Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is not only to be free from this life’s problems, from emotional problems or difficulties in this life, not just that. Taking refuge is not just to avoid reincarnation in the lower realms in the next life or to avoid suffering, it is not just for that. As I mentioned before, we need to be liberated from delusions and karma, the cause of suffering in samsara and the cycle of death and rebirth.
As long as we are not liberated from delusions and karma, we continually get stuck in samsara and experience suffering, so therefore, by taking refuge in the Dharma, we need to actualize the Dharma, the path, in our mind.
For that, someone has to reveal the path. Naturally, when we take refuge in Dharma—the lam-rim, the graduated paths of the lower capable being, middle capable being and higher capable being, renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness, and on top of that, the tantric path—when we take refuge in Dharma and actualize this path in our mind, someone has to reveal the path. Buddha has revealed the path, so naturally we take refuge in the Buddha.
Just the Buddha and the Dharma are not enough—we also need to rely on the Sangha, the helper, to actualize the Dharma within our minds. Like severely ill patients, we need to rely on medicine to be able to recover well from disease and we need to rely on the doctor’s diagnosis and guidance to receive unmistaken treatment and medicine. However, that is not enough—we also need a nurse who will take care of us and help us to follow the doctor’s guidance.
So, in order to be free from samsara, we need to rely on all three—the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
The Hinayana, or lesser vehicle way of taking refuge has two causes: the understanding fear of samsara, which is in the nature of suffering, and faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha by knowing their qualities and how they guide us. The Hinayana way of taking refuge is to completely rely on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, with these two causes in our heart.
The Mahayana way of taking refuge has an additional cause. On the basis of these two causes, we know how our own samsara is in the nature of suffering, and on the basis of that understanding fear of our own samsara, we feel compassion towards other sentient beings who are suffering in samsara. This is the additional cause—compassion.
With these three causes, we rely on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to free all sentient beings from suffering and its causes, and to lead them to happiness and enlightenment. With these three causes, the third one being compassion for all sentient beings, we rely on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is the Mahayana way of taking refuge.