The topic this week has been refuge, one of the most important religious sentiments Buddhists can have. Of course, the word "religion" or "religious" is not in the vocabulary of some people who practice Buddhism. Refuge is associated with a deep feeling, inspiration.
Refuge is the source of inspiration, or the quality of inspiration, that goes in the direction of freedom, of insight, and of aligning, attuning our life with the wholesomeness and freedom we are discovering with the practice. Aligning with a deep sense of knowing and connectivity – intimacy – that comes with doing this practice, like, "Here is a valuable way of living, Here is a valuable place from which to be in the world."
A place that is (I like to use the word) deeper, than what happens to us when we are spinning around on the surface of things – in the stories, ideas and memories, telling ourselves preoccupations and thoughts, based on our desires, fears and animosities. To learn to let go of the spinning mind, the agitated mind, the surface mind that we often live in, and discover that there is a deep mind or deep heart we can come from.
I made that distinction between the wholesome and unwholesome. One way to take refuge in action is we take refuge in the wholesome, we take refuge in doing that which is beneficial. For me, the wholesome feels like, "This comes from our depth." The unwholesome feels like it is skimming the surface of our life and our experience. It involves a surface tension. If that surface tension can relax and we can allow ourselves to come from the depths, then we have something so good, that it is worthwhile being our refuge.
What we discover through meditation practice is represented by the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. When we go for refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, it is a way of saying, "I go to refuge with the inner Buddha, Dharma and Sangha" – that which resonates with these beautiful external refuges.
The Buddha said, "Make a refuge of yourself." He is a kind of saying, "Come here. Don't be looking so outwardly." He used synonymously, "Be a refuge to yourself," by immediately following this with, "Be a refuge in the Dharma." There is something about discovering the Dharma within us. We become the Dharma. Practice is not to make us different than who we are – or to brainwash us in some way – but to free up what is the most profound, deep and meaningful source of support within us – the Dharma.
To discover in some kind of way we are the Dharma, when the surface tensions fall away, and this wholesomeness can come forth. Then take refuge in our actions – to be able to distinguish between wholesome and unwholesome, and move in the direction of the wholesome.
As we do this, the Buddha talks about the two other refuges. The first I would like to mention is the Four Noble Truths. In talking about the Four Noble Truths, I think of them first and foremost as deep insight. We live in a wholesome way. We settle. We settle the surface mind, the tension. We drop down, and find a way to be connected – intimate with this lived experience with a quiet, focused mind. We begin to see more and more clearly what is happening here. With that, we start seeing something of the underlying process.
We see the movement, the process, the unfolding of how our psychological processes and heart-mind move and operate. We see something called the Four Noble Truths, a rich set of concepts with different connotations, different applications, different elaborations at different times. But at the heart of it – one classic way of understanding it – is that we really start seeing deeply how limiting it is to crave, to contract, to be compulsive, to lose our freedom in drivenness in our thoughts, our emotions, our desires, and our aversions. We see that thirsting, which is underneath at all, and see the possibility of letting go.
To see beyond it to the freedom on the other side of it. We are not blinded by it, thinking this is what life is, and freedom is just giving in to all our compulsions. We see on the other side of it, something that is wonderful – a level of peace, happiness and freedom that is possible. It is an insight to see. There are other aspects of this insight. To see this insight, shows us another possibility. Take refuge in that insight, "This is right."
The last refuge the Buddha mentioned is that when we have this deep insight – not necessarily we realize but our heart realizes – the heart is given the space to really settle in, become whole, at ease and relaxed. There is a phenomenal letting go or releasing. It is not something we do, but a releasing, stopping, ending of something. Three things that we say over and over again. Because we say it, and I say it so repeatedly, we may gloss over it or, "Oh yeah, yeah, you know, this is Buddhist stuff." But it really lies at the heart of all unwholesome behavior – it is so significant – that is: greed, hatred and delusion. They get released, let go.
That absence of greed, hate and delusion – that is a refuge. To have experienced that refuge – that protection, that understanding, that value of being without greed, hate and delusion, without these deep unwholesome tendencies – is the most powerful refuge we can have.
At the end of his life, the Buddha said that he had made a refuge of himself. What that means is that he had done the practice all the way to this complete letting go of greed, hatred and delusion. He had done the wholesome things. He had connected to something valuable within, which led him to this deep release. In doing so, he made himself a refuge for himself. He made himself safe for himself and safe from danger.
That is the possibility for us of this practice. When we go for refuge, take this refuge, we are affirming the value of doing this practice. We are affirming the value of following the Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, following the path of what is wholesome. We are affirming the value of this deep, letting go of everything that is unwholesome. And putting ourselves on that path. When we do so, we make ourselves our own refuge.
The further we go on the path, the more we we will create this great inner safety. There is a way in which the greatest danger we have is not external from us. The greatest danger is how we react and respond to what happens to us in this life of ours – the clinging, the attachment, the closing down, the self-criticism, the ways in which we send arrows into our own hearts.
To have made the heart, to have made ourselves safe for ourselves, then there is a place of refuge here, no matter how difficult the world is around us. In here is a profound, abiding refuge that comes with the absence of greed, hatred, and delusion.
Finally, in one translation in the Suttas, it is not quite right that we use the word "saraṇa", "refuge." But there is one translation of the Buddha's teachings where it says the Buddha says, "Make yourself a refuge for others." The literal word that is used as "refuge" here is "safety": "Make yourself safe for others."
This movement then – once we discover the refuge in ourselves, then the opportunity is there that we become someone who is safe for others. That is a wonderful quality. Not enough people in our world, in our society, have the sense of safety. So to let go, and then be able to offer yourself as a refuge, as a support, as a compassionate, caring presence for others.
So refuge. Thank you all for this week.
Just a reminder, that starting Monday, I will be teaching the next week. The teaching will also be part of another program that I am doing for San Francisco Zen Center. We will be joined on YouTube with people from the Zen Center program. I am not quite sure how I will teach next week. It will be basic vipassanā teachings, but I think I will try to shape them in a way that is in harmony with Zen teaching. In fact the name of the program, that I am part of, is called the "Harmony of Zen and Vipassanā." You will get more of that because the following two weeks after that (it is a three week program), the Abbess of Green Gulch Zen Center and former Abbot Paul Haller (Fu Schroeder and Paul Haller) will do the 7am teachings. You will get a whole different flavor of practice for a couple of weeks, which will be quite enlivening I hope. So, thank you all very, very much, and I look forward to our time together on Monday.