To go for refuge to the Three Jewels again and again, remembering their good qualities and the differences between them.
This vow means remembering these qualities we should continuously go for refuge. Dharma is like a boat that can carry us across the ocean of samsara. Buddha is like the skilful navigator of the boat. Sangha are like the crew.
The most important thing to be clear about is the function of each of the three jewels. We can only appreciate their function if we have a clear understanding of our problem. At a very basic level, our problem is our mind. Because our mind is overrun with delusion and negativity, we create all sorts of problems for ourselves. Ultimately, there are no problems other than the ones we create with our mind. Even physically, there are just a bunch of atoms swirling around. It is our mind that imputes problem onto the particular combination of atoms, and on the basis of that mental projection we suffer. There are many outer problems that require all sorts of outer solutions, but our problem is an internal problem – our mind. If we can learn to relate to everything that arises with a peaceful and virtuous mind, then we will be happy all of the time regardless of what disaster is unfolding around us. We change our mind by cultivating new habits of mind – instead of deluded habits of mind we cultivate wisdom and virtuous habits of mind. Dharma instructions explain to us how to do this, and the actual new cultivated habits within our mind are our actual Dharma jewels within our mind. Buddha helps us by explaining to us what we need to do (his instructions) and by bestowing blessings. Blessings function to activate virtuous karmic tendencies on our mind which make it easier for us to generate virtue.
In many ways, Sangha is the most overlooked of the three jewels, yet from a practical point of view it is our most important. If we enmesh ourselves in a web of Sangha friendships, then we will become socialized into responding to whatever arises with the Dharma. We receive most of our teachings from Sangha (our spiritual teachers) and they are our companions along the path. They encourage us, inspire us, and support us when we need it.
To go for refuge again and again means to maintain a constant awareness of what our real problem is, and then to turn to Buddha for instructions and blessings, to our Sangha friends for inspiration and support and to the Dharma to create those new wisdom habits of mind. These new habits are our actual protection from all suffering.
To offer the first portion of whatever we eat and drink to the Three Jewels, while remembering their kindness.
We should first recall how all our happiness is a result of Buddha’s kindness because his compassionate actions enable us to perform virtuous actions that are the cause of our happiness. Without Buddha we would not know the real causes of happiness, or the real causes of suffering. He taught us perfect methods for overcoming suffering and attaining happiness. Every favorable condition we have comes through Buddha’s blessings and our following his instructions. Buddha attained enlightenment to benefit all living beings, and manifests even as non-Buddhists teachers, to help others.
Remembering this, every time we eat we should offer what we are eating to our Spiritual Guide at our heart. There are many different ways of doing this, all of which are explained in Joyful Path of Good Fortune or in Guide to Dakini Land. But the main point is to take the time to be thankful, believe your guru is at your heart, and then mentally offer the food to him. A very powerful way of doing this is to imagine that while it may be French fries that appear to our mind, mentally we should imagine that it is by nature medicinal nectar that functions to increase our merit, heal our mind of all delusions and bestow upon us uncontaminated wisdom. If you strongly believe this to be the case, it actually will be the case because it is a correct imagination.
The vow here says to offer the first portion, but we should not feel limited to just the first portion. We can offer every bite. Of course we just do this mentally. We don’t need to pause before every bite closing our eyes, etc.! If we are with others and it would be strange to close our eyes and recite some prayers before we eat, then just mentally do it while stirring your food, or putting salt on, or whatever. Externally, just be normal; but internally, understand what you are doing. Since we eat and drink so often in the day, if we can make this our habit it will become easy to remember the Dharma throughout the day and the night. A senior teacher once said our biggest problem is not understanding the Dharma it is remembering to practice it. If we combine our eating with our remembering, it will quickly become a new habit.