(2.26) Until I attain the essence of great enlightenment,
I will go for refuge to the Buddhas;
Likewise, I will go for refuge to Dharma
And to the assembly of Bodhisattvas.
At first, refuge practice seems very religions, which we don’t like. It seems cult like. But if we check, we see that we go for refuge all the time. To go for refuge means to turn to something as a solution to your problems. When we have a bad tooth, we go for refuge to the Dentist, when we have a legal problem, we go for refuge to a lawyer, etc. There are two parts to the mind that goes for refuge – an awareness of the problem and a confidence in the object of refuge as the solution.
It is exactly the same thing with spiritual refuge. The point of departure on the spiritual path is a redefinition of the problem. A samsaric being thinks that the problem is the external situation. A spiritual being understand that the problem is in fact how our mind relates to that external situation.
We have four types of spiritual problem. The first is worldly problems in this life – things go wrong in this life and we are unhappy about them. The second is the risk we face of falling into the lower realms – we have negative karma on our mind, and if we die with a negative mind we will fall into the lower realms. The third is the risk of taking uncontrolled rebirth – we have an uncontrolled mind, and so uncontrolledly we will take rebirth into contaminated aggregates. Finally, there is the risk of others we love taking uncontrolled rebirth – others have uncontrolled minds, and unless we save them they will take uncontrolled rebirths into contaminated aggregates. The first type of problem we know very well, but the remaining three we are largely oblivious to. We have no idea that we stand on a mountain of negative karma supported by nothing more than a water bubble of this human life which can pop at any time. If truth be told, our real home is the lower realms, yet we go about our day as if we are on permanent holiday completely oblivious to what is but one missed breath away. Samsara is nothing short of a slaughterhouse that is so cruel it revives us only to slaughter us once more. Our parents, partners, children and friends are all relentlessly recycled though the samsaric meat grinder and nothing we are taught in this world (except the Dharma) can help. Until we have deeply internalized these larger spiritual problems, we will lack staying power in our practice. We will reach a point where we are usually happy with our present life, and we will become satisfied with that attainment alone. The need to push further will seem remote. But there is nothing like death to bring home the truth of Dharma.
Just as we need external objects to solve our external problems, so too we need Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to solve our internal, spiritual problems. Dharma is the actual refuge, it is the supreme medicine. Buddha is like the supreme doctor and Sangha are like the supreme nurses.
Dharma can help us solve our four types of problem. Dharma helps us deal with our worldly problems of this life by helping us relate to our lives in non-deluded ways – then we are always happy. With Dharma wisdom, if things go well, good; if things go badly, even better! Dharma helps us deal with the risk of taking lower rebirth by explaining how to purify all our negative karma, how to accumulate positive karma and how to activate these seeds at the time of our death. Dharma helps us deal with the problem of samsaric rebirth by giving us methods for purifying all of our deluded tendencies similar to the cause so that we never again activate contaminated karma and attain liberation. Dharma helps us deal with the problem of others taking samsaric rebirth by giving us methods to purify all our contaminated karma and thereby remove the two obstructions and become a Buddha – a being capable of leading all beings to enlightenment.
At the Southern England Dharma Celebration many years ago, the teacher gave a very simple formula for how we build Dharma within our mind. He said, “intellectual understanding plus believing faith equals realization.” We can improve our intellectual understanding of Dharma through attending classes at our local centers, reading Dharma books, and discussing Dharma with our spiritual friends. Believing faith is faith based on a valid reason. Valid reasons can include conclusions reached through logical reasoning, but more often than not the valid reasons that truly move our minds are the ones born from personal experience of the Dharma working in our life or through having received powerful blessings. Geshe-la likes the Dharma to supreme inner science. The heart of the scientific method is experimentation. We perform experiments to test the validity of our hypotheses. When we do so, we either confirm or deny them. It is the same with the Dharma. When we sincerely put the instructions into practice in our daily life, we gain personal experience of their truth and transformative power. This gives us believing faith. When we combine these two – intellectual understanding and believing faith – authentic Dharma realizations naturally spawn within our mind. This is our actual refuge.