To continue this topic of refuge – refuge arises in us when we understand that there is a profound support for our lives. There is a way of being that provides a sense of safety, purpose, direction and orientation for our lives. When we have some clear insight – this can be the basis or support for how we live our lives.
Refuge is considered to be deeply valuable in Buddhism. As I have been saying, in the early Buddhism, teachings of the Buddha, there are different things that are highlighted as worthy refuge. Certainly what we most commonly know about is the Buddha, Dharma, the Sangha. Yesterday I talked about having oneself as a refuge. Today I want to talk about action, the activities.
The Buddha also said that we have our actions as our refuge. It is not just a matter of passively allowing, being present, and being the recipient of some deep inner or outer support for us – trusting that we do not have to do anything. Dharma practice is an active practice – there is doing that is part of it. Hopefully, what we are doing is learning how to act in ways that are wise, healthy, nourishing, free of strain, obligation, pushing, being busy, and free of conceit and self-consciousness – self-consciousness that is equivalent to being self-preoccupied.
Action is so important in the teachings of the Buddha that in a few different locations, the Buddha is referred to – in these ancient texts – as a "teacher of action." I guess there were people at the time of the Buddha, spiritual teachers at his time, who felt that actions were inconsequential – no matter what you did, it didn't have any long term benefit, effect or repercussions. Some people interpreted that to mean that you can just do whatever you wish. It doesn't matter how immoral, unethical it is. Other teachers at the time of the Buddha said nothing matters, so you shouldn't do anything. Actually not doing, radical non-doing is the way forward.
The Buddha taught that some actions are worth doing and some are not worth doing. Over and over again, you see in his teaching, sometimes very emphatically, when people ask him a question like, "Do you believe in restraint?" "Do you believe in non-action?" "Do you believe in this or that?" He would answer the question by saying, "I teach the doing of what is wholesome and the not doing of what is not wholesome." So in terms of restraint, "I teach the teachings of restraint that is a wholesome restraint, not the restraint that is an unwholesome restraint." "Do you teach non-doing?" "I teach the non-doing of what is unwholesome, but not the non-doing of what is wholesome." "Do you teach that we should always do X?" He says, "No, I teach you should always do X that is wholesome. But you should avoid that which is unwholesome or unskillful." I like to use the words "helpful or unhelpful" or "healthy and not healthy" for this distinction that Buddha makes repeatedly between the wholesome and unwholesome.
When we do wholesome things in a wholesome way – when we do beautiful things in a beautiful way – when we do ethical things in a way that doesn't harm ourselves or harm others, so that is actually nourishing, beneficial – that is how actions can be our refuge.
One of the actions that is emphasized in Buddhism is the action of straight, strong, simple mindfulness – something that I consider synonymous with awareness – to be consciously, lucidly aware of our experience. Mindfulness has a quality – almost always as mindfulness is taught – that it is the awareness, knowing, recognition of what is happening that is not interfering with what is happening. It is allowing each thing to be seen clearly, without us being entangled with it – without being caught in compulsions of desires or aversion, for or against it. One of the synonyms or characteristics of mindfulness is letting things be – just letting things be.
Some people like to talk about a pause, even a sacred pause of mindfulness. We do not hurtle into the future, into the next moment – speeding along, going from one desire to the other, reaching out, doing, being so busy that the mind becomes claustrophobic or spinning, It is hard to notice even what we are doing, because we do, act, and talk even before we know what we are going to say or do. It can feel great that way, because it can feel like we are free to say and do whatever we want. There are no limitations, no frustration.
But in Buddhist language, that is not real freedom. By pausing from the incessant activities of the mind and the incessant activities we do – for a moment provisionally – we see what is happening here and let things be. We have a clear, deep, full way of recognizing that what I am thinking, about to say, about to do, is not really so wise, It is not so healthy, wholesome, skillful, or helpful. "Maybe I could not do it." Or we are sensitive enough to feel and know, "Oh, this is a wholesome thing. This is beneficial. This is nourishing."
Mindfulness practice has it passivity to it – if we are allowed to use that word – of making space, allowing and learning to feel what is moving through us. As we live our lives, when we have to act, then we are informed by a clear understanding of what is wholesome and unwholesome. The sacred pause of mindfulness – the space that we give to know what is here – gives us the opportunity to choose between those two – the sacred choice.
Buddhist practice definitely involves a degree of living a life of choice. Not because we are always busy, having to analyze and figure out, but because we are deeply in touch – feel, sense and connect to ourselves – to recognize what is wholesome and unwholesome, helpful and not helpful, healthy and not healthy.
It becomes easier and easier, more natural and easeful, to go in the direction of health, in the direction of the wholesome, towards that which is nourishing for us. With time, a ball let loose on a hill will roll downhill. Over time, we will keep moving into what is wholesome, because that is what our heart, our inner system wants. That is the directionality, the way it is leaning.
It is not like being busy making these choices all the time, but it is putting us In the place where choice can happen. Sometimes we are making a conscious choice. Sometimes we can feel the wholesomeness within us that is choosing, "This is what is good. This is what is helpful." That becomes our refuge, because we do what is wholesome.
A synonym in Buddhism for "wholesome" is what is "beautiful". Another synonym is the Dharma, what is "dharmic." The word "dharma" in this context means – if you look in the English/Pali dictionaries – the English definition is what is morally good, and what is connected to a good quality, good inner way of being, a goodness to it.
When we choose that – go in the direction of the good, healthy, beautiful – that supports us. That leads to an inner growth of what is healthy and wholesome. It creates conditions that support the best in us to come forward and to live. It creates conditions for discovering greater freedom, peace, love and compassion. It tends to support reciprocity – a way in which the world reciprocates – not automatically or absolutely reciprocates – but the world tends to respond to wholesomeness and goodness with the same. The world becomes more and more of a refuge and a place of goodness for us when we enter the world in that way.
The Buddha said, "Our actions are our refuge." They are so important to pay attention to. As I said, the Buddha was in addition to being a teacher of freedom, a teacher of action. For the Buddha, those two are closely connected. The actions which are wholesome and nourishing are also the ones that lead us to the freedom he was talking about.
We have actions as our refuge as well. One of the deep principles of early Buddhism is to be a caretaker of your actions. Be a carer, a lover of your actions, in the sense that if you really love something you want to do it in the best possible way.
You might consider, for these next 24 hours, how do you recognize how actions – your behavior, what you do? How can they be a refuge, support, protection, a guide for you, a place of insight and deep understanding? You have actions as your refuge. Thank you.