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The Three Sacred Principles. Part 1: Refuge and Bodhichitta

#Dzogchen & Buddhism
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Excerpt from the book "The Dzogchen Teachings" by Dzogchen Master Namkhai Norbu

The Three Sacred Principles are three fundamental aspects of the teaching that are always explained right from the beginning. This is true not only in the Dzogchen teachings, but also at the level of Sutra and Tantra. The first of these Three Sacred Principles is Refuge and Bodhichitta; the second is Contemplation; and the third is Dedication of Merit.

At a practical level, what the first and the third of these three principles mean is that when we start a practice, we begin it with an idea or thought; and similarly, when we finish a practice and return to our normal activities again, we begin those activities guiding ourselves with an idea or thought. The fact is that we are not always in the state of contemplation. Even if we have some experience or knowledge of this state, most of the time we are distracted from it. In order to find ourselves in the state of contemplation, we start by guiding ourselves towards it with a particular thought.

Let’s assume, for example, that we have at least intellectually understood that our real nature is like that of a mirror that has the capacity to reflect everything without judging it to be good or bad, without accepting or rejecting anything. How can we, on the basis of our intellectual understanding, actually discover this real nature in ourselves? How can we enter into the true state of knowledge and thus come to a real experience of how our thoughts and emotions are actually like reflections in a mirror? We begin by guiding ourselves with the thought of wishing to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. We do this with the Refuge and Bodhichitta.

Refuge and Bodhichitta

It is important, particularly in Dzogchen, to understand what Refuge and Bodhichitta really mean, how to apply them practically, and not just remain at the level of words and external forms.

The origins of the practices of Refuge and Bodhichitta are to be found in the Sutra system. In both the Hinayana and Mahayana systems of Sutra, the way in which one takes refuge determines whether an individual is considered to be Buddhist or not. In Sutra, if a person takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, such a person is considered to be a Buddhist. I have personally been criticized by some people who claim that I am not a Buddhist because I use another form of Refuge – taking refuge in the Guru, Deva, and Dakini instead of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Such criticism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the principle involved, because “Guru, Deva, and Dakini” do not mean something different from “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” The principle of the teachings does not depend on the superficial level of the names by which things are called, but on the real sense and meaning behind those names. We must understand what “Guru, Deva, and Dakini” mean. These are terms used in the Tantric system.

The principle of the teachings does not depend on the superficial level of the names by which things are called, but on the real sense and meaning behind those names.

Generally speaking, when we use the word “Buddhist,” what we are referring to is someone who follows the teaching of the Buddha himself, or something related to the teaching of the Buddha himself. At least this is what is meant by the term Buddhist in the Hinayana view. The official Buddhist teaching is considered in that tradition to be only that knowledge and understanding that the physical Buddha himself actually transmitted. There are, however, many other teachings the Buddha transmitted in manifestations other than his physical body. This is the origin of Tantric transmission. How did the Buddha manifest to transmit the tantras? To transmit these teachings, he did not manifest in the form of Buddha Shakyamuni – the physical, historical Buddha – but rather in different ways according to circumstances, and not just according to someone’s rule. For a Buddha, there is no rule that his form must be a figure like that of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. The form he manifests depends upon circumstances, and a Buddha will work with the situation in which he finds himself.

A Buddha will sometimes manifest in a form similar to those beings to whom he is trying to communicate knowledge and understanding. When a Buddha communicates to an elephant or a monkey, for example, he may manifest as that kind of being. He can do this because he is free. He is able to work with any circumstances; he never remains limited by rules. People who are limited do not understand this and they believe a Buddha can only manifest on the physical level. They believe that if the physical form of the Buddha is not the one with which they are familiar, then this form is not a Buddha at all.


Photo by Vivek Sharma on Unsplash 

The manifestations of Deva and Dakini are none other than the Buddha, who can manifest in many different ways, not only in the form of a human being. There is a saying in the sutras that the Buddha sometimes manifests as a bridge or as a boat in order to save people; it is not necessary that he should always manifest as a human being. There are many possibilities of manifestation. This is the principle of Deva and Dakini.

Similarly, Refuge is not limited to the taking of a vow as it is in the Hinayana view. Many people like to say that they have taken Refuge with this or that Lama. There are teachers who travel widely and give Refuge vows everywhere, claiming that they have converted enormous numbers of people to Buddhism. They seem to think of Refuge as if it were a matter of conquering people.

This is not how the teachings should be spread. Spreading the teachings really means helping people to wake up and understand something; it should not become another means of conditioning people. That is not to say, of course, that it is not useful for people to take a vow of Refuge if they understand its real sense and meaning. When they do not, however, understand its meaning, they can deceive themselves into believing that something has changed in them when it has not. If they really honestly observe themselves, they will see that their conditioning, attachments, and problems are all still there and are just the same as before they took the vow. Nothing has changed. What then is the benefit of taking refuge? The real point is to know and understand what Refuge means.

Spreading the teachings really means helping people to wake up and understand something; it should not become another means of conditioning people. 


 Refuge can be taken with a vow. If we don’t have the capacity to control ourselves, we need to take a vow. The Hinayana specifically aims to help individuals whose capacity to integrate emotions is less developed. Taking a vow, such people are able to control their emotions and problems and avoid creating negative karma.

We should not think that since we are Dzogchen practitioners, we are particularly highly developed and do not need vows. Many people have this idea, but it is not true. We must observe ourselves well. We have many weak points. When people want to stop smoking or drinking, for example, they may not succeed for a long time because it is their weak point. Sometimes it is necessary to take a vow to deal with a situation like this. There are people who are not in the Dzogchen Community who have told me that my students are very arrogant, that they feel themselves to be at a very high level and do not feel the need to do the ngöndro, or preliminary practices, that are commonly done.

To think that just because we are Dzogchen practitioners we do not need a vow is completely wrong. When we discover we have a weak point, we may need a vow to help us overcome it. This is why it is said in Dzogchen that we should work with our circumstances. What do we mean by this? Even if we understand that, at the absolute level, spontaneous self-perfection is our inherent condition, and that rules and vows are not necessary at that level, if in our own particular circumstances we find that there are problems we cannot overcome without such methods, then we apply a rule or a vow. The difference between Dzogchen and other levels of teaching is that these relative methods of rules and vows are not considered to be the main point. They are not the fundamental method of Dzogchen practice as they are in Sutra.

In the Hinayana, for example, receiving a vow is considered to be the single most important aspect of the training. In Dzogchen we proceed differently, and although a vow might be used if necessary, it is not the principal method. Of course, if it’s the case that someone has received the Refuge vow from a teacher other than myself, then they need to understand its meaning and function. It is ridiculous to think that just because we have taken a Refuge vow we have become Buddhist. It does not mean anything to say we are Buddhist on that basis. The Buddha never asked anyone to become a Buddhist, nor did the Buddha ever propose these limitations. These are our own limitations projected onto the teachings.

The Real Meaning of Refuge

Therefore, we must try to understand the real sense of the teaching. The real meaning of Refuge is to know that we are on the path. We take refuge in the path. How do we find that path? We find it from a teacher. If there is no teacher, there is no path. Whether we speak of Sutra, Tantra, or Dzogchen, the root of the path is always the teacher.

When we take refuge in the Sutra system, with the first words we recite, “Namo Buddhaya,” we take refuge in the Buddha; then we take refuge in the Dharma, and in the Sangha. In Tantra, the way of seeing Buddha and the way of seeing the teacher, or Guru, is a little different. In Sutra, the Buddha is understood to be the origin of the teaching, the source of the path. The final goal is seen as the state of the Buddha, or the Dharmakaya. For this reason we take refuge in the Buddha at this level of the teaching.


Photo by Emily KenCairn of Apiary Studio on Unsplash 

In Tantra and Dzogchen, we take refuge principally in the Guru. This is because, even though it is the teachings of the Buddha that we are following, we have received them from our own teacher. We can never receive teachings directly from the Buddha. Although we do not even have direct contact with the Buddha’s direct students, his students taught other disciples and so on, and in this way the teachings have continued until the present day, when our teacher taught them to us.
Tantra is also particularly related to special transmissions such as empowerments. In Dzogchen the principle is to give direct introduction to the state of knowledge and understanding. The students receive this transmission of the introduction from their teacher. Although we may receive explanations or methods that have originated from the Buddha, we can only receive direct transmissions from our own teacher. We can never receive such transmissions from the Buddha. As our teacher is extremely important for us, and because the teacher is the source from which something originated, he or she is referred to as the “root Guru.” Our root Guru is the source of all transmissions, knowledge, and understanding, and therefore, when we take refuge in the context of Tantra or Dzogchen, we first take refuge in the Guru.

In Dzogchen particularly, when we take refuge, we do so in the Guru. This means that the teacher is considered more important than other persons. If there is a Guru, there is a teaching. This is the principle of transmission.

The real meaning of Refuge is to know that we are on the path. We take refuge in the path. How do we find that path? We find it from a teacher. If there is no teacher, there is no path. Whether we speak of Sutra, Tantra, or Dzogchen, the root of the path is always the teacher.


When we speak of the Sangha, we are referring to people with whom we collaborate on the path. In Dzogchen, Sangha can also refer to the Dharmapalas, or “Guardians,” beings who help us on our path to realization.


Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash 

In the Sutra system, when we speak in terms of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the teacher is considered to be part of the Sangha. What does Sangha mean? In Sutra, Sangha refers to a group of at least four monks. For example, if an individual wants to receive the full vow of a monk or nun, he or she receives it from a Sangha of at least four monks. Three monks is not enough. One cannot receive the full vow just from the teacher. A Refuge vow can be taken from the teacher, but the complete vows of monk or nun can only be received from the Sangha.

Similarly, in the Sutra system, if we make a mistake, we confess it to the Sangha. We cannot confess to the teacher. It is characteristic of the Sutra level that in order to make a confession we always need a Sangha. For this reason, the teacher is part of the Sangha, and the Sangha is considered to be the group of people that helps us.

In Dzogchen, on the other hand, the teacher is indispensable. In the Sutra system, if there is no teacher, we nevertheless still have the teachings of the Buddha. As long as we have the possibility of learning words, reading books, or studying with a group of people, we can still go ahead. That is not possible in Tantra and in Dzogchen. If we want to follow the Dzogchen teachings, we must receive an introduction from a teacher, otherwise our knowledge is not connected with the transmission, and there can be no enlightenment. Similarly, in Tantra, it is necessary to receive an empowerment from a teacher. Otherwise, even if we know many Tantric methods, our situation remains like a plowed field in which no seeds have ever been sown; even if we work it for years and years, nothing will grow in such a field.

Whether or not we take a vow of Refuge does not matter, but we must understand the meaning of Refuge, because Refuge and Bodhichitta together are the first of the Three Sacred Principles.


 Bodhichitta is a term found principally in the Mahayana, which speaks a great deal about the two truths, absolute and relative. By “absolute truth” we mean our real condition, the condition of things as they truly are. When we do not have knowledge of this real condition, we remain conditioned by the relative dimension, and that is what is called the “relative truth.” In the Sutra teaching, relative truth is considered to be like samsara, the state of confused, deluded mind; and absolute truth is considered to be like knowledge, or understanding, or the state of nirvana. The terms nirvana and samsara correspond respectively to absolute truth and relative truth.

Bodhichitta is also explained in that way, in terms of absolute and relative. Absolute bodhichitta means having real experiential knowledge of emptiness, which arises through practice. It is not just having an intellectual idea of emptiness. In the Sutra teaching, one of the principal practices is Shine, developing a calm state through which we discover emptiness.

When we have experience of emptiness and our knowledge has become more concrete, then finally we can consider that we have at least a little experience of absolute bodhichitta. Absolute bodhichitta is the experience of emptiness from which its compassionate energy or function manifests.


When we speak of bodhichitta in general, what we are speaking of is compassion. What is compassion? Compassion arises through our feeling as an experience we have in relation to others. Where does it arise? Compassion arises from emptiness, which is its source and its basis. In an empty sky, for example, you can’t find anything; however, sometimes clouds appear in an empty sky. They arise, they develop, and they disappear again into an empty sky. The same is also true of bodhichitta, or compassion. Compassion also manifests from emptiness.


Photo by Miha Rekar on Unsplash 

That is the reason why, when we are speaking of Tantra, we always speak of emptiness and clarity. Emptiness and clarity are functions of the same principle. All manifestation comes from emptiness, which is represented as the sky. When we speak of the Dharmadhatu, dharma means “all phenomena,” and dhatu means “the real condition of emptiness.” Although there is total emptiness, from that emptiness everything manifests. When we speak of the manifestation of the five elements, the first of these is the element of space from which everything manifests. The element of space is emptiness. If there were no element of space, there would be no possibility of manifestation.

In the same way, compassion manifests from emptiness, the real knowledge of which is called absolute bodhichitta. Relative bodhichitta, which is compassion, is related to our thoughts, our sensations, our feelings, and to everything that develops in the dimension of samsara. Sometimes, even when we do have compassion, it is still something limited. For that reason, in our training we practice cultivating compassion beyond our limitations. Otherwise, our compassion and love might always remain limited. For example, a mother has compassion and love for her children; but she never loves anyone else the way she loves her children. In the same way, when people fall in love they are at that moment conditioned by their emotions, and never love anyone else in the same way. That is what we mean when we speak of our compassion being limited.

When we cultivate bodhichitta, it means going beyond limitations characteristic of our dualistic vision. From the beginning we have our narrow ego, our sense of “I,” and even if we expand our thinking a little and speak of “ourselves” – where at first we said “I,” and now we are saying “we,” and developing things along those lines – we nevertheless always remain within defined limits. Through the teaching and developing real knowledge we can go beyond that. Working with our intention and thinking, we cultivate bodhichitta. Diminishing our attachment to ego, we place others before ourselves in order to benefit them. The bodhichitta principle is a fundamental teaching of the Mahayana. If we ask, “Why do we follow Mahayana teachings? What do we practice in the Mahayana?,” the answer is very simple: we observe our intention and try to cultivate a good intention in everything we do. That is the total practice of Mahayana.

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