DT-The Buddha as a Refuge

The three refuges of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha provide a safe container for us to be with reality as it is. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are following in the footsteps of the historical figure of a human being who, through devoted awareness of the workings of his own mind, achieved enlightenment. We are also taking refuge in our own capacity to awaken in each moment.

After the Buddha attained illumination, he had such a radiant and peaceful presence that a brahman priest posed him a series of questions, “Who are you? Are you a Deva (a god)? Are you a celestial musician?” Finally, he asked, “What kind of being are you?” The Buddha answered simply, “Remember me as awakened.” He compared his awakening to a lotus that is rooted in mud and begins growing under water. Eventually it rises above the surface of the water to rise towards the light and to bloom fully.

Meditation teacher Koshin Paley Ellison reminds us that the Buddha taught, “Our actions are our true belongings.” When we take our seat to practice, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves, “Am I living in accord with what I say I value?” We’re seldom aware of what we’re experiencing in the moment. How often do we walk down the street without noticing our surroundings? Right now are you aware that you are breathing? Taking refuge in the Buddha refers to our ability to be awake and to return to what is most reliable—the reality of this very moment.

Koshin speaks about three poisons that take us away from the moment: greed, resentment, and delusion. Blinded by greed, we hold on to what is familiar even when we know it is not healthy. Resentment leads us to ruminate on past hurts, so that we are barely aware of our current circumstances. Delusion causes us to have fixed ideas of who and what we are, blocking us from adapting to life as it unfolds.  

To protect us from the three poisons, he recommends developing three virtues: aspiration, determination, and wisdom. When we have an aspiration to wake up, we remind ourselves regularly to be wakeful wherever we are. Instead of spacing out when we’re shopping, we can ask the name of the person at the check-out counter and turn a routine errand into a meaningful interaction. Determination gives us energy to meet challenges and to live as if everything matters. We move from fantasizing about plans to acting with purpose and intentionality. Wisdom allows us to be present, open, spacious, and curious about what is arising in the present moment. With wisdom, we notice when our attention is wandering away, and we gently invite it back to this moment here and now. At any instant, we can wake up and appreciate what life has to teach us.

Recently, Mark and I experienced the value of being awake. We visited Post Houston at the renovated site of the old downtown post office. The food court was teaming with people, speaking a variety of languages, and sampling specialty dishes from countries all over the globe. In the chaotic scene, I made eye contact with an elderly Black man, standing calmly behind a counter displaying pastries. Both Mark and I responded to his gentle smile. We walked over to introduce ourselves and ask his name.

Before long, Ronald was giving us friendly advice about which pastries to buy. I told him that the kindness in his face invited us to stop at his counter. He grinned and replied, “That makes my day! Everyone has troubles, but there’s no need to burden other people with them.” This moment of authentic connection uplifted our spirits. It was only when Ronald turned around to serve someone else, that I noticed his heavy limp. Instead of dwelling on his own hardships, he enjoyed spreading joy to whomever he met.

Koshin’s husband and co-teacher Chodo says, “We are so much more than our stories about who we are. Each of us is an awakening one taking refuge in the awakened one.”

At a poetry reading on his 100th birthday, poet laureate Stanley Kunitz proclaimed, “I am not who I was. I am not done with my changes.” Whether or not we reach such an advanced age, if we take refuge in the Buddha, we can aspire to be awake wherever we are.

The concentrated mindfulness that we develop during retreats is conducive to awakening. Last week I attended a 5-day silent Zen sesshin retreat led by Koshin and Chodo. The teachers recommended moving towards rather than away from the reality of inner experiences that have an unpleasant feeling tone.

During one zazen sitting period, I practiced staying with sensations of constriction and pain in my neck and hip joints, noting that my hands felt “heavy, swollen, rigid, paralyzed.” Then I noticed my body temperature alternating between steamy and chilly. While I was labeling increasingly rapid shifts as “hot,” “cold,” “hot,” “cold,” I had a sudden sensation of both fiery heat and icy cold simultaneously. The circuits of my rational mind were blown, my ego relinquished control, and I fell into a vast void of paradox—no thoughts, simply peace and spacious stillness. There was a visual impression of snow falling upwards towards a luminous light emanating from a mysteriously unknown source above. Sensations that had felt like solid areas of pain dissolved into particles that pulsed and vibrated. Occasionally, I sensed a hint of pain in the background, but it seemed to be merely part of the wondrous wholeness of the experience. With a mixture of awe and humility, I let go into the timelessly unfolding process.

As the closing bell rang, I was suffused with energy and feelings of deep love, joy, and gratitude. I was awake and aware of the spiritual essence of all life. When the conditions are right and we get out of our own way, all of us can awaken to our true Buddha nature.