At the end of the day, the Dharma is very simple: we have a problem, Dharma provides a solution. If we gain an exact understanding of what is the real nature of our problem and how only the Dharma can give us a solution to this problem, then we will have no difficulty generating the necessary effort to progress along and ultimately complete the path. As Venerable Tharchin said, “if we see how the Dharma actually works, effort becomes effortless.” Once again, this post is quite long and for that I apologize. But what can be more important than a solution to our biggest problem of impending lower rebirth? Even if nobody ever reads this, it has been extremely helpful to me to write it out to clarify my own understandings. I now know much more clearly what it is that I need to do.
What is our problem? We have a precious human life with which we can accomplish even the highest spiritual goals. But we may die at any moment and lose this opportunity for a very long time. From the point of view of our problem, it makes little difference whether we physically die or simply lose what makes our human life “precious.” If we lose the path and spend the rest of our days engaging in only worldly action, from a spiritual point of view it is as if we are already dead. I have virtually only negative karma left on my mind. If I look at my own personal biography over the last countless aeons, I have spent virtually all of my time in the lower realms where I engaged in almost exclusively negative actions. When I was in the upper realms, I simply burned up what little merit I had and did precious little that was actually virtuous. Even now, when I have such perfect access to the methods for purifying my mind, I have done virtually no sustained and sincere purification practice. So there can be no doubt that my own personal stock of karma is almost uniformly negative. If one of these negative karmic seeds ripens at the moment of my death, I will be thrown into the lower realms where I will once again become trapped for an incalculably long period of time. Statistically speaking, if I have 10 times more negative karma than virtuous karma, there is a 10 times greater chance I will fall into the lower realms than attain a fortunate rebirth. To make matters worse, if I die with a negative or deluded mind, I will activate one of these negative seeds and fall into the lower realms. When I am faced with problems, pain or difficulty, I tend to get grumpy, irritable and I respond with negative and deluded minds. Facing death will be the biggest problem, the most painful experience and the most insurmountable difficulty I will face in my life. If I respond to life’s minor annoyances with delusion and negativity, what chance do I have to not do the same at the time of my death? If I am 10 times more likely to respond to pain and problems with a negative mind and I have 10 times more negative karma on my mind, then at a minimum I have 100 to 1 chance of falling at the time of my death. In reality, the odds are much worse than that. This is a huge problem.
This problem becomes all the more poignant when I consider things from the point of view of others. If I fall, all those who I would otherwise have helped and lead towards enlightenment will have to remain trapped in their own samsaras for all that time. So it is not just me who will suffer, but all those who I would have otherwise helped will be forced to endure their suffering even longer. If we understand things from the point of view of dream-like emptiness, all of the beings of my dream are trapped in samsara because I have dreamt them there. From this point of view, I am not only responsible for the suffering of all those who I would otherwise have helped, but I am responsible for all suffering of all beings. How can I condemn countless living beings to endless suffering? This is exactly what I am headed towards doing if I don’t purify my mind and attain enlightenment for their sake. From the point of view of emptiness of others, it is no exaggeration to say the fate of all beings rests on my shoulders and depends upon what I do with my mind right here and right now.
This is my problem. The question is what is the solution? According to Buddhism, the solution is going for refuge. The meaning of this phrase is not always clear to people. What it essentially means is turning towards and relying upon a viable solution. When you have a cavity, you go for refuge to the dentist. When you have a legal problem, you go for refuge to a lawyer. When you have a karma and delusion problem, you go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. There are two ways of going for refuge: simple and special. The simple way is we create the causes for the Buddhas to activate our virtuous karmic potentialities at the time of our death so that we can continue with our practice. The special way is we gain the power to do so ourselves. In this post, I will explain simple refuge. All of the subsequent posts in this series can correctly be understood as an extensive explanation of special refuge.
Since it will take a long time before we have the power to control our own process of rebirth, the first and most urgent thing I need to do is to try ensure that a positive seed ripens at the time of my death. Even if I have 10 times more negative seeds than positive ones, if I can get that one positive seed to ripen at the time of my death I will at least buy myself more time to continue with my practice and thereby clean up the rest of my karma. From my own side, I have little power to determine what seeds ripen because I have little control over my mental reactions to pain and difficulty. One of the most important functions of a Buddha is they have the power to bless the minds of living beings. What does that mean? It means they have the power to activate on our mind our virtuous karmic potentialities – they can ripen those positive seeds. If I can get them to do so at the time of my death, then I can avert my near-certain fall into the lower realms and then continue with my practice.
So the question becomes how can I ensure I receive a Buddha’s blessings at the time of my death? From their own side, the Buddhas are constantly bestowing blessings on all beings much like the sun is always radiating light. But for their light to enter my mind, I need to open the blinds to let the light in. Very often we make requests for blessings, but sometimes we can make the mistake of thinking the Buddhas are holding back and will only bless our mind if we ask them or bribe them with offerings! This is completely wrong – when we request blessings, what we are really doing is making the mental decision to open up our mind to receive their light. This is how we open the blinds of our mind. So every single moment of every single day we should be requesting blessings, in particular requesting that the Buddhas bless our mind at the moment of our death so that we may continue with our spiritual training for the sake of all beings. Each request we make creates the karmic cause for the Buddhas to do precisely that at the time of our death. Each request we make creates the karmic cause for us to open our mind to the Buddha’s light at the time of our death.
We need many such causes, we need these causes to be powerful and we need to increase the odds that their resulting karmic seeds are activated at the time of our death. We create many of these causes by making this request many times. We make these causes powerful in dependence upon the strength of our faith when we request them. With faith, we trust, we believe and we don’t hold back. We eagerly wish to come under the influence and protection of that which we have faith in. The greater our faith when we make the request, the more completely will the blinds of our mind open to the blessing light of the Buddhas. In the lamrim teachings it explains how we increase our faith. We should actively train in increasing our faith which will create more robust karmic causes.
We increase the odds that their resulting karmic seeds are activated at the time of our death by having a close karmic relationship with the Buddhas. If we have a close and frequent relationship with somebody, it is much more likely that our request will be fulfilled. If we have no relationship with somebody, requests we make cannot be fulfilled even if the other person wants to fulfill our request because there are no points of connection. So how do we develop closer karmic relationships with the Buddhas? By believing they are always with us. One of the unique abilities of a Buddha is wherever you imagine them to be they instantaneously appear. The reason for this is simple when understood from the point of view of emptiness. They already are everywhere, but by believing that they are there we activate the karma for them to appear. Another unique ability of a Buddha is wherever a Buddha appears they spontaneously bestow blessings, just like wherever you bring a lamp it will spontaneously illuminate its surroundings. If we can have the Buddhas with us at the time of our death, then they will spontaneously bestow the light of their blessings on our mind. This will then activate the virtuous karmic potentialities on our mind which will then ripen in the form of a karmic dream in our next life where we can continue to have access to the path and we can continue with our training. If we train right now in the mental action of always believing the Buddhas are with us, then this will become our mental habit. We will eventually be able to remember this all of the time, and we can carry the continuum of this awareness with us into the moment of death. Then it is certain that we will be able to avoid lower rebirth and continue with our practice in our next life. Christians do the same for their preparations for the time of death – they try believe that Christ is with them (“know that I am there”).
Finally, we can enhance the above by also going for refuge to Sangha. Sangha are our spiritual friends (I would say spiritual family) who are likewise training just as we are. Who our friends are makes a huge difference to our lives because our friends have an enormous influence over us. If our friends routinely bully others, we will start to do the same and indeed think it is funny and normal. If our friends are routinely requesting blessings and trying to practice virtue then we will likewise do the same and indeed think it is entirely normal to do so. For this reason, we must choose our friends wisely. Sangha does not only matter from the point of view of how they support us, but they also give us a chance to support them. When we support them when they are struggling, we create the causes for others to support us when we ourselves are struggling. If we encourage them to go for refuge so as to prepare for their death, we create the causes for others to do the same for us. If we support them, they will come to see that as normal and they will start to support others in the Sangha, so by supporting them directly we are indirectly supporting all of the others in the Sangha. It is likewise extremely important to never create division within the Sangha and to always try to heal all relationships within the Sangha. If each one of us is holding a candle, and we put all of our candles together we will make a giant flame which will benefit everyone equally. But if we separate the candles, the resulting illumination is diminished for everyone. Creating division within the Sangha does precisely that. We need a robust, very close, very harmonious spiritual family. This then functions as a beacon of light for us at the time of our death. Our close relationships with the Sangha will create many karmic transmission channels through which we can benefit from their prayers for us at the time of our death. Even if physically we die alone, with a closeness to spiritual family we are karmically never alone and there will be no obstructions to their prayers on our behalf at the time of our death.
If each being is a wave on the ocean of our mind, a spiritual practitioner is a calm wave. A Sangha is a clustering of calm waves. If we center ourselves in a patch of the ocean where the waters are calm and translucent, we dramatically increase the chances of our own wave being calm and translucent. There is no more important time for that than at the time of our death. But if we spend our entire life in turbulent waters, it will be very difficult to find the calm waters at the time of our death. Since the time of our death could be at any moment, it is foolish to not always be centered in such waters. This doesn’t mean we need to physically be with Sangha all of the time (though that certainly helps). But with modern communication technology, such as email, Facebook and Twitter, we can mentally always remain close to our Sangha. What a fortunate state of affairs!
We have a problem, but there is a solution. Now it is up to us to put it into practice.
2 thoughts on “Ultimate stages of the path: Going for refuge”
Enjoyed the post, getting ready for a session on retreat.
thanks this has been very helpful in my study ,enjoy your retreat