The Butterfly Mind

The Butterfly Mind

By Rob Nairn


First we need to ask why it is necessary to settle the mind, and what is the unsettled mind. Mostly, it is the mind we have always lived with, the one that can't remain on the cushion. It can't remain in this room or anywhere near this place most of the time. We sit down, focus on the external meditation support, and we form an intention. Our intention is to remain present with the meditation support.

Then a very interesting thing happens. Something within us, within seconds, perhaps a split second, overrides that intention. In an instant, we are no longer with the meditation support, instead we are thinking about something. Now that is quite interesting if we sit back and look at it.

Here we are, these 'self-deterministic' human beings who are supposedly able to guide our destinies through the universe, but we can't even carry out an intention to keep the mind in one place for more than a few seconds at best! Something else overrides that intention and we are away.

What overrides that intention? Habit. What sort of habit? The habit of having a butterfly mind. An unsettled mind. A mind that prefers to be in constant movement and activity. When we try to meditate we discover how distracted and unsettled our minds really are. It's usually quite a healthy shock to new meditators.

So our mind zaps away, out of this room. We could be in Trafalgar Square, New York, or down at a Cape Town beach within an instant of starting our meditation. Quite possibly it takes a little bit of time before we catch up with it and bring it back into this room. Then it's gone again! Then we catch up with it and bring it back into this room.

So that is the unsettled mind. It is the mind that, of its own accord, moves away. When our mindfulness is weak we don't even realise that it has moved. It's as though we fell asleep. We sit there and think, 'Ah, now I'm going to meditate... I wonder what we will have for supper tonight?' We're gone! Now we realise that if we don't learn to settle the mind we are unlikely even to begin meditating.


Interestingly, what we don't understand is that we are continually strengthening the tendency of the mind to be unsettled, and we are doing it in a variety of ways.

One is, we continually seek entertainment. It may be through TV, radio, a book, a conversation or drinking coffee. If we are denied all those external forms, all we have left to fall back on is the entertainment of the mind's imaginative activity. And that is limitless! It can run videos forever! It does it because we want it to. At a certain level, we most certainly want it to. It's boring and tiresome just to be here watching the breath. So we definitely want to be doing something else.

Quite often we won't let our minds settle because we are afraid that if we do manage to switch off the eternal video we will uncover what we have spent so much of our lives burying and keeping hidden. What we don't realise is that our intention to remain present and mindful is overridden by another intention which doesn't reveal itself. It is another of those surreptitious hidden reefs. That intention comes into action the moment the mind spots the possibility of doing something more interesting than meditating. So if we put our mind on sound and the sounds are entertaining or strong, like the sound of an aeroplane, then we can really get off on that because we may not like it. Or if it is something nice like a bird, we can get off on that. If it is the wind in the trees we can stay with that pretty well but after a while there isn't much juice left in these external possibilities. So our minds now want something different. Something begins to emerge on the outer edge of our mental vision and presents itself as a preferable option. Then this deeper level of intention says, 'Yes!' and we're there. This is one way how we unsettle ourselves.


Then there are more rigorous ways of unsettling the mind. We start meditating and go through maybe five or ten minutes of being quite diligent in bringing our minds back to the focus. Then, deep down, a memory stirs of something somebody said to us some weeks ago. We had an argument which perhaps we lost. We didn't like that so there is quite a strong residual emotional element left. This surfaces somewhere in the back of our minds and sends a tremor through the whole body. Perhaps a feeling that we didn't like this unresolved blow to our pride, or whatever it was.

Now a new thing happens. We hook into that memory and rerun it. We rerun it with all its emotional impact and this does more than the bland entertainment cycle we've just talked about. This really gets us stewed up because we completely invoke all that old business, it hooks onto a whole lot of other related emotion in our minds and before we know it, there is a good old turmoil going on. So there is no tranquillity in our meditation. We've managed to get our minds pretty turbulent. Now we're steamed up! We're ready to go and punch somebody. This is frustrating because here we are sitting meditating and nobody has even picked a fight with us, and we're ready to go and punch somebody. What have we done? Thoroughly unsettled our minds.

What we begin to see is that there are these sorts of mechanisms in operation. Although they are relatively superficial within the meditation context they are going on in our daily lives. So if, in meditation, we spot our unsettlers, we can begin to identify them in life. We begin to see how continually through the day we are unsettling our minds through our reactivity.

When we are driving a car, for example, and somebody speeds, suddenly appearing over the hill and nearly crashing into us, we get a big fright. Then we get angry. Then we go through a really big scene in our mind about how other people shouldn't drive so fast and go through red traffic lights. Then somebody pulls in front of us, changing lanes quickly. Now we are even more angry! The piece of road in front of us, that space there, belongs to us. They should know that! They shouldn't get into it quickly, or at least without asking our permission. So by the time we get to work we are really not in a fit state to do much except growl at people.

If we go back over this whole business in the traffic we begin to see that it is a self-generated turmoil. It is just an indulgence in reactivity. And there are very definite alternatives. The moment we got into the traffic, and the other guy was speeding, we could see what we were doing. We could know that 'OK, this is what happens in traffic. I do it myself sometimes. When I am in a hurry, I speed up over hills and I go through red traffic lights.' I'll bet most of us have done that! So that person isn't doing anything different from what we have all done. It is just our ego territorial compulsion that is making us buy into reactivity.

If we see this we can let it go. If the guy pulls in front of us, we just slow down and let him go. If he wants to change lanes, we just slow down and let him go. Slowly, it's no big deal. The stress of driving through traffic falls away and we are just adjusting to and accommodating the needs of other human beings.

What we see from this example is that through our reactivity and our projection we're keeping our minds unsettled and we are convinced that it is the fault of other people. The traffic example is easy to deal with because it is so obvious, but this is going on in many areas of our lives. We are doing this constantly because we are not aware of our expectations, assumptions and reactivity. We have probably done this so consistently through our lives that we no longer realise we are doing it.

We may say, If only I could go away to a really nice quiet holiday spot, I would be much more at ease. Then I would be much more peaceful and happy.' Unfortunately we wouldn't because we take with us our built-in tendency to unsettle and stress ourselves out. What we have to learn is that if we begin to understand how we unsettle ourselves, we can free ourselves and relax wherever we are. Not always, but pretty well anywhere. The point is that each time we unsettle the mind we strengthen the tendency for it to be unsettled. This means it will remain unsettled for a long time after the specific incident is past. ln addition, because the strong tendency is there, it will unsettle itself of its own accord, even when we don't want it to. We can' blame it because we set the causes in motion ourselves.


It is important that we come to our meditation understanding that we are inherently inclined to unsettle our minds. External things do not generally unsettle our minds; internal things do. We are responsible for this inner environment. So we sit and meditate and then see the first unsettling action. The mind is wanting to take off somewhere. Now comes the important moment. The normal tendency is to grab the mind and wrench it back, an act of violence similar to a parent in a supermarket with little Annie, who wants to take stuff off one of the display stands. The tired, overwrought, frustrated father grabs hold of her and yanks her back. Of course, straight away there is a scream and a scuffle and a fight.

That is what happens to our mind if we treat it that way. If we wrench the mind back from its preferred course of activity we are going to create inner turmoil, adding stress, tension and resentment to our unsettledness. We will feel an internal resistance building up in the mind. So don't attempt to settle the mind forcefully - it won't work. Try to be the kind parent: return to the meditation support gently, kindly. That's the first principle of settling - know there is no need to chase off after any thought, but when the tendency to do so arrives, simply turn gently away from the temptation and return to the support.

The Four Dharmas of Gampopa

The below is an extract from Tulku Urgyen’s Book As It Is', Volume 1

Buy the book here

The Four Dharmas of Gampopa

Before receiving teachings, let’s motivate ourselves with the precious enlightened attitude of bodhichitta. Form this wish: “I will study the Dharma and correctly put it into practice in order to establish all my mothers, sentient beings as many as the sky is vast, in the state of liberation and the precious, irreversible supreme enlightenment.”

I would like to present a teaching called the ‘Four Dharmas of Gampopa,’ which is identical with four instructions given by Longchen Rabjam. The first of these is how to turn one’s mind towards Dharma practice. Included within this is the four mind-changings. The second Dharma is how to ensure that one’s Dharma practice becomes the path. This includes teachings on the preliminary practices of the four times hundred thousand. Within the third Dharma, how to make the path clarify confusion, are the teachings on development stage, recitation, and completion stage. And within the fourth, how to let confusion dawn as wisdom, are teachings on how to gain certainty, realization of the natural state by means of the three great views. It is said that the ground is Mahamudra, the path is the Middle Way and the fruition is the Great Perfection. These Four Dharmas of Gampopa contain a complete path for an individual to attain full enlightenment within one body in one lifetime. All of us here right now have obtained what is extremely difficult to obtain—the precious human body endowed with the eight freedoms and ten riches. It is something that only happens once in a hundred aeons. It has happened for us now, this time around. While we are alive in this body, it seems as if it were so easy for us to be humans. It doesn’t appear to have required any effort. Honestly, though, a human body is extremely difficult to achieve and necessitates enormous merit from former lives. It is only due to our former meritorious karma combined with pure aspirations that we now have a precious human body.

Our present situation is like having found a wish-fulfilling jewel. Please don’t let it go to waste. Time is quickly running out; we are all mortal. The reason why it is impossible to attain a material state of perfection in this lifetime is because nothing lasts. Everything is impermanent; everyone dies. If the moment of death were a total end, like water drying out or a flame being extinguished, it would be fine—death would be of little consequence. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen. The consequences of our karmic actions follow us after death just as our shadow follows our body. The unfailing law of cause and effect requires that we experience the results of what we have done. The places where we experience the ripening of our karma are called the six realms of samsara. This situation has gone on since beginningless time and we are still not liberated.

Reflect on the meaning of these four topics I have just mentioned: the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth, the fact that nothing lasts, that we are all mortals, that everyone is governed by the consequences of karmic actions, and that there is no place within samsaric existence with permanent happiness. Those are called the four mind-changings. They are extremely important to take to heart, because they are not fiction or fantasy. They are facts; they explain the circumstances and conditions that we live under within samsaric existence. It’s not impossible to understand that we do die, nor the details of what follows. We are all really just standing in line for that, waiting for it to happen. We need to face these facts in a very realistic way. Before starting to practice the precious Dharma, it is very important to take these to heart. That was the first of the Four Dharmas of Gampopa: how to turn one’s mind to the Dharma.

The second, how to make sure that one’s Dharma practice becomes the path, contains the preliminary practices of the four times hundred thousand. Through the four mind-changings we develop the wish to be liberated from samsaric existence and attain the precious state of enlightenment, not merely for ourselves, but for all beings. We have become ready to take refuge in the Three Precious Ones. The Buddha is the completely and perfectly awakened state of omniscience. The Dharma is the path that leads to that, the teachings. The Sangha are all the masters who have upheld, propagated and made the teachings flourish from the time of the Buddha up until our kind personal master with whom we have managed to connect. To take refuge in these with full trust and confidence ensures that we have the possibility to also become awakened ones ourselves. Taking refuge and seeking guidance under the Three Jewels is what opens the way to becoming enlightened. That is the first of the preliminary practices.

Connected with this, as a branch, is the development of bodhichitta. Without bodhichitta, we cannot proceed on the Mahayana path. The understanding that all other sentient beings are in fact our own mothers and fathers from past lives provides a very important basis for our progress. Every little insect that we meet, without a single exception, has been our own mother and father—not just once, but many times. And all of them are on the wrong track. They want to be happy, but do not know how to accomplish this. To develop bodhichitta means to form this most courageous resolve: “I will personally take responsibility to lead all sentient beings to the state of enlightenment!” This bodhisattva vow is what makes the difference between a Hinayana and a Mahayana follower. To take this vow is called generating bodhichitta. Taking refuge and developing bodhichitta are therefore the very essence of the path.

When we do a sadhana, we can practice the three vehicles—Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana—simultaneously. Whenever you do a particular deity practice, you always start out with refuge and bodhichitta, the Hinayana and Mahayana elements. There is no way around that. The deity itself, the recitation of mantra and visualization, is Vajrayana practice. Thus, it is impossible to practice Vajrayana without also being a practitioner of Hinayana and Mahayana. The three vehicles are invariably practiced in that same sitting.

The practices of all three vehicles are also contained in the preliminary practices. The first practice is taking refuge and developing bodhichitta. That is followed by Vajrasattva visualization and recitation, which is an actual Vajrayana practice. Vajrasattva practice is structured as the four remedial powers, the first of which is the power of support—to visualize the buddha Vajrasattva. The second is the power of the applied antidote, reciting the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva and imagining the downpour and purification by means of nectar. The third is the power of remorse for past misdeeds and evil actions. The fourth is the power of resolution, promising ourselves to never commit any negative action again. The Buddha taught that practicing the Vajrasattva recitation while remembering these four remedial powers purifies all our negative karma, even if it is as huge an amount as Mt. Sumeru.

After the Vajrasattva recitation comes the mandala offering, which ensures that we will not have obstacles on the path of practice. In this practice we are creating conducive conditions by gathering provisions that we can bring along—the accumulation of merit and wisdom. There are three levels of mandala offering: the outer mandala, the offering of the external universe; the inner mandala, the offering of the content of sentient beings; and finally the innermost mandala, the offering of ultimate thatness, corresponding to the three kayas. Taken together, these three levels are called “gathering the accumulations of merit and wisdom.”

Next is guru yoga, the fourth of the preliminaries. Guru yoga is often said to be even more profound than the main part, because in it we receive the blessings from an unbroken lineage of masters. These blessings come from the dharmakaya buddha Samantabhadra all the way down until our own root guru. It’s like the pipe connecting your house to the main water source, which allows water to come out whenever you open your own faucet. The unbroken lineage of enlightened masters connected to you through your personal teachers is like that water pipe. Through this we can receive the blessings of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and of the three kayas in our own practice.

When we truly apply ourselves to the preliminary practices, we can remove obstacles on the spiritual path and create all the conducive conditions for quickly realizing the ultimate fruition. That is exactly what is meant by the second of the Four Dharmas of Gampopa: how to ensure that one’s Dharma practice becomes the path.

Some people regard themselves as exclusively Mahayana or Vajrayana practitioners. Others say they only follow Theravada, that they don’t know anything beyond that. But talking in this way only exposes one’s lack of understanding. The three vehicles are not meant to be separated at all. We can practice all of them simultaneously—in fact, we need to in order to have a solid foundation. Without really applying ourselves to the four mind-changings and taking refuge, we have no real foundation from which to connect to the Buddhist teachings. Similarly, if you want to drink tea, you need a place to put the cup. You need a table, which is the same as the foundation of the Shravaka or Hinayana teachings. You also need the cup to contain the tea, which is the Mahayana attitude. And you need the tea as well—otherwise there is nothing to drink, and you do need a drink. Vajrayana teachings are like the liquid poured into the cup.

In the same way, in order to become enlightened we first need to connect to the Three Jewels. Taking refuge involves entrusting ourselves; that contains the Hinayana teachings. After that, what is the use of being the only one who is enlightened while all our mothers roam about in samsara? That would be totally shameless. It is said that the Hinayana orientation is like the little puddle of water contained in the hoof-print of a cow, while the Mahayana attitude is as vast as the entire ocean. Everyone needs to be enlightened—not only ourselves. Thirdly, without the very profound teachings of Vajrayana including deity, mantra and samadhi there is no way we can achieve full enlightenment in this same body and lifetime. Thus, we need all three vehicles together: Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. There is no point at all in regarding oneself as some kind of superior practitioner who doesn’t need ‘low’ or ‘inferior’ teachings. Such an attitude would be very unrealistic.

Ensuring that one’s Dharma practice becomes the path means purifying the obscurations and misdeeds that create obstacles and block the path to the attainment of complete enlightenment. There is a profound reason to practice the preliminaries, even though some may think of them as unnecessary. It is through the preliminary practices that we are truly able to clear away obstacles and make our Dharma practice become the path of enlightenment.

Having cleared away obscurations and gathered the accumulations of merit and wisdom, we reach the third Dharma of Gampopa: how to let the path clarify confusion. Confusion here is understood as that which obscures our innate nature and prevents enlightenment. Everyone has buddha nature, all sentient beings without a single exception. Unfortunately, we don’t know what we possess. We have fallen into confusion and we are wandering in samsara. Imagine a wish-fulfilling jewel that has fallen in the mud and has become encrusted in dirt. The jewel first of all needs to be acknowledged. Then it needs to be cleaned. Once this happens, it can be utilized. We are all wish-fulfilling jewels but lack the knowledge of what we actually are, and thus the ability to make use of that and actualize it. We need to clean away the dirt that covers our basic state, the wish-fulfilling jewel. The way to do this is through Vajrayana practice.

The most eminent and profound way to do so is by the three principles of Vajrayana practice: deity, mantra and samadhi. By training in the development stage consisting of deity, mantra and samadhi, we actualize what we already are. To properly practice development stage, we need to let go of any ordinary, materialistic world view. Don’t chant the lines for the deity while thinking, “I am in this world, in my ordinary house, in my ordinary body.” We need to first dissolve everything into profound emptiness, then visualize the celestial palace, the throne of the deity and all the other details. Through this profound training in deity, mantra and samadhi, we are able to let the path clarify confusion.

Remember, in practicing the development stage we are not imagining that we are something that we are not. Everyone possesses the enlightened essence that is endowed with the three vajras, the three aspects of enlightenment. The way to acknowledge that fully is through deity, mantra and samadhi. Development practice is simply knowing the nature of things as it is. Training in this is like knowing the jewel to be the wish-fulfilling jewel that it actually is. It’s not like we’re imagining an ordinary stone to be a jewel. A stone will never possess the value or qualities of a jewel, no matter how hard we visualize. There is incredible profundity in the development stage practice.

Now let’s look at the fourth Dharma of Gampopa, letting confusion dawn as wisdom. Even though what is going to be said now will sound very high, I haven’t made up anything by myself. I don’t have the ability to make up my own teachings or to invent some new, profound path, not at all! Even if I could, there would be no point in doing so, because people wouldn’t be interested. I would rather repeat the words of the Buddha and the great masters of the past.

All sentient beings without a single exception have buddha nature, from the dharmakaya buddha down to the tiniest insect. There is no real difference in the quality or size of this enlightened essence between individuals. However, buddhas and fully enlightened bodhisattvas have cut the movement of dualistic mind at the very beginning. That is how they are different from sentient beings. Buddhas and bodhisattvas’ expression of mind takes the form of compassionate activity. This activity, through emanations and re-emanations, appears in all samsaric realms in order to teach other beings.

Sentient beings, on the other hand, have fallen under the power of dualistic thinking. An ordinary person’s attention strays according to any movement of mind. Suddenly there is the confusion of believing in self and other, subject and object, and this situation goes on and on repeating itself endlessly. This is samsaric existence. The buddhas and bodhisattvas were successful in getting up on the dry land of enlightenment. But we sentient beings became bewildered, and are now in the unsuccessful, unsatisfactory state we all find ourselves in. We are still in the ocean of samsara; we have not yet gotten our heads fully out of the water. We have roamed about in one confused state of experience after the other, endlessly. At the same time, we haven’t lost our buddha nature. Our buddha nature is never separate from our minds for even a single instant. Though we are not apart from it we do not know it, and thus we wander in samsaric existence.

Now is the time to free ourselves from samsara. Unless we do it in this lifetime, it is not going to happen all by itself. We have to take care of ourselves. Right now we have the ability to receive teachings and practice the Dharma. Isn’t this the right time? Wouldn’t that be better than continuing to act like an animal, concentrating only on eating and sleeping and letting the time run out? Why not take your future into your own hands?

It is possible to realize our nature because we have experienced the great kindness of a fully enlightened one’s appearance in this world. The Buddha not only appeared, but he imparted the precious instructions on how to realize our own buddha nature. And these teachings on how to realize our enlightened essence have been made available through an unbroken lineage of great masters.

‘Confusion arising as wisdom’ means to realize that the buddha nature pervades all sentient beings. We have not lost it; it has never been apart from our mind for even a single instant. This buddha nature is always present, and the only thing that conceals it is our own thinking. Nothing else obscures it. The essence becomes obscured by the expression. It is the same as the sun shining brilliantly in the clear sky. The only thing that obscures the sun are the clouds. And the clouds themselves are created through the manifestations of the sun—the light and warmth. They don’t come from any other place. The heat from the sun makes water evaporate and forms the clouds that obscure the sun. Likewise, the expression of our own attention takes the form of the confused thinking that obscures us. In other words, we are obscuring our own buddha nature, and now is the time to clear up this confusion.

We are fortunate enough nowadays to have at hand wonderful teachings that show us how to recognize our own nature and obtain liberation from samsaric existence. If we choose to remain obscured by our actions and emotions, we don’t know what will happen next. We live one day after the other. If we are going to die tomorrow, we are ignorant of that today. We are really as stupid as an animal. From another angle, we are even more stupid than an animal, because we can receive teachings on how to practice; in fact, we may already have done so. If we don’t apply them we are far more stupid than an animal. Animals can’t really help it; they are not in a body that can receive teachings. But unfortunately we human beings who have been introduced to the spiritual path can waste this precious opportunity. That would be incredibly sad!

Due to the kindness of the Three Jewels, we now have the fortune to receive the teaching through which we can allow confusion to dawn as wisdom. Confusion here means believing something to be what it is not. To be confused is the same as to be mistaken. How do we turn confusion into wisdom? First we need to understand what confusion is. Confusion is taking what isn’t for what is. It’s the opposite of knowing what is to be as it is. In Tibet there is a drug called datura, which, when you take it, makes other people appear as if they had fifty heads or thirty hands. We know that this is not possible in this world; this is an example of confusion.

Within our buddha nature are three qualities of enlightened Body, Speech and Mind. The unchanging quality that is like the openness of space is called vajra body. The unceasing quality is called vajra speech. The unmistaken quality, the capacity to perceive even without thought, is called vajra mind. These three—vajra body, speech and mind—are inherently present as the nature of all sentient beings. All we need to do is to recognize this. Even though we have the three vajras, we don’t know it, and thus continue to wander in samsara. Ordinary confusion covers up our innate three vajras. Our physical body of flesh and blood covers the vajra body. The words and sounds we utter, which are interrupted and intermittently created, obscure the unceasing quality of vajra speech. And our train of thoughts that comes and goes, and endlessly arises and ceases from moment to moment, day after day, life after life, is exactly what obscures the unmistaken quality of vajra mind. What is necessary now is to recognize our own nature, instead of going on being confused.

Urgyen, Tulku Rinpoche. As It Is, Volume 1 (pp. 39-48). North Atlantic Books. .

Environmental Guidelines

Environmental Guidelines

KAGYU AFRICA Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centres for World Health and Peace

From the proceedings of the first conference on environmental protection for Kagyu monasteries and centres held from 21 – 25 March 2009 at the Vajra Vidya iknstitute, Sarnath India:


1. Create a mandala of nature. It should be a special place on your property that is an offering of all the wonderful things in nature; flowers, trees, water; recognising that the earth itself is an offering. This will be in keeping with our own Kagyu tradition since Tsurphu monastery is known as the celestial palace and even as Chakrasamvara’s mandala. If you do not own enough land for such a project, please consider a rooftop or balcony garden.

2. Everybody should create a vegetable garden. Another option is to build it with your local community on common lands. The result should be a healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle.

3. Don’t buy many vehicles. Keep in mind how harmful vehicles are for the environment; they emit carbon and contribute to climate change greatly. Therefore you should think twice about buying one and if you do, research for vehicles with the smallest emissions.

4. Reduce and eventually eliminate the use of plastic; whether it is bottled or plastic wrapped fruit and sweet Plastic is always harmful, there is NO safe plastic. In all cases, please make the effort, when shopping to buy the option that has the least packaging.

5. Do not waste food. Spoilt leftovers and kitchen waste can be recycled in your wormery or compost bin.

6. Be interested where your daily food comes from. Vegetarians should differentiate between the different types of eggs that are available. Make sure that the laying hens are free-range and not caged. If you do eat meat, reduce the frequency and make sure the meat comes from a farm where the animals are treated with respect. (Veld reared, free range, organic)

7. We should do our best to use solar, water and wind power and thus, reduce our dependence on harmful types of energy. There are many options available for alternative energy installations. As a minimum consider a solar geyser, which will reduce your electricity bill by up to 50% and the investment is paid back in 3-4 years.

8. It is clear that the forests are very important for all life on earth. Plant at least 20 indigenous fruit/nut bearing trees per year for at least 5 years and care for them to maturity. Alternatively donate the trees and time to a worthy cause that is planting trees for the community.

I hereby commit all centres and members of Kagyu Africa to pursue these strategies wherever possible and in good faith. Signed on the day of Losar 14 February 2010 at Tara Rokpa Centre, Groot Marico, South Africa by

The Honourable Akong Rinpoche (Tulku)

The Meaning of Taking Refuge

By Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche

In order to become a Buddhist formally, you have to "Take Refuge. " What does "Taking refuge" involve? Do you have to take any vows or make any commitments?

"Taking Refuge" in itself is a serious commitment. It is not something you should do casually because you are in a certain place or certain mood. In order to carry out a trust connected with anything in your life, you need some sort of commitment. Therefore if you want to take Buddhism as your path and base your life on Buddhist principles, then of course you have to make some kind or form of commitment.

The commitment to Buddhism does not mean that you have to shut yourself away from society. The commitment to Buddhism Is the opposite. It is about learning how you can lead a more useful life and how you can help to create a more positive society. You make a commitment to Buddhism in order to develop your own spiritual path so that you may be better able to help other people. You enter the path for both your own self-development and, at the same time, to learn how to help others. The "commitment" is more like a resolution to study, to learn an understanding of how things are seen through the principles of Buddhism.

On the question of vows, the Lord Buddha did not impose "vows" as rules; the Lord Buddha gave advice. "If you do this or this it would be good..."; or " would be wiser not to kill, not to steal, not to tell lies or to do anything that is harmful to other people or yourself." You could take this as a vow but It is not a rigid vow imposed by the Buddha upon you. It Is more like, "If you want to follow my (the Buddha's) path then these are my suggestions and by doing it this way you will be a better and happier person".

There are strict vows in the Buddhist religion. There are the five or the eight precepts and there are vows at different levels for monks and nuns, but the greatest sense of commitment is to learn to tame your mind, to develop loving-kindness and to help other people when people need your help. When you have developed your mind properly then you will be willing to give help when people need it, and not just when you feel in the right mood. That commitment is the main vow.

I try to live with loving-kindness and compassion already so is it necessary to become a Buddhist In a formal ceremony?

It is not essential but I think it can be useful because Buddhism teaches us how to develop loving-kindness and compassion. Without this training, when you are in a good mood you will try to develop loving-kindness and compassion. But when you are having a hard time you may not be interested; you may be too involved In your own problems to give or feel compassion for others. It is part of the commitment of being Buddhist that you try to develop loving-kindness and compassion so that no matter what kind of experience you personally are having, you will still be able to give to others, and you will also keep on trying to learn. So I think it is necessary. The ceremony makes you clear in your mind that you have made a commitment or bond otherwise it is just like having good intentions. The vows you take will work on you as a positive influence at an inner level and will help you to do what is right when you are having difficult times.

How might I benefit personally from taking Refuge?

I think it has great benefit because then you cannot be lazy; you cannot change your ideas all the time, "Today I like everything and everybody", and you go round like a ray of sunshine! The next day you think, "Today I am fed up with everything and everybody and cannot be bothered"! I think the fact that you have taken Refuge guides you and protects you from negative emotions, from feeling negative about experiences. I cannot promise that you will always be able to achieve it - but taking Refuge will channel vour energy towards feeling positive, and I think that it will always be useful.

I know you say that becoming Buddhist is not necessarily the right path for everyone. How can I know that taking Refuge and becoming Buddhist is right for me?

I think first of all, whatever the path, you should read, study and try to experience it. There is no need to rush anything or immediately Jump into it. Look at it carefully and see whether it Is something that is suitable for you.

Look very carefully at what Buddhism does or what Buddhism says is "good" and "bad", in the context of your life. If you look at all this, then I think you will see not find anything that Is wrong or that is going to cause you harm. Buddhism does not create tensions or conflicts; it does not tell you to harm or despise other ways; it does not say that it is wrong to have other faiths or to believe in other things. Buddhism does not make you in any sense narrow minded. It does the opposite; it encourages you to broaden your outlook.

So I cannot see any harm coming to anyone by becoming involved In Buddhism. You may wish to take Buddhism as your path but if you feel unsure then I think it would be wise to study a little more - all the religions if you wish. The important thing Is not which path you take but to choose the path that will help you to become a better, more useful human being.

When you take Refuge, you take Refuge not only with the Buddha but also with the Lama or Rinpoche who conducts the ceremony. What Is your commitment to this person? How strong is it?

When you take Refuge, the commitment is not between you and that teacher; the commitment Is to do with you and Buddhism. If you take Refuge with a highly spiritual person I am sure that will be very good, but the actual commitment depends on you yourself - the person taking Refuge. It is entirely up to you how you want to deal with it.

The words "Lama" and "Guru" have the same meaning; "Lama" is Tibetan and "Guru" is Sanskrit, both mean "teacher" in a strong spiritual sense - not like a school "teacher" who marks your homework. "Rinpoche" is a title given to a "Tulku" who is a certain type of highly respected Lama.

The most Important thing is that the person, he or she, who gives you Refuge should:

  • carry the correct transmission of the lineage

  • have taken Refuge themselves

  • have full faith and belief in the teachings of Lord Buddha

  • be following the teachings and trying to live by them

  • be able to inspire your trust and faith

It is important that the person who gives you Refuge has faith and belief in the path of Buddhism and that their personal commitment has not been broken. Even if someone has taken Refuge but no longer has faith or belief then that person no longer carries the transmission of lineage.

The person who gives you Refuge, is called your "Refuge Lama" but he or she does not necessarily have to be your personal "guru". "Guru" or "Tsawe Lama" has much deeper meaning than that. Your "Refuge Lama" Is one of your spiritual teachers but as long as you have some respect for that person there Is no need to have a deeper commitment.

The Lama with whom you take Refuge is like the person who opens the door into Buddhism for you. Your "Refuge Lama" shows you the first steps like a mother showing her child how to walk, or your primary teacher who introduces you to the A, B, C, and then before long you find you are able to read a book.

I think you should have a feeling of respect and trust for your Refuge Lama but you should not trouble yourself too much about who is the right Refuge Lama for you. There is no need to lose any sleep about whether this is the right one, or the wrong one or how many commitments you should take or what kind of commitments - this is not necessary.

You said that the person who gives Refuge to you should have the "lineage'. Could you explain this please?

Lineage means that you have to have the lineage of transmission. Lineage of transmission means that the transmission of the ceremony does not pass through tape recorders, nor through radio or television but from human to human, person to person. When the teacher who gives you Refuge does so in the lineage, then you can trace your own receiving of Refuge, from teacher to student, right back over two and a half thousand years, from this country to Tibet, from Tibet to India, unbroken, right back to the Lord Buddha himself,

How do you know if someone truly has the lineage? There are so many people teaching Buddhism nowadays.

If you are unsure you should just ask, "Who did you take Refuge with?" There is no harm in asking that. I hear many things said here which seem a little strange. For example, many things done in the west people say that they come from the Tibetan tradition, particular lessons, particular prayers, particular healing techniques but we who come from Tibet have never heard of them. We do not know them ourselves, but that does not necessarily mean that they do not come from Tibet - it is just that we have not heard of them.

However, we are sure of some traditions and practices and we are very clear about the Refuge ceremony. We know that the tradition of the lineage of the transmission of giving Refuge to a student who requests it does exist and should be respected. I think that if you have doubts you should ask for more information. You can always ask questions and if the person is genuine they will understand,

So what you are saying is that anyone, at any time can always question what their teacher has said?

Sure, of course you can. That teacher is still a human being! The teacher carries a message, but the teacher may not necessarily be enlightened and therefore he or she is still in a human existence. They will still be affected by a sense of inner superiority or ego and emotions and will sometimes make mistakes. What you have to learn from that teacher is the message not always the behaviour. You should not think, "He did this, therefore I must copy him because he is my Buddhist teacher".

You must not close your eyes and follow your teacher blindly. Every one of you has the same capability of achievement as the teacher, the same potential. If you continue to do the right thing you may even be better than your teacher! The teacher gives the message and you act on it. It would be wiser to separate the teachings from the behaviour of the teacher. Then if some action of the teacher should disappoint you, you will not lose interest in Buddhism because of the behaviour of one person.

What are the main principles of being a Buddhist and how can someone put these into practice in their dally life?

The main principles, I think, are not to do any harm to anybody, and to pay attention to your own mind, your own actions and not those of other people. You should test yourself all the time asking, "Am I doing something useful or am I doing something not useful? How am I affecting others?" If you see that you are doing something not particularly useful for others then you should try to improve.

Being a Buddhist should mean that you are always looking to improve yourself so that you will be more useful to other people. You can never say that you have finished all improvement; that you don't need to do any more. Being a Buddhist is a commitment to a process of constant improvement and spiritual development. It means that you should be constantly trying to purify yourself, cleaning up your own thoughts or emotions. While you are working with yourself you should also try to help other people when they need you and you should appreciate everything that is good around you. These are the main principles of Buddhism.

This transcripts original source is the Kagyu Samye Ling website