At the beginning of a silent Buddhist retreat we ‘take refuge.’ This is a moment of deepening and clarifying our intention, one that we can take any time, whether on retreat or not. The word refuge means sanctuary, safe haven and sheltered harbor. But the refuge we are talking about is not a physical place. It is not the retreat center. The retreat center provides an ideal situation with which to become familiar with our own refuge: our awakening awareness, spaciousness and luminosity, through which our relationship with the world is transformed. So a refuge is not a getaway, not an escape into numbness or zoning out. It is a refuge of finding the space within each moment. Each atom of existence is mostly space. Even the most solid objects are mostly space. Our bodies at the cellular level are mostly space. If we can attune our awareness to the spaciousness of being, we give ourselves room to breathe even in the most challenging situations.
A retreat is not a getaway. There are many challenges on a retreat: Sitting for many hours a day (multiple periods – not all at once!) being in silence, being with our own thoughts all the time, being away from our own entrenched patterns of living including all the distractions we take for granted. And taking refuge is not an escape route, but a way into being fully present with whatever arises.
Traditionally we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Buddha means awakened.
The historical Buddha, the great enlightened teacher who developed a way to help us understand the path to awakening, is an inspiration to us. We take refuge in his example of how cultivating a dedicated meditation practice with intention, patience, perseverance and a willingness to be present with whatever arises leads to awakening fully into the present moment.
Dharma is the teachings or the truth.
There is the dharma passed down over the past 2500 years of Buddhist teachings, and there is the dharma of inquiry and insight from our own experience in life. There is dharma in nature when we stay present with it instead of racing through it. We take refuge in the cultivated and natural wisdom of the dharma to guide us on our path.
Sangha is the community of practitioners.
On a retreat the sangha is the group of fellow retreatants and teachers with whom we silently sit, eat and walk. The sensed support of so many people on a shared personal quest of mindful self-discovery is palpable in the shared silence of the retreat.
We do not have to be on a retreat to take refuge. We can begin our daily meditation practice with this vow. ‘I take refuge in the Buddha…. I take refuge in the Dharma…. I take refuge in the Sangha.’ After saying each part of this vow, really sense in to the meaning of what you are saying. I have added visual pauses to remind you to do so. Although it would be grammatically correct to shorten the three sentences into one, saying ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha,’ it would undermine the fullness of intention.
Taking refuge is a skillful way to center in and establish the space for our intention to be present and compassionate. It’s like setting the table for dinner, clearing away the newspapers or the children’s homework and dedicating the table for the purpose of a meal, giving the meal our full and present attention.
Taking refuge is not hiding out from life, but acknowledging our need for centering and balance in order to be fully present for whatever arises. Think of the word refuge and see what comes to mind for you.
In my life there have been times when taking refuge was snuggling up in bed with a favorite comfort food and a stack of novels in which to lose myself. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a novel, being cozy, or eating a favorite food, but believing ‘losing myself’ is the antidote for whatever overwhelming causes and conditions there are in my life is flawed thinking and unskillful. Overwork is not balanced by over-indulgence. Mindfulness brings about skillfulness and balance so that we don’t push ourselves beyond what is possible. We can claim rest as a natural part of our skillful work experience. We can recognize our physical and emotional needs as they arise and assure that we are not pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion or the need to hide out and get away from the world.
If we are very out of balance and unaware of our connection to all that is, we can misunderstand taking refuge. Like a plant trying to root in rocky soil, we can mistake a rock for solid ground. We can wrap our roots around the rock, holding on tight, believing ourselves to be stable.
When we take refuge in the Buddha in this unskillful way:
We might mistake the historical Buddha for a god and dedicate ourselves to holding him up to the light so that we are in the shadow of this Buddha figure we have created and thus receive no direct light ourselves. We cannot flourish and grow to the fullness of being with no light and such a shallow anchor. We are in a state of disconnection and duality, where the Buddha is a god and we are nothing. However much this confirms our core beliefs and however much it resonates, we must explore our need to separate ourselves from the flow of life, to hold ourselves in the shadow instead of the light, to cling to a rock instead of rooting in the rich soil of life.
When we take refuge in the Dharma in this unskillful way:
We can get stuck in the words delivered. We can become fundamentalist in our protection of them, turning them into dogma without experiencing them for ourselves, questioning and testing the truth in our own lives as the Buddha instructed. The teachings remind us again and again that they are the finger pointing at the moon, and that we must not get fixated on the finger but look to the moon itself.
I recently had a practitioner (not a student of mine) bristle at my exploration of the Eightfold Path using the word ‘spacious’ to see how it enhanced our understanding of the concepts presented. She went to her teacher to see if this was all right. He said that although it was not the literal translation, he could see that the word ‘spacious’ could help to alleviate over-efforting which is a real problem with many meditation students. But she could not see it. She felt threatened by it. She felt it was crucially important to adhere exactly to the words as they have been handed down and translated. I assured her that in my first go round I taught the Eightfold Path in the regular way, but that this was another exploration with advanced students.
She brought up how important adherence to the rules is in the practice of the piano or dance. I was so glad she brought those up because at some point after you have done the necessary exercises to learn these skills, you need to open to the flow of the music and connect in a deeper way, allowing yourself to be a full expression of the instrument you have created through your dedicated practice. She totally disagreed with this. She stayed entrenched in her view and nothing I could say or her teacher could say, would shake her tight hold on her understanding.
We all have places where we get tight and it’s good to notice and to explore why it is so important to us, why we feel so threatened. Clues to holding tight are when we shake with emotion or our voice becomes strident. There may be a shift from authentic expression to rote proselytizing that turns off those we address. We can’t listen to words from those whose views differ from ours without fuming with anger. What an opportunity to see the volcanoes in our own inner landscape! When we find ourselves erupting, what an opportunity to center in, to be present, to question and to notice the associative images, memories and fears that arise with the lava of our emotions. This is not to talk ourselves out of anything, it is simply to notice the workings of the human mind, in this case our mind. Fascinating! And potentially enlightening. This exploration is like sending new roots down into the rich soil that is ever available to us. Doing so allows us to find the richness of the dharma rather than the tightness of dogma.
And finally, when we take refuge in the Sangha in this shallowly-rooted unskillful way:
We believe that the small group of people with whom we sit is the key to any success we have with meditation. We think of the sangha as a particular set of people, and when there is a change in the group we experience it as a loss or intrusion.
When I used to do the Dances of Universal Peace, I was always amazed at how at the beginning of the dancing, when we would stand in a circle and hold hands, I would always end up next to the person I felt most uncomfortable with, the person I might have even dreaded because their personality felt so abrasive or discordant in some way. Over the years of dancing I began to expect this to happen, and to know that by the end of the dances somehow that apprehension or distaste would completely dissolve, as we all settled in to our deeper truer selves where we are all one, beyond the seeming differences in our personalities. I noticed that often the very person who I dreaded turned out to be the one that somehow brought the greatest gift to my experience.
The Dances of Universal Peace are associated with Sufism. In Buddhism this experience might be called an example of the dragon at the gate. When we come upon a strong aversion that blocks the way to fully engaging in a life-enhancing experience, we can see it as the dragon at the gate of our spiritual temple. Are we put off by its fire-breathing roar? Do we run away defeated? Do we keep our eyes on the door and ignore the dragon? Do we get in a battle with the dragon? Or do we recognize the dragon for what it is, as Buddha recognized all of Mara’s taunts and temptations as kindred illusion, known and non-threatening.
And so it is in the sangha. At first we are relating only to personalities, dredging up associative memories that validate our judgments about someone we don’t know or have barely begun to know. This can easily happen on a retreat. With so much time on our hands, it is easy to observe a particular person or group of persons and have a running commentary of judgments. Perhaps they are not fully partaking in the retreat, sleeping in instead of meditating, for example. They take on significance for us and we can’t help but somehow feel threatened by their unwillingness to take the retreat as seriously as we are. So we can get fundamentalist about what it means to be a sangha and see how people are falling down on the job. Conversely we can underestimate the power of the sangha and not take it seriously enough, not understand that our behavior, our honoring the vows we have taken may result in behavior that can undermine and even unravel the well being of the sangha.
So, continuing with this plant analogy, when we root in nourishing soil where our roots are free to grow as needed, and we don’t mistake a rock as solid ground, we flourish and we are stable in our understanding. Like plants whose root systems are nourished and unimpeded, we can grow to the fullness of our nature.
When we take refuge in the Buddha we honor the historical Buddha for his teachings and his great inspiration that reminds us again and again to open to our own Buddha nature, our own capacity for awakening in any moment.
When we take refuge in the Dharma, we value the concepts we study for the structure and insight they provide us. We see the wisdom and we learn from our own experience, from our observations of nature and from the rich sharing of others.
When we take refuge in the Sangha, we value to community of practitioners for our shared commitment, but our awareness of the sangha-nature of all beings grows through our practice.
So taking refuge is a deepening on all levels. It is not an escape route but an intention to live from our Buddha nature. It is not a vow to believe whatever we are taught but to open to the dharma through the wisdom teachings, through observing nature and through direct experience and insight, always with curiosity and willingness to question our own truths and those presented. And it is not a vow to dwell in peaceful delight with a particular group of people, but to recognize and honor the deep abiding buddha nature in all beings.