I’m going to be doing a post soon on my experience of Refuge Ngondro, but I should probably go over some thoughts on refuge in the three jewels first.
One Thing You Should Know
Since I practice within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, most of my thoughts on refuge will be colored by this perspective, according to the stages of the path teachings of Dipankara Shrijana (Lama Atisha) and Losang Drakgpa (Lama Tsongkhapa).
This means most of this will be colored by views on rebirth. Not every tradition emphasizes rebirth as strongly. You can read a post that Deb did on rebirth from the view of the wonderful Theravada tradition, called Preservation of the Teachings and Birth/Rebirth
The Intention Behind This Post
I’m not sure how it’s explained in all the other Buddhist traditions, but I thought I’d give some of my thoughts on it and what has helped bring me a little clarity. It’s funny for someone who knows so little, I decided to type so much. If this helps someone also, that would be good, but I really put this together to clear up my own misunderstandings. Any errors and omissions are obviously my own.
Understanding Refuge Depends on Context
I don’t think it’s possible to understand refuge in the three jewels as a stand alone subject, it has to be understood in its proper context, otherwise it’s just blind faith. Faith is ok, especially in something virtuous, but it won’t be particularily stable.
Geshe Sopa Rinpoche has said that even though there are three jewels of refuge, the real refuge is the dharma jewel, or more appropriately, taking refuge in the laws of karma. Lama Atisha was known as the refuge lama, because his main topics of teachings centered mainly around refuge and karma, so one can see how refuge and karma are so intertwined, or more appropriately, interdependent.
Zong Rinpoche once said that a lot of people in the west like to meditate on tantric deities of the highest yoga class of tantra, but what actually would be most beneficial is meditating on refuge and death and impermance.
Refuge made more sense for me when I began to see it from the context of karma and death and impermanence.
The Link Between Refuge, Death and Impermance, and Karma
It’s often said, that whatever state of mind we’re most habituated to when we’re alive, that will be that state of mind that we’ll most likely have when we die. So if we spend most of our lives angry or attached, we’ll likely die with those states of mind. This is why it’s difficult to get a human life, you have to have a postive state of mind at death in order for a human life to ripen in the next. The habituated negative states of mind will at the time of death cause negative karma to ripen and propel an unfortunate rebirth.
The great adept Shantideva says from Bodhisattvacharyāvatāra or Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
If even one moment of negativity
Causes me to be born in the hell realms
Then consider the results of the nonvirtues I have accumulated from beginningless time
How could I ever be reborn anywhere but the lower realms?
The chances of finding positive karma to ripen at the time of death is like trying to find roses in an overrun garden. The likelihood of finding weeds and broken glass is high, while finding a rose will be next to impossible. Likewise, the chances of ripening positive karma in a mindstream overcome by afflictive emotions is next to impossible. It sounds pretty awful, but it’s not a hopeless situation.
Where Refuge Comes Into Play
Unless someone has gained certain realizations, the best protection someone has at the time of death is taking refuge. This is mainly because taking refuge in the three jewels will create a virtuous state of mind, which keeps negative karma from ripening at the time of death.
As Arya Asanga states from Compendium of Knowledge:
The qualities of Buddha are inconceivable
The qualties of the Dharma are inconceivable
The qualities of the Arya Sangha are also inconceivable
By cultivating faith in these inconceivable objects,
The ripening result is also inconceivable
So by relying on virtuous objects like the three jewels, we trigger positive states of mind at death, which will prevent lower rebirths. At the time of death, there isn’t a really a better defense.
What Non-Buddhists Can Do at the Time of Death
Even if someone isn’t Buddhist, they can think of Jesus, Alah, Krishna or even their spiritual teacher, as long as it triggers a virtuous thought. If none of that applies, simply thinking about compassion or some charity work or anything virtuous will do. The most important thing is generating a happy and light mind.
Where East and West Collides
Most Buddhist practitioners in the west have trouble with the idea of rebirth, and especially the lower realms. They get ideas of hellfire and brimstone, or think of some wrathfal third party condeming them, and so forth. This has to all be understood from context.
The Context Of Refuge and Dharma From the East
This presentation of refuge was traditionally given to monks and nuns, basically serious renunciates who were ready to get on the highway and drive 150 miles an hour without looking back. Most lay practitioners are more like pedestrians who have studied or are studying the road, but havn’t really comitted to driving yet. This difference in aspiration and actual application can potentially create a huge amount of conflict.
The Tibetan System is Geared as Preparation for Tantra
The purpose of presenting the lower realms is to help set the foundation for generating two later realizations: renunciation and bodhichitta. When one gains apprehension for taking a lower rebirth, one gets a disdain for creating negative karma and starts to practice seriously, creating a form of renunciation and refuge in the Buddhist method and teachings.
Fear of other others taking lower rebirths helps to generate bodhichitta.
An example often given, is if someone you knew was blind and was stumbling near a cliff, you would get really concerned and a sense of compassion would arise for this person’s situation and you would try to do something about it. Likewise, all sentient beings who have been our mothers since beginningless time are carelessly creating negative karma and are being blindlessly led around by their afflictive emotions, and are one out breath away from falling to the lowest levels of cyclic existence. This helps to later generate the realization of bodhichitta, or the mind that wishes to attain enlightenment in order to benefit others.
In order to practice the highest classes of tantra, one needs three realizations: realizations of renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness. If someone doesn’t have full realizations, one has to at least have a very good understanding of them.
Pabongka Rinpoche states, that practicing tantra without these realizations, at best, will result as becoming a stream enterer. What more likely will happen, is that an unqualified tantric practitioner will take a lower rebirth. Many of my teachers very rarely or never give high level tantric initiations and mainly only teach the sutric vehicle. I suspect is has to do with this.
The Tibetan System Wasn’t Originaly Prepared For Lay Practitioners
This presentation of the dharma wasn’t given to lay practitioners because they wern’t really considered suitable. Lay practitioners previousy couldn’t read and write, however western practitioners now are well educated, so that really isn’t the issue. The biggest obstacle for lay practitioners is being distracted by worldly activities and not being able to develop a sufficient level of renunciation to practice purely.
Someone can go for a weekend to receive teachings, but then spend the rest of the month engrossed in counting money and trying to acquire sense pleasure, while the teachings becomes a distant memory or at least a barely audible mumble in the background.
Context of Refuge and Dharma From Within the Western Context
More and more westerners are ordaining, however the majority of practitioners are lay practitioners. The idea of the lower realms, karma and rebirth seems as something being associated with eastern culture and people have a general tendency to be suspicious of it. I think skepticism is good, but habituated doubt provides a lot of obstacles in generating a mind of refuge.
Western Mentality’s Tendency Towards Low Self Esteem
Karm and rebirth also very difficult for western lay practitioners because they also have a greater tendency towards low esteem and beating themselves up. When a lot of Tibetan teachers came to the west to teach, they were astonished by this, it was like an epidemic.
The Tibetan language doesn’t have a word for low esteem, but it’s common in the west for people to constantly criticize themselves in the worst possible ways. Due to this, a western practitioner is more likely to think “i’m a lousy practitioner that can’t hold my vows,” or to cling to the idea that an inherently existence person is “going to hell.” Lama Yeshe, who was well liked because he understood “the western mind,” was constantly reminding people “it’s good enough, dear.”
The other factor that plays in is Judeo Christian view of hell and being condemed by a third party. This prevents people from seeing karma as an impartial cause and effect thing.
Need For Skillful Means In Presenting Buddhist Teachings?
I’ve met many practitioners, both cultural Tibetans and western practitioners that believe the teachings shouldn’t be presented so strongly in the beginning, especially teachings on the lower realms, otherwise people will get turned off. And it’s true, this strikes terror into many people, because at least there’s only one Christian Hell, while Buddhists have multiple, even if it is only impermanent.
As a counter to this argument, I once asked a former abbot of one of the three great monasteries of Tibet about teachers and western students. He is in his 80’s and was educated in pre-Chinese invasion Tibet, so he is a little more old school. He told me that it’s better to stick to the older generation of teachers because younger teachers that speak English tend to be too political and diplomatic. They give diplomatic teachings that cause peoples’ practices to be unstable.
Reconciling Fear and Fear
The feeling I get is that most westerners panic when they hear about the lower realms to the point that they’re almost incapacitated. This in my opinion, is the wrong way to use fear.
If someone is merging onto a busy highway, a certain amount of fear will keep that person alert and probably alive, that’s wisdom fear. If the same person becomes incapacitated by fear and freezes, they’ll probably crash into something. That’s the fear that has to be avoided. In the same way, I think one way to reconcile things is to be very clear about what kind of fear is useful, and what kind isn’t.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says that the best thing to do is to train in stages. Refuge doesn’t happen over night, it’s a dependently arising thing that comes about through continual training. My feeling is that when someone continually practices and starts to get a feel for their situation, refuge is a natural result.
And refuge isn’t like a light switch that goes on and off, it’s like a dimmer switch that continues to get brighter. Refuge serves many more purposes then just protection at the time of death, but I just mentioned this because at least securing another human life, at minimum, is what is stated as being the starting point of Buddhist practice within the Lama Tsongkhapa tradition.