All week, I was aware of a loud buzzing sound when I opened my car door and at regular intervals. It filled my consciousness. I was sure my Toyota Prius didn’t make this sound before it was repaired–before the accident I was in about a month ago. Really, did it buzz that loudly before? My mind kept returning to it, magnifying the sound, questioning my experience. Could it be metal grinding on metal, a cable fraying and getting ready to snap?
So back I went to the Toyota body shop to have a Toyota technician listen to the sound and assure me that it was the normal sound of the electric motor kicking in. “You’re listening to every little sound,” he said. It was oppressively hot in the body shop. I worried about the technicians. Liberated from worrying about the buzz, my consciousness was now free to be captured by other worries. I worried about everyone who was working in the scorching heat. I worried about climate change and—managing to bring my worries back to myself in a spectacularly petty way—I wondered if the bird droppings on the hood of the car were going to take the paint off in these record-breaking temperatures. I remembered that a friend from Texas once told me that can happen. Was there a car wash nearby?
Is it any wonder that people in all times and all traditions have sought liberation from the tyranny of self? In Buddhism, lay people and monastics “go for refuge” (sarana gamana) in the Triple Gem — the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. The word refuge comes from the Latin refugium, from re, back, and fugere, flee.
According to Bhikkhu Bodhi: “The Buddha’s teaching can be thought of as a kind of building with its own distinct foundation, stories, stairs, and roof. Like any other building the teaching also has a door, and in order to enter it we have to enter through this door. The door of entrance to the teaching of the Buddha is the going for refuge to the Triple Gem — that is, to the Buddha as the fully enlightened teacher, to the Dhamma as the truth taught by him, and to the Sangha as the community of his noble disciples. From ancient times to the present the going for refuge has functioned as the entranceway to the dispensation of the Buddha, giving admission to the rest of the teaching from its lowermost story to its top. All those who embrace the Buddha’s teaching do so by passing through the door of taking refuge, while those already committed regularly reaffirm their conviction by making the same threefold profession:
Buddham saranam gacchami
I go for refuge to the Buddha;
Dhammam saranam gacchami
I go for refuge to the Dhamma;
Sangham saranam gacchami
I go for refuge to the Sangha.”
I confess that I used to have a condescending attitude about this ritual. It seemed like a polite nod to the past, something to get through before I could get on with the practice of mindfulness meditation. Now I see that the seemingly minute action of going for refuge is really huge. This shift in attitude—from self to self in relation to a larger whole–can change the direction and momentum of a whole life. Our lives open and flower when we “flee back” from our own smallness, our own preoccupation with our likes and dislikes and what relates to little me, me, me. As in prayer, taking refuge is really moving from the known to the unknown.
In the next issue of Parabola, there will run a marvelous interview with Jacob Needleman, about how we relate to the vast unknown. Here is a quote: “In a word, we cannot be ourselves without, as the same time, rooting ourselves in God. We cannot be independent beings without depending entirely on a higher force that penetrates our specifically human consciousness….Otherwise our entire life is self-deception.” Otherwise our entire life, or at least mine, is pretty small and repetitive.
And who am I to write about taking refuge, or about rooting myself in God? I ask myself that quite often. But there comes a moment—often in sheer exhaustion from tossing and turning in bed worrying about something related to me—when I let go. In such a moment, I realize that I am only human and that this seems to be accepted by the surrounding stillness. My own common human experience opens into mystery—what is this life I am part of? In the end, I take refuge in a willingness to be vulnerable to mystery. I take refuge in knowing that I am only human and part of something much greater than I can know.
“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come.”
Welcome all of your experience—even all the times you fall out of grace in your own eyes. Take refuge in what we cannot know.