by Marga Callender, RMI Meditation Instructor
Refuge. We humans along the way assigned some wonderful meanings to that combination of letters. Refuge. Take a moment, close your eyes, take a breath and then tune into your own body/mind and take note of what arises for you when you hear that word, refuge. What images arise? How and where does it resonate in the sensations of your body and energy field?
Okay, another breath, open your eyes and widen your awareness back into this room.
One of the first images I have when I consider that word is shelter. Perhaps you’ve seen photos of geese and ducks and owls and other birds sheltering their chicks. Some of the photos show them lined up underneath mom’s … or maybe dad’s … wings. Shelter. Refuge provides safety, warmth, belonging, reassurance.
Other photos may not be so obvious and you have to look and see just how incorporated the chicks are within the feathers of the parent. Refuge is shelter … shelter when storms arise. Shelter as we deal with the intensity in this world of samsara. Shelter in the experience of danger. Shelter when harsh elements arise both internally and externally.
Another association I have when I hear the word refuge is Wildlife Refuges. There are many of them through the USA and the world. I lived for many years in Wisconsin and I have vivid memories of the refuge in Horicon Marsh. Horicon March is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the US. It is common to see at least 30 different species of birds in the marsh in one visit.
This refuge provides many vital resources. It is a nesting place for waterfowl and a resting place for migratory birds. Its environment supports plant and other animal life that provides a habitat required for their health and safety. There is ample nourishment. The cattails and other vegetation provide shelter. This ecosystem optimizes their ability to live and reproduce and flourish. They have the resources needed to maximize their own true nature.
You and I have the opportunity as Buddhists to take refuge. The refuge we take provides those elements of warmth, safety, belonging, nourishment, and actually so much more. We take refuge in the Triple Gem or the Three Jewels. They are, of course, refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.
Taking refuge wasn’t a new idea at time of the Buddha. Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: “In pre-Buddhist India, going for refuge meant proclaiming one’s allegiance to a patron — a powerful person or god — submitting to the patron’s directives in hopes of receiving protection from danger in return.”
The idea of refuge shifted however with the Buddha in some powerful ways. In Buddhism, we take refuge in the Buddha, but not as a god or even as a powerful person. Not as some entity or energy who will personally intervene and protect us from danger. We take refuge because this fully human person, through his own effort, awakened. He trained and developed his mind which allowed him to understand the true nature of all phenomena.
He extinguished, for himself, the unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. And he invites us … you and me … to that same awakening. In fact, he says, paraphrasing here, ‘don’t believe this because it happened to me or because I say it. Come and see for yourselves. Investigate. Cultivate insight and realize your own true nature … your own awakened-ness.’ I find that absolutely refreshing and wonderful. Don’t you?
It fosters faith, but not faith in something outside of ourselves … in a person or even a dogma. But faith in that inherent nature each of us possesses. Faith that each of us has the ability and opportunity to awaken to what is already present.
As our practice develops, our awareness broadens, and when we take refuge, we take it not even so much in the historical Buddha, but in Buddha nature itself.
What a tremendous recognition that is, right? To see Buddha nature in all beings. To have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the wisdom to open our hearts to the Buddha nature everywhere.
Jack Kornfield talks about his time in Cambodia during the genocide wrought by the Khmer Rouge which resulted in the deaths of nearly two million Cambodian people in the mid to late 1970s. His friend and teacher, Maha Ghosananda was in Thailand at the time and thus wasn’t killed. He was one of the few Buddhist elders of the country left alive. The Khmer Roughe killed 57,000 out of 60,000 monks and nuns in the country. Maha Ghosananda’s response was to begin teaching forgiveness and reconciliation in the refugee camps. Astounding, isn’t it? Monks and nuns killed. Country men and women murdered in astounding numbers. His own family, killed.
In the sheer face of that kind of evil and violence, it would be so easy to respond with anger and hatred, and if not that, at least a kind of numbness and avoidance just to cope. And there was Maha Ghosananda responding by teaching forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jack tells the story of witnessing him reciting the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada in a refugee camp in front of 20,000 refugees. Over and over, Maha Ghosananda recited, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient truth.” As he did so, Jack says, the refugees cried. I don’t know exactly why they cried: but perhaps in grief or perhaps from the sheer release of not having to harden their hearts.
And then Maha Ghosananda went on and led thousands of refugees in peace walks through the most war-torn parts of the country. As they walked, they chanted the Buddha’s words, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
Talk about the ability to see Buddha nature in all beings. To teach forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge and retribution has to arise from Wisdom and not delusion.
And so, we take refuge in the Buddha and ultimately in Buddha Nature itself.
The Buddha recognized that all of us are subject to the three unwholesome roots or the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion, also called ignorance. When our views and thoughts and actions arise out of any of these three unwholesome roots, suffering ensues for ourselves and for others. But when our views and thoughts and actions arise out of wholesome roots of generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom, suffering vanishes for ourselves and others. Generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom are the antidotes to greed, hatred and delusion.
I can’t help but think of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish man, who, along with his parents, wife and brother were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. Prior to that he had earned his MD and Ph.D. at the University of Vienna where he studied Psychiatry, focusing on the areas of suicide and depression.
While interred, he and those with him suffered immense atrocities in a place and a way that led to much depression and despondency among the prisoners. Frankl encouraged others to reflect on positive memories, scenes and thoughts. Frankl, himself, did the same. He focused on his wife, the love they shared, and their life together. This focus on the wholesomeness of loving and the expression of compassion in working with other prisoners kept him from severe depression. It transformed his experience.
We can easily see the results of actions that arise from greed, hatred, delusion. We see it globally. We see it nationally, locally. Within our own institutions and even families and ourselves, too, at times.
And so, we take refuge in the Dhamma. The path, the teachings of the Buddha, not as dogma, not as something we must believe. But as guides, instructions, a path to follow, ways to develop our minds.
In working with the teachings of the Buddha, we develop compassion for ourselves and others. We learn to release fear and ignorance. We find within ourselves those places of clinging to what we think will make us happy for now and forever. We also experience ourselves pushing away those things that are not wanted, are not, we think, able to create harmony and happiness.
As we investigate and apply the teachings of the Buddha, we begin to see that it is in the very clinging and pushing away that we suffer and cause suffering for others. We begin to know this not just intellectually, but we know it in our bones. We know how it shows up in our personal lives. We experience it the events in our world.
Taking refuge in the Dhamma provides the kind of shelter needed not to cushion us or make us childlike and ineffectual. Taking refuge in the Dhamma requires awake, mindful and active participation in our own lives. The shelter it provides is like the ecosystem provided in Horicon Marsh. The Dhamma provides nourishment, vital resources for our growth and development. It gives us understandings and tools needed to train our minds so that we are no longer deluded into thinking that something in this samsaric world can provide permanent, lasting happiness for me … for my concerns and my interests and for all those I claim as mine. And that could be quite extensive, can’t it. It could be MY family, MY town, My opinion, MY profession, MY economic reality, MY country, MY causes, MY race.
Taking refuge in the Dhamma prompts us to develop unbridled compassion for the suffering of all beings and to respond with loving-kindness. It frees us to develop community where differences don’t divide us, but where we can honestly celebrate the goodness and the achievements and the good fortune of others.
Another story from Jack is about a man named Ted who spent years in prison and was part of the Buddhist prison projects. He learned about taking refuge and that became a turning point for Ted. This is Ted’s account, “After I took refuge, I took the way I was living my life more seriously. I had taken vows not to harm, not to abuse, I had to see the Buddha even in the guards. I kept to myself more and meditated and did my refuges early in the morning. I said them over and over and I felt like I was rock solid. Then I was moved to another block. There was a lot of trouble there and I had to keep taking my refuges to stay clean. I was tempted to pay back a couple of men who did me some wrong. But then I would look at them in the eye and take refuge in my heart. It helped me a lot.”
So, refuge in the Dharmma doesn’t prompt us to avoid difficult situations. Instead, it provides opportunities for deep understanding, clear recognition and wisdom enough to know to that hatred only increases hatred. Clinging only increases suffering.
Truly taking refuge in the Dhamma initiates us into a radically transformative process. It shifts and changes our view, our attitudes, our actions. It frees us to choose wholesome thoughts and skillful actions even in the most severe situations … like Maha Ghosanada, Viktor Frankl and Ted chose. Refuge in the Dhamma provides the means and opportunity to completely eradicate the unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. That is nibbana, freedom. That ends suffering completely.
And finally, we also take refuge in the Sangha. I think of many different pools of sangha to which we go for refuge. We take refuge in all those who have kept the teachings of the Buddha alive, who passed them on all the way to us, through oral and written means. We are so fortunate. At some point in the history, the teachings were not as widely available. But now we have many resources from many teachers, both living and no longer living.
We take refuge in our own local, individual sanghas. These are viharas where we meet noble friends, like-minded individuals on the path with us. We hear the teachings of the Buddha as many times as we need to hear them. We receive instruction and assistance in applying them to our own lives, our own practices. These are places to practice together, to support one another, to engage in noble conversation.
We take refuge in this large Buddhist community in the greater Colorado Springs area. Even within our different traditions, are the essential Buddhist teachings that bind us together and nourish and support us. And personally, I find a sense of refuge in knowing that, world-wide, at any given moment there are Buddhists practicing daily.
We are not alone in this endeavor. We have these communities to help us to understand, to live, and to fully awaken to what the Buddha taught and offered. He said, “I teach one thing, and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering.”
We at Rocky Mountain Insight take the Refuges and Precepts each month, on the meeting nearest the full moon. This is in keeping with the Asian tradition and keeps us connected to both the historical sangha and the worldwide sangha. But it actually can be helpful to take the refuges daily, like Ted does. Doing so keeps before us the sense of refuge as shelter and support for ourselves. It keeps us on the Path of eradicating the unwholesome roots, the poisons. Ultimately, taking refuge helps lead us to Wisdom and uncovering what is already present, Buddha nature within ourselves and in all that is.