37 practices: verse 7

7. To seek refuge in the Three Jewels

Who can the worldly deities protect, / Themselves imprisoned in samsara’s jail?

The Three Jewels, which embody freedom’s path: / Reliable protection without fail.

To seek refuge in Buddha, dharma, sangha: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 7 audio

According to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “People naturally search for refuge, for someone or something to protect them from sorrow and torment.” He suggests we may typically seek protection and comfort from a variety of worldly sources, such as wealth, pleasure, and influence. In Ornament of Precious Liberation, Gampopa cites worldly deities, local nature spirits, parents and loved ones among the refuges we may habitually turn to. Ken McLeod adds knowledge, community, health, fitness, and transcendent experiences to the list.

Contemplation: What refuge(s) do you turn to when you get bad news or are ill, anxious, facing a challenge, or under stress? Might “worldly deities” include such refuges within samsaric experience as TV, video games, phone surfing, ice cream, shopping, substance abuse, gossip or venting? What is the outcome of relying on these sources of temporary relief? If, on the other hand, we feel we already rely on the Buddha, dharma, and sangha as our refuges, in what way do we do that in our daily life, and what is the outcome? Let’s take a few moments to reflect on this before going on.

Back to the commentaries: Why is it not enough to rely on worldly refuges? Because, Dilgo Khyentse says, ” True refuge can only be provided by something that is itself totally free…. [and] this quality of true refuge is found only in the Three Jewels — the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — with their absolute wisdom, unbiased compassion, and unimpeded ability.”

We rely on the Buddha, who manifested for us as Shakyamuni Buddha 2600 years ago, as the example of someone who attained complete freedom through fully realizing wisdom and compassion; the dharma as the Buddha’s teachings that point out how we can do the same; and the sangha as the community of teachers and fellow practitioners who guide and support us on the path.

What buddha is: Dilgo Khyentse explains buddhahood as realization of the three kayas, the Sanskrit term for the three “bodies,” dimensions, or manifestations of enlightenment. Briefly, these are the dharmakaya, or body of truth, which he describes as “the absolute, inconceivable, empty expanse of wisdom”; the samboghakaya, or body of enjoyment, which he describes as the unchanging and unceasing expression of the five primordial wisdoms; and the nirmanakaya, or manifestation body, which appears in “countless different forms,” including the supreme nirmanakaya, the manifestation of a fully enlightened buddha, such as Shakyamuni, in physical form.

The three (sometimes expressed as four) kayas is a very deep subject. If you’d like to study it further, Ringu Tulku has a very accessible explanation in Path to Buddhahood (pages 72-74), which he introduces by saying, “It doesn’t mean that the buddha has different forms, but that what we call ‘buddha’ can be described from three angles, three aspects, or three points of view.” To summarize his descriptions, he says the dharmakaya is “the buddha’s mind…free from concepts… limitless, boundless, clear and direct awareness…the essential nature of all of our minds.” Samboghakaya is “the way buddhas see themselves: as the radiance of the five wisdoms…beyond birth, death, and change.” Nirmanakaya is “what is seen by others…. All three aspects are present at the same time” and “are also the inherent nature of our own mind. When we realize them experientially, that is enlightenment.”

How can we say the Three Jewels are unfailing, when the sangha consists of fallible human beings? If the refuges are said to be completely reliable and unfailing, what does it mean, for example, when we feel that a teacher (the sangha refuge) has let us down?  According to Gampopa, of the three refuges only the Buddha is the ultimate source of refuge. The Dharma is not an ultimate refuge because it is “a collection of terms and an assembly of letters, to be abandoned once it has served its purpose, like a vehicle once the journey is done…. As for the Sangha, they themselves take refuge in the Buddha through fear of samsara, and cannot constitute a supreme and lasting refuge because of having that fear.”

“Well then,” Gampopa continues, “does this not contradict what has been said above about the three refuges?” His answer, from the Buddhist scriptures: “The latter [two refuges] originated as a skillful means for guiding those training as Buddhists…. In brief, the refuge is one, but in terms of method it is three.”

Dilgo Khyentse describes the three kayas in similar terms: “Of these three aspects, it is only the dharmakaya buddha that is the ultimate refuge. But to actualize the dharmakaya refuge, we have to rely on the teachings given by the nirmanakaya buddha.”

Ken McLeod combines these two expressions of relative and ultimate refuge: “In the end, however, all you have is awareness, the quality of knowing that is present in every moment of experience — indefinable, indescribable, nonconceptual knowing…. When you stop looking outside or inside for something to free you from your struggles, you take refuge in direct awareness. That is buddha.”

What role does faith play in actualizing refuge?  Dilgo Khyentse says, “Faith is the prerequisite for refuge, and its very essence. Taking refuge does not just mean reciting a refuge prayer. It must come from the depth of your heart, from the marrow of your bones. If you have that complete confidence in the Three Jewels, their blessings will always be present in you, like the sun and moon being instantly reflected in clear, still water.” Faith is described as having three levels or stages, and this sequence also points to the first reliance and the relative nature of the dharma and sangha as refuges.

The first stage of faith (using slightly different translations than the Padmakara Translation Committee) is the faith of inspiration, the joy and awe we feel when we encounter an authentic teacher, the teachings, and images or stories of buddhas and bodhisattvas. This is what draws us to the dharma in the first place. The second stage is the faith of aspiration, when we understand that we can come to embody these things ourselves, and we then apply ourselves to practice. This leads to the third stage, the faith of confidence, when through our practice we begin to experience the truth of the teachings directly. Verse 3, to rely on solitude, describes how this third level of faith unfolds.

If we remain only at the first level, the faith of being inspired by something outside ourselves, it will vanish if that outer source fails to live up to our expectations. Thus, we need to use the faith of inspiration (ultimately in the Buddha, the state of enlightenment itself) as an impetus to mature our understanding and realization through aspiration (our own work) and finally unwavering confidence (our own direct experience). At that point, according to Dilgo Khyentse, we will have arrived at the fourth and ultimate stage of faith, irreversible faith, when our “confidence is so well established that it can never waver.”

When and how to take refuge: If, as we asked ourselves in the contemplation above, we seek refuge in the Three Jewels rather than in one of the many fleeting, deceptive, worldly refuges we may be in the habit of turning to — how do we make that happen in the moment when we feel in need of protection, comfort, something we can count on?

In a 1994 teaching on an entirely different topic (the peaceful and wrathful deities of the bardo), Lama Norlha Rinpoche began with the following advice: “If we make a practice of taking refuge when we’re happy and things are good, then when we are sick or have problems, we’ll automatically look to refuge to help us.”

He suggests we cultivate the habit of taking refuge at specific times throughout the day. “It’s not that we only need to take refuge when we’re practicing during our sessions, but if we take it immediately upon waking up in the morning, it prevents both inner and outer obstacles to anything we do during the day.” Likewise, if we take refuge before going to sleep or setting out on a trip, we will be protected from obstacles and, in the case of sleep, also from bad dreams.

So how do we go about taking refuge at specific times times of day, or when we are in need of refuge, or during formal practice? “Refuge means that we visualize in front of us the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, along with the appropriate deity we are going to meditate on [if we are calling upon a deity such as Chenrezig, Tara, or Medicine Buddha, or doing their practice], and we think that we seek protection and take refuge in them in order to benefit all sentient beings, from today until we attain complete enlightenment, in this life, future lives, and the bardo.” In this way we can always take refuge within the vast scope of our bodhisattva aspirations.

“Take refuge from the core of your heart, for the sake of all beings, from now until they all attain enlightenment,” Dilgo Khyentse concludes. “This is the true way of a bodhisattva.”

Silent pop quiz, aka, google your internal files: This is the last of the seven preliminary practices that prepare us to fully enter the path of awakening. Can you name them all? (The link takes you to the list.) We need to continue disentangling from our samsaric habits, even as we embark upon the main practice beginning with verse 8.

The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.

Next practice: Verse 8: to refrain from harm at all costs

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)