This precious human life is an opportunity to enter the gateway of liberation. Entering the gateway refers particularly to taking refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Through the gateway of refuge, we enter into the vastness and profundity of the Buddhist teachings. Taking refuge is the most profound commitment to arise from intrinsic mind: it is the commitment to realize absolute truth. The fruition of enlightenment is based on this commitment. Because of it, we are able to maintain awareness of body, speech, and mind and to generate a genuine ability to benefit sentient beings.
There are three basic motivations for taking refuge, which simply means seeking protection or guidance. In the beginning, we take refuge to escape from the suffering of the three lower realms. Then, we come to desire liberation from the suffering of samsara altogether—still, however, from the point of view of self-liberation. The third and highest motivation is to genuinely dispel all stains of ignorance so that all sentient beings may attain freedom from suffering.
A beginner’s motivation is simply to be free from the pain and suffering of the three lower realms. Whether or not we put it in so many words, fear of karmic fruition and a desire to be free from suffering, confusion, and immediate difficulties—which means freedom from the three lower realms—is the initial motivation of our actions and practice.
Our Hearts Have Been truly shaken by the enormous amount of karma we create. We know that whatever we do affects ourselves and others and that this impact isn’t temporary but generates enormous continuity and growth. We have some sense of how collective karma and individual karma are inter- related: how a single individual can impact a whole community and how the collective karma of tribes, countries, and so on can shape our individual karma. Even if we don’t believe in the realms, we want to be free from this suffering. And we have some understand- ing of the fundamental truth of emptiness, which is innate and doesn’t depend on the path of practice alone. We may do our best not to think about these things, but still our understanding grows, especially if we’re walking on the path of practice. With this understanding, we take refuge.
At this point, some people ask if we need to believe in reincarnation to take refuge. The answer is no, but it’s absolutely necessary to believe in cause and effect. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to understand the importance of being careful with our actions. We wouldn’t understand the need to let go of grasping, jealousy, hatred, or anger or to refrain from harming others—and this karma would continue to create suffering. When we see this, a certain embarrassment should arise, and a sense of responsibility and urgency, a sense of “What can I do?”
Taking refuge with that sense of urgency and enormous responsibility, we can sincerely say, “May I strengthen my commitment to develop awareness of body, speech, and mind. May the karma that constantly creates fruition actually generate some good. Through my mindfulness and awareness, may every act be an act of kindness and awareness. If this is not possible, may I at least create some happiness—and at the very least not harm others.”
When we speak about beginner’s motivation, we are not saying that everyone should really have mahayana motivation. Let’s say you’ve just gotten divorced, and to get over your ex-husband, you want to take refuge. You want to dedicate your life to renunciation and practice—until you meet the next person. This kind of motivation is also all right. It’s a beginning. Beginner’s mind doesn’t mean you’ve burned your bridges; you’re actually making a start. And it would be fair to say that there will be gradual progress in working with and deepening your mind. Many of us who have taken refuge may still be practicing for our own personal salvation and freedom from suffering, which is beginner’s motivation.
Medium Motivation Begins with a similar attitude. Having heard and contemplated the Dharma, we see how ignorance perpetuates the creation of karma. Since the path to liberation is to stop creating karmic causes, we begin to practice with strict discipline. We base our practice on abandoning unvirtuous actions and accumulating virtuous actions. Resting in the essence of meditation, we strengthen that so we can abstain from creating the causes of birth in cyclic existence. We also aspire to attain the state of liberation— but it still only encompasses oneself. We take refuge with this aspiration: “Through the path of practice, may I truly overcome the suffer- ing of samsara in this lifetime.” This is called the refuge of devotion, because—in addition to wanting to escape the lower realms—we begin to have devotion to the path of practice. This allows us to attain liberation and freedom from karmic consequences.
Beginning and medium motivation are known as lesser or lower compared to the mahayana, the bodhisattva path. Bodhisattvas are considered superior because their motivation for practice goes beyond personal liberation.
Mahayana motivation includes the liberation of all sentient beings. It has the quality of altruism—but what does this actually mean? Is it enough just to remember sentient beings in our practice? At the beginning of our meditation, we recite, “May all sentient beings attain happiness and the cause of happiness. May they be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.” And at the end, we say, “By this merit, may all sentient beings attain omniscience.” But are we truly committed to what we say?
We are not really mahayana meditators if we’re still holding on to an “I.” We may assume we have compassion and a desire to benefit all sentient beings, but nevertheless, whether we recognize it or not, our own contentment, satisfaction, and desires may still be of primary importance. This underly- ing grasping may undermine our motivation and commitment. Becoming a bodhisattva depends not on vows and initiations but on the maturity and strength of our mind—and our ability not only to talk about including sentient beings but actually to do so.
How Do We Do This? Sentient beings are not just “blobs” of people that we don’t know. The person sitting next to you on the bus or walking down your street is a sentient being. Remembering that all beings have been your mother in one lifetime or another, you should bring all your relationships to the path of practice. Practice with awareness that we are all sentient beings. And when you say, “May all beings attain happiness and the cause of happiness,” be sure that you are that cause.
The only way to do this is to generate a strong commitment, from this moment on, to transcend habitual attitudes of body, speech, and mind. Observe yourself carefully when relating to others. Make sure that your thoughts are pure; if they’re not, bring the mind back and strengthen the purity of your thoughts. Be mindful that your speech is pure so that it doesn’t harm others. Be mindful that the body is respectful, courteous, and sensitive to others. And as much as possible, reduce your attachments, needs, expectations, and hopes. Give them a rest—and give others a bit more space and time. Learn from observation. Observe others and don’t make the same mistakes; observe yourself and don’t repeat your own mistakes.
When I studied with my own teachers, we would attend to them and travel with them, and they would use every situation to remind us to generate an attitude of vastness. Seeing a beautiful flower while walking along, for example, one could immediately say, “May the beauty of this flower be experienced by all sentient beings; at this moment, may all beings wake up to nature and be able to see this.” If one stops to take a rest, one could say, “Through my resting today, may all sentient beings have the chance to rest a while.”
Or perhaps one might see something harmful. In India, especially in hot summer months, one often sees weak, hungry-looking bullocks pulling carts with very heavy loads. When they’re not able to climb a steep hill, they are pushed and whipped, and one can see the wounds on their necks. Sometimes riding in the car with my father, we would get stuck behind one of these carts because the bull could not pull its load. And all of us sitting in the back would be saying, “How bad, how sad this is. What can we do?”
His Holiness Mindrolling Trichen would always instruct us: “At this very moment, truly take on to yourself the pain and suffering this animal endures. By recognizing this suffering, the mind is made tender. As you become aware of this very apparent suffering, which simply needs someone to look at it carefully, make this aspiration: ‘May this animal’s life and suffering be short. May the confusion, fear, and pain of this moment descend completely upon myself, and may the power of this aspiration make it fruitful’.”
What Does It Mean for an aspiration or prayer to be genuinely fruitful? For an aspiration or prayer to actually come true, there has to be some basis for fruition, some “hook.” The hook is said to be the power of all the virtue we have ever accumulated and the power of our wish to generate absolute truth. This forms the basis for taking on such suffering. In this way we not only take on the animal’s pain, we also recognize its inherent true nature as well as its causes and conditions.
So just as a good situation can be offered for the happiness of sentient beings, a bad situation can also be workable. Of course the best thing to do, if you can, is to help in the conventional sense. But the conventional help we give must deepen absolute truth in the mind. Then we will sincerely understand not only the conventional suffering, but also how this suffering is created by ignorance.
In situations like these, our teachers always advised us not to become dramatic. Yes, you can cry at a time like that. You can feel great irritation or anger toward the ignorance of the person causing such unnecessary harm. And you can know that this is the depth of ignorance to which a person—fully endowed with the potential for genuine compassion—can go.
We must also look at our own aggression. We may not beat animals, but we may display unceasing ignorance toward ourselves and those around us. If our actions still say mine and yours, right and wrong, good and bad, going nowhere, who’s getting married and who’s invited or not? Is there constant separation or dullness or laziness of mind?
Our refuge commitment will never bring any benefit if our actions don’t accord with that commitment. Bringing awareness to every experience generates the vastness and flexibility of superior motivation. Then we are not just saying, “May I do this for all sentient beings,” but actually including the beings we encounter. We are also more sensitive to the sameness of the suffering of all sentient beings—and of their desire for happiness. If we deepen our ability to work with inherent mind in every situation we meet, good or bad, we will know what we’re talking about when we talk about “liberation from samsara.”
So examine the actions of your body, speech, and mind carefully and reflect on the motivation behind your refuge commitment. The real question is not whether you take refuge as a samsaric or mahayana person, but whether your mind actually develops any real renunciation of self and genuine—not fabricated—kindness. Then we can look at whom or what we take refuge in.
Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche is a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. She is actively involved with two branches of Mindrolling Monastery in India, and in 2003 she established Mindrolling Lotus Garden Retreat Center in Virginia.
From This Precious Life: Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on the Path to Enlightenment. Copyright 2005 © by Khandro Rinpoche. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.