After taking refuge – what next?

At a practical level, when we take refuge, we are simply remembering what is important. We do our best to keep in mind that our words and actions matter, try to minimize harm and maximize kindness. Our efforts are rarely completely successful, but if we keep the intention alive, gradually it comes to feel more natural. A teacher I heard recently described this process as running our self through a filtering (or purification) process over and over again, becoming slightly more refined each time.

Meditation or other mindfulness practices are a helpful support to our wholesome intentions.

Often, we can’t tell if our efforts are bearing fruit until a significant amount of time has passed and we start to notice changes. We might find that someone who has annoyed us for years suddenly looks like a person deserving of compassion. Or we manage to think about politics without getting upset. Or we miss a transportation connection and rather than blowing a fuse, we relax and enjoy the suddenly available time. Any real spiritual growth will eventually manifest in a way that we and others can perceive.

The first precept about not killing or harming sentient beings is one “filter” we can use. By noticing and restraining our actions and words, eventually a change of heart comes about.  The internal impulse to strike out becomes less automatic and starts to feel unpleasant. A friend and I recently recognised that “snarky” comments are attempts to snuff out someone from our world. The impulse in the mind comes from an evolutionarily necessary protective mechanism. The difference is that it’s only our hyper-alert sense of self that is threatened, not our lives.

Difficult, ungentle people are everywhere. When will we stop expecting that to change? Do we really enjoy feeling besieged? Can we accept the situation as it is and respond with compassion and kindness rather than indignation and resentment? At least sometimes?

How we think of and work with the training to refrain from killing or harming other beings evolves over time. We start by seeing and acknowledging when our “kill that threat!” instinct is in play. While I still feel annoyance when drivers are careless or aggressive on the road, I am no longer surprised by it and see my task as getting out of the way, to try to establish a zone of safety. What triggers our killer instinct may surprise us; it is rarely rational. What pushes your anger button?

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The Three Refuges: Sangha

Lastly, we come to the third refuge or jewel, the Sangha. Sangha is a word with various meanings in different settings. The sense in which I’m using it here incorporates anyone who is sincerely attempting to walk the path laid out by the Buddha, whether ordained or lay, accomplished or brand new to the path; in other words, anyone who has taken refuge in the Buddha and his Dhamma.

From a published talk by Ajahn Sumedho:

[…putting (all) these conditions into the perspective of Dhamma transcends the personal quality. That is why we take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.]

The Sangha, then, is the actual practice of this; it is you and me; it is individual human beings – men and women- who practise the Dhamma, who do good and refrain from doing bad, who have made some determination to take refuge in the Buddha and Dhamma in order to see things clearly – and this also is not personal.

Taking refuge does not mean that we’ve succeeded in transcending personal concerns! It does mean that we try to step back and observe our own reactions, along with other peoples’, and see what we can discover. In this way, there is a bit of air between stimulus and response, between action and reaction on our part; a space where wisdom has a chance to appear. We might see that whoever is causing us problems is creating even bigger problems for herself or himself, or that a particular response will only make things worse, or that a kind word at the right time might defuse a tricky situation. We start to put our own desires into a larger context and avoid using them as our sole criterion for choices and decisions.

The Buddha’s five lay precepts can help us make this shift from a purely personal perspective to something broader. They show us specific ways in which we can live harmoniously; they lead in the direction of unselfishness and understanding.

The five precepts can keep us and others safe (or safer) from harm,  in any sort of community, and they can generate compassion towards other beings. They might be called the seeds of a sangha, or a basis for developing wisdom.

More from Ajahn Sumedho:

…So when we reflect on these Three Refuges in this way, we realise more and more that it helps us to get beyond just the personal interpretations and the highly emotional feelings that we have. All the prejudices, biases, obstructions, hindrances, defilements, and all that we can interpret as personal faults or flaws, we begin to see in this perspective of Dhamma. The bad, the evil, is that which arises and ceases, too. We see every condition in terms of ‘right perspective’, or pure knowing, pure awareness. Our active life is a life of mindfulness, doing good, refraining from doing bad, purifying the mind.

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The Three Refuges: Dhamma (2)

The word Dhamma carries several meanings: the way things are, the laws of nature, the Buddha’s teachings, and sometimes more generally “phenomena”.  The Buddha’s teachings are called Dhamma because they explain and describe the nature of things, the way things are, the way they operate.

In the traditional Pali chant there are five adjectives that describe the Dhamma.  Sandiṭṭhiko (directly visible) we discussed in the previous post. The next one is akāliko – unaffected by time, or timeless. The Dhamma is so fundamental that it applies in all situations and at all times. It is akin to the laws of kamma (karma), which are in effect all the time. Whatever action we do, for good or ill, will bear results. Similarly, we can’t erase the past or make the future as we want it; we can only think, speak and act in the present. In a sense, the present is infinite, because it is the whole (potential) universe – it’s all we’ve got.

Ehipassiko, the third adjective applied to Dhamma, means “calling one to come and see”. Not only is Dhamma directly visible and timeless, but it is calling us to investigate. We wander around and around looking for answers to our dissatisfactions, while all along the Dhamma is right here, right now. This is it!

Opanayiko means leading onwards or leading inwards. If we accept the invitation to investigate things as they actually are (not as we wish they were) in the present, then the Dhamma will guide us on a path of discovery. We could repeatedly ask ourselves “what is this experience?”, “how is it now?”, “what is actually happening in the realm of sight and sound, sensation, taste and smell?”, “what is my mind doing?” or “what is changing right now?”.

In practice, this might mean that we pay close (but relaxed) attention to whatever we’re doing right now, whether it’s mundane or exciting, boring or absorbing. When thinking, we focus on what we’re thinking about, not wandering randomly from one thought stream to another. If the mind is restless, we recognize it as restless. If calm, we recognize it as calm. We observe that all experience is knowable only with the mind, whether the stimulus comes from a stubbed toe or a pleasant memory. If we keep track of the mind, with gentle persistence, we can see all experience coming and going through that gate.

Lastly paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī  is a phrase that means “to be personally realized by the wise”. There is no point in trying to grasp the Dhamma intellectually. We can get  clues from study and discussion, but the Dhamma can’t be accurately described, it can only be realized, or known for oneself. Whether briefly or more enduringly, when we see “Ah, that’s how it is!”, then we know the Dhamma.

We take refuge in the Dhamma by orienting ourselves in this way, using the Buddha’s teachings as a guide, and staying open to current experience.



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The Three Refuges: Dhamma

From a published talk by Ajahn Sumedho, “Taking Refuge”:

…When you see the experiences you have from the position of refuge in Buddha, however, then every experience, everything that happens to you, is enlightening you; everything is Dhamma.

Seeing the Dhamma, you take refuge in Dhamma, in truth, in the way things are. Even if it is painful or humiliating, good or bad, right or wrong, you see it as it is; you see it in terms of Dhamma. So then experiences are no longer something to resent or be frightened of, because you recognize that life is like that: being born, being conscious, the human kamma that you have, the state you are in from the time of birth to the time of the death of this body. Anything can happen! Instead of being frightened by it all you can have a sense of being willing to see, willing to learn from the experiences of life. And a lot of the learning comes from pain, doesn’t it?

When we meet experience with an alert and “awakened” (Buddha) mind, everything becomes an interesting teacher. Whether there’s loveliness enough to burst our heart or pain enough to take our breath away, we can meet life with complete openness, embracing what is. This is one way of taking refuge in the Dhamma.

In fact, a small percentage of our time is spent at the extremes of experience, so the ongoing challenge is to stay fully engaged with the mundane happenings of every day: getting dressed and undressed, walking places, carrying things, talking with people, preparing meals, etc. We are often inclined to see this ordinary experience as waiting time or daydreaming time. But if we are following things along as they happen, with an open mind and heart, then when something attention-grabbing happens, we are ready to meet it with equanimity.

In the traditional Pali chant for taking refuge in the Dhamma, there are five adjectival descriptions of the Dhamma. The first one is sandiṭṭhiko which means “directly visible”. This tells us that the Dhamma is not a concept, not a philosophy, not something we can grasp intellectually. It’s a direct knowing, not necessarily through the eyes. Sometimes in the Pali canon it’s called “knowing with the body”. We can meet our experience “full frontal”, not turning away and not projecting or ignoring anything. As soon as we start analyzing and calling up associations, we have lost the directness of the knowing.

The only way to really know experience is to keep letting it go – know it (as much as possible), let it go, know it, let it go, know it, let it go…

When we hold onto things, make them into superstructures of vast meaning and significance, we miss our direct experience NOW. It may seem anti-intuitive, but taking refuge in the Dhamma is a process of simplifying rather than proliferating.


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The Three Refuges: Buddha

From The Three Refuges, a published talk by Ajahn Sumedho:

… As a Refuge to take in order to see and realize the truth, you can regard Buddha as ‘that which is mindful’, pure intelligent awareness. Taking refuge in the Buddha is not a sentiment of the mind but a recollection and remembrance that right now, that which is aware and knows the truth, is Buddha. It is not something that is mine, but when I am mindful – when I allow my life to be increasingly more mindful – that is refuge in the Buddha. … You don’t even identify with Buddha; you take refuge in that pure awareness that is possible for all human beings.

The word “Buddha” means “awake”. This does not mean that only the Buddha was awake and the rest of us are asleep, but that when we are awake, we are “buddha”. Ajahn Sumedho is even more direct about this point. When we are dwelling in awareness, as opposed to our fantasies and wishes, and we know the truth of the present, then that is Buddha. That is the Buddha, the “awakeness”, that we take refuge in.

When we think of a refuge, we might think of a storm cellar or an earthquake-proofed building. But this is different. Taking refuge in the Buddha is not like going to a place of physical safety. It’s acknowledging that there is no stable, reliable place we can retreat to where we’ll be safe from all harm. If the first of the Buddha’s truths is fact, that dukkha is an inevitable part of every life, then seeking ways to avoid it entirely is a fool’s game. The only security we can develop is internal: our willingness to face and accept whatever comes, without looking away, without panicking, with courage and with compassion.

In the traditional Pali chant of homage to the Buddha, one descriptive phrase says that the Buddha is the “supreme trainer of persons to be tamed”. During his life, the Buddha taught both through the example of his impeccable behavior and demeanor, and also through direct instruction to the many and various people that he encountered. Whether we accept that the Buddha was a supremely gifted teacher or not, we have to start with the question of whether we ourselves are tame-able. Do we want to be trained? Are we willing to submit to the (self-) discipline required to bring awareness to this moment, just as it is, again and again?

Another way we can take refuge in the Buddha is simply to remind ourselves that the potential to fully awaken to the truth of how things are exists in every human being. Sometimes it may be very hard to see, in ourselves and in others, but we can have faith that it is not a hopeless case. We can clarify and refine our understanding to an extraordinary degree, if we are interested and teach-able.


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The three refuges

From “The Three Refuges”, a published talk by Ajahn Sumedho:

I think it is very important to reflect on the significance of the Refuges, or the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Sometimes in the Western world these Refuges are seen as merely traditional, and relegated to a ceremony which only traditional Buddhists perform, not fully appreciating that they are pointers to the reality of the moment. In Pali we chant: Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi, Saṃghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi. [I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dhamma, I take refuge in the Sangha.]

(Pronunciation note: in Pali, the “m” with a dot under it is pronounced “ng”. The “a” with a line over the top has twice the duration of an “a” with no line.)

What does this mean? At one level, when the question is asked, “How does one become a Buddhist?”, the answer is: by going for refuge. That is, whether there’s a ceremony or not, whether the words spoken are in Pali or English, out loud or silently to oneself, we become a committed follower of the Buddha’s path when our heart has decided that we’re going to rely primarily on the example of the Buddha, and on his teachings (the Dhamma), guided by those who have practiced the path (the Sangha).

It may be revealing to ask ourselves what we use as refuges now; where do we look for comfort and security? Is our physical strength our refuge? Our intellect? Our relationship with family? The beauty of our physical environment? Our views and opinions? Our ideas about who we are? All of these things change in unpredictable ways throughout life.They cannot provide a reliable refuge.

How are we to understand the concept of refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha? I’ll be offering some ideas about that in the next few posts, but one aspect is that we try to remember that our actions and words matter more than anything going on around us. These are our superpowers, the methods by which we mold and change our world. The Buddha is not a deity that will take care of us if we pray hard enough. It’s up to us to create the change by living fully in the present with all the awareness and wisdom we can muster.

Going for refuge also means reviewing our goals. Does some part of us believe that if only we had the right/best job, partner, grades, home, car, accomplishment, recognition, etc., we’d be content and feel secure? Why is it that people who seem to have every material advantage are still anxious and dissatisfied? Perhaps they’ve chosen a refuge that can’t provide the security of a peaceful heart.

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Big brothers and sisters

Ajahn Sumedho on being with Ajahn Chah: “I found him very much like a mirror that would reflect my state of mind. He always seemed to be completely present. I’d get carried away with my thoughts and emotions, and then suddenly discover that just being around him meant I could let go; I could drop what I was holding on to without even telling him. His presence helped me to see what I was doing and what I was holding.[underline added] (from a published talk, “Gratitude for Luang Por Chah”)

This passage has stuck in my mind for weeks. It could be a description of my recent experience spending several days in the presence of Ajahn Sumedho. For me, it was like floating on an ocean of awareness and acceptance. Mindfulness seemed effortless. Things that didn’t go as expected were seen and acknowledged without resistance. I think of Ajahn Sumedho as my big brother on the path.

Others can perform the same function, usually less dramatically. There is a local monk (in Brisbane for now) whose imperturbability is inspiring. He listens thoroughly and responds to questions of all sorts with wisdom. When leaving his presence, I often feel as if I’d been cleansed of some unnecessary detritus (views and opinions, most likely).

There are many friends, followers of the Buddha’s teachings and not, who also serve in this role, who show me a better way by their behavior and words. When we think of sorting our friendships into wholesome and unwholesome, we can look for this subtle effect. Is there a little more clarity? Or less? Sometimes just being in presence of human acceptance (could also be called non-sticky love) is enough to refresh us.

And how do we affect others? Do we get them stirred up and agitated? Or are they more reflective than when we came together? Do we take people as they are? Accept them in whatever state they come, listen deeply and help them to know their own mind? Or do we approach people with our own agenda – what we want from them or how we want them to behave?

Sometimes I’m the big sister, sometimes the little sister, and sometimes there’s no connection at all.

Many friendships are characterized by reciprocity;  we lean on and support each other by turns. We can be mirrors to each other; we can help each other see what we’re holding on to with such clarity that we naturally let go.

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