From the Four Noble Truths, the Three Precious Gems


We’re continuing our discussion of this particular verse by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which explains how we go from understanding the two truths to understanding the Four Noble Truths, to having confidence in the Three Precious Gems. We’ve seen that the two truths talk about how things actually exist:

  • Relative or conventional truth; what actually appears to us arises dependently on causes and conditions. If we saw how things actually function in this world, this is what we would see. But unfortunately, we normally don’t see things this way.
  • On the deepest level of truth, things don’t exist in the impossible ways that our confusion projects onto them. For instance, we think that things arise by their own power just as they seem to be when we see them, independently of any causes, conditions, parts or anything else; but this is false.

So this is the foundation.

The Four Noble Truths speak about our confusion surrounding seeing reality correctly. When we’re confused about reality, this acts as a cause for suffering: the cause being the second noble truth and the suffering itself the first. On the other hand, if we see reality correctly and can stay focused on it all the time, we’ll have the third noble truth, a true stopping of the suffering. The understanding is the true path, the fourth noble truth, which brings about a true stopping.

When we’re unclear about reality, we act on the basis of unawareness and confusion, and we perpetuate our uncontrollably recurring rebirth. If we rid ourselves of this unawareness, then we can reverse – or get out of – samsaric rebirth.

The Three Precious Gems

Now we’ll look at the third line of the verse:

Brought on by valid cognition (of this), then our conviction becomes stable that the Three Refuges are indeed fact.

As we already saw, the Three Refuges refer to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. These are the Sanskrit words. The Buddha Shakyamuni and all other Buddhas are those who have reached enlightenment, and teach us how to do the same. The Dharma is their teachings. The Sangha is the highly realized community. This is one level of understanding, but there is also a deeper meaning to them.

In terms of the deeper meaning, the Dharma refers to the actual attainments – namely the attainment of the third and fourth noble truths. As you’ll remember, the third is the true stopping of suffering and its causes, and that occurs in stages. When we attain that in full, we attain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara). When we go on to rid ourselves of the causes that prevent us from knowing all the details of cause and effect, so that we know best how to lead everyone to liberation, we become enlightened Buddhas. The fourth truth is the understanding that brings about these true stoppings and which results from those true stoppings.

These two constitute a refuge. Refuge is something that protects us, in this case, from suffering and our inadequacies in helping others. If we attain the true stoppings and the true pathway minds, then we prevent ourselves from experiencing suffering and the inability to know how best to help others. It’s not that someone else has attained it and so we simply entrust ourselves to them, and we’ll somehow be magically saved.

The so-called “Abrahamic religions” – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are what are known as history-oriented religions. Each of the religions has a historical figure who, in a historical event, had some sort of revelation from God. They then revealed this truth and that’s final. We can’t do what Moses or Jesus or Mohammed did, we just need to have faith in them, through which we’ll be saved from our suffering. Faith here refers to either faith in the figures personally, or faith in what they taught and revealed, like this historical event of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses, or Jesus revealing the New Testament, or Mohammed revealing the Koran. These significant historical events are at the center of these religions.

Indian religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, can be spoken of as “Dharmic religions,” which are completely different. The historical fact of Buddha, or Krishna, or Mahavira (the founder of Jainism) is not the central event. Rather, we ourselves, and everybody else too, can attain the same state as these beings have. In the Buddhist context, we can all attain liberation and enlightenment, and the other Dharmic religions also present their own interpretation of liberation. This is one of the fundamental differences between our Western, Abrahamic religions, and the Indian religions.

When we look at the three refuges, it’s important not to look at them through the projection of our Abrahamic religions, that we may have grown up with. It’s not that Buddha was the only one who attained enlightenment, and if we believe in him, we’ll be saved. So normally I avoid the term “refuge” because it gives a rather passive flavor, as if all we have to do is say “Buddha, save me!” and we’re saved. That’s not Buddhism. I prefer to use the term “safe direction,” where the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha indicate a safe direction for us to go, where we can also attain what Buddha attained for ourselves. Although Buddha taught us a way to protect ourselves, we have to put it into practice. It’s our own efforts for our own attainment, that will help to protect us from suffering.

The Dharma Gem

When we talk about the deepest Dharma Gem or Jewel, or however you want to call it, it’s something that’s rare and precious, which is the literal meaning of the two syllables with which the Tibetans translated gem here. We’re talking about the actual state of true stoppings, and the attainment of true pathway minds that bring them about and result from them. These are things we need to attain ourselves, so we must be convinced that they are attainable. Our discussion of the two truths and the Four Truths helps us understand that there are such things as liberation and enlightenment, and that we can attain them ourselves.

The Buddha Gem

The Buddhas are those who’ve attained liberation and then enlightenment in full. It includes not just Buddha Shakyamuni, but many other Buddhas. They have taught and indicated the way we can attain that state ourselves. There are two ways they instruct us: with their teachings, and by their example, based on their understanding and realizations. This is an important point, because it demonstrates that we can help others to learn not only with verbal teachings, but also by being a living example of what we’re teaching. The Dharma is not some abstract teaching, but something that people, and we, can actually embody.

The Sangha Gem

Some people might think, why do we need this third Gem, the Arya Sangha? Surely the Buddha and the Dharma are enough? Although monks and nuns represent the Sangha, that’s not what the actual Sangha Gem is. Just like statues and paintings represent the Buddhas and books represent the Dharma, they’re just representations. As something that represents the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, these statues, books, and monks and nuns give us a focus for showing respect, because it’s not easy to show respect to more abstract things. There is, of course, a deeper meaning to it all.

The Sangha Gem is very important. Sangha refers to the aryas, or those who’ve seen, non-conceptually, the Four Noble Truths based on the two truths. Because they cognize these non-conceptually, they’ve achieved some degree of true stoppings, and some degree of true pathway minds, but not the full things. Progressively more advanced aryas attain more of both, until they eventually become liberated and then finally enlightened. The Noble Truths are defined as arya truths – it’s what aryas – those who have non-conceptual cognition of reality – see as true. This tells us that:

  • It’s not only Buddhas who perceive all of this and attain true stoppings and true pathway minds. Rather, it’s a gradual process.
  • Even before attaining liberation or enlightenment, we start to chip away and get rid of varying aspects of the true sufferings, because we’re getting rid of various levels of their true causes.

Liberation and enlightenment are gradual processes, which start long before we become a Buddha or a liberated being. Aryas are often easier to relate to than Buddhas, because they still have some problems and so on, and some of them still aren’t completely free from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, but they’re partly free of it. In this way, it’s a bit easier to relate to them.

The Arya Sangha provides encouragement and inspiration that, step by step, if we go in the safe direction that they have, we can also reach those ultimate goals of liberation and enlightenment. Even if we can’t go all the way, we will be able, for the time being, to free ourselves of some degree of suffering, because we’ll free ourselves of some degree of unawareness that causes suffering. It’s just a matter of how much we can stay completely focused on reality. If you’re still an arya, you can’t stay focused all the time, but you can if you’re a Buddha.

Liberation and enlightenment are not the same. Liberation is when we’re free from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which is when we become arhats, liberated beings. Enlightenment is when we’re not just free of emotional obscurations – the disturbing emotions and unawareness of how we exist – but we’re also free of cognitive obscurations – the constant habits of unawareness.

In other words, because of our habits in believing the projections of what’s impossible – our mental activity continues to make the projections, and we continue to believe that they correspond to reality. From this we get our disturbing emotions. We gain liberation when we stop believing that these deceptive appearances correspond to reality. We understand that it’s all garbage, and although things might appear like this, it’s not the way they actually are. Our perception will still be limited and we’ll tend to see things as existing in boxes, all by themselves, but we’ll know that’s not the way they really are.

Even on a very simple level of atomic physics, we’ve got atoms and force fields and so on, but there’s no solid line around any object that says, “On this side of the line, there’s the object. On that side, there isn’t.” Things are not as concrete as they appear to be. If we get rid of the cognitive obscurations that cause us to make these deceptive appearances, then the mind stops projecting them and we gain enlightenment. When we gain enlightenment, we see the interconnectedness of absolutely everything simultaneously. This would allow us to see the most skillful way of leading others to their own liberation and enlightenment.

When we talk of aryas, we’re not just talking about bodhisattva aryas, who are those aiming for enlightenment. We’re also talking about those aryas who are aiming only for liberation. When we talk of the Three Gems in the context of safe direction, we’re talking about those aiming either for liberation only, or for both liberation and enlightenment, not just those bodhisattvas aiming for enlightenment.

Developing Firm Conviction in the Three Gems

If we understand the two truths and the Four Truths of how we’re stuck in samsara, and how we can get out of it, then we become firmly convinced that the deepest Dharma Gem actually exists, and that it is fact. We understand very clearly that the confusion bringing about our deceptive appearances of what’s impossible is not an innate feature of our mental activity. Why? Because we can get rid of it when we focus on the exact opposite of unawareness.

In other words, when you focus on awareness of the two truths of how things exist, then you don’t have deceptive appearances, and you certainly don’t believe in them. If you can stay totally focused on this awareness, the true path, then you’ll achieve a true stopping, and this is backed by logic. You can corroborate that this conforms to reality, and it produces this effect. You will no longer have that up and down suffering of unhappiness and ordinary happiness, and you’ll no longer have uncontrollably recurring existence.

You could object and say, “Well, if you stayed focused on unawareness all the time, then you couldn’t have understanding or awareness,” so which is stronger – staying focused with unawareness that doesn’t conform to reality, or staying focused on awareness which does conform to reality?

If we analyze this, we see that there’s nothing substantial backing up unawareness, whereas logic does support correct understanding. Things do arise from causes and conditions, and they don’t just come into existence all by their own power. Plus, if we stayed focused with correct understanding all the time, it does produce its effect: we no longer experience suffering or samsaric rebirth.

This takes us back to the Four Noble Truths again. What are we aiming for? Do we want to suffer all the time, forever on? If we do, then we can stay focused on unawareness, and we will suffer; simple as that. You’re welcome to it! But if you do want to be free from it all, which is the goal of the Buddhist spiritual path, then it’s perfectly clear that you need to stay focused with awareness, based on reality.

This way of approaching the topic of refuge is brought on by valid cognition, and then our conviction that the Three Refuges are fact becomes firm. We no longer presume or hope that if we go in this direction, we’ll be free of suffering, because we have faith that “our teacher said it’s so!” It will be based on valid cognition, based on inferential understanding and logic.

There are two ways of having valid cognition – either through inference through logic or bare perception, which is like seeing, hearing, or experiencing it non-conceptually ourselves. With this second one, the problem is that you have to be very, very advanced to experience it for yourself, and so you have to start with inference as the basis for your valid cognition.

Progressing on the Spiritual Path

Now, we have the fourth line:

Inspire me, please, to implant this root of the pathway mind that leads to liberation.

When we talk about the pathway minds to liberation, it can be presented in many ways, one of which is the three scopes of motivation, usually known by the Tibetan term “lam-rim” (graded stages). These graded stages are three progressive goals:

  • The first scope is to avoid worse rebirths, and to gain better rebirths. We want to have better rebirths with much less suffering, because we’ll have the optimum conditions for being able to continue on the spiritual path. If we were reborn as a cockroach, there’s not much we could do in terms of spiritual development. In order to avoid worse rebirths, we need to rid ourselves of our confusion about relative truth, which is cause and effect. The main cause for worse rebirths is destructive behavior, and we act destructively because we’re unaware of the consequences of our actions, or we think that they will make us happy.
  • The intermediate scope is to aim for liberation from all three types of suffering – unhappiness, our ordinary happiness, and the basis for these two, which is our uncontrollably recurring rebirth. To do this we need to get rid of our confusion about the deepest truth, by understanding voidness. In fact, we need to gain an understanding of all Four Noble Truths all the time. It’s very difficult to stay focused on all of that simultaneously all the time, so we need to go further.
  • The advanced scope is to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha so that we can help everybody else in the best ways possible. While staying focused on the deepest truth, we fully understand relative truth. Only a Buddha can stay focused on the two truths simultaneously all the time.

If we look deeper at this line, “From the two truths, the Four Truths; from the Four Truths, the Three Refuges,” it is the root of the three scopes above, and the practices that lead to these goals. It says it’s the root, and a root is not a seed. A root is what gives stability and strength to a plant. If we’re convinced on the basis of logic that the three goals are attainable, that they exist, and that it’s realistic that we can attain them ourselves, then of course it’ll give us stability that will support the entire spiritual path toward that goal.

Other presentations say that the root of the three scopes is a healthy relation with the spiritual teacher, and you find this in basically all lam-rim texts. This healthy relation is the root of the entire spiritual path in the sense that we gain inspiration from the teacher, and it is this inspiration that gives us the strength and energy to continue on toward the goals.

Again, we find two variations on how we can proceed on the spiritual path in a stable way:

  • One way is to use the strength and inspiration from our relation with our spiritual teachers. Based on that, we use a line of reasoning that goes: “My teacher is a valid source of information. Therefore, what my teacher says, that it is possible to gain enlightenment, is correct. There’s no reason why my teacher would make that up.” So there’s a certain type of logic that’s involved here. But most people experience it more on an emotional level, where the teacher inspires us so much emotionally, that it gives us incredible strength to go on the path. It’s similar to the first of the two ways of developing bodhichitta. With this, we start with developing relative bodhichitta where we’re drawn to helping others and from there we’re drawn to attaining enlightenment based on faith that it is possible. Only later do we become convinced by logic that it’s achievable.
  • On the other hand, when we reflect on the mode of practice with which we first develop deepest bodhichitta, we develop conviction in voidness as described in the verse. First we’re convinced it’s possible to achieve, and then we work on the emotional side of actually working toward enlightenment, opening up our hearts, and so on.

Both are valid ways of approaching the spiritual path, and it all depends on what our own scope or capacity is. It’s described in the texts that those with very sharp faculties and intellect would find it more suitable to their personality to rely on the logical presentation, while those not as sharp would work more on the emotional level. For this second group, what works best is relying on the inspiration from the teacher and the emotion that’s developed in terms of love and compassion as the basis.

In many ways, I think it’s good to balance both approaches. And we could add a third, devotional aspect, to it all. Some people gain inspiration to follow the path to enlightenment by attending and performing rituals that practitioners have engaged in for millennia. We shouldn’t put down the other ways of approaching the Buddhist path just because it’s more comfortable for us to approach it in one particular style. If we’re to develop ourselves and our potentials fully, we need to balance all three approaches.

This is the basic presentation of this particular verse in the particular prayer by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As my teacher always used to say, just like you milk a cow, you can milk a lot of meaning from these short verses.

Questions and Answers

Practical Application of the Four Noble Truths

If a friend of mine is worrying all the time, I can tell him to take it easy and not take things so seriously. It’s a reminder we can give both ourselves and others. But what about when I’m being selfish and I’m dealing with others, is there some sort of mantra or reminder I can use so that I don't forget to examine where is the projection of my self-centered mind and where is reality?

According to the great Tibetan master Tsongkhapa, except for when we’re focused non-conceptually on voidness, our mental activity projects impossible ways of existing. It’s happening all the time. The object of refutation is every moment of our experience other than in that deep meditation.

There are many little things that can help us to deconstruct the deceptive appearances that we perceive. One image that’s helpful is to “pop the balloon” of the fantasy, but it needs to be done in a non-dualistic way, as in, there’s no “me” with a pin over here and a big balloon over there, and the “me” goes and pops the balloon. It’s simply that the balloon – the exaggeration of how things exist – is popped. The deceptive appearance could be “You’re so horrible” or “This situation I’m in is so horrible” and we don’t see it within the context of all the causes and conditions and everyone else who experiences something similar. Then we think, “Poor me!” We just imagine that all this pops.

Another image is that of an open book, with one page being “Poor me suffering from this,” and the other the terrible situation we can’t handle. It’s like a horrible fairy tale. We have the mental image of the book closing, and that’s the end of the fairy tale. We see it as closing the book of dualism, to use more jargon!

If you want a mantra, you could say “garbage” or “rubbish” to remember that what appears to us is, basically, rubbish. The main problem is that we need to remember. The time we need it most is when we’re experiencing a strong disturbing emotion. The example used by the Tibetans is that feeling when you’re falsely accused of doing something, and a very strong sense of “I didn’t do that! What do you mean I’m a liar and a thief?!” The strong sense of a solid me comes up.

The Difference between Buddhism and other Dharmic Religions

You mentioned that there are other Dharmic religions, and that each says there are problems but also liberation from problems. Of course, each religion will say that their methods are best, so can you explain what’s specific to Buddhism from this point of view?

You’re correct. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all talk about gaining liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and describe what a state of liberation is like. Each of them says that the way to attain liberation is through understanding reality, the way they describe reality. In this way, Buddhism fits completely within the context of an Indian religion. What really is distinctive about Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths. Buddhism teaches:

  • The others might describe what is suffering, but the Buddha talked about true suffering;
  • The others might say that a certain type of unawareness is the cause of suffering, but the Buddha spoke about the deepest type of unawareness, the true cause.
  • What the other Dharmic religions might consider a true stopping, doesn’t last forever, or is not completely free.
  • The understanding that the others speak of can take you to a certain state, but it’s not a true pathway mind that can take you all the way to liberation.

Naturally, all the others will say the same thing about Buddhism, and so one has to really investigate what is reality. As we saw in the verse, the whole foundation for the spiritual path – and this is true for Hinduism and Jainism, not just in Buddhism – is the view of reality. This has to be tested by logic, experience and understanding.

There’s a big difference between following a spiritual path to become a kinder, more compassionate person in this life, and wanting to gain liberation. If we talk of enlightenment, you can investigate on the basis of logic and debate to see which explanation is most valid. However, most people practicing a spiritual path are not really aiming for liberation. They might say they are, but they have no idea what it means and are just trying to improve their life in this lifetime. And that’s fine too, there’s nothing wrong with it.

So, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked which religion is best, he said the best religion is that which helps you individually to become a kinder and more compassionate person. Each person is different and so we can’t really say there’s a more valid path for developing compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness, and so on. They can be developed equally according to many different religions. This is the basis for religious harmony.

How to Progress on the Spiritual Path

I want to ask about making progress on the path. In the Soviet Union, we had the 5-year plans for economic development. Perhaps you could give advice for those who’re starting Buddhist practice on what they could do for one or three or five years, in order to not go astray.

The most common and reliable way, at least in the traditions in which I was trained, is to work through the lam-rim, the graded stages. It shows step by step what we need to understand, digest and develop in order to progress on the spiritual path.

The traditional way of following the lam-rim is that you get one point, and you work with it without knowing what’s coming next. Once you understand one part, you move to the next. Nowadays the whole path is laid out in books so you can read the whole thing at once, but you still need to spend significant time on each point. Even after you’ve read the whole thing, you’ll need to go back and see how each point is interconnected with all the others.

We have to remember that progress is never linear, but always goes up and down. So if one day it goes well and the next it doesn’t – there’s nothing special about that. You just have to continue. This was the favorite phrase of the young reincarnation of my teacher: “It’s nothing special.” There’s nothing special about what you experience. It goes well, it doesn’t go well. So what?

So, setting a 5-year plan is unrealistic because each person makes progress differently. However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama does say that the way to know whether you’ve made progress is not to look from day to day or month to month, but look in terms of 5-year periods. We can compare how we dealt with difficulties before, and how we deal with them now. Are we more calm? Then we can see our progress.

There are other styles too, like doing ngondro, the preliminary practices, where you do 100,000 prostrations, refuge formulas, and so on. People often start like this. I think these two approaches reflect two ways of approaching the Dharma teachings. When you begin the ngondro, it’s usually on the basis of inspiration from a teacher. You might not know much, but you’re so incredibly inspired by the teacher, and you’re confident that what he’s explained will be beneficial, and so you do the sets of 100,000 practices of a ngondro.

The approach that I was trained with is the approach that I was explaining from this verse, the one that the Dalai Lama himself normally teaches. First you gain conviction and an understanding of the path – that it is possible, what the goal is, and so on – and then you do a ngondro.

Obviously, one could do a middle path between them. While starting early with the ngondro, you also start working to gain conviction in the possibility that the goal is attainable. Or while you’re doing this study and practice, you can already start doing ngondro. So there are different ways of putting them together. I think this fits, if one really starts to think about the way that different Tibetan teachers teach the Dharma, within this structure that I was explaining. This goes back to Nagarjuna and the two different ways of developing bodhichitta – first relative then deepest, or first deepest and then relative. One has to decide for oneself what suits oneself best.


How the Four Noble Truths relate to the Buddhist teachings on reality in the two truths, and in turn to the Three Precious Gems, is a very advanced analysis. It sheds light not only on what all of the Truths and Gems are, but also provides a clear structure in Buddhist philosophy and practice. We’ve used one brief but penetrating verse by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a basis for further investigation of these realizations. The remarkable outcome shows not only a logical order to increasing our understanding, but also how each of the essential Buddhist realizations supports the other. Thus, an intricate and integral spiritual path is revealed.