Cherishing Others Gives Meaning to Life


In our weekend seminar we will focus on refuge. If we look at any of the Buddhist texts, we find that refuge is always described as the most fundamental aspect of the Buddhist path. In fact, it is the entry way into Buddhism. Refuge defines the dividing line between when we are just shopping around – just considering Buddhism – and when we actually commit ourselves to the Buddhist path. Every Buddhist practice we do begins with reaffirming refuge. Therefore, it must mean something.

Refuge is much more than just reciting, “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” It represents something that is so fundamental in us that it makes a major change in our lives. Because of this, it is utterly essential to really understand what it actually means to take refuge on a daily basis. 

At this seminar, I’d like to discuss and guide us through a series of contemplations, to have us look within ourselves and try to understand what refuge could actually mean for our own personal lives. That means we will cover quite a few points, and with each of these points, we will pause for a few minutes to actually think about it and contemplate it. This is what we need to do with anything in Buddhism – with each point, take time out to think about it and see: “Does this make any sense to me? Does this have any meaning?” If it doesn’t make any sense, then why go further? 

The way in which we work on ourselves has to be step-by-step, and if a beginning step is very uncertain or unstable, all the rest of the steps beyond that fall apart – and refuge is the most fundamental part of the whole path.

Contemplating Meaning

The first thing that I’d like for us to examine is: does our life have meaning? We look within ourselves, and ask, “Does my life have any sort of meaning? Where is it going? What am I doing with my life?” If we can’t really identify some meaning or purpose to our lives, then we need to consider: “Is it possible to find some meaning in life?” This is the most fundamental question that refuge addresses. So please take some minutes to think about this – examine for yourself. “Does my life have some meaning? What am I doing with my life, and is it fulfilling me?”


Examining ourselves in this way is very sobering, as perhaps we have just experienced. It’s not a very comfortable question, and not something we ordinarily examine in ourselves. Once we start to look deeper, we find that, really, this is a very important question. Very often, we discover that we have a basic dissatisfaction with the way our lives are going. It doesn’t seem to have any real meaning, any clear direction. And of course, when we feel like this, that our life is not really going anywhere significant, we lose a sense of self-worth. We succumb to an attitude of “Whatever – it doesn’t really matter.” Then, we tend to go along with whatever direction the media or advertising provides us, which the masses follow; we sort of go along – make a lot of money, get a high position, or find a wonderful partner to live with. But somehow, none of that really fulfills us. 

There must be something more to life than just making a lot of money, for instance. There are plenty of very rich people who are absolutely miserable, despite all of the money that they have. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that the aim of life is to gain happiness. So, we need to define what would bring us long-term happiness. We have to differentiate happiness from pleasure or fun. Just seeking pleasure and fun all the time, finding the next good movie to go to, or the next song to listen to, does that really satisfy? Happiness doesn’t really mean pleasure, fun, or entertainment, does it? 

Contemplating Happiness

Happiness is a state of mind that, when we experience it, we aim not to be parted from. We would like it to go on and on. It’s not dependent on any sensory object that we’re experiencing. We can go to some entertainment and be happy, or we can go and be absolutely miserable; happiness is not dependent on the entertainment, is it? For example, other people can be doing something that they find fun, but we find completely stupid. 

When we are looking for happiness, we are searching for something that is much more basic, much more stable, that we would hopefully have all the time as an underlying feeling. On the most basic level, that happiness comes from a feeling of connectedness – connectedness with others; after all, we are all social animals. When we feel this deep connection with others, it gives us a feeling of self-worth and meaning. Please think about this and try to distinguish happiness from just pleasure and fun. 


What we try to differentiate here is: what feeling do we have when we just go to some party, or watch a nice movie, or listen to a nice song – compare that to the feeling that we have when we feel a close connection with somebody else, with others. Which one is more satisfying? Which feeling lasts longer? Which feeling gives us more strength to be able to deal with our life? There’s quite a difference, isn’t there? Between going to a nice movie or listening to our favorite song, and feeling connected with a loved one, isn’t there? 

What is the opposite of feeling this connectedness with others? It’s being self-preoccupied, only thinking of ourselves. What happens then? We become very narrow-minded. We basically cut ourselves off from others; and what is the result? We feel alone and isolated. And that’s a very unhappy state of mind, isn’t it? The more we think about ourselves, the more trapped we become, really, in our own worries. When our hearts are open to others, we are happier. 

The overall aim, of course, is not to gain happiness only for ourselves but to bring happiness to others. It brings some joy to our own hearts, doesn’t it? Kind of like a by-product. It’s like when we have a small child and we give him or her something that they really enjoy, we feel joyful as well, don’t we? Or when we do something nice for somebody else, it also makes us feel good. 

This feeling comes from a sense of caring for others, a sense of happiness. Caring for others, doing nice things, making a meal for somebody, and even offering a smile to somebody, makes us feel good. When we are able to give a little bit of happiness to somebody else, even if it’s just a few coins to a beggar on the street, it gives us a feeling of self-worth, that we can make a difference to somebody, even if it’s only a very small difference. These small acts of kindness contribute to developing concern for others, friendships and a sense of connectedness. 

Contemplating Connectedness

Gaining that feeling of connectedness, self-worth – that we can do something even very small to help somebody, to bring them a little bit of happiness – gives us emotional support, makes us feel better about ourselves. It builds a very fundamental level of happiness – not dramatic happiness, but something very stable. I think “emotional support” is a good way of describing it. This is something to think about. Does it make sense, from our own experience, and from a logical point of view as well? If it does make sense, we ask if this is something we want. If yes, then when we train ourselves – that’s what we do in meditation – we build up and strengthen a new way of thinking; namely, that gaining this basic connectedness with others through concern for them, and even doing just small acts of kindness, could really be of benefit and so is something worthwhile to do.

Small acts of kindness bring friendship and friendship brings emotional support. Acting selfishly with others cuts us off from them; they certainly don’t want to be with us, and we are left completely alone. Please think of that contrast – whether this effort is something worthwhile, and whether this feeling of support is something we would like to attain. And if we have the feeling already to a certain extent, then is it something we would like to develop more?

I think it’s very interesting to examine the whole Facebook phenomenon. I don’t know how many of you are on Facebook, but I’m sure we know lots of people who are on it. One of the biggest phenomena that occurs is posting things and waiting to see how many likes we get. What’s behind that? Why do we want these likes? 

The hope, I think, is that we will be connected with others. That’s the whole idea of social media, isn’t it? But posting a picture of a cat or something like that on Facebook, and wanting to get likes, who are we actually thinking is going to benefit from this “like”? Is it ourselves, or is it others? Why do we feel anxious about it? Why are we really concerned about how many likes we get? And if we don’t get many, we’re really disappointed, aren’t we? We’re unhappy. And there’s that anxiety – every few minutes we have to check our phone again to see if there are more likes. It doesn’t really connect us with other people. The main concern is how many people like us, because of this picture of our cat. Are we really concerned about doing something that would make them happy? 


It’s an interesting thought, to analyze why we are putting up these posts. What I think it reveals is that underlying this behavior there is a strong drive to be connected with others; that’s why we’re on social media. However, somehow, it’s not working to really connect us with others in a satisfying way because really, our main concern is how many people like us. 

Our being self-centered, thinking only about ourselves, is jeopardizing our ability to really connect with others, isn’t it? Think about this for a moment, especially if you have this Facebook experience, or whatever social media you may be using. What is your motive for using it? How successful is it in fulfilling that motive of being connected with others? If it’s not working, why isn’t it working? Why do we feel anxious about how many likes we get? Why do we always check our phones every five minutes?

If we truly want a feeling of connection with others – a real connection, not just something unsatisfying – as well as to receive some emotional support and happiness, the question is how to attain it. We need to open our minds and hearts to thinking of others, and actually care for their happiness and welfare, not just for them to like us. To do this, we need to work on ourselves. We have to overcome our self-preoccupation and our self-cherishing. The tricky part is finding a way to not work with self-preoccupation to overcome our self-preoccupation, if you know what I mean. 

We can be so closed when thinking, “Oh I’m so bad, I need to work on myself” and so on, “because I am so selfish,” but, still, we are not opening up at all. We need to work on this, on developing a basic openness to others. If we speak on the most fundamental level, this is the type of direction that would be most beneficial to have in our lives. It would give our lives some meaning. Working on being more open to others, and overcoming our self-imposed isolation – due to our self-preoccupation – would give some meaning to our lives; it would provide some emotional support and basic happiness. Overall, this is what refuge is all about – putting a safe and positive direction in our life, to basically bring us a happier, more meaningful life by being of more benefit to others, and working on ourselves to try to do this. 

The Buddhas and great masters have accomplished and taught us how to do this work – they’ve shown the way, based on understanding that this connectedness is something we can attain ourselves and that this is something that we are capable of doing – it’s not impossible. Attaining it just requires a strong motivation which gives us energy to work on ourselves, and actually follow proper methods. Think about that. 


Contemplating Refuge

Basically, refuge means going in a direction that will help us avoid difficulties. That’s why it has such a fundamental role in Buddhism. Rather than our life going nowhere, or going in a negative direction, we are working to have it go in a positive direction. And this gives our life meaning, gives it purpose. The more we work toward heading in that direction, the more connected we will feel with others; refuge gives us emotional support, which we receive from those that have gone before on this path, and from being more connected with others. Without this support, there will always be something missing from any advanced practices that we do. Refuge gives us the strength, basis and stability throughout the entire Buddhist path. Think about that.


When we study refuge, we could, of course, look at the 32 major marks of a Buddha’s body, the 64 qualities of speech, and the enormous list of qualities of a Buddha’s mind. We could learn all the characteristics of the Dharma, all the qualities of the Sangha, and we could recite forever “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,” and do a million prostrations at the same time. In the end, it doesn’t make any significant difference in our lives. It has some effect, of course – discipline, at least. However, without understanding the basic idea of refuge and what it adds to our life, it’s hard to see what significance it has. In the end, it seems irrelevant. 

Once we understand what refuge is all about – its purpose, functions and benefits – then, we’ll be able to look with completely different eyes at all these qualities of a Buddha. For instance, these 32 major features of a Buddha, and these 80 minor features, what are they all about? Are we really aiming to have earlobes that go all the way down to our shoulders? Is that really going to give meaning and significance to our life? No, not really. Obviously, we could put a disc in our ear and stretch it to our shoulders, but then what? What we start to realize, which is an amazing thing, is that the image of a Buddha is actually an infographic.

An infographic is some sort of picture from which all the different pieces in it give you information. When we study these various marks of a Buddha, physical marks of a Buddha, each of them has a cause. They’re even called that: indicative features, which indicate their cause – that’s a literal translation. Rather than focusing on how long Buddha’s ears are, we focus on seeing what that indicates; it gives us a representation of the cause for this. What did the Buddha have to do in order to become the Buddha? This long earlobe is just an infographic representation of that. 

The tantric deities are infographics as well. The six arms represent the six paramitas, the four arms of Chenrezig are the four immeasurable attitudes. All of them are infographic representations. We focus on the infographic as a way to keep in mind all the things that it represents. With the Buddha, the main things to focus on are what are the causes for becoming like that. These 32 and 80 features represent a huge, incredible list of the acts that a Buddha does, that somebody does, in order to feel this connectedness with others, to overcome self-cherishing and to bring happiness to others. It’s an incredible list of all the ways of doing this, which then results in becoming a Buddha. Basically, it shows the direction we want to go in.

Then, we start to appreciate how incredibly sophisticated Buddhism is, to have come up with infographics two and a half thousand years ago.

All of these details about refuge we can learn; we can study, memorize the lists and so on. However, they only really take on meaning if we understand the answers to, “What is refuge all about?” “What is its purpose, how does it function, and how does it make a difference in my life?”

Take a moment to digest this, and then we can have some questions. Tomorrow, we will start to look at the things that are preventing us from going in this direction, and what we have to work on. Because when we understand what is preventing us from putting this direction in our life, then we can gain the motivation to want to overcome this, and eventually attain the benefits that direction will provide us. 

There is a bi-directional motivation: “This is preventing me from feeling this connectedness, and gaining happiness in life,” and “This is what I want to attain. I want to avoid this, and gain that.” Then, there is a list of the emotions we need to feel in order to put that direction in our life, such as fear, confidence and compassion. Refuge has to have some meaning, not just “Well, I’m afraid of going to hell, so Buddha save me.” It’s very sophisticated and incredibly practical. Whether we believe in other lives, future rebirths, it doesn’t matter. Refuge is very helpful. Whenever we are studying Buddhism, look deeper. “How can it actually apply to life, to my daily life?” When we discover that meaning, that relevance, then we put our heart there. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby; just fun or a diversion, thinking, “How interesting,” but then nothing more. Or maybe “How boring”, and then we give it up. Digest all this for a moment. Essentially, this has been a preview of where we are going in this weekend seminar. However, I’m not going to give you lists. You can read lists on my website, or in other places. 



You explain the cause of going for refuge from the point of view of the person of the highest capabilities, or capacity. In the first volume of lam-rim, it is explained for the lowest-level motivated person, or the middle-level motivated person, as fear. In the first case, as fear of not having better rebirths, and in the second case as fear of samsara. So, does it mean that these two are less important and less meaningful than the last one?

No, they all are meaningful, all the levels of motivation. We’ll get into what fear actually means over the weekend, but all of them are necessary. Compassion underlies the entire Buddhist path, all the levels of motivation, compassion and the wish to be happy. Without going into great detail, on the initial level, we want to avoid disruptive behavior because it is going to lead to worse rebirths, which means we have to refrain from harming others, and so we are concerned about others. 

In the intermediate scope, we want to overcome uncontrollably recurring rebirth – samsara. What prevents that are our disturbing emotions – anger, attachment, and so on. In order to avoid hurting others through our anger or attachment, we work to overcome these emotions. Sometimes we have anger toward others or we have longing desire toward others. If we look at the Theravada path, which is basically this intermediate scope, there’s a huge emphasis on the four immeasurables – love, compassion, joy and equanimity. It’s there to overcome our disturbing emotions. The advanced scope is obviously loving compassion for others, to be able to benefit them. The first two levels are to avoid hurting others by our actions of anger, and the third level is to actually help others. So, compassion is there for the entire path. I feel that that is very important to emphasize.

When you are speaking about establishing this connection with others, you told us that when we are going through this way, we are experiencing such feelings as fear and compassion. Is it possible to simultaneously experience compassion and fear?

Well, yes. We will discuss this further on the weekend. For now, I will say that we have three basic causes for putting this direction in our life. We want to avoid – so that’s based on fear, but in a positive sense – we want to avoid hurting others and causing our self more unhappiness through hurting others, getting angry or ignoring them. Compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering. So, we want them to be free of suffering, and we don’t want to hurt others – that is what we’re afraid of. This goes together very nicely. We’re very careful because we don’t want to hurt others, because we don’t want them to suffer. Finally, there’s confidence that there’s a way to avoid creating a problem for ourselves that would arise as a result of harming others. The three of them go together, the three motivations: fear, confidence and compassion. 

You see, if we actually take refuge in the Dharma, the confidence that we have is that the Buddhist teachings make sense. However, it’s a presumption – we assume that the teachings make sense. If we start by assuming that some of the teachings are nonsense, then it doesn’t make sense; we’ll never figure them out. So, we suppose that they make sense, and then we try to figure the teachings out. That’s an important consequence of actually taking refuge in the Dharma.

In this life we take refuge, and this refuge is something in our mindstream. Will we remember about this refuge in our next life, or have a feeling of this refuge or a kind of impulse that we can develop in the next life?

Well, most of us don’t know what we did yesterday, let alone remember what happened in our previous lives. But what we’re talking about is basically what in medical science we call neuroplasticity. The brain has certain neural pathways based on certain habits. Say something happens, like we get paralyzed on the right side. Our brain can rewire itself, in a sense, so that we can use our left hand for what we used to do with our right hand. The brain is plastic in that sense; it can be changed. The same thing with mind, our mental activity. Neuroplasticity refers to a physical level of the brain, but we can also speak on an experiential level of the mind. 

Likewise, we can build up new habits. It’s a matter of training. We speak of this, in Buddhism, in terms of building up tendencies, potential and habits. In future lives, depending on the strength of that tendency, and all the other tendencies and karmic potentials that we have, that tendency will still be there. Technically, texts will speak of them as imputation phenomena on the basis of our mental continuum – things that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something, which are “tied,” in a sense, to a basis and can neither exist nor be known separately from that basis. They are unconscious, we would say, and the circumstances have to be there in order for a tendency to give rise to some manifest, conscious thing going on. For instance, we might have a tendency to like ice cream, but if we’re not hungry, or it’s not available, it doesn’t arise. It only arises when we’re hungry. 

If we’re reborn as a cockroach or a chicken, maybe there is that tendency to go in this positive direction, but the circumstances aren’t there for it to arise. But that tendency is there. The circumstance has to be there, like having a precious human rebirth again; then, it will manifest. It depends how strongly that tendency exists. It’s similar to how if we only try writing with our opposite hand a few times, that tendency to write with our other hand isn’t very strong; we really have to practice a lot. It’s the same with our way of thinking. We build up this beneficial habit not just by sitting in our meditation room and meditating. It’s very important to realize that we also build it up by actually applying it in life, not just passively as a rehearsal in our meditation. 

Does the feeling of happiness always come as a by-product of helping others, or can we maybe attain happiness when we help others in moderation? 

Happiness of course has many levels of strength. Doing something for others so that they’ll like us gives us a little bit of happiness, but not a lasting happiness because we never feel secure – “Maybe they don’t really like us.” There are many sources of happiness, many different types of happiness. There’s a type of happy, exhilarated state of mind that we get from shamatha, for example. Well, that’s not necessarily helping somebody else unless we actually apply it to helping others. So, there are many different types of happiness, but what I was talking about, what the Dalai Lama talks about, is a very basic fundamental level that can be there for anybody. Whether we practice meditation or whether we follow Buddhism – everybody has access to this through the practice of the basic human values of secular ethics. 

It’s something to investigate – when we do something to help others. For instance, when someone is over-helpful, the other person might not really want our advice or doesn’t really need our advice, but we give it anyway because we want to be helpful. And they say, “Leave me alone, I didn’t ask you!” Similarly, when we have a married daughter, and we tell her how to manage her house and raise her children − where’s the source of happiness then? 

Our motivation makes us happy, but when we actually implement it, sometimes it gets mixed with wanting to feel needed. We want to feel helpful, and are not necessarily looking to discover and fulfil what others want. However, initially we’re feeling happy that we want to do something, so the level of happiness is there, but it’s very small, and it doesn’t give us emotional support. I must say that this is one of the biggest dangers of trying to follow a bodhisattva path – we want to be helpful, often in situations where people don’t want our help. We need discriminating awareness and wisdom – knowing when to offer our help, and when to just have that motivation that we would like to help; nevertheless, we know that we don’t need to say anything. This is extremely difficult, however. We offer our unwanted help because of the self-cherishing – I, me, me, me, want to be helpful. 

Well, let’s end on that note. I’m guilty of this myself, so that’s why I laugh. Let’s end with a dedication. Whatever positive force, whatever understanding that has come from this discussion, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to overcome their self-cherishing. It says this in The Seven-Point Mind Training, to place all the blame on one thing, the self-cherishing attitude. So, may everyone be able to overcome their self-cherishing, open up to others, and through that find a safe direction in life to eventually attain enlightenment for the benefit of all.