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.
Lately, it has occured to me that we have lost our sense of danger and our need for refuge. We love movies and books about vampires, zombies, aliens, and many forms of apocalypse (I know I’m generalizing. I personally am very easily frightened and avoid such entertainments). We love them because they indulge yet project away our underlying fears.
Yet in earlier times, people understood that there really were such things as vampires, zombies, and ghosts–people that feasted on the lives of others or haunted the world instead of really living in it. They understood that they could lose their human status and descend into these realms–not just in a future life but right now. They understood that bad thought habits are actually dangerous, a kind of gateway drug that could lead to being trapped in a subhuman hell. For thousands of years, Buddhists went for refuge to the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma (or Dhamma, in Pali), and the Sangha. As I wrote last week, the scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi compares the ritual of going for refuge to passing through a great doorway—and I don’t think it would be mixing traditions too much to call it the doorway to a vast cathedral. Going for refuge is an expression of faith that there is a way out of the wilderness of me, me, me—embattled me alone against the world. Going for refuge is seeking the shelter and guidance of a higher order of ideas and values, an affirmation that there is perspective beyond my own.
Thousands of years ago, long before the current research on the brain, the Buddha taught that cognition is subservient to wish. Submerged from us, our desires condition our perceptions, narrowing them to fit the view they want to impose. We take note of those things agreeable to our pre-conceptions; we blot out or distort those that threaten or throw them into disarray. In recent years studies have been conducted that show that when subjects are handed a hot cup of coffee, they have a warmer attitude towards a stranger than if they are handed a cold drink. This reaction happens below the level of conscious awareness. It would be the same for any human. We are at the mercy of the vast and intricate workings of our human nature.
In order to widen our vision, we need to find help that comes from another level. We need help even to see into the depths of our true nature and possibilities. According to Bhikkhu Bodhi: “In the words of the Buddha we are like a traveler passing through a thick forest bordered by a swamp and precipice; like a man swept away by a stream seeking safety by clutching at reeds; like a sailor crossing a turbulent ocean; or like a man pursued by venomous snakes and murderous enemies.” This dramatic language makes sense. In the time of the Buddha, people didn’t just worry about wasting their one precious life or not achieving their full potential. Physical suffering and death lived nearby, even for the young and beautiful—and they worried about their future lives. They were haunted by the possibility of wandering lost forever, drifting from torment to torment without hope of finding refuge.
Yet even in our relatively secure age, illness, loss, and death come. And in each of us, there is an inner unease that flares up into out-right anxiety and fear when just the right button is pushed. Deep down, we know that we are in an untenable situation. When something unexpected happens, we instantly realize that we have been seeing the world through a haze of expectations, projections, and demands. In fact, a good portion of the pain we experience in life comes from the disappointment and disillusionment we feel, when the world does not conform to our will. (Please, don’t take my word for it, or even the Buddha’s word for it. See for yourself). In Buddhism, the first reason for going for refuge is the need for protection from our own negative reactions to life, our own endlessly and perfectly natural tendency to take it all personally, the good, the bad, and the neutral. (A friend of mine once asked me what I thought the most common question in every language was. He guessed it was “Why me?”)
Or, the words I learned in childhood, the words that drift back to me in times of uncertainty because they are known on a deep down cellular level: “Thy Will Be Done On Earth As It Is in Heaven.” At moments, we let life be. We allow events to unfold as they will with equanimity. And peace flowers in us. For a moment or two we receive the endlessly fluctuating flow of events as if we are watching a passing storm from the shelter a vast refuge.
There is a great deal more to be explored about taking refuge. For now, it is interesting to reflect on this: The quality of equanimity, that state of being poised beyond the play of worldly opposites, is prized above all other states in Buddhism not because it is a way of numbing ourselves to life. It is a way of affirming that there is a larger perspective and a greater will than our own little will. It reflects the shift in attitude that takes place when we realize that we are in great danger left to our own devices and we go for refuge in a place of safety and guidance. Equanimity reflects the faith that there are laws and forces and guidance that come from another level. It affirms that we are not alone in this world but with others, and part of a larger mystery.