To go for refuge to Sangha.
Geshe-la explains the essential meaning of going for refuge to Sangha is to apply effort to seek Sangha’s help. All of us face difficulties in life, and when we do, we quite naturally turn to others for help and guidance on how to respond. This is natural and normal. Since we have two types of problem – outer and inner – it is also entirely natural that we turn to two different types of help. For our outer problems, we can and should continue to turn to the external experts exactly the same as everybody else. There is nothing about being a Dharma practitioner that means we shouldn’t rely upon external help for external problems. What being a Dharma practitioner does mean is that in addition to turning to external sources of help for our external problems, we also turn to Sangha for help with our inner problems of delusions and negative minds about what is happening in our life, and our inner problems of uncontrolled death and rebirth.
To keep things simple, we go for refuge to Buddhas when within our mind we pray to them and request their blessings. We go for refuge to Sangha when we turn to any aspect of our tradition in this world. Sangha is comprised of all of our Gen-la’s, our Resident Teachers, our center administrators, all of our Sangha friends, and even the various on-line Kadampa groups on Facebook, etc. In a practical sense, to go for refuge to Sangha means (1) we acknowledge that we have an inner problem of delusion, (2) we have faith and confidence in our Sangha friends that they can help us resolve our inner problem, and (3) we have enough humility to be willing to ask for help. All three of these are necessary, and each one individually represents a good deal of inner work.
To acknowledge that we have an inner problem means we are mentally clear on the difference between our outer problem and our inner problem. Our outer problem is the outer circumstance, such as a controlling boss, an angry spouse, a lack of money, a bad reputation, etc. Normally, we are completely convinced that this outer problem is the cause of our unhappiness, and because we wish to be happy, we apply great effort to change our outer circumstance. Believing that certain external conditions are necessary for our happiness is the delusion called “attachment.” Believing that certain external conditions are causes of our unhappiness is the delusion called “aversion.” The fundamental point of departure on the spiritual path is the clear recognition that our happiness is completely independent of our external circumstance and is entirely dependent upon how our mind relates to that external circumstance. Our external circumstance can be awful, but internally we have just the right attitude towards it, and not only will our awful external circumstance not be a problem for us, it will be viewed as a blessing pushing us towards enlightenment. Likewise our external circumstance can be fantastic, but internally we have just the wrong attitude towards it, and not only will our external circumstance not lift our spirits, but it will even become a source of further misery. This clearly shows that our experience of our circumstance depends entirely upon changing our mental attitude and reaction towards it. This is our inner problem we turn to Sangha to overcome.
Having faith and confidence in our Sangha friends that they can help us overcome our inner problem means we trust that our Sangha friends will give us good advice based on their own experience. We all have people in our life who we turn to for advice. We also all have people who we don’t turn to because we know their advice is not good. Some people think of faith as a bit like Cupid who shoots us with the love arrow, either we feel it or we don’t. This is wrong. Faith, like love, is something that can and should be cultivated with effort. So we need to apply effort to cultivate faith in our Sangha friends. Faith does not mean we turn a blind eye to the faults of that which we have faith in, rather faith is a wisdom mind that knows how to receive benefit from whatever qualities or faults appear to our mind. Some people, not understanding this, generate faith when they think the object of their faith appears perfect, but then they become crushed when the object of their faith appears to make mistakes. This is not faith, this is just a form of attachment to spiritual people. It is not complicated to receive benefit from the mistakes of our Sangha friends, we just view their mistakes as lessons in what not to do. It is important, also, that we make effort to be on good terms with everybody in the Sangha. This is not easy, but it is worth our while. We can view each member of the Sangha as revealing to us some aspect of our own mind, and by learning how to be on good terms with each member of the Sangha, we are working on that part of our mind. But faulty appearing Sangha members aside, we should also cultivate close mentor-mentee style relationships with those teachers and senior Sangha members who particularly inspire us. Different people have different experience and presentations of the Dharma, so it is normal that some teacher’s explanations will work for us better than others. But it is not enough to just attend the teachings, we need to develop a close relationship with the person where we allow them to know of our faults and delusions fully and openly in complete trust that they are only there to help. They know us better than we know ourselves, and sometimes that is threatening to us, but we accept this just like we accept our Doctor knowing the ways in which we are sick.
It is said that the Spiritual Guide is kinder than all the Buddhas because he helps us directly when we are at our most deluded. By the same logic, we can perhaps say that our Sangha friends are kinder still, because they help us every day. Sangha does not just help us by providing advice, but also by providing us with living examples of people doing their best to change themselves with the Dharma. Their example and their experience are often greater teachers for us than even the highest master’s perfect discourses. In many ways, we can say that our Sangha friends are the most precious people for us in the whole world.