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Finding Refuge, Making Refuge

October 21, 2016
The author alone on the ridge in Holcolb Valley, California. Photo by Colin McIllece.

The author alone on the ridge in Holcolb Valley, California. Photo by Colin McIllece.

The other day, Edward Ng posted a beautiful piece about making refuge over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Within he redefined refuge in a way new to me. (He also included a critique of the over-focus on “mindfulness” and “happiness” as goals of Buddhist and secularized quasi-Buddhist practices.) He wrote:

As professed Buddhists, we take refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha as exemplar, the Dharma as path, the Sangha as community. By taking refuge we give wisdom and compassion a chance to flower from the groundless ground of our mortality. Refuge welcomes vulnerability and entangles the self with others and the world. Hospitality towards what is not-self is necessary; otherwise how do we repair broken worlds, heal the harms we suffer and inflict on one another, or invite shared hopes and aspirations for a more promising future? The taking of refuge is hosted by an act of promising.

The making of refuge for one another is a ceaseless task, precarious work. Refuge places a universal demand on us to take response-ability for the conditions of safety shared by humans and nonhumans in this precarious world; but this promise of refuge for whomever and whatever can only be fulfilled by giving ourselves over to the contingencies of the particular.

The promise of response-ability attends first to grief and loss and harm, not happiness.

When we become responsive to grief and loss and harm, we begin to heal damaged lives and repair broken worlds; we hold the door open for justice.

[Emphasis in the original.] Read his entire article here; it is well worth it.

Refuge has been on my mind recently. Refuge where? Refuge in what or who? Refuge how?

Buddhism has traditionally offered three sources of refuge: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha or the teacher, teaching, and community. I have struggled to find refuge in a living teacher and in a Buddhist community, but I have always found comfort in the beauty and truth of the Dharma, which also means truth or natural law.

This idea of refuge is affirmed in the Pali canon:

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

“And how, Ananda, is a bhikkhu an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge?

“When he dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; having the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge.

“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.” (DN16, Mahaparinibbana Sutta)

In the Pali canon, the historical Buddha extols both the Three Refuges (or Triple Gem, as in Khp 1, Dhp 188-192, SN 55.1) and the practice of being a refuge unto oneself, relying on neither the Buddha nor Sangha, but only the Dharma. The second instruction is repeated in several places within the suttas (DN 16, SN 47.13, SN 47.14).

Yet, in my experience, the Three Refuges are emphasized more. They are the vow that ‘makes one’ a Buddhist and are repeated daily in chants and rituals throughout the Buddhist world.

Is this a contradiction? If so, how are we to reconcile it?

One of the most common tools in Buddhist hermeneutics (or the interpretations of meanings) is the teaching of upaya or skillful means. Donald Lopez points out,

The Buddha is said to have taught different things to different people based on their interests, dispositions, capacities, and levels of intelligence. Furthermore, the tradition maintained that as a Buddha, an enlightened being, his teachings must be free of error and contradiction. (p. 3 of Buddhist Hermeneutics, “Introduction”)

Therefore, upaya, although rarely mentioned in the Pali canon itself, was adopted as a principle for interpretation of the sutras by Theravadin exegetes and later expanded upon greatly in Mahayana and Vajrayana literature. Lopez cites Peter Gregory, who points out that later Chinese understandings added a layer of context to the hermeneutics of upaya, (p. 5) which is necessary as the buddhadharma crossed cultural borders. And,

As George Bond shows, the Theravadin exegetes based their hermeneutical strategy on the idea of a gradual path to enlightenment. Hence, they delineated a typology of persons, based on factors such as level of spiritual development and temperament, to whom the Buddha addressed his teachings.

In other words, they placed the different teachings within a hierarchy from lowest or most relative, provisional, and contextual to highest or most ultimate, universal, and non-contextual. Theravada traditions were not alone in this strategy. It can be found in Kukai’s ten stages and the various bhumis of the Bodhisattvas. Different schools chose different texts as their representation of that highest, ultimate meaning. (p. 6)

So how does that help me? How does that help folks like me, who struggle to find a teacher and and a sangha in which they can ‘be vulnerable and entangle themselves,’ as Ed Ng puts it?

I have not yet found a sangha in which I felt I could be myself, could be that vulnerable, could be welcomed for my griefs and failings. I always felt like I had to be someone else, according to their expectations of how a Buddhist ‘should’ act or be.

Perhaps that’s actually okay. Shouldn’t our teachers and communities also encourage us to be better, to grow and change in beneficial ways?

When the Buddha applied upaya, which is sometimes also translated as “teaching aids,” he did so with full knowledge of that person’s or community’s starting point. He understood and accepted where they were now. Then he offered a teaching that could draw them into a better place, a better understanding, a better life. They chose to follow that teaching or not.

This is not the sense I get from the Buddhist communities I visit today. I do not believe they understand where I am now, nor do they want to accept me as I am today. To be clear, they’re under no obligation to do so. Different sanghas serve very different populations and cannot be all things to all people, nor should they try.

Much of what they attempt to teach me is not for the purpose of enlightenment, but for the purpose of “fitting in” so that they feel more comfortable with my presence, rather than the other way around. This is harmony through conformity and it is practiced equally by western, progressive, mostly-white sanghas and more traditional, mostly Asian and Asian-American sanghas.

The tension and anxiety I feel in such environments creates an unnecessary barrier between the audience (myself) and the Dharma.

'Introverts Unite!' from Joe Wolf via

‘Introverts Unite!’ from Joe Wolf via

I take the greater share of responsibility for this. As a highly sensitive introvert, it is literally how I am wired. More relaxed or extroverted persons may experience the exact same context very differently than I do. This does not mean I am powerless. A 5’8″ tall person can become a great basketball player, but they don’t do it by getting taller. I also believe that meditation has at least some ability to rewire the brain, but not to rewrite the genetic code. This body, and it’s temperament, are my karma; they’re what I have to work with.

Which is why I find the two ways of understanding refuge to be outstandingly good news. The genetics that lend me my temperament and contribute to who I am today came from somewhere. Which means there were probably highly sensitive introverts during the Buddha’s time. I can only imagine he met them. Perhaps this teaching is for us?

Yet, why was the teaching of the Triple Gem the one that was passed down and emphasized so strongly? Well, that’s what communities do, right? They perpetuate themselves and the things they value. That’s what they’re for. And our tendency to create hierarchies may have contributed to the promotion of the Triple Gem over the Refuge Unto Yourselves idea. Lone hermits, on the other hand, rarely have heirs and are rarely interested in promoting hierarchies of any kind.

Luckily, we can all be a little bit of both. Being introverted doesn’t mean I hate people. In fact, I love people, especially one-on-one or small group interaction about important things. That’s why I enjoy being a chaplain. Intimate talks are where its at for introverts. And I can still visit temples and Dharma centers and sanghas from time to time. In fact, I can visit many different ones and get a broad understanding of the flavors of Buddhism. I can also learn from many teachers – all the inner buddhas of the world, in fact.

So it’s not entirely a case of either/or, just both/and in different measures. I may not have felt refuge from others the way Ed Ng describes, but I still take up his sacred challenge. I want be that kind of refuge for others – and for myself.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 21, 2016 9:32 am

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

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