The original date for the end of our shelter in place order here in California just passed without notice. We all get it. We’re in this for the long haul. So what does the long haul look like?
For me it feels like a time to slow down, to let up on my lists of things I’d like to accomplish, and to deepen my practice, to take refuge and to take root. Because this is a deep time, a time of insight into our true nature — how we are all interconnected, and what that means for us. Amidst all the illness, separation, confusion and concern, there is a great joy of feeling globally united in a way none of us have experienced in just this way before. None of us knows what will come from this, but then we never knew. Can we find peace in the not knowing? Can we find joy there?
But what is ‘taking refuge’? It sounds like hunkering down under a cozy blanket with a favorite snack and the remote. Nice, but the traditional Buddhist practice of taking refuge is much more comforting, and the comfort lasts longer.
The word refuge means sanctuary, safe haven, sheltered harbor. But the refuge we are talking about is not necessarily a physical place. It is not the retreat center nor our home that is the refuge. Taking refuge is a skillful way of being with whatever arises, wherever we are. It is deepening and clarifying our intention.
When we take refuge we are cultivating an inner sanctuary for our own well being with awareness and compassion. We are nurturing our inner light and then allowing it to radiate out in all directions.
The retreat centers may be closed for the duration of the shelter-in-place orders, but we can still take refuge. Traditionally, at the beginning of a retreat, we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Let’s look at each one of those:
The word buddha means awakened. The historical Buddha was not a god. He made that very clear. But he was, after dedicated meditation practice, ‘awake’, attuned to the nature of being, clear-seeing and present in every moment. So we do not pray to Buddha to use his superpowers to save us. Instead, we look to his teachings for guidance in our meditation practice and illumination of the insights we naturally experience, in order to learn how to live this life more skillfully, without causing ourselves or others suffering. We can take refuge in the inspiring way he cultivated a dedicated meditation practice with intention, patience and perseverance. And we can cultivate an awareness of our own inner wisdom by giving ourselves the time and space to gently quiet our mental chatter enough to listen in to that still, quiet voice within, the one with no urgency, no agenda, no ‘shoulds’ and no judging blame-filled other-making. In this shelter-in-place retreat, we have time to release and listen in.
Dharma means 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 to learn the wisdom of the trees and clouds that teach us of impermanence and interconnection. We take refuge in the dharma to guide us on our path. If we are paying attention we find our teachers everywhere, in every experience. Life keeps revealing the truth, if only we pause to pay attention! At this time many of us have nothing but time to do just that. Taking this time and using it to deepen our practice will benefit us and all beings now and always.
Sangha is the community of practitioners, and by extension people who support us in our practice, even if they are not in this tradition. 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.
Whether we are living alone or with others at this time, we have sangha. Who is supporting you emotionally at this time? That is your sangha, your community of meditators and others who care out of expansive love rather than tight fear.
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.
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 with curiosity and willingness to question. 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.
If you too feel this is a time for deepening, for nourishing your roots to sustain you through any storm, then join me in taking refuge.
‘I take refuge in the Buddha…. I take refuge in the Dharma…. I take refuge in the Sangha.’