Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches on “Going for Refuge with Eyes Wide Open”

December 5, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

Teachings, Day Two:

The second session of the winter debate teachings opened today with His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa himself leading the chanting in Sanskrit of refuge and other prayers. His Holiness noted the intimate connections between the Sanskrit language and the Mahayana teachings preserved in Tibet, commenting that he himself had undertaken some study of Sanskrit. His Holiness then turned to the text, Brief Notes on Difficult Points of the Three Vows by the Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso. This text opens with an homage to the three jewels—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—and His Holiness devoted the day’s session to the topic of refuge. In a style that is becoming the hallmark of his winter debate teachings, His Holiness’ wove deeply moving personal advice into a scholarly presentation of refuge.

Emphasizing the importance of understanding what our sources of refuge are, His Holiness provided concise explanations of the various ways that each of the three jewels is identified in the Listener-Disciples’ Vehicle, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana. Moving on to the topic of fear and faith as causes that lead us to generate refuge in the three jewels, His Holiness commented that while the fear that motivates us to seek refuge is basically fear of suffering, nevertheless there are different understandings of suffering, and different forms of suffering that might be feared. He then deftly mapped out the sorts of fear that induce practitioners in different vehicles and of different capacities to take refuge in the three jewels. For example, lam rim teachings following divide practitioners into three types, according to capacity, the lowest of which is moved to seek refuge out of fear of suffering in future lives, and especially the fear of falling into the three lower realms, of animal, preta and hell beings. At the very least, His Holiness said, to generate sincere refuge in the three jewels, we should have a concern for the sufferings that await us in the lower realms.

Yet nowadays, His Holiness pointed out, there are many who have adopted the Buddhist path but still harbor serious doubts about the existence of past and future lives. With no conviction in future lives, naturally there is no genuine concern about falling into the lower realms. Indeed there are many who lack conviction in the very existence of these lower realms. If our fear of suffering does not extend to future lives, but is merely limited to the sufferings of this life, all our actions are inevitably bound up with the concern for this life. Our practice of the Dharma itself is likely to be motivated by the eight worldly concerns, and if that is the case, it becomes doubtful whether our practice actually qualifies as a Dharma practice. As His Holiness indicated, the first of the eight benefits of taking refuge is that this makes one a Buddhist. This raises the question whether those who lack the minimal concern for future lives that serves as a cause for refuge for the lowest capacity practitioners can actually be considered Buddhists.

Thus at an absolute minimum, our practice of refuge must look beyond this life and be based in a concern for the suffering of future lives. It is up to each of us to sincerely search within ourselves to see whether we have the minimal conviction in future lives and fear of sufferings in the lower realms to produce sincere refuge in the three jewels. As he made these comments, His Holiness’ gaze frequently scanned the section where his foreign disciples were seated, and many among them took these words as personal advice addressed directly to them.

Nevertheless, His Holiness added, even if not all who consider themselves Buddhists are yet at the level of this lowest scope of being, the Dharma itself is able to address people at whatever level they are when they encounter it, and offers a path to support us all in our wish to progress from there.

His Holiness further discussed the way to take refuge, underscoring that refuge is not something we simply receive from the outside, as if we could go to a lama and he could hand us refuge. Rather, we need to make the determination within ourselves to strive for our own liberation and omniscience.

Describing the way to receive Dharma teachings, His Holiness took up the image of a vessel free of the three faults—of having holes in it, being dirty or being placed upside down. He managed to take this analogy, well known to many Dharma practitioners, and make it come suddenly alive and replete with new meaning—another characteristic feature of his teaching style. His Holiness assigned the audience the task of examining for themselves whether their minds were worthy recipients for the pure Dharma. We ourselves must take steps to ensure that our minds are suitable vessels to hold the Dharma, he said. We must actively work to remove any stains in our minds, and see to it that our minds are sound, and held upright to receive and retain the Dharma offered.

Going to attend the teachings of a high lama casually, as if we were going to an ordinary, everyday event, is a sign we are not properly valuing the Dharma. Nor is it adequate to simply sit, nonchalantly extending our plate for whatever might be dished onto it, His Holiness said. Instead, we should go to teachings with a deep hunger, and eagerly hold up the empty bowl of our minds to receive the nectar of the pure Dharma.

Turning to the topic of the study of philosophical views, His Holiness cautioned against allowing a partisan or bigoted attitude to develop for the particular school we each follow. For the Dharma to truly serve as a source of benefit and happiness for sentient beings, it is essential that we maintain a sense of the inner harmony among the different Buddhist schools. His Holiness commented that since he himself had been given the name of Karmapa he had a particular responsibility for sustaining one particular lineage. Yet he stated that he thinks it important to study the views of other schools and compare them. In general, His Holiness urged those present to study the views of their own and at least one other school, to have a comparative understanding of two schools.

In general, His Holiness commented, our aim in engaging in activities of study, contemplation and meditation should be for the benefit and happiness of others, not to become scholars ourselves or to gain a reputation as learned. The knowledge we develop should not be a sort of ornament that beautifies us and earns us the admiration of others, while others remain with comparatively less. When we gain a jewel, our wish should be to offer that jewel to others, so that it may beautify them. Thus the purpose of our study should be to share what we have gained with others.

Speaking directly to the hearts of those present, His Holiness said that his thinking of late is that in essence refuge entails opening our eyes. We need to open our eyes to reality, and to look around us and see the suffering and the happiness of others directly. Opening our eyes of wisdom as well as our physical eyes, we need to see clearly how that suffering arises. With faith and confidence and eyes wide open, once we see that suffering and are moved to do something about it, then we can fully go for refuge. If we are simply closing our eyes and repeating the words of the refuge formula, we may just be going from one ignorance to another, from one form of darkness to another.