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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Brothers and sisters

One of the ways monks address groups of people in Thailand is by saying, ‘Brothers and sisters in old age, sickness, and death’. It is interesting to think we are all brothers and sisters simply because we all share the same old age, sickness, and death. Suffering, loss of the loved, being irritated by being with the unloved, and wanting what we don’t have – everybody shares these things whether African, South American, Australian or anything else. Now, that is a reflection. You are not being asked to grasp a grand view of humankind as some great fellowship; that could be an inspiring perception, admittedly, but it is not a reflection on the way it is. ‘Brothers and sisters in old age, sickness, and death’ is a realization that we all suffer from the same things. My suffering and your suffering are really the same. Queen Elizabeth’s suffering is the same as my suffering. It is different in quality or particular circumstances, but old age, sickness, death, loss of the loved, having to be with the unloved, wanting something one doesn’t have – we all experience these things. It is the same with the homeless, or whatever social position one is in, or whatever race or religion. The bond is in the common human experience. We are all in the same boat!

-From a published talk of Ajahn Sumedho’s, “Brothers and Sisters in Old Age, Sickness and Death”

We often fixate on the differences between ourselves and others, through the lens of our likes and dislikes, our views and opinions of how things and people ought to be. But we can re-focus our awareness and remember that we are all in the same boat — the person who is actively dying, and the young, vibrant child; the intelligent and the slow; those with and without mental stability; the healthy and the weak; those who agree with us and those who don’t. If we start from this vantage point, that we all share a common fate, then our differences may disturb us less.

We can step back from trying to make people and situations fit our ideals of how things should be and simply see and accept things as they are, with an understanding that no matter what is happening at the moment, we are all headed in the same direction. At this basic level, we are all brothers and sisters.

Ajahn Sumedho often recommends that in our interactions with others, we maintain an attitude of kindness and patience. He also says we should have the same patience and kindness towards ourselves and towards our own flaws. In this way, we can create peace in our hearts and in the world.

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Spiritual growth

In Anguttara Nikaya 63 and 64 (as translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi below), the same words are used, in one verse for a male disciple and in the next verse for a female disciple of the Buddha:

Bhikkhus, growing in five ways, a female noble disciple grows by a noble growth, and she absorbs the essence and the best of this life. What five? She grows in faith, virtuous behavior, learning, generosity, and wisdom. Growing in these five ways, a female noble disciple grows by a noble growth, and she absorbs the essence and the best of this life.

It’s a powerful encouragement to be told that the essence and the best of life can be absorbed if we grow in certain areas:

  1. Faith
  2. Virtuous behavior
  3. Learning
  4. Generosity
  5. Wisdom

A spiritual practice often begins with faith – faith that there is something more than the material world, faith that actions are important, faith in the awakening of the Buddha, or in the Buddha’s path. Consider the nature of your own faith for a moment. What does it center around?

Virtuous behavior is the foundation for any spiritual growth. The primary way that we show a reverence for life is to keep the five precepts (non-harming of life, non-taking, refraining from harmful sexual activities, truthfulness, and restraint from intoxicants).  The Buddha’s path is experiential, not theoretical, and our experience is made up of our actions and words and the results that they bring.

Learning here means not just memorizing the eight-fold path or specific chants, but learning from our experience; watching what comes of our intentions and actions and making adjustments, steering away from the unwholesome and towards the wholesome. Mistakes are part of growth, if we acknowledge and learn from them.

Generosity is our first lesson in letting go. We let go of what we want and offer time and resources and good will, open-handedly and open-heartedly, to others. Practiced deeply enough, generosity can bring about sublime mental states.

Lastly, I think of wisdom as more of a result than a practice. But it is true that we each have some store of wisdom already, and if we call on it and rely on it, it will grow.

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Spiritual friendships 4

Bhikkhus, one should associate with a friend who possesses seven factors. What seven? (1) He gives what is hard to give. (2) He does what is hard to do. (3) He patiently endures what is hard to endure. (4) He reveals his secrets to you. (5) He preserves your secrets. (6) He does not forsake you when you are in trouble. (7) [When you are in trouble] He does not roughly despise you. One should associate with a friend who possesses these seven factors.
— from AN 7.36, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Thank you to Alex who brought our attention to this sutta with his comment.

A useful examination of this sutta might begin with assessing our own behavior against what the Buddha recommends. For a valued friend or family member, do we give beyond what is easy to give? Do we do things that we’d rather not do that benefit another person? These first two qualities of a friend present us with a challenge. Are our personal boundaries set with our own comfort too much in mind? Are we so intent on our own goals that we don’t give any weight to the needs of others? How are we at balancing these demands?

Patient endurance is an essential quality for spiritual development, one that Ajahn Chah reminded his students of often. The opposite of patient endurance might be whining and complaining, especially to those who can’t change the situation causing distress. Do we patiently endure what must be endured? Or do we rail against fate, our parents, or a nebulous “they”? Patient endurance is a beautiful quality that raises our value as a friend and at the same time teaches us the ways of the Dhamma.

Do we maintain the confidences of others with integrity? Do we know without being told that personal information is to be protected and not shared? Can we offer support to a friend who is burdened? Perhaps even help them to think through a conundrum? Do we share our burdens with others when that sharing might be helpful? Trust is a rare commodity in our society; we should treasure it.

Lastly, do we turn away from friends in their hour of need? Or do we ask directly how we can be of service? Do they need space or presence? Are there tasks we can take on? Many of us become confused and inarticulate when something goes seriously awry. As friends, we can make specific offers, and possibly help to sort things through. As often as not, what’s needed is in-person, patient listening, a very great expression of friendship.

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Spiritual friendships 3

In his essay titled Spiritual Friendship (http://www.bps.lk/olib/nl/nl057.pdf#nameddest=a), Bhikkhu Bodhi identifies two types of spiritual friendship: the “horizontal type” and the “vertical type.” Today we take up the horizontal type in which the friends are at roughly the same level in following the path.

In our worldly life, our friendships are very closely connected with personal attachments, which in turn are rooted in our own egocentric needs. Even when we think we love the other person, often we really love that person because this relationship in some way satisfies a deep need within ourselves. When the other person fails to satisfy this deep need within us, our feelings quickly become embittered and our love turns into resentment or even enmity.

But when we enter into a spiritual friendship based upon dedication to a common goal, this friendship helps us to transform our attachments and ego-centred drives. Even more, it helps us to transcend the very idea of the ego-self as a substantive reality. Spiritual friendship, we discover, is not about satisfying my personal needs, or even about my satisfying the other person’s personal needs. It’s about each of us contributing as best we can to uplift each other, and to bring each other closer to the ideals of the Dharma.

In spiritual friendship we are concerned with the other person not because of the ways that person satisfies us, but because we want to see the other person grow and develop in the direction of greater wisdom, greater virtue, greater understanding. We want the other person’s wholesome qualities to attain maturity and bring forth fruits for the benefit of others. This is the essence of “horizontal” spiritual friendship: a keen interest in helping our friends grow and develop in the practice of the Dharma, in maturing their potential for goodness, for understanding, for wholesomeness.

I’m reminded of a line from the movie, “As Good As it Gets”. The character played by Jack Nicholson is trying to explain to the Helen Hunt character why he wants to be with her. He says, “You make me want to be a better man.”

This is the characteristic that we look for in spiritual friends. Do they make us want to be better people? And conversely, do we help them become their best selves?  Can we imagine ourselves and our friends moving away from energetic attempts to satisfy our ego-driven wants and needs and towards releasing clinging? Is there some evidence of the intention to head in this direction?

We can ask ourselves whether our life partnerships are based on ego-needs or a mutual desire to help each other grow; it’s often a mix of the two. Healthy, long-lasting relationships depend on a gradual shift in motivation from “getting what I need/want” to “how can we support the best in each other?” It is possible to discuss this question openly.

If we find ourselves trying to control others, it’s a sure sign that we are acting from our own ego-needs. We can interrupt this process and attempt to generate an open, loving, accepting, and nourishing field for ourselves and others to grow in.

 

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Spiritual friendship 2

More from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay, Spiritual Friendship:

The relationship between student and teacher provides an ideal field for both to work at tackling the importunate demands of the ego. …

One quality that the Buddha considered essential in a qualified student is called (in Pali) suvaco, which means being “easy to speak to.” A student who is “easy to speak to” is ready to listen to his or her teacher and to accept the teacher’s advice without resentment, without vindictiveness, without arguing back, without complaints. Spiritual growth in the Dharma is a process of abandoning one’s faults and replacing them with the opposing virtues. Yet too often we are blind to our own faults, unable or unwilling to see them.

A skilful teacher is like a mirror: he shows us our faults clearly, insistently, without deception, reminding us of the faults we continually strive to hide from ourselves. For it is only when we are willing to see our faults that we can correct them. If we go on denying these faults, insisting that we are perfect, then we will continue to wallow in them, like a buffalo in the mud. But when we open up to the teacher and show a willingness to see our own faults, to subdue our self-will, we then take the first major step in the direction of correcting them.

(full essay here – http://www.bps.lk/olib/nl/nl057.pdf#nameddest=a)

This point has significant value for us as students of the Buddha’s path today. How can we progress if we can’t see that there are attitudes we carry and things we do that are obstructing our freedom? No one likes to be criticized, but this impasse makes it hard for us to shed unwholesome habits of body and mind. The quality of being “easy to speak to” (sometimes translated as “easy to admonish”) can be developed. We can notice our defensiveness, step back a bit and humbly invite in any available learning.

If we have a teacher or spiritual friends, we may have to tell them specifically that we would welcome their reflections if they see or hear us doing things that seem unwholesome. Our culture doesn’t support this type of relationship, but a special invitation can bring results. Sometimes we see others harming themselves (impatience, agitation, laziness, arrogance, unworthiness, to name a few possibilities) and it’s too difficult to say anything. They may not want to have it brought to their attention.

One way forward is to initiate a discussion with a spiritual friend by asking, “What do you consider your biggest obstacle to inner freedom?”, and then listening carefully and patiently to what is said in response. Whether we recognize the truth of their perceptions or not, we can examine any available evidence – actions or words that reflect the obstruction (or not).

It’s important for this to be a two-way conversation. We can say out loud what we consider our greatest obstacle and ask our spiritual friend if their perception matches our own. By opening this door to self-awareness, we take a big step towards freedom.

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