The Sanskrit word translated into English as "reliance" or "reliable" is pratisarana, which means "leaning or resting upon." The root word sarana means "refuge," and it's a word that also appears in the Going for Refuge liturgy.
Since the Reliances originated in Mahayana scriptures, it is unlikely they are the words of the historical Buddha. Scholars believe the scriptures associated with Mahayana Buddhism mostly were written four centuries or more after the life of the Buddha. However, these texts are respected for their deep wisdom, even if the author is unknown. (See also "Buddhist Scriptures: An Overview.")
There are different versions of the Reliances, and the advice is not always in the same order, but this is common:
Rely on the dharma, not the teacher.
Rely on the meaning, not the words.
Rely on explicit meanings, not implicit meanings.
Rely on wisdom, not on consciousness.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (page 140), the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche presents the Reliances this way --
Rely on the message of the teacher, not on his personality;
Rely on the meaning, not just on the words;
Rely on the real meaning, not on the provisional one;
Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgmental mind.
Let's look at these one at a time.
Relying on the Dharma, Not the Teacher
Another way to put this first Reliance is, Rely on the Dharma, not the person expounding it. This doesn't mean we should avoid teachers, however.
In the West, many of us were raised in another spiritual tradition, or no tradition, and we entered Buddhist practice as adults without knowing much about it. Newcomers tend to fall into one of two extremes.
Some of us really are looking for a master to follow. We think that someone out there can "fix" us and make our lives better. Others of us avoid teachers, often because of personal issues about authority figures. Or, we might think we are smart enough to "get" this by ourselves, and we don't need anyone telling us what to believe.
Both of these extremes are pitfalls, and they are both rooted in the same self-other dichotomy, the same delusion. Clinging to something or avoiding something both come from seeing oneself as separate from everything else. Liberation from this delusion is enlightenment.
Frankly, you aren't likely to free yourself from a delusion while you are catering to it. Where is the middle path between clinging and avoiding? Finding equanimity, the path between extremes, is essential.
The role of the teacher varies somewhat between one school of Buddhism and another, but usually they are guides or spiritual friends. Believing everything they say usually isn't the point. See "Finding Your Teacher" for more.
Relying on the Meaning, Not the Words
This is especially critical for those of us in the West, because we're learning from translations into western languages, and a lot gets lost. I've seen people fall into misunderstandings because of bad translations. This is another argument for working with a teacher who can point out where English isn't conveying the original meaning.
We may have come from a religious tradition in which a holy book is given absolute authority, and the faithful are required to accept what it says. Buddhism doesn't work that way. The revered sutras and talks from teachers give you guidance for finding enlightenment; merely believing what they say isn't the point. See "Overview of Buddhist Scriptures" for further explanation.
However, studying the traditional texts is invaluable. The question is, how do we learn to distinguish the meaning from the words? And the answer is, through insight and practice. It usually takes some time.
Relying on the Explicit, Not the Implicit, Meaning
What does this mean? This is often explained as the difference between sutras that must be interpreted (implicit) and those with a clear and unambiguous meaning (explicit).
Sogyal Rinpoche's version may be a little clearer. He writes, Rely on the real meaning, not on the provisional one. "Provisional" teachings refer to doctrines that we conceptualize and try to "figure out" until we realize the truth of the teaching for ourselves. See also "The Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel."
Relying on Wisdom, Not on Consciousness
To me, this fourth Reliance is a restatement of the third one. And I like the way Sogyal Rinpoche words it -- Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgmental mind.
"Wisdom mind" is a bit hard to explain, but through practice, the part of our mind that constantly judges and discriminates gets quieter. The wisdom mind is vast and clear and accepts everything. The wisdom mind comes forth when we realize for ourselves and no longer have to "figure it out."
When we are new to practice and first begin to understand what the dharma asks of us, it can be overwhelming. Awakening the wisdom mind can seem as impossible as breaking apart an iceberg with a toothpick.
But if you feel that way, you are very fortunate. A great many people learn a little about Buddhism and find the implicit, provisional teachings perfectly satisfying, and never take it further. If it doesn't satisfy you, if you see there is more, you are more likely to keep going.
Dogen said, "When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing." So please don't be discouraged.