2021-04-14 Refuge (3 of 5) Refuge in Self
3:35PM Apr 14, 2021
The topic this week is refuge. Yesterday I talked about refuge in the Buddha Dharma Sangha. It is called the Triple Refuge. One of the peculiar things – if you study the ancient teachings of the Buddha – he never actually actively suggests that people should go for refuge. A few times he speaks favorably about people doing so, and talks about the value of doing so. But there are never instructions to go for the Triple Refuge.
He does give instructions for a different kind of refuge than the Triple Refuge. The background for this – the idea of a "triple refuge" as a term predated the Buddha. It was a custom in ancient India, to have a triple refuge in three of the gods of the Indian pantheon. Ancient texts talk about this triple refuge that people would do – going for refuge in the ancient gods. So it was already a custom in ancient India, for people to do something called the "triple refuge." When the Buddha came along, he used that language, ritual, and way of expressing faith directing it towards the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. And that became the new triple refuge.
Most literally, it's an external refuge, the literal Buddha, his teachings, and the community. As I said yesterday, it can also be an internal refuge. We can find what corresponds to that within ourselves. Now, when the Buddha gave instructions for refuge, at one significant place, right near the end of his life. He knew he was dying, so his teachings now became particularly significant. He gave the instructions, "Dwell, abide with your self as an island, with your self as a refuge, with no other refuge." "With the Dharma as an island, with the Dharma as a refuge, with no other refuge."
The metaphor of an island is that of a place that is safe from the floods and swirls of the world – the floods, strong currents, waves, tides. I hear on the coast here, that you can't really go swimming in very many places in the ocean because of the strong rip currents.
An island is a place of safety. So make your self a place of safety. Make a refuge of your self. He goes on to say, do the same thing with the Dharma, with no other refuge. The only way to harmonize these two statements is that the self and the Dharma are somehow becoming the same. The Dharma is not out there, but the Dharma is found somehow, in oneself with oneself. It is a very strong affirmation of one's own personhood, as a place of practice and a place of religious value. To call this person that you are the place of the Dharma itself is an affirmation.
That often is not captured so well If we emphasize too much the Buddha's teachings on not-self. Teachings on not-self and emptiness – as profound as they can be – to overemphasize them sometimes dismisses the ordinary phenomenological world that we live in – the ordinary experiences of how we are and how we live. I've seen plenty of people dismiss the value of their emotions, intentions, safety, well-being and health, by over-emphasizing some idea that there is no self, or everything is empty. But here we have the Buddha at the end of his life, saying, make your self a refuge, make your self an island, a place of safety.
Then he asks a rhetorical question: "Well, how do you do this?" And then he explains. He says you do it by practicing the four foundations of mindfulness: "One dwells observing the body in the body, ardent, aware, and clearly comprehending, having put aside greed and distress for the world. One abides observing feelings in feelings, ardent, aware, and clearly comprehending, having put aside greed and distress for the world. One abides observing mind in the mind, ardent, aware, clearly comprehending, having put aside greed and distress for the world. One abides observing dharmas in dharmas, ardent, aware, clearly comprehending, having put aside greed and distress for the world." So here, the way to make oneself a refuge, the way to make the Dharma the refuge is the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the real refuge. Mindfulness is the place that we really find our safety. Part of the task of mindfulness is to do it long enough, dedicated and sincere enough, to discover how it provides a tremendous place of safety, assurance, value, wisdom, and freedom. Even though the Buddha is pointing to self, it is not the conventional idea of self – what we identify as a self, self-identity, or conceit. But rather, it is what opens up when we have this powerful form of awareness. It is not that awareness is the self. But it's almost as if awareness is the closest thing to taking refuge in self, taking refuge in the Dharma. Take refuge in your awareness.
Not awareness in the abstract, but awareness that arises out of, or is established in the body, in our feelings, in our mind and mind states, and in the Dharma. In the dharmas, which in this context, dharma means the mental processes of our inner life. There is a clear grounding, a clear connection to the specificity of our life – the details of what is actually going on within us and around us. Be aware of that, established in it.
We are not distracted, reactive, or caught up in things, but clearly aware. To the point that we dwell independent, not clinging to anything in the world. The ability to be mindful is not caught or dependent on anything at all. It is clearly established in this world of ours, this experience of ours here, this personhood that we are – not clinging to anything in the world. This is how we make ourselves a refuge – by being aware.
The word refuge, "saraṇa" is one of the most powerful expressions of faith, assurance, trust, confidence – religious confidence, inspiration, and enthusiasm – that Buddhism honors and has a place for. To have all that religious feeling, if you will, faith, associated with awareness, and not to gods outside of us, which was the custom before the Buddha. There is not a savior out there who is going to save us, protect us. There is something here within ourselves that is the protection, savior, and place of safety. We do that through practice – not wishful thinking – but by practicing the four foundations of mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness. And that includes ānāpānasati, which we just finished going through.
This is another way in which the Buddha talked about refuge. We will continue with other ideas of refuge, this wonderful spiritual quality that supports our practice. We'll continue with that tomorrow. Thank you.