Category Archives: sangha

The skin-deep divide

brownbodywhitesangha

Illustration by Loveis Wise

I read an article in Tricycle, titled ‘Brown Body, White Sangha’ by Atia Sattar, a woman of color who found it difficult to be part of an otherwise all white sangha. This was not because people were unfriendly, but because it didn’t address her deepest concerns.

She gave the example of being led through the first aspect of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness where the instruction is to look at 32 body parts and recognize that they are basically nothing special. She had no problem with that. But when it came to skin, she discovered all sorts of negative emotions arising around the color of her skin, compounded by memories of experiences with white people who reacted to her skin color in one way or another. When the teacher had the students move along to the next body part, she found herself unable to do so. Something had opened in her that needed more exploration.

Often in our inner explorations we discover things that call for a deeper look, beyond what the teacher is offering. The teacher has given a spark that can quicken into individual discoveries of great value. But sometimes in that exploration we feel the need of a community of people who have experienced what we are going through to help us. In her case, she felt quite alone among the other students for whom skin was ‘just skin’.

Or not. For me skin was never just skin because it’s an organ that for the first few decades of my life was in a state of torment. At one point, I was almost hospitalized because my skin was an open wound from head to toe. The other kids would say ‘Ew, that’s disgusting’. I never wore sandals, and wore knuckle-length sleeves and gloves whenever possible. In adulthood the skin calmed down, and through meditative practice, I found ways to befriend even the body parts that most bothered me. We all have them, and mostly we suffer alone. Even our closest friends might not be aware of the shame we feel around some body part. I remember a friend confessing the embarrassment she felt because of her sweaty palms, and how she dreaded having to shake hands with anyone. I had no idea. It expanded my compassion not just for her, but for all of us who live with such a sense of isolation in our shame.

Buddhist teachings do give us a way to come into skillful relationship with what we are feeling. Sending lovingkindness, for example, is very skillful. I remember one time I did a gratitude mandala for my feet, which I had always hated. It freed me from a great burden. The meditative practice of thanking body parts for all that they do for us is very helpful.

But feeling ashamed of a body part, and feeling isolated because of it, is not the same as feeling institutionally and socially excluded, called out or even threatened because of an aspect of our physical appearance. It’s not the same as having dreams limited by the fear-based prejudices of those who hold the keys to education, employment and housing opportunities. As a world community of human beings, we need to recognize prejudice in ourselves and our cultures, and work to assure that there is equal access regardless of pigmentation or any other factor.

Another challenge for the article’s author is that some people in the sangha welcomed her, not just as a person, but as a representative of her ‘race’. I have noticed the eagerness with which the predominantly white community of practitioners in the Western Buddhist community greets people of color. In fact, when I first started attending a regular weekly class at Spirit Rock in the early 1990’s, at one point the teacher asked to talk to me after class. My thoughts became a jumble of questions. Was there some offense I had committed for which she would scold me? Or some positive thing I had done for which she would praise me? But none of those thoughts prepared me for the actual conversation: She said she heard I was married to a black man and asked if there any way I could get him to attend class? So her interest in me wasn’t even about me at all. I was just a means to expand the ethnic makeup of her class and Spirit Rock.

More recently I have noticed that in the weekly women’s group I teach, when much younger women attend, members of the group may excitedly treat them not just as fellow humans but as representatives of their age group. This can be very off-putting and make the person feel they don’t belong there, even when they are greeted with such warmth. I have gently brought this to their attention and they recognized right away the truth of it. 

Does this ring any bells for you? Have you approached a person of a different age or ethnicity as if they were an ambassador from another world rather than as a complex person you might like to get to know just for themselves? Do you expect a person of a different gender or sexual orientation to speak for a larger group? It’s interesting to notice our assumptions, and instead of beating ourselves up, to set the intention to be more aware in the future of that pattern.

Even as the author is discomforted by being singled out for her skin color, she also complains of white people being ‘color blind’. Now that might be confusing. But the core of it is the request for all of who we are to be included and seen. Can we welcome all of a person without either denying or singling out any aspect? Can we notice our own filters and assumptions? This is an interesting area to explore.

I have on many occasions been the only Euro-American person at large African-American family gatherings. Those that know me, know my place in the family, love me as me, and have never once made reference to my pale complexion. (If they make comments about my body, it usually has to do with whether I’ve lost or gained weight! Ugh!)

At the occasional larger gathering like a funeral or a milestone birthday celebration, I have felt guests beyond the family looking askance at me, as if I am some unnatural intruder on the sanctity of their communal experience. If I had been a coworker attending an occasion as just part of the crowd, I might be ignored but not given the once-over. But because I seemed to be an intrinsic part of the family clearly made some people uncomfortable. ‘What’s that white woman doing sitting up in the front row by the casket?’

While I have certainly never been called out or threatened, I have felt at least initial discomfort. Over the years, in younger generations, the family has incorporated a few other pale spouses. I have met them but confess I haven’t gotten to know them. Time is so short at these events and I value catching up with the family members I’ve known and loved for the past fifty years, and the children who’ve grown up with me as their auntie. I feel quite blessed.

So when the author writes of white people being ‘color blind’ naturally I have to think a little deeper, because I appreciate it when my family doesn’t make a point of noticing my pale skin. But there’s more to the color-blindness she’s talking about. Perhaps the color-blindness is not trusted as true. People of color do not want to be seen as white! As if that’s a big gift of acceptance rather than an erasure of a valued ethnic heritage and inherent beauty. But none of us wants one aspect of ourselves to be the only thing people see, the thing they react to, rather than embracing the wholeness of who we are.

The author brings up how, in explorations of racism in Buddhist classes she has attended, it was taught as if all attending students were white. All the information was about developing awareness of white privilege. While this is important learning for many, it wasn’t what she needed. She needed help dealing with all the inner torment of her accumulated experiences and tangled patterns of thought and emotion. So she found a sangha where the people looked more like her, and where the teachers of color actively dealt with the kinds of challenges she was facing.

This is the kind of self-segregation that happens in the American Buddhist community because we are dealing with such deep discoveries within ourselves, and we need guidance that recognizes it.

I teach a women’s group. When I guest teach in mixed-gender groups, I am always asked by male students why I don’t accept men in the group. ‘That’s sexist’, they say. I explain that when the group started out it was open to all, but only women showed up, and the women kept asking me to make it ‘women-only’. After a few years, I finally began to see the value of taking the Buddha’s teachings and directing them to the specific challenges we as women face. I also noticed that women among men feel less free to share their deepest concerns, and at times defer to men who may dominate the group.

When I first started attending retreats, I could only bring myself to attend ones for women only. But eventually I was able to attend mixed retreats without problem, and in fact came to appreciate having males present at their deepest and most vulnerable.

Retreats designed for self-defining groups of people are a way to address the specific challenges that come with a particular identity. But I hope that all who attend and who develop a regular and ongoing practice of meditation, will eventually feel safe, heard and a part of the larger sangha of all practitioners, both on retreats and in classes. If not, I fear for all of our futures, divided and subdivided to a point of total separation — in our sanghas and in the world.

From a scientific and Buddhist perspective all these differences are minimal in the grand scheme of things. All life is an ever arising and falling away of patterns of being in a glorious array of amalgamations of wondrous nature. Can we celebrate the beauty of all life instead of entangling ourselves in the miasma of misery our fears stir up, churned by powers that want to divide and conquer? Let’s try!

Opening Our Sangha

This week, the students present had never heard this dharma talk: http://stefnoble.blogspot.com/2009/08/freedom-from-believing-we-are-our_05.html
so I shared it with them and we discussed that moment when we have a choice to stay free from getting caught up in a thought or grab at its seemingly attractive lure.

We also followed up on the nature of sangha. One of the challenges of our class is that we meet in a private home and therefore operate by word of mouth rather than being able to list the meeting in the local paper. This makes the sangha seem more private than most. The Buddha taught outside where anyone could join in, so the true nature of sangha is very open. We are exploring the possibility of finding a public meeting place that still has the quiet private quality of meeting in a home. If you have any suggestions for a free or low-cost meeting place in Central Marin County, CA, please let me know.

And of course those of you reading this who live in the area, know that you are welcome. Contact me if you would like to join us Thursday mornings at 10 AM. The value of attending a class rather than reading a post is beyond measure. Our top priority in class is learning to meditate or refine our meditation experience. Each week as I lead the meditation, I am introducing new aspects to the mix, so that students are really learning how to sense in to their experience of being present, how to notice and release tension that arises, and how to hold whatever arises with ease and spaciousness. This experiential aspect of the class cannot be shared in the blog, and neither can the benefits of sangha. So if you are in the area and are able to come, please do!

What Makes an Effective Sangha Discussion?

Last week we talked about the importance of sangha, our community of meditation practitioners, for keeping us on track with our own practice. But a sangha can support us in other ways as well. When we are going through something that is challenging, a sangha can provide insight and metta (loving kindness.)

While it is the dharma teacher’s role to set the tone for a sangha discussion, if there is one, participants benefit by knowing how to contribute in a meaningful way.

A sangha discussion is not a typical support group where members share details of a personal situation. And we are not offering up problems for committee solution. Responding directly to a sangha member’s sharing with direct suggestions or recommendations is best left for after the meeting, if offered at all.

For the most part, a sangha discussion is about staying present with the energy in the circle, listening with compassion, and noticing the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that arise when a challenging situation is going on.

In general terms, a sangha member may share the nature of his or her experience — a loss, a challenge in a relationship, physical pain or disability, etc. — but is encouraged to stay present with the residual effects of the experience in this moment: How it feels right now, without needing to fill in all the juicy details of their story. This is not paving over or avoiding anything, but really sensing in to the experience in a way that may feel very different from our ordinary patterns of reacting to situations, emotions and thoughts. The personal becomes universal, so that regardless of the situation, the causes and conditions, sangha members can recognize the feeling described.

You may hear dharma teachers instructing students to not ‘get caught up in the story.’ This word ‘story’ can be misunderstood, as if the teacher is saying what is being shared is not true. The teller may bristle because he or she sees it as telling the honest truth of the situation, and that the details, or ‘facts’ are important. We are brought up to believe that facts are the most important aspect of any situation.

But, in fact ;-), for the purpose of exploring dharma (truth/Buddhist teachings) the details of any situation take the teller and the listeners into a very shallow, reactive place, from which they cannot learn or respond usefully. For example, if the listeners hear ‘mother-in-law,’ it is quite natural for the word to evoke a personal set of experiences that activate emotions and thoughts in them. This becomes a short hand for common human experience and though they can in some instances be useful, these kinds of details can short circuit the possibility of real connection and understanding by taking us away from the direct experience.

Deep insight and connection come from pausing to notice the physical sensations that arise when a concern comes to mind, so the value of the sharing is much greater when a sangha member compassionately explores what is present in their experience of this moment, not by relating all the details of what happened two days, weeks or years ago to the group.

The teacher might prompt, ‘Where do you feel it in your body when you think of this situation?’ or encourage the student to notice the emotion that is present and find where in the body that emotion is felt. This is something we can do on our own as well, whether in a sangha discussion or not. Anchoring into sensation we bring ourselves fully into the present moment, the only place where we have power to access what is really going on, the only place where we can take action, if any action is needed.

This skillful sharing of current experience — which includes noting a memory or future thought passing through with all its emotional content — inspires the group members to stay present in their own experience as well. It grounds the sharing in a deep space of compassion, and it makes it possible for all to benefit. The sharer feels supported and safe to explore the experience of sitting with thoughts and emotions that are uncomfortable.

Compare this to how we feel when we have ‘spilled our guts’ out to a group. We may feel we have been gossiping, because it’s rare that our stories don’t include other people, people that we care about deeply, but whom we have represented to this group only by their particular actions in this case. The unfairness of this shallow representation can make us feel badly, compounding our already complex set of emotions rather than freeing us from them. So the sharer may feel worse for the sharing.

And the listener? How useful are other people’s stories? Sometimes they make us feel better about our own situation, and we are thankful that is not happening to us. This puts us into comparing mind. Some fearful part of ourselves wants to differentiate ourselves from the teller, assuring ourselves that that would never happen to us, or we think for us it would be different in some way for some reason. Just as likely, the hearing of a story puts us back in time, jerking us out of the present moment, to relive a similar experience. Or it puts us in fear of the future, knowing that it is very likely that we will at sometime be in that same situation and we dread it.

Please remember that we are not insulating ourselves from other people’s problems. We have family and friends whom we know well, and with whom we share an intimacy that is quite different from a practicing sangha. A sangha is not built on the intimate sharing of stories or a history together. A sangha can be a gathering of people we barely know, or a mix of new and old members and of experienced and beginner practitioners. While friendships can certainly develop within the sangha, the sangha itself cannot be dependent on these friendships or it becomes stale and loses its purpose. A closed or exclusive sangha has lost its way.

The purpose of the sangha is at all times to inspire skillful practice for staying present, and for fostering kindness, compassion, connection, balance and ease.

But wait a minute, many dharma teachers, including myself, do share personal stories. The Buddha told many stories. Stories are important! Yes, a story that illustrates a point of dharma is valuable. A teacher who shares an experience has chosen that experience for that very reason. Hopefully the story will be told in a way that inspires rather than sets up an emotional chain reaction that takes everyone out of the moment.

Of course, dharma teachers are human and may miss the mark with a story, but inspiration is the intent. Experienced dharma students and meditation practitioners may contribute in this way as well, making for a rich discussion that deepens dharma understanding.

Notice when a discussion is over if you feel inspired, deepened, more spacious, enlightened, or if you feel dragged through the muck! This would be a clue that the dharma teacher is not giving sufficient instruction for sharing, or is treating a dharma circle like a therapy group. (Often dharma teachers are trained therapists as well, but they usually understand the distinction between the two roles.)

Of course, not all sanghas gatherings have discussion periods. Many are focused on a teacher giving a formal talk with time afterwards for questions to clarify understanding of the talk. The larger the sangha, the more likely this is to be the case. When you join a class, it is important to notice how the class is set up. If a teacher wants to create a discussion group, he or she will invite comments and sharing. If no invitation is forthcoming, a student can assume that silence is kindly requested so that the teacher may follow his or her train of thought of an often carefully planned dharma talk. Many times the question the student may have will be answered further along in the talk, so it is simply a matter of being patient. If the question is not answered, then when the teacher is finished, questions may be invited. If not, the question can be posed one on one after the class ends.

When there is a discussion circle, participants can all contribute to the conversation by really listening to each other, staying open to the nature of the topic being discussed, and by being present and noting what arises in their experience of this moment. We may notice our own striving to be heard, to be seen in a favorable light. It’s interesting to notice the fear that prompts this need — a fear of disappearing, of not being valued. This is a shared human fear. Being compassionate with ourselves when we recognize it allows us to appreciate simply sitting in sangha in silence, until what we have to share seems to be called forth by the weaving of the dharma we are learning together.
It enables us also to have great compassion for those in the sangha who, spawned by that same fear, may talk more than seems skillful. Wise Speech is one of the most challenging aspects of the Eightfold Path. That’s why being on retreat in blissful silence can feel so restful!

When we are participating in a sangha discussion, may we stay present, sensing in to physical sensation at all times. May we recognize the past and the future as wisps of thought and waves of emotion arising in this moment. May we share this sense of presence with our sangha, for the benefit of all beings.

The Importance of Sangha

The Sangha is the community of Buddhist meditation practitioners who support us in our practice simply by being present and true to their own practice.

While I was in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico this visit I was fortunate to find a meditation sangha that felt like coming home to me. This was a great gift and a boon to my practice. Although I have my meditation spot in our house in San Miguel — and although I know full well all the benefits of regular practice to my health, happiness and creativity — it is still surprisingly easy to to shorten a sit, to skip a sit when I wake up late, as I might when in a different country, on a different schedule, and not replace it with one later in the day. When I am away from my sangha, my community of practitioners in the US, it is much easier to lose my dedication to meditation.

When I returned home to the US after a month away, and met with my students, of course I wanted to know how they did with their personal practice. What most found was that without the regular weekly gathering of sangha, their personal practice either fell by the wayside or became sporadic. Some felt discouraged by this, but really it’s just a reminder of the importance of sangha.

When we practice Buddhism, we take refuge in the Buddha, that inspiration of the possibility of awakening in any moment. We take refuge in the Dharma, the teachings of the historical Buddha that provide guidance and insight into how we cause suffering and how to end suffering. Third, and no less important, we take refuge in the Sangha, the community of practitioners who remind us by their very presence and their own personal dedication, of the importance of the practice and the value of what we are doing.


We can remind ourselves that the Buddha had a sangha. He practiced with a group of ascetics for six years before sitting under the Boddhi tree and reaching enlightenment. And after reaching enlightenment he returned to his sangha, taught them what he had learned, traveled with them and built sangha wherever they went. The Buddha was not a hermit. He had a community of fellow practitioners.

When we go on a silent retreat, we may at first feel that we are alone, because we are in silence and have no eye contact. We do an inward turning, noticing the nature of our sensory experience. But soon we become aware that even though our fellow retreatants are focused also on their inward experience, together we are supporting each other in this practice. That is the nature of sangha. At the deepest level we recognize the unity of our experience, honor the shared dedication and are inspired to continue our practice.


So there is no shame in not being able to sustain a practice on our own. Feeling bad about it simply causes suffering. Instead we are reminded of the importance of sangha. Let’s create sangha wherever we go! Let’s acknowledge our sangha, be able to recognize extended sangha and be sangha for others whenever possible.

There is no substitute for a sitting group coming together on a regular basis. Fortunately there are many available. You can find sitting groups in Inquiring Mind magazine, for example.

It is also important to remember that the value of the sangha continues even when the teacher is absent. The last time I was away for an extended period, my class organized to meet at each other’s homes for the duration, reading and discussing a Buddhist book together. It worked out very well, and their personal practices were for the most part sustained.

When I was away this time however, because others in the group were traveling as well and it was only for five weeks, not eight, the plan to get together never gelled, and so each student was on her own to continue the practice.

Sangha is important! It’s not a crutch! It’s the nature of our way of being in the world. We are social creatures. We are like redwoods whose network of roots support each other close to the surface of the forest floor. Remember John Donne’s poem: “No man is an island.” None of us stands alone. We are communal creatures. We are connected.

Who are the members of your sangha? How often do you get together with your sangha? If you are struggling with your personal practice, perhaps it’s for lack of a regular sangha. Take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. All three work together to support us in our practice and to help end suffering for ourselves and all beings.

Taking Refuge, Taking Responsibility

Two weeks ago we talked about taking refuge and how refuge is not a place to escape to but a relationship, a way of being supported by the inspiration of the Buddha and the discovery of our own Buddha nature; supported by the dharma, both the teachings and the wisdom we find in nature; and supported by the sangha, the community of meditation practitioners who too are taking refuge in this way.

Last week in class I was asked to talk more about what the sangha is. Simply put it is the group of people who share the intention to be present and compassionate. A sangha is not like a group of friends. If someone cries the sangha holds the space for that person to fully experience their feelings without anyone rushing in to comfort them, make it better or make it go away. Instead the person feels the sangha’s complete acceptance of their tears. They really get it that there is room for all of who they are and all of what they feel in the web of support the sangha provides. On a retreat after a few days of sitting in silence you might begin to hear sobbing. This is not because the retreatant is having a miserable time but because they feel the emotional release of sitting in silence and they feel the support of the sangha to help them face whatever they are dealing with in their thoughts and emotions. They can spend time safely coming face to face with the thing that all the distractions in their lives have kept them from facing. It is a very rich sharing when someone breaks down and cries, especially when a man does, as that is so discouraged in our culture. The sangha honors and supports the deep practice of each member, so when we take refuge in it, we feel held but not coddled, interconnected but not necessarily interactive.

When we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, if we recognize that it is a relationship instead of an escape then we understand that, like any relationship, there is not just refuge but responsibility, if that relationship is going to thrive.

So, we take responsibility for our relationship with our Buddha nature, vowing to nurture and honor it.

We take responsibility for our relationship with the Dharma, vowing to honor the teachings and not manipulate them for our own agenda. And we take responsibility for holding all dharma up to the light of inquiry, not accepting everything we hear or what we have come to believe without question.

We take responsibility for our relationship with the Sangha, vowing to support our sangha sibling in their practice and to honor their privacy by not sharing what they have disclosed in our circle with others. Thus we develop a practice of trustworthiness that is valuable in all our relationships.

Let’s explore this word ‘responsibility’ a little more. Taking responsibility in life sounds straightforward, but it’s amazing how quickly we get out of balance, taking too much responsibility or taking too little and not knowing how we got so turned around.
First we need to let go of the idea that all the responsibility lies elsewhere, that we are hapless flotsam being tossed about on a sea of causes and conditions. We need to recognize that on this sea of causes and conditions we have a boat and we have a sail, oars, a motor, a rudder, a bucket, a compass and more. These are not things that can fall overboard, but they are things we may not realize we have on board. So part of our practice is to recognize all the means we have to cope with whatever causes and conditions arise. This recognition helps us to take responsibility for our own happiness and our own well being.

Circumstances exist. It’s no use to pretend they don’t. Yes, we have a boat but nothing on the boat will change the weather. We have the means to change our relationship to the weather, to the storm, to the choppy waves, to whatever arises.

We are born into a life with certain circumstances, rarely ideal, and even when ideal, we learn that life can change on a dime. Plans we made may no longer be viable due a change in conditions. Taking responsibility includes acknowledging the truth of the situation and the ramifications that arise, just as the sea goes from calm to full of white caps to a raging storm. Then the storm quiets down and the sun comes out and we’re still here.

What if the circumstances in our life seem to preclude the possibility of our living the life we want to live? We have the means to explore this assumption. We have inquiry: Is this true? How do I know this is true?

We have noticing: We see not just the circumstances but our own set of skills, connections, strength and patience. Taking responsibility for our own life experience doesn’t mean forging ahead without regard to conditions. It means working with all that is arising in this moment. Being able to release our attachment to the way we planned to go. Exploring work-arounds to see what really is possible is one way of taking responsibility. So is letting go of our addiction to living in the future, some distant destination always beyond the horizon, and finding joy right here, right now.

We have self awareness: If we feel like a big ship, weighted down with a lot of freight, what’s that about? If making a decision to deal with changing conditions is wrought with difficulty, perhaps we are carrying around too much weight in the form of stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world. Can we develop the flexibility of a small boat?

And we have compassion: Our boat can rock, but we can experience it as a cradle, being held in the supportive web of life. And we can see that we are not alone on these seas, and we can share compassion and feel compassion from others in our midst.

Through the practice of compassion, self-awareness, noticing and inquiry we create for ourselves a small sea-worthy vessel. We are able to navigate our way through causes and conditions. Our practice of meditation gives us the clarity to see through the fog and the storms.

If it doesn’t feel that way, if that sounds like wishful thinking, let’s explore why. Are we at the helm of our vessel? Or do we imagine someone else in charge? And if so who? Why do we believe that to be true? The actions of others do have an impact on us, but if they are crashing into us, then that action is just another cause and condition to be weathered.

Here’s a traditional boat story that is appropriate here:

A man is rowing his own boat, minding his own business, and he sees another boat coming toward him. It’s foggy and he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and his future thinking of all the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Well now he’s really angry! This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and sets back to rowing his boat.

So what does that story tell us? Why do we respond so differently to causes and conditions when we think another person’s volition is involved? Why do we let the actions of another so throw us off course? We can see how we do this in our lives. How angry we get at other drivers on the road if we think we have been disrespected. If we realize that these unskillful actions we see on the road and elsewhere in life are the result of mindlessness – that the person is absent from this moment, their mind somewhere else – then how is that really different from an empty boat? Scary to think about how many empty boats are floating about, but when we understand that to be the case, we can take responsibility to be really present and mindful, to be able to navigate these added conditions.

Now, back to who is at the helm of our own vessel. If we see someone else at the helm, then we are not in touch with our own Buddha nature. We are perhaps reacting out of emotional longing for safety, but it actually makes us less safe. Putting someone else at the helm of our own boat is making ourselves captive rather than captain. Coming into the relationship with our Buddha nature allows us to take the helm of our own lives. Our Buddha nature is our refuge and it’s our responsibility to awaken and cultivate our relationship with this deep, connected inner wisdom that is our birth right.

If our vessel feels unstable, as if it will turn over in a big wave, then we need to add ballast in the form of meditation practice. If we are already doing a regular practice, perhaps a refinement in our understanding of what meditation practice means is in order. Perhaps our practice is taking us off into dreamland or spacy-ness instead of into a deep and abiding awareness of the present moment. This ability to stay with physical sensation – the breath, for example – is not a journey to lofty heights of forgetting where we are, but a door into the fullness of each moment, replete with gratitude for this gift of life in all its variations, the ability to feel connection to all of life as it is. This adds ballast that keeps our vessel steady. Fantasy is lovely but has no staying power. And we can’t navigate our vessel from up in the clouds.

We set our intention to be present and compassionate and we let that intention guide us like a rudder through the challenging waters of our meditation and our life. That is taking responsibility.

Sometimes we may find we are trying to navigate someone else’s vessel. As parents our children’s smaller vessels are tied to ours. The other day we were walking along the shore in Tiburon and saw a motor boat pulling nine little dinghies in a row. It was like a mother duck being followed by her ducklings. A great image! But at some point our children are ready to take charge of their own vessels, and we rejoice in their independence.

As adults with no dependent children, we need to acknowledge that we have responsibility for only one vessel: our own. Whether we are married or not, our vessel is our vessel, no one else’s. And our spouse’s is not ours to steer, no matter how closely we travel together. So this is a very important thing to notice about how we are taking responsibility in our lives. Where are we out of balance? It’s quite common to take too little responsibility for our own vessel, possibly not even recognizing that we have a vessel, and/or too much responsibility for steering the vessels of others.

This vessel analogy has some similarity with the analogy of accepting our seat at the table and having table manners. Work with whichever one feels most compelling for you.

We might say this is a boundaries issue, and it certainly is. But notice that when we talk about vessels, it becomes quite clear where the boundaries are. We don’t want to fall into the water as we lean over to steer another’s boat!

But what if someone we care about is steering their vessel into harm’s way? Are they going the ‘wrong’ way or just not our way? That’s an important question to ask ourselves. Most times we see they are headed for stormy or choppy waters and we want to keep them in calm seas. But learning to navigate in all conditions is part of developing a sea worthy vessel in life. Certainly sailor to sailor conversations are useful, but there are strict rules at sea about asking permission to come aboard. Remember that the only ones that board another’s ship without permission are pirates! Is that the role we want to play in the lives of those we care about? Of course not! And while we’re on board, who’s minding the tiller of our own vessel?

So we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and we take responsibility for our relationship with these three refuges as well. Whether we feel adrift, becalmed or about to be engulfed in a big wave, we have the means to navigate all the causes and conditions of our lives.

Taking Refuge, Taking Root

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.

The Lasting Value of a Meditation Retreat

Last week we talked about the Three Refuges, ‘The Triple Gem’ of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, or as Rick Hanson in his book Buddha’s Brain calls them: teacher, truth and community. I shared how on a Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the gathered retreatants ‘take refuge’ formally by repeating a call and response chant the first evening before going into silence for the course of the retreat.

On a retreat this sense of refuge is palpable. Physically we are in a land apart from the hustle and bustle of normal life. No crowded noisy streets, no driving, no television, no telephone, no radio, no computers, no music except perhaps some evening chanting. No shopping. No reading. No writing. Just our own bubble of experience within the calm of a community in silence.

We are on retreat not just from busy-ness of our regular lives but from social interaction as well. We neither speak nor have eye contact with one another. We don’t need to think of the right thing to say or smile at someone.

There are many courtesies within this silence, but they are done synchronistically, needing no involved interaction. The only exception is during some yogi jobs that require teamwork and during short group meetings with a teacher, just to check in and see how we are doing. There are yogi jobs that require no interaction, and most teachers will respect your silence if you wish to maintain it in meeting, as long as they can sense you are okay.

This silent spaciousness to simply be can feel lovely or scary at various times throughout the retreat. Non-interaction is especially freeing for those who are compulsive talkers and interactors. Sometimes it’s a difficult adjustment, but mostly it is a deep and rich release, all the more profound for the contrast.

While silence does not free us from any interior turmoil that might arise, it does give us a lot of space in which to notice it. It’s similar to the way the refrigerator’s hum is hardly noticeable during the day, but in the middle of the night its sound is amplified. On retreat there is a lot of time to sit and walk with whatever arises, and a lot of support to stay with the experience, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.

Usually by the end of a retreat the mind is clearer, the heart is softer, and the body is healthier. Having taken refuge in this safe environment that demands so little of us except to sit, eat, walk and do a yogi job for less than an hour a day, we settle in to ourselves and gain greater insight into the nature of our existence in this body at this time.

Most likely, having had a powerful positive experience on retreat, we set our intention to carry that clarity of mind and openness of heart out into the world, to give ourselves sufficient time to really meditate, to eat slowly with great appreciation for all who contributed to the meal from the sunshine and seeds to the cashier at the market to the cook, and to walk in nature at a pace we can really see, hear, smell and feel connected to the natural world.

We set these intentions and maybe to a certain degree we can keep them. We might come home and establish a more consistent meditation practice if we didn’t already have one, or renew our dedication to our existing practice, having seen how valuable it is. And at least for a while hopefully we are able to carry over some of that deep rich interaction with the world around us that we had on the retreat.

But it would be most unusual to be able to sustain that deep inner calm and clarity for very long. Out in the world, back in the fray, we find ourselves mindlessly munching, chatting away on our cell phone, watching something we don’t care about on television, and walking or running right by the trees and the lizards who whispered all their secrets to us on retreat. Chances are we barely notice the song of the birds or the sound of the water, or even the feel of the ground under our feet.

So what was the point of going on a retreat? Was it just an escape with no sustained value?

For most of us the lasting value of the retreat is learning that we do indeed have the capacity to be present. If we have never been on retreat and if we find meditation challenging, then this inner discovery is crucial. Even though we may not be present in every moment of our lives, we now know that we can be present. We know what being present feels like. We have learned what elements help us to be present and on retreat we have had extended opportunity to practice them.

These helpful elements include:

  • Setting our intention to be present.
  • Slowing down.
  • Making space in our lives for a regular meditation practice.
  • Intensive concentration training that shows us how to be with whatever arises.
  • Wisdom teachings in whatever form we receive them best.
  • A community of supportive practitioners who remind us that being present is possible in every moment.

So what we take home with us, when we have broken our long silence, is the Three Refuges – the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

We take home the Buddha in the inspiration of the historical Buddha and his followers right down to our teachers sitting before us, exemplifying dedication to spiritual development, helping us to understand that we each have access to our own Buddha nature.

We take home the Dharma from the nightly talks when the teachers tell stories to demonstrate the dharma, drawing from their own life experiences, their own unskillfulness, their own mindless moments, for the benefit of their students; and from our group meetings with teachers and the answers they give us to our questions.

And we take home the Dharma from the teachings of the natural world as we walk or sit in silence, opening to its wisdom, its ready answers to any question that is rising up within us.

And often the sweetest of all, we take home the Sangha – the feeling of being supported by each other during the retreat, inspired by each other’s dedication to the practice, to staying with our experience even when it is difficult. This may sound odd since we are in silence and have no eye contact and are in our own little bubbles of protected space. But during the days of the retreat, as the silence, relaxation and safety sinks in to our beings, we increasingly feel our deep interconnection. We begin to understand how it’s possible for that flock of birds to move together as one being, turning in unison as they fly. We sangha members move not in perfect unison, but with spaciousness and natural courtesy that feels as if our personal bubble is an energy field, and we all sense the energy fields when they touch, so that our bodies don’t bump into each other. Which is good, because in silence you can’t say ‘excuse me.’ I remember when we were given an hour of practicing coming out of silence the night before the close of the last retreat I was on, and suddenly we were bumping into each other and saying ‘sorry, sorry’ all the time! As if silence was what had kept us in a cohesive sense of unity.

Afterwards, when the retreatants have gone to their homes all over the world, there is still this awareness that they are there, connected through this shared intention to practice being mindful in our lives.

And having felt the sweetness of the sangha on retreat, we find our sangha in the outer world. Though they didn’t sit beside us in the meditation hall, or across the table in the dining hall, or share a room with us in the dormitory, or walk back and forth beside us in the walking hall, still we know them to be our sangha sisters and brothers, sharing our intention to hold the world in an open embrace. We recognize them in their compassion, their supportive or inspirational energy, and their willingness to be present. A sangha is not a clique or a club that let’s you in under certain conditions or has the right to keep you out. It is, in its broadest sense, those people in your life who nourish you, who support you in your practice, even if they don’t know it.

So after a retreat, even after the serenity has lessened, we take home the three refuges. In our daily lives we are supported by them. They comfort us, inspire us and keep us as present as we can be in this moment. That is the long lasting gift of the retreat. And it is a gift not just to ourselves but to those around us. Taking this time for ourselves is an act of generosity to the world.