[Extracted from Bardor Tulku Rinpoche’s public talk on “How Difficulties Enhance Spiritual Practice” given at the Columbus Tibetan Buddhist Center, OH, in October 2010. Translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, transcribed by Ed Powers, edited by Basia Coulter. Copyright Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Peter O’Hearn.]
One of the most important things for us as Buddhists is to understand the meaning of our taking refuge in the Three Jewels, and especially to understand the actual attributes of the Three Jewels in whom we take refuge. We can learn about these things from the many books about this, tapes of teachings given about this by eminent lamas, and so on. But the point is, if we understand the attributes or characteristics of the Three Jewels, then the whole process of relating to the teachings becomes very easy, I think.
In the context of taking refuge, the Buddha is defined as “supreme among those who walk upon two feet.” That means that the Buddha is supreme among all humans and devas, because he is their authentic teacher.
In the context of the vow of refuge, we define dharma as “supreme among all that is free of attachment.” This means that dharma itself is always free from attachment and all other kleshas.
What is dharma? Dharma consists of two things: tradition and realization. The dharma of tradition exists as written words found in books. Books and the words within them are inanimate. They are not sentient beings and therefore they do not, and cannot possibly, possess kleshas. So therefore the dharma of tradition is immaculate in the sense of being free from attachment.
Realization refers to all of the resultant states and levels of realization gained by practitioners of the shravakayana, pratyekabuddhayana, and mahayana through their practice of the Buddha’s respective teachings. So the realization dharma consists of the states of shravaka arhat, pratyekabuddha arhat, bodhisattva, and finally a buddha. In that state of realization and in the realization itself, the kleshas are eradicated, not increased, and one comes to possess the wisdom that knows the nature of things and the wisdom that knows the attributes of things. So the dharma of realization increases one’s merit and in no way increases or supports the kleshas. It is, therefore, accurate and true to say that dharma is supreme among all that is free of attachment and other kleshas.
In the same context, the sangha is defined as “supreme among assemblies.” In this world, there are a vast number of societies, groups, assemblies, and organizations. Some of these are held together by a common commitment among the members to try to do good; some of them are held together by a shared commitment among the members to try and do bad. The Buddhist sangha is defined by the shared commitment among its members to do their best to try to emulate the Buddha. And so we regard the sangha as a source of refuge because it is the next best thing to the Buddha. But the members of the sangha are explicitly not buddhas. Therefore they have kleshas. If the members of the sangha did not have kleshas, they would not need to practice dharma and would not be members of the sangha. A sick person will take medicine; someone who is completely free from illness is not going to take medicine because they do not need it.
The problem we experience very much nowadays is that we are unable to tell the difference or distinguish between a spiritual tradition and those who practice it. When we encounter upheaval, adversity, disputation, or controversy in a religious or spiritual tradition, we immediately denigrate the tradition itself. We say, “Well, this religion or this tradition is simply no good.” But this comes from our misapprehension of the behavior of some of the participants or members of the tradition as something inherent in the tradition itself. This is a problematic misapprehension for us because it causes us to lose respect for genuine spiritual traditions. And, for example, if we are Buddhist practitioners and we lose respect for our own tradition, it harms us tremendously because we leave the path. Without pursuing the path, we find ourselves unable to tame our minds and our kleshas.
Even when there are problems, we need to recognize that dharma itself is pure, but the humans who practice it are human beings who should be expected to be imperfect. The nirmanakayas who intentionally take birth among us in order to teach us and guide us to liberation, however they may appear, are essentially free from affliction. But practitioners, all of us, have all five kleshas functioning fully. The amount of kleshas that we have, the degree we fall prey to them, all of this is based on our attitudes, our intentions, and our previous karma. Whenever we act out our kleshas, this is not coming from dharma, this is coming from us as people.
In order to survive upheaval or adversity, we need to learn to distinguish between the dharma and the sangha, and to recognize that after all we are practicing dharma because we all have kleshas. No matter how much we may object to the errors or misdeeds of another, we have to remember that all beings without exception have countless times been our parents because we have all been born countless times throughout beginningless time. If we can take that attitude of empathetic bodhichitta and abstain from the demonization of others, then even when adversity arises, we will not lose our accumulation of merit and our accumulation of wisdom in an outburst of anger. We will know how to tame our minds even in the midst of difficulties, controversy, and adversity. We will learn how to recognize our own kleshas and tame them. We will continue to study and practice. And especially, we will not fall into the error of rejection of dharma and we will not harm others.