations and setting up the water bowls when we wake up in the morning. It can be totally mechanical, and we’re just doing it. We are not thinking in terms of a solid “me” and “I’m such a holy practitioner. I have these water bowls and a stick of incense.” We’re just mechanical in our practice. We need to have a motivation, without making a big deal out of the motivation. 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]

But, just as a little introduction, one of these things is to actually have a spiritual teacher. With that, we get some inspiration and we have a role model. In addition, we 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, we try to avoid the extremes that we could go to that would prevent our having a safe direction in our life. We do this in a practical, down-to-earth, beneficial way, and not in a neurotic or trivial way. We don’t do this in a sectarian way either. Sectarianism is also based imagining and believing in a solid “me” and “my solid tradition that is such a big deal.” “I am following the correct path; you’re not following the correct path.” 

I have some students who have discussed with me the problem of arrogance and pride about being a Buddhist: “I have found the light! I have found the true way! I’m so much better off than my friends that I went to school with, who are just lost in worldly pursuits.” We might feel better than others and even develop compassion for them, but it is sort of pity and looking down on them. Again, the problem here is not having some understanding of voidness. We might make a big deal out of “me” and what we’ve done, the direction we’ve put in our life, and then we feel proud and arrogant in terms of that. Others don’t have that, so others are sort of lower than we are. 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 we could develop because of such an arrogant attitude. 

The Importance of Renunciation in Taking Refuge

To review, we need renunciation and some understanding of voidness in order to have this safe direction in our lives be stable and not neurotic. Renunciation does not to merely give up and try get out of only some of our problems and their causes, but to want to keep others, like our aggressive, argumentative manner, because they make life more interesting. That could be one sort of naive approach. Another might be that we don’t give up certain attachments we have, because we happen to like sex, social media, television, or whatever it might be. 

Of course, again we want to avoid being a fanatic and give up absolutely everything that causes us difficulties in life when we’re not ready to do that. Remember, renunciation doesn’t mean that we never have any of these things we like, but we’re talking about giving up attachment to them and the addiction to thinking that they are the sources of ultimate happiness. We want to get rid of that faulty way of thinking and we are determined to work on that slowly, slowly, but steadily. 

We may not be capable of full renunciation yet, but we want to have that as our goal. That’s why I use this word “direction.” That is the direction that we’re going in – even if not fully in this lifetime, but in some future lifetime. We’re working on it.

The Need for Bodhichitta

As for the third of the three principal paths, bodhichitta, this is relevant for taking refuge when we’re putting this direction in our life as a Mahayana practitioner. In general, however, refuge is traditionally discussed within the context of aiming for liberation. It’s practiced in common whether we are following a so-called Hinayana or a Mahayana path. The true stoppings and true pathway minds aimed for in the context of refuge refer to those involved with gaining liberation from uncontrollably recurring samsara. An arhat is somebody who is liberated and to become an arhat is the goal in Hinayana. But we can also take refuge when aiming with bodhichitta for full enlightenment.

Bodhichitta is the state of mind that focuses on our not-yet-attained individual enlightenment that we are capable of attaining because of the innate purity of our mental activity. It aims to achieve the true stoppings and true pathway minds of that enlightened state in order to benefit all limited beings. By analogy, we could focus on our not-yet-attained, not-yet-happening liberation, which we are also capable of attaining, and we could aim to attain it in order to bring an end to all our suffering with samsaric rebirth. The way to achieve that is not just through understanding the description of voidness in Hinayana, but also with love and compassion. Along the Hinayana path, we’re going to help others as much as possible, because on this path as well, we need to build up positive potential or positive force. That’s accomplished through the practices of love and compassion. Therefore, we shouldn’t think that such practices are absent from the Hinayana path. They’re not. 

But we can also put this direction in our life in a Mahayana sense. We’re not just aiming for liberation; we’re aiming for enlightenment. It’s 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 help others as fully as is possible. 

To review, renunciation adds the dimension of what we want to rid ourselves of, what we want to overcome in going in this direction. Either aiming for liberation or, with bodhichitta, aiming for enlightenment gives us the goal. What are we going to do to reach that goal? One aspect of what will help us is to develop more love and compassion, and another is gain a correct understanding of voidness. These present us with the ways in which we are able to attain these goals realistically and what will actually be the main aspects that overcome our shortcomings. How do we practice these methods in a non-neurotic way? We do that through the guidance and inspiring example of our spiritual teachers – mind you, properly qualified spiritual teachers. 

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 or putting a safe direction in our life, it is fear of even more suffering in the future and confidence that there’s a way to avoid making things worse for ourselves. We’ve discussed how that could be generated in a non-neurotic way. When we do this in a Mahayana context, there is a third cause for going in this direction: compassion for others. We want to go in this safe direction to help others overcome their suffering. 

In Berlin, where I live, I have a weekly course on the lam-rim (the graded stages of the path). You can listen to all of it. It’s on my website and available as a podcast as well. 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 texts: because you are afraid of the negative consequences of being dishonest, such as worse rebirths and terrible things like that? What actually is the reason why you don’t cheat?” This is assuming that they don’t cheat or steal, of course.

We can ask ourselves that same question in terms of why work on ourselves. Is it because we actually fear worse rebirths and such things if we don’t? Take a minute or two to examine this honestly. 


What most people reported, me included, was that we’re honest and 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 us feel uneasy. We feel more comfortable being honest. Why work on our self to try to improve? 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 seems to bring more problems. How do I want to spend my life? Is it watching more television, or what? 

This becomes very interesting, actually. How relevant is the Dharma discussion for us in terms of fearing the consequences in the future if we don’t practice, and having confidence that there is a way out? That’s not an easy issue to answer, I must say. Maybe going in this direction just seems like the right thing to do, even if we haven’t thought about these things. But for our going in this direction to be stable, I think we also need to examine the relevance and practicality of the classical motivations that are explained. Are they things that we really feel? How does it work? 

Going in the direction of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha because it just seems right 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: there is a goal – liberation and enlightenment – and it’s possible to achieve it and worthwhile to work toward that. To do so, we need to rid our minds of all the troublemaker attitudes and disturbing emotions that prevent these attainments. If we have confidence in all of this and then, based on that, going in this direction seems right, I think it could work. Otherwise, I don’t know if there’s much depth in merely going in this direction because it seems like the right thing to do. 

To clarify, what I’m saying is that without some underlying understanding, without some underlying emotional motivation, let alone this whole devotional side of being inspired, just going in this direction simply because “it seems right” doesn’t have the depth and strength that it could have with these other factors reinforcing it. Just doing something because it seems right could go in the direction of wanting to do good things and be a good person. But there is some danger of becoming a perfectionist fanatic with that, as 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 we feel happier acting in this way. If we were to cheat and be dishonest, or if we felt that we were just wasting our lives and they were going nowhere, we would feel uncomfortable and be unhappier. That reaffirms one of the most basic principles we have in Buddhism: everybody wants to be happy and no one wants to be unhappy. Having this safe direction in our lives brings us more happiness; while lacking a safe and sound direction in life or having no direction at all brings us more unhappiness. That safe direction entails following the Dharma and being honest. 

Now of course we can object and say, well, there are some criminals that cheat and do all sorts of illegal things, and they feel very good about this direction in their lives. They got away with their crimes. But then we would have to analyze more deeply how long their feelings of satisfaction last and are they based on a valid understanding of behavior cause and effect.

The Conventional “Me” That Takes Refuge

The last question we need to ask 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, either 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, to be more precise, we should say that there is an individual continuum of mental activity that generates consecutive moments of experience based on behavioral cause and effect, karma. Because of that, there is a logical sequence of what is experienced with this mental activity. Being individual and subjective, each mental continuum serves as a basis for imputation of a person, a self. 

A person, a conventional “me,” then, is an imputation on an individual continuum of mental activity, like a movie is an imputation on an individual continuum of scenes. It conventionally exists, as in “I’m experiencing what’s happening moment to moment and I’m putting a safe direction in my life.” But how do we establish that this conventional “me” exists? It cannot be found in any part of its basis. But it can be mentally labeled with the concept or category “me” and designated with the word “me.” The concept and word refer to that conventional “me.” So, although this conventional “me” cannot be found existing solidly anywhere, we can establish its existence as merely what the concept and word “me” refers to.

The problem is that concepts and words imply items that truly exist as fitting into their categories. But there is nothing that truly exists that way. There is no such thing as a truly existent, self-established “me” that correspond to the concept and word “me.” It is crucial, then, that we differentiate what a mental label, a concept, refers to and what corresponds to a mental label or concept.

Let me explain the difference with an example. Every moment we experience some level of feeling. We can mentally label them all with a concept, the category “happiness,” and designate them all with the word “happiness.” All of them would be instances of feeling happy, although obviously what we feel changes from moment to moment. The intensity and quality of happiness we feel is slightly different each moment. When we say, “I’m feeling happy,” it refers to something. We’re actually feeling something, but there is no solidly, separately existing “happiness” that corresponds to this mental label, concept, category or word, existing findable somewhere that I’m somehow connecting with and now I’m feeling it.

Mental labels, equivalent to categories and concepts, are static phenomena. Like mental boxes, they are not affected by anything; they are fixed concepts. Although they can be replaced by newer concepts, they do not grow organically. When we talk about things corresponding to mental labels – corresponding to fixed concepts and static categories – they would be items that truly existed as fitting into these fixed mental boxes. It seems as though they are sitting in these boxes, findable there, but that doesn’t correspond to anything real. Nothing exists like that. Similarly, nothing exists like an entry in a dictionary, which the conventional words for things imply.

When we talk about voidness, we’re talking about an absence of something that would correspond to what these mental labels and words imply – something established as truly existent in a fixed box. Nevertheless, conventionally we can say, “I feel happy,” and that happiness that we’re feeling refers to something. It’s not just totally nothing. Conventionally, we are feeling something, conventionally we call it “happiness” and most people would agree and also call it “happiness.” Although, of course, it’s subjective and individual: How do they know what I’m feeling?

It’s the same with “me” or the self, the person, the individual – whatever you want to call it. It is an imputation on an individual, subjective continuum of mental activity. We can mentally label this conventionally existent “me” with the concept we have of ourselves as “me” and designate it with the word “me.” They both refer to something, this conventionally existent “me.” But there is nothing that corresponds to what these concepts, categories and words “me” imply. There is no solidly existing “me” as a fixed entity, findable as fitting in the mental box of the fixed concept we have of ourselves. It might seem like such a “me” is living inside our body or mind as if in a house and either observing or controlling what we do, say and think, but that’s a complete mental fabrication. The conventional “me” does not exist in that impossible way.

So, what conventionally exists? There are individual continuums of mental activity with potentials, energy that communicates out to others, a body as its physical basis, and so on. An individual, “me,” is an imputation on such a continuum as its basis. Like its basis, it continues from moment to moment, but without anything solid or static passing from moment to moment as if on a conveyor belt.

Tying this in with our discussion of refuge, we see that it’s the conventional “me” that can take refuge, putting a safe direction in its life and reach liberation and enlightenment. That conventional “me” is an imputation on an individual, beginningless and endless mental continuum, even beyond its attainment of enlightenment. It can be mentally labeled with the concept of a “me” and the word “me,” and they will validly refer to it. But the conventional “me” does not exist as some solid, separate entity that, having taken refuge, is never good enough and now has to be perfect. 

When I was saying that, having taken refuge, we need to just do it, just work on ourselves, I meant do this 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 work on myself. Or is it three “me”s already? “I’ve got to get myself to work on myself.” This is a totally confused way of looking at ourselves, as if there were a disciplinarian “me” that has to get a lazy “me” to work on improving the “me” that is not good enough. This is really neurotic.

“Just do it” means putting this safe direction in our lives with decisiveness, willpower, attentiveness, perseverance and so on. All of these are mental factors that need to accompany our mental activity, but without there being some separate “me” at the control board pushing the button: “Now work harder. Now I’m going to take this item from the box called ‘willpower and self-control’ and connect it to that lazy ‘me’ over there.” That’s not the way it works. When we just do it, our going in a safe direction just happens without there being a separate “me” that’s actually doing it. Although, of course, conventionally, I’m doing it; nobody else is doing it.

So, in the end, it comes down to “Just do it! Put the safe direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in life!” Doing like that, our refuge becomes firm.

Original Audio from the Seminar