The foundation of the Buddhist spiritual path is refuge. It’s also the start of any Vajrayana practice, and so how we relate to and experience refuge is very important. If we see our refuge as a human being, that refuge is fallible; such a refuge will die, and before then they may disappoint us, may turn out not to be the reliable being we thought they were. Sound familiar?
But refuge in Buddhadharma is supposed to be an infallible refuge. It’s supposed to be a refuge that is always there and always reliable. But it’s very easy, especially when a teacher encourages you to see him as the object of refuge—‘Do you know who I really am?’—to make your refuge the human teacher, so when your faith in the human is shattered, your refuge crumbles as well, and it brings your whole practice down with it.
But that won’t happen if you understand that ultimately your refuge is not and never was a human being that can fail you. Even on the surface level, the lama is only one small part of the whole picture. Let’s look at the practice itself:
In the three jewels and their essence the Sugatas
In the three roots, lama, yidam and Khandro
In the channels, inner air and tickles and their nature the bodhicitta
In this mandala of essence, nature and compassion, I take refuge until enlightenment is fully realised.
Line one refers to the Buddha, the dharma that he taught and the sangha of monks and nuns. Since the Buddha’s day, the noble sangha has grown to include the Bodhisattvas and these days includes the other students who are our companions on the path and do actually follow the Buddhist teachings. And the essence of all of this is the Sugatas—those who have abandoned all flaws and realized all that is to be known.
Then we have the lama, the yidam (meditation deity) and Khandro (for the sake of simplicity and brevity, let’s just call this a female meditation deity) The fourth line refers to our subtle energy body, and the last line refers to the nature of our own mind. Our own enlightened nature whose essence is empty, nature is cognizant and compassion is all pervading.
So our refuge has 12 parts (4 lines with 3 objects of refuge in each), of which the lama, the teacher, is only 1/12. And when we look into what the word ‘lama’ refers to, we can turn to the teaching on the four kinds of teacher and discover that the actual holder of the lineage is only ¼ of the full meaning. The four kinds of teacher/lama are:
- the individual teacher who is the holder of the lineage (that’s SR for those who consider themselves his students)
- the teacher which is the word of the buddhas (that’s the dharma)
- the symbolic teacher of all appearances (that’s how you learn from whatever happens in your life)
- the absolute teacher, which is rigpa, the true nature of mind. (The whole point of Buddhist practice)
So SR actually only comprises 1/16 of all our objects of refuge. In light of this you might consider that when a human teacher becomes your whole refuge, some misunderstanding has occurred.
And in the actual practice we visualize Guru Rinpoche as the object of the practice, not SR. Guru Rinpoche embodies all the parts of the refuge in one, and all the buddhas, bodhisattvas and teachers of the lineage. SR is only one very small part of that whole picture. Vajrayana is designed so that you can easily change teachers without disturbing your practice because Guru Rinpoche conveniently embodies them all.
In the light of the actual meaning of refuge and lama, the human being that teaches you is not as important for Vajrayana practice as you may have thought. If you reject that idea, then you’re rejecting the words of the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro refuge and the teachings on the four teachers. So ask yourself: Do you hang your whole spiritual practice (and possibly part of your identity) on a human being, who no matter how enlightened, is still bound by the law of cause and effect simply because he lives in the conventional world? If you’re defending that human being then the answer is probably yes. So ask yourself if, in light of an examination above, you might have given him too much emphasis and too much power in your spiritual life.
And what is the point of doing 100,000 refuge prayers? To bring you to the point where you have absolute faith in the infallible refuge of the nature of your own mind, in your Buddha nature—not someone else, not even someone else’s Buddha nature.
‘Ah, but,’ you might say, ‘that’s Vajrayana, what about Dzogchen?’
I’m only going to say one thing about Dzogchen, and that’s that when the introduction happens, (which is when samaya is created), it’s a meeting of wisdom minds, not ordinary minds. The teacher cannot be in his ordinary mind and neither can the student. The teacher’s wisdom mind and the student’s wisdom mind meet and merge. My devotion and my samaya is with the wisdom mind of the teacher, not the man who acts contrary to the dharma. That’s how I experience it in my practice and, though some say that separating the man from the teacher is not the right way, that understanding has saved my practice and my faith in Vajrayana itself from crumbling along with my trust in the man. The man has no place in my practice; his wisdom mind, however, is always there whenever I enter the nature of mind, but then, so are all the wisdom minds of all the enlightened beings.
But no matter whether you can separate the man from the teacher or not, make no mistake, the ultimate refuge, the only infallible refuge and the true nature of the lama is this mandala of essence, nature and compassion, the nature of your own mind, your own Buddha nature. Realising this and living from it is the whole point of the dharma, not pandering to a teacher’s every little whim.
But then, who am I to know anything? I’m not a tulku in robes—nor would I want to be. I’m not asking you to agree or believe what I say. I just thought some may find it helpful to consider. This understanding comes from the depths of my practice—where I know the real lama without any doubt—but it is only my perception, my understanding. Every student has to look into their practice and their experience and work out what it means for them on the level of practice. But with this kind of understanding, our practice can remain stable even if we can no longer trust the human being who taught us the practice.
Since pure awareness of Nowness is the real Buddha,
In openness and contentment we find the Lama in our heart.
When we realise that this unending Natural Mind is the nature of the Lama,
There is no need for attached and grasping prayers or artificial complaints.
By relaxing in uncontrived Awareness, the free and open natural state,
We obtain the blessing of aimless self-liberation of whatever arises.
How do you experience refuge and the lama in your practice? Please let us know in the comments. Please use initials rather than full names when referring to teachers and organizations.
More personal and private support for current and past students of R can be found in the What Now? Facebook group. Please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite. Include a link to your Facebook profile or the email address you use with Facebook.