Explanation of Actions for Training from Taking Refuge

There are various types of actions that are specified for how we train ourselves to actually put the safe direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in our lives. They clearly indicate the practical application of refuge in our daily lives and what we actually need to do in order to maintain that direction. 

For this, there are two lists of actions for training. One comes from a text written by the ancient Indian Buddhist master Asanga, called The All-Inclusive Text for Ascertainments (gTan-la dbab-pa bsdu-ba, Skt. Vinishcaya-samgraha). The other derives from what are called the “quintessence teachings.” Quintessence teachings do not derive from a specific classical text and can be either written or oral. Each of these two lists has two divisions: instructions related to each of the Three Gems individually and instructions related to all three in common.

Asanga’s List

First, let’s go through the list of instructions that comes from Asanga’s text. Each of its two divisions has four actions for training.

Committing Ourselves to a Spiritual Teacher

Parallel to taking safe direction from the Buddhas, we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to a spiritual teacher. The main reason is because we need inspiration from a role model. For that, we need a spiritual teacher. A spiritual teacher is not just somebody that gives us information. We can get information from a book or the Internet. A spiritual teacher is someone who can actually inspire us by their living example, and of course answer questions and correct us when we’re making mistakes. 

If we haven’t found a spiritual teacher as yet, we need to make some effort to find one. That can be very difficult, especially when we have a limited choice. It might be that not many teachers come to where we live and, even if they do, they just stay a few days and then go on to the next place on their teaching tour. It might be that there are so many other students that these teachers don’t have time to deal with us individually. But there are many different levels of spiritual teacher. There can be teachers that just give us information or show us how to sit properly and so on. There can be teachers that just help us with discussion and teachers who are actual spiritual guides who confer vows on us and advise us in our spiritual path. We can learn from all of them.

[See: Different Levels of Spiritual Teachers and Students]

But what we’re talking about here is the teacher that inspires us personally. We commit ourselves wholeheartedly to such a teacher. That person might not inspire anybody else. Just because other people find one teacher so great doesn’t mean that we’re going to share that impression. To use the Western jargon here, there has to be some sort of personal chemistry involved. To use the Buddhist jargon, there has to be some karmic relationship. That teacher that we find so inspiring gives us the energy to continue all along the path. 

Our role model, then, doesn’t have to be the teacher from whom we receive a lot of teachings or personal guidance. It could be someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom we might never meet individually one to one. Obviously, if we attend teachings by His Holiness, or listen to his tapes or books, that’s much better. 

In terms of taking refuge, there is an official ceremony that can be performed. By making our taking of refuge into an event, we formalize that now we really are seriously putting this safe direction in our lives. We do this with a teacher, but that doesn’t mean that this person must actually become our spiritual teacher. We show respect to them because, in a sense, they’ve opened the door for us, but we might not find them particularly inspiring. It also doesn’t mean that we have now joined the tradition of Buddhism that this teacher follows. We haven’t joined that person’s club and become exclusively part of their Dharma “football team.” We’re taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We’re not taking refuge in the person that conducts the ceremony. 

To repeat, when we’re heading in this safe direction, it’s important to have role models and someone to inspire us, a spiritual teacher. The main function of the spiritual teacher, according to the traditional texts, is to provide the inspiration and energy to get us started on the path, to maintain us on the path, and to give us the energy to complete the path. Although in theory we can gain that inspiration from the examples of Buddha Shakyamuni and the highly realized aryas, for most of us they’re pretty difficult to relate to, and we certainly don’t meet any of them in our daily lives! 

Studying the Buddha’s Teachings

To maintain the Dharma direction in our lives, firstly, we need to train in and study the Buddha’s teachings. That’s very important. His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes over and again that without actually studying and learning the teachings, we will understand nothing. We might perform rituals and things like that, but we’ll be doing them without any understanding. Unfortunately, that’s not going to bring much result. 

To go in a safe direction, we need to know what that direction is. We have to learn what the methods are. Without that knowledge, how can we possibly go in this direction? For instance, if we want to read, we have to learn how to read. There’s no way around it. 

Focusing Specifically on the Teachings for Overcoming Our Disturbing Emotions

The second training in connection with the Dharma is focusing our attention on those aspects of the teachings specified for overcoming our disturbing emotions. There are teachings about all sorts of topics. To just learn the length of the life span in each of the different realms may be nice to know, but they’re not going to directly help us overcome our anger, for example, or our greed or selfishness. To go in the direction of the deepest Dharma Gem – true stoppings and true pathway minds – then within the teachings, we need to emphasize those aspects that are going to help us overcome our disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes. 

Following the Example of the Highly Realized Arya Sangha

Next, to maintain the safe direction of the Sangha – referring to the Arya Sangha, the highly realized practitioners – the training is to follow their examples. We’re not talking about the examples of the monastics. It’s not that we have to become monks or nuns. After all, a highly realized being can be either a monastic or not. What this refers to is that we need to follow their examples of studying, practicing, learning and working really, really hard. This is how they gained their high levels of realization – their non-conceptual cognitions of voidness and of the four noble truths, and so on – and how they then continued to work further toward liberation and enlightenment. That’s the example we need to follow. 

The Relevance of These Four Trainings in Daily Life

What is the relevance in daily life? Let’s examine how they apply. We have some sort of model, a spiritual teacher, and that person inspires us when things are going roughly. We are learning the Dharma methods and focusing on the methods that can help us overcome anger, greed, and selfishness, etc. We’re following the examples of the Arya Sangha of trying to put the teachings into practice all the time, whenever difficulties arise. Even when difficulties aren’t arising, we continue as a sort of preventive measure to avoid difficulties arising. We’re just doing it, non-dualistically.

Underlying our practice to put a safe direction in our lives is the motivation that we don’t want things to get worse. We understand that if go in this safe direction it will help us to be a happier person and to avoid problems. In addition, behaving this way feels right. We feel happier, with more peace of mind. We’re not just a victim of the difficulties that happen in our lives. We are working to overcome these difficulties, and our refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha gives us the strength and methods to do that. 

Withdrawing from the Pursuit of Sensory Pleasures

In relation to taking safe direction from all Three Gems as a whole, first of all, we withdraw our minds from flying off in pursuit of sensory pleasures and, as the primary task in our lives, work on ourselves instead. As one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, used to say, “We should stop being a tourist of samsara.” It isn’t essential to experience all the different possibilities that samsaric life can offer. The pursuit of sensory pleasures just brings on what are called the “sufferings of change.” This is because, when we investigate these pleasures, they never last and never satisfy. We always want more, and if we have too much at a time it makes us sick. For example, if eating our favorite food brought about true happiness, the more we ate at one time the happier we would be. But obviously there’s a limit there. 

Contrary to that, when we make our primary pursuit working on ourselves and trying to overcome what causes us to lose peace of mind, then obviously, as a result, we will have more peace of mind. We will in fact be happier in a much more stable way. It might not be as dramatic as a sexual encounter, but the happiness that comes from having peace of mind is much more stable and secure. 

That doesn’t mean that we have to completely give up all entertainment, good food and sexual experience. We don’t have to give away all our money and so on. What this does mean is that we need to put those sensory pleasures in a certain perspective. Sometimes we need to relax in order to be able to work more efficiently. But we take this relaxation almost in the manner of a medicine. For instance, one of the prayers for dedicating our meals is: “I partake of this food not out of greed, not out of desire, but as a medicine to be able to give me more strength to be able to continue working to help others.” 

If we look at our relaxation, perhaps going to the movies, or whatever it might be, as some sort of medicine to regenerate our energy, then it’s fine. With this viewpoint, our pursuit of such breaks stays within certain limits and will be in moderation, and we won’t overinflate the pleasure that we might gain from that. 

There’s this joke that whoever at the end of life has accumulated the most toys, the most material possessions, wins. It’s not like that. It’s not as though the whole point of life is to accumulate as many gadgets and electronic devices as we can, or to have seen more movies than everybody else, or that our bank account holds a larger number than somebody else’s, or that we’ve eaten more exotic foods than anybody else. That’s not the point of life, is it? None of these are going to give us any sort of lasting satisfaction, particularly if we think in terms of future lives. 

Clearly, when our primary focus is not on entertainment, it really sets the whole tone of our daily lives. Our daily lives are not just about listening to more and more music or something like that. There are people addicted to listening to music; whether working, commuting, walking around, they are always listening to their iPods all day and night. Having put the safe direction of refuge in our lives, distracting ourselves with music all the time is certainly not a means for going in that direction. To go in this safe direction, the primary thing in our lives needs to be working to overcome our attachments, our greed, our selfishness, etc. But remember, this doesn’t mean to pursue this in a fanatic, perfectionist type of way. We can still have fun. 

That’s a very interesting concept: What is fun? Let me relate one of my favorite stories. Once, when I was in Holland with my teacher, the old Serkong Rinpoche, we stayed at the home of a wealthy family. They had a very large boat, which they kept in a very small lake. One day, they took us for a ride on their yacht. We were in this small lake with a lot of other yachts and, together with them in a line, we just went very slowly in a circle around the lake, as if we were on some sort of children’s ride in an amusement park. Rinpoche turned to me and said in Tibetan, “Is this what they consider fun?” Again, what is fun? 

Shantideva says that if our Dharma work is fun for us, then we’re not happy unless we are doing Dharma work. This includes helping others, working on ourselves, etc. That’s what perseverance is all about. It’s enjoying what we’re doing. If we can enjoy what we do, then we’ll continue doing it. 

Actually, there is a great deal of joy involved in improving ourselves, getting rid of or lessening various disturbing emotions, various internal conflicts, and so on. It’s hard work, but very enjoyable as we get more and more results. Of course, these results will go up and down. It’s not a linear process. But still, when we see we are making some progress, it’s fantastic. We feel, “I’m actually doing something.”

A helpful analogy may be of someone training in a sport. It’s really hard work to swim all the time or run all the time. But, when we’re able, through training, to run or swim farther and faster, and our endurance gets better, we really feel great, don’t we? Despite the difficulties, we enjoy it. It’s the same thing with our Dharma practice. We’re training and training and, wow, for example, we were able to go to a family dinner with all the relatives that we really find very irritating and we didn’t lose our temper. We were able to be patient, and it was okay. We got through the meal perfectly okay. In fact, we even enjoyed it, despite our mother or father saying, “Why aren’t you getting married yet?” or “Why don’t you have children?” or “Why don’t you make more money?” or “Why don’t you call me more often?” We were able to keep our peace of mind and deal with it and it really feels good. 

To summarize, this instruction involves withdrawing our minds from the pursuit of sensory pleasures, and the point being that Dharma practice is in fact more enjoyable.

Adopting Buddha’s Ethical Standards

The next instruction from Asanga’s list of trainings for all Three Precious Gems in common is to adopt the ethical standards that the Buddhas have set. This is a very important. To go in this safe direction means that we have to avoid destructive behavior and act in constructive ways instead. Doing so is following the basic Buddhist ethics. If we were to act destructively, based on our disturbing emotions, it would just produce more unhappiness, especially for us and possibly for others. When, on the other hand, we act constructively, it brings about more happiness. 

Buddhist ethics are not based on obedience. That’s not the principle of ethics at all. In other systems, there are laws, either set by some divine authority or set by legislation, and to be an ethical person means to be obedient and obey the laws. Buddhism isn’t like that. Rather, the whole point in Buddhist ethics is learning to discriminate for ourselves between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. This is important. It’s entirely about what is helpful and what is harmful, not about what’s good or what’s bad, or what’s legal and what’s illegal. Based on that discrimination between helpful and harmful, known as “discriminating awareness,” we decide to refrain from what would be harmful. 

What is harmful is what would be self-destructive and what would have us go in a worse direction, like getting more and more addicted to destructive habits. A destructive direction from of a health perspective might include smoking, for example, but there are also destructive behaviors, destructive emotions and destructive attitudes from a social point of view. Simply put, a safe direction is what would be helpful for improving ourselves and improving our abilities to help others. 

Being Compassionate

The next training is to try to be as sympathetic and compassionate to others as possible. I don’t think that needs terribly much explanation. Even if we’re just working for our own personal liberation, we certainly need to be kind to others and to help them. 

Making Special Offerings on Buddhist Holidays

The last training is making special offerings of fruit, flowers and so on on Buddhist special days, such as the anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. That’s an interesting one, actually, because we might have the attitude that we don’t need to celebrate special holidays. What’s the whole point of that? We might be offended by the example of how commercialized Christmas has become in the West and think, “What do I need this for? Is this just a Buddhist version of putting up a Christmas tree and, instead of putting lights on a Christmas tree, are we putting tea candles in little bowls on an altar?” 

I think the whole point here is just showing respect for the Buddha, the tradition, the masters, and so on. Making offerings is a token of respect. We don’t have to make a big deal out of it, and we don’t have to wait for a certain Buddhist holiday in order to show that respect. That’s something that we can do every day. We shouldn’t make it like going to church on Sunday, and the rest of the week we do whatever we want. Observing a religious holiday makes us also feel part of a larger community; it serves a social supportive function as well. 

When we look at these trainings, we find certain things that don’t sound exclusively Buddhist. Being compassionate and sympathetic to others, following ethics, and so on – these are pretty universal, aren’t they? 

But to review the specifically Buddhist points presented earlier in this list, first, we look at the examples of the great Buddhist masters as our role models. Next, we study the teachings, specifically the teachings that are aimed at lessening our disturbing emotions and we follow the examples of the great highly realized beings. Of course, we really need to work hard at all this. In this context, we can add being ethical, being kind and sympathetic, not heavily following sensory desires but staying focused and steady in terms of our priorities and showing respect for the tradition.

The List from the Quintessence Teachings

Thus far, we’ve introduced the trainings for each of the individual Gems and for the three in general from Asanga’s text. Similarly, the guideline instructions advise trainings for each of the specific Gems as well as for the three all together. In terms of the individual Gems, there is an action to avoid and one to adopt in relation to each of the three. First, the actions to avoid.

In Relation to the Buddhas, Avoiding Taking Ultimate Direction Elsewhere

When we take our safe direction from the Buddhas and put that direction in our lives, what we need to avoid is taking our main direction from elsewhere. This is an interesting thing to observe in ourselves. When we’re really feeling terrible, in a bad mood and things are not going well in a conventional sense, what do we turn to for refuge and comfort? Is it chocolate, for example? We really feeling bad and so we go out and stuff our face with a big bar of chocolate, and somehow have a little bit of pleasure, and then it seems not so bad? When things are going poorly, do we need to talk to a friend? Do we turn to sex? What is it that we turn to? Are we like a dog that needs to be patted on the head and then we’ll wag our tail? 

The quintessence instruction here is that it’s all right to have some chocolate if we’re feeling a bit depressed or sad, but that is not the ultimate source of direction in our lives. Clearly, it’s not the chocolate. How about applying the Dharma methods to deal with the difficult situation?

I find it a bit odd when people who are supposedly strongly into Dharma, including some Western Dharma teachers, have difficulty in their marriages or other issues and they turn to psychotherapy rather than trying to apply Dharma methods. I always find this a little bit strange because, if we sincerely take the Dharma as our direction in life, then supposedly we are convinced that the Dharma offers a solution to whatever problems we have. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that if we have cancer we are just going to meditate, and Dharma will cure our cancer. That’s just being silly. It doesn’t mean that. We go to a doctor. But Dharma practice can help us overcome any depression at having cancer.

If we feel that we need to go to a therapist in order to be able to discuss our problems and get another point of view, that’s fine. But that would just be an adjunct, something extra, in terms of actually trying to apply the Dharma methods. The main refuge, the main direction and practices we are cultivating to help us overcome our shortcomings, are the Dharma methods. Perhaps we need further guidance in how to apply them, but we have confidence that Buddha understood how to get rid of all problems. 

Regarding this point of not taking our paramount or ultimate direction from elsewhere than the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the instructions are that we don’t take our ultimate refuge from worldly gods. From a Buddhist perspective, the gods of other religions are worldly gods. Obviously, various other religions wouldn’t consider this to be true. 

Serkong Rinpoche was once asked about this point in Italy. A person asked if he became a Buddhist, could he still go to church. Rinpoche replied, “Are the Christian teachings on love contradictory to the Buddhist teachings on love?” Obviously, they’re not. There’s no problem if we want to go to church. The crucial point is what is the ultimate direction that we’re going in in our lives? We have to make some sort of decision. That doesn’t mean that we have to cut out everything else, but to have clarity about the direction we are taking. There are positive things that we can learn from other traditions and that’s fine. That’s no problem. 

But, when talking about practices and methods, we shouldn’t mix everything into a stew. We don’t go into a church and do prostration, for example, or while certain rituals are going on, we don’t sit there secretly reciting, “Om mani padme hum.” Going to church and doing our Buddhist practices can be done individually and respectfully in their own place and context.

More specifically, what this instruction refers to within the Buddhist sphere is not taking ultimate refuge in protectors or worldly spirits. These are not reliable. They’re going to let us down. We don’t want to get into worshipping ghosts and spirits. Perhaps this is more relevant for a Tibetan or Indian audience, but there are some Westerners who are fascinated by these various spirits and protectors and they get into the practices associated with them. 

This word “protector” sounds as though they are going to protect us. Of course, in some traditions within Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that some protectors are emanations of Buddhas. We need to be careful here. Debating what level each protector is at can lead to building system something like a biological taxonomy of the different classes of spirits and the different classes of protectors. All this becomes a bit like a biology lesson. 

We need to recognize what is the main thing to do in order to gain protection from suffering. The primary thing to do is to rely on our karma. In other words, with the inspiration and examples of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to guide us, whatever we do and however we act will affect and determine what we experience in the future. Protectors can help bring about certain circumstances or conditions that will enable us to burn off some negative potentials by experiencing them in minor ways now. In this way, our positive potentials can ripen more quickly. It’s the same process with doing rituals for the Medicine Buddhas. They can provide circumstances or conditions to ripen the positive potentials to overcome a sickness, if we have built up those potentials. The point is that without positive potentials from our previous behavior, it doesn’t matter how much we rely on a protector or a Medicine Buddha. We simply won’t have the basis for experiencing a happier situation. 

Therefore, it’s very important for our Buddhist practice not to become protector worship, or even Buddha worship. Everything that happens to us is dependent on what we ourselves do. It is dependent upon how we act, how we communicate and how we think. Again, we have models, we have teachings, and we have the goal that we can achieve. But we have to actually do it; we have to go in that direction. To repeat briefly, we need to be clear about our ultimate direction and, although we can turn to other things temporarily for a little bit of help, we need to keep our main track clear. 

In Relation to the Dharma, Avoiding Causing Harm

In terms of having the safe direction of the Dharma, what we need to avoid is causing harm or mischief to humans, animals and all beings. We’re obviously trying to help others, not trying to hurt them, but that can be quite difficult. For example, we might say something to somebody with the best of intentions, not meaning anything nasty or disrespectful; and yet, for some reason, they got highly offended by what we said, misunderstand it and get very upset or angry. When we walk on the ground, inevitably we’re going to step on something. The aim is to try to minimize the harm that we inflict on others, and certainly not intend to do harm. But, because of the limited hardware of the ordinary bodies we all have, inevitably we’re going to cause harm to other beings, even if inadvertently. Again, we try to minimize that as much as possible. 

In Relation to the Sangha, Avoiding Close Association with Negative People

Concerning taking safe direction from the Sangha, what we want to avoid is associating closely with negative people. This is a very delicate issue here. When we’re not yet firmly grounded in our spiritual path, the company we keep can very easily influence us one way or another. Here, we want to avoid the company of people who are always engaging in negative, destructive activities. Such persons might be, for example, a street gang involved in petty crime or a group of friends that are always taking drugs or always getting drunk. 

At this stage in our development, it’s very difficult not to be influenced by the company we keep. We want to be accepted and don’t want to offend our friends. As a result, we might drink, take drugs, go around and scratch cars or spray graffiti on buildings. After a while, we ourselves become addicted to these activities. 

This doesn’t mean that we have to tell our friends that they are terrible people. The point is not to spend much time with such persons when they really are going to be negative influences on us. If we are really weak, it’s best to avoid them altogether. For instance, if we’re trying to overcome being an alcoholic, we really need to stop spending time with our alcoholic friends. We join another group, Alcoholics Anonymous, and then we’re with others who, like us, are working on overcoming alcoholism. We gain support from them and their good examples. It’s a little bit like that. 

It’s remarkable how all these points interconnect with each other. We can start by examining what is the most important thing in our lives. Is the most important thing in life to be accepted and liked by a group of friends who are into negative habits? Is that the most important thing in our life? Is that going to bring long-lasting happiness? Or is it more important and more meaningful to work on overcoming our shortcomings and thereby become better able to help others? 

That doesn’t mean that we give up having concern or love for those we need to distance ourselves from. Of course, we wish for them to be happy; but also, we need to be careful here. On the one hand, we don’t want to become influenced by them and just fall into negative patterns. But, on the other hand, we don’t want to go to the extreme of thinking arrogantly that we’re Buddhist and so much better than they are. It’s also not that eventually we’re going to save these lesser ones from their lives of sin. This is obviously a terrible attitude to have. 

People do grow apart. It’s a natural thing that happens in life. Without giving anyone the feeling that we disapprove, or that anyone is no good, the point is that when we could be strongly influenced in a negative way by certain people, it’s best is to avoid them. That doesn’t mean we then have to go live in a “holy, holy” Buddhist community or wear all white clothes and be a vegan. It doesn’t mean that. But we need to watch out for what kind of influences we’re subject to. Try as much as possible to avoid detrimental influences. That detrimental influence doesn’t have to come only from people. It can come from television, pornography on the Internet, or violent movies and video games. All these types of things can influence us negatively by increasing our desire or aggression. 

Three Respectful Actions to Adopt

The quintessence teachings regarding safe direction include three actions to adopt as a sign of respect. In terms of the Buddhas, we show respect to statues, paintings and other artistic depictions of Buddhas. In terms of the Dharma, we show respect to all books, particularly Dharma books. Additionally, in terms of the Sangha, we show respect to persons with Buddhist monastic vows, and even just to the monastic robes. 

As a sign of respect, we want to avoid showing disrespect. In this regard, we don’t hang a Buddha painting in the bathroom. We don’t sit on our Dharma books or put them under the uneven legs of a table so that it doesn’t wobble. When there are Buddhist monks and nuns at our Dharma center, we don’t treat them like servants that should provide all the facilities for us because we are the great holy practitioners. They are not just there to make us tea, collect the money at the door and clean up afterwards. Unfortunately, this happens at many Dharma centers. The monastics are the ones that are most interested in receiving the teachings, and yet they’re the ones that are not always able to attend these events because they have to be the administrators and organizers. This is not at all proper. 

To clarify, it’s not that we’re worshipping the statues. It’s not that we’re worshipping the books or worshipping the monks or nuns or their robes. The entire focus is to show respect to them because they represent the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. 

Incorporating These Trainings in Life

Again, to review what we’ve just covered, we want to put this safe direction in our lives. To accomplish that aim, what exactly are we doing?

  • We are voiding our primary direction in life coming from other things.
  • We are not causing harm to others.
  • We are avoiding negative influences of other people.
  • We are respectful of the symbols of the direction that we’re going in.

This makes sense and it’s something that we can incorporate into our daily lives. It has relevance in our life, doesn’t it? We are respectful of certain things and we remain steadfast in regard to the most important thing in our life. We watch out for negative influences that can turn us away, that could divert us from our direct in life, and we also try to find conducive conditions that will help us go in this important direction. Showing respect to Buddha paintings, Dharma books and monastics is an external sign. But internally, we also need to have respect for what we’re doing with our lives. This is vital because we might be in circumstances in which we can’t make our Dharma practice visible to others. Perhaps, we are in the army, or prison, or even in a hospital ward with other people. We can’t always light incense, put up Buddha statues, and things like that. 

For example, imagine staying for the weekend in a one-room dacha with your parents. It’s not so appropriate, obviously, to do prostrations right there in front of your parents. They might think that’s pretty weird and start to ask all sorts of uncomfortable questions. We don’t have to do that. It’s very important to be flexible according to the conditions in which we’re in, but to keep our direction and our priorities quite clear. What truly matters is our attitude of respect for ourselves and for what we’re doing.

Six Trainings Shared in Common

Next, we have six trainings shared in common for all Three Gems according to the quintessence teachings. 

(1) First of all, we reaffirm our safe direction by continually reminding ourselves of the good qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Taking safe direction can become a bit mechanical if it just becomes reciting a verse, so it’s important to reaffirm our motivation by reminding ourselves of the good qualities of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and of the benefits of this safe direction. This helps preserve what we would call the “feeling” behind our taking refuge. 

(2) Next, in gratitude for their kindness, spiritual sustenance and energy, and all the help that they help provide us with, we offer the first portion of our hot drinks and meals each day to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We can pour a small portion of our first tea or coffee in the morning into a small cup and place it on our altar, or we can put there a piece of fruit. We can also make the offering simply in our imaginations. It doesn’t matter. But if we do put something out, don’t just leave it there to rot or, like in India, wait for the mice to come and eat it. We offer it with gratitude, but obviously, the Buddhas don’t need our little cup of tea or piece of fruit. They’re not going to drink or eat it. It’s simply a token and, after a little while, we imagine that they give it back and we drink or eat it. If it’s a tea offering or something like that, we don’t just flush it down the toilet. That’s not very respectful. It’s better to drink it. 

Now, of course, a practical problem can arise about what to do with the water from the seven water bowls that many of us offer each day on our altars. With quite a large amount of water, are we supposed to drink that every day? Do we have to water our plants with it every day? They would probably drown from using all that water each day. But, at least, we pour it down the sink, not down the toilet. I’m thinking of some examples in some countries in the world where they would just throw it out the window. That also wouldn’t do.

In any case, when we offer our tea or food, it’s not necessary to recite a special verse in a foreign language that we don’t understand. Recently Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche was teaching in Berlin and said if the Tibetans had to recite a verse in German that they didn’t understand every time they made an offering or whatever, they certainly wouldn’t do that. The important point is to make some sort of offering. We can just say, as Serkong Rinpoche used to suggest, “Buddhas, please enjoy this.” That’s all we need to say, and we don’t even have to say it out loud. I usually say, “I offer this to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and all beings. May everybody enjoy such wonderful food.” We don’t have to put on a big show, like reciting “om ah hum” in a deep voice and then sit there and dedicate the food for five minutes while everybody else at the table is dying to eat and just waiting for us to finish. We can just make the offering in our minds. Nobody has to know what we’re doing. If others at the table are also making an offering, let everybody do it at their own pace. 

We don’t need to make a show of our Dharma practice, especially if it’s going to make other people uncomfortable, or if they’re going to start making fun of us. That’s very important. We don’t want to set ourselves up for ridicule. When other people make fun of our spiritual practice it takes all the energy out of it. Our Dharma practice really needs to be kept private. Then it becomes, in a sense, sacred to us. 

(3) The third guideline is to be mindful of the compassion of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha by indirectly encouraging others to go in their direction. That doesn’t mean that we become missionaries and try to save everybody by converting them to Buddhism. It’s certainly not like that. But if others are receptive, if others are interested, we can give them some encouragement. The best encouragement is speaking from our own experience. We can explain that the Buddhist methods have been beneficial to us, but whether or not they’re going to be beneficial for others, we don’t know. We do know that it helped us. In this way, we indirectly encourage others to try them out themselves. 

(4) The fourth guideline is remembering the benefits of having a safe direction, then formally reaffirming it three times each day and three times each night. We usually do that right when we wake up in the morning and before we go to sleep. We’re not just mindlessly repeating the words, “I take safe direction from the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,” but rather we are explicitly reminding ourselves of this direction. Often, we accompany this with making three prostrations, but we don’t necessarily have to include them. 

(5) The fifth instruction is that whatever happens, we rely on our safe direction for guidance. In incidents of crisis and so on, this is what we’re going to rely on. It isn’t just praying, “Buddha save me,” but we are asking ourselves, “What would Buddha’s advice be for how to handle this situation?” We then try to implement that. 

Friends may give us sympathy and help, and they may help with mechanical things like our computer or car. But with personal problems in life, friends are limited. They have problems of their own. Unfortunately, friends inevitably let us down or disappoint us. We have unrealistic hopes that they’re going to help ease our pain or troubles and we lose sight of the fact that we are not the only thing that is happening in their lives. Why should we be the most important thing that they devote all their time and energy to? That’s very self-centered, isn’t it? Inevitably, with that expectation, they’re going to let us down. They have other things to do, other concerns, and they have other problems. 

Our teachers may be busy and might not have time. They might be off in some other country, or whatever, but the inspiration of the teachers is always available. The teachings themselves, something that we can apply – these are always available. They are not going to disappoint us if we actually are receptive to that inspiration and we actually try to put those methods into practice. 

(6) The final commitment in these instructions is never giving up this direction in life, no matter what happens. The nature of samsara, the nature of life, is that it goes up and down. We can look at the experiences of some of these great Buddhist masters in Tibet. They’ve been such strong practitioners all their lives and then they end up in a Chinese concentration camp for twenty years. It could be quite possible that they just give up, feeling that their Dharma practice was useless, but they don’t. Another example is someone who practiced so much in their life and then contracted a horrible painful cancer. They don’t give up on their Dharma practice either. 

As one Tibetan master said very succinctly, what do we expect from samsara? Do we expect that everything is going to go well or that things are only going to get better? The nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. Sometimes it’s going to go down, and we’re going to experience very unpleasant things, regardless of the positive things that we’ve been doing before. We try not to get discouraged by that and, no matter what happens, continue going in this positive direction. 

Sometimes the Tibetans love to use examples from the animal world. Serkong Rinpoche always loved to go to the circus or to aquariums where they have trained seals or dolphins. When we do our Dharma practice and we do something positive, do we expect that we’re going to be like a trained seal or a trained dolphin, and the Buddha’s going to throw us a fish. Do we think that every time we behave in a positive manner, we get a reward for it? Obviously, this is not the way that we practice these trainings. 

That gives us something to think about. Are we just doing our Dharma practice, in a sense, like a trick? Like a trained animal, are we doing something positive just to get a reward? Or are we doing it to improve our lives and, ultimately, to be of best help to others? Whether things are going well or not, we are convinced that, in the long term, things will go better. So, we never give up.

Concluding Words

This completes our short presentation of the various types of trainings specified by Asanga and in the quintessence teachings for how we train ourselves to actually put the safe direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in our lives. It gives us quite a clear indication of the practical application of having this direction in life, as well as what we’re actually going to be doing each day and the guidelines that pertain to each day from having this direction in our lives. Taking refuge is not all about just being a nice person, but it includes studying the teachings, learning them, showing respect to our spiritual path and to others who are following it, and all the other specific points. It is a full program for putting a positive meaning in our lives.

Original Audio from the Seminar

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