Friday, May 29, 2009

Protect Me from Myself

My latest topic of contemplation is the meaning of Refuge (in the Buddhist sense). This has been on my mind a lot because I'm (once again) doing the Ngondro practice of Prostrations and taking Refuge. It seems that anything I find myself repeating over and over (such as the Refuge recitation in the Ngondro practice, or the notion of "confidence" that I wrote about here previously) naturally becomes a topic for reflection and analysis.

In a general sense, Buddhists "go for Refuge" to what are called the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha is the representation or embodiment of enlightenment and complete wisdom; the Dharma is the Buddha's genuine teachings that reveal the path to enlightenment; and the Sangha is the assembly of fellow practitioners who follow the Buddha's teachings and support each other along the path. One can look at the process of taking Refuge in different ways. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says:

"Generally speaking, there are two styles of going for Refuge. We are going through a two-stage process. There's a style of going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in their external form as something separate from oneself. This is [the] approach of relative reality. There's another style of refuge based on absolute reality where you go for refuge to the Three Jewels as something internal, as something that is part of your mind. From this second point of view, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are not far away from you. They are quite close to you. As a matter of fact, they are so close that you can't see them."

-- Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

What I find myself chewing on these days is not so much the question of what the Three Jewels represent, per se, but more the question of what "Refuge" and "going for Refuge" to them, or "taking Refuge" in them, really means.

The notion of Refuge implies the presence or the danger of some kind of suffering from which one seeks protection or refuge. The desire to seek such protection, to go for Refuge, stems from a basic recognition of several key facts:

  1. In our lives there is always suffering and/or the threat of additional suffering; this is the first of the Four Noble Truths, the first thing the Buddha taught after attaining enlightenment. If we cannot recognize this basic truth about reality, or if we live somehow in denial of it, then we have no motivation for spiritual practice. (If everything is fine, then why bother?)
  2. We have been unable to stop this suffering on our own, despite our best efforts; in fact, if we've done a bit of reflection, we may recognize at this point that we ourselves seem to be the cause of much of our suffering. Our own ego and ignorance and self-centeredness and habitual patterns have brought us nothing but trouble, and it is time to grow up and abandon such childish ways, and take responsibility for our present life and our future lives.
  3. There is someone (on the relative level, from the perspective of our ego) bigger than us, wiser than us, stronger than us, who has conquered suffering, and who has taught the way for others to accomplish this. (As Munindra once said to Sharon Salzberg, "The Buddha's enlightenment solved the Buddha's problem, now you solve yours.")

Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels is a way of saying: "I recognize the great wisdom of the Buddha who transcended suffering and attained enlightenment; I recognize the great wisdom of the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings on the path; and I recognize the great wisdom of the Sangha, my fellow beings who are studying and practicing those teachings and following the example of the Buddha. I aspire to commit myself fully to following these Three Jewels and to discovering and manifesting this great wisdom in everything I do, from this moment forward. Please protect me from myself, from my own stupidity and habitual patterns, and show me the way to genuine freedom and complete awakening."

In the Ngondro practice of Refuge and Prostrations, we demonstrate this commitment symbolically by visualizing the objects of Refuge in front of us and prostrating on the ground each time we recite the Refuge prayer. Accumulating large numbers of prostrations, this becomes a very intense physical and mental activity, a vibrant and transformative offering of body, speech and mind. Moreover, we visualize and imagine that not only am I, the individual, prostrating before the objects of Refuge, but I am doing this alongside *all* sentient beings -- humans, animals, fishes, birds, bugs and all. Through this, we recognize our interconnectedness with all beings, the fact that we are all in this mess together, and we all need the same wisdom (whether we know it or not) in order to transcend the seemingly endless cycle of suffering in which we're all stuck. This brings in an element of the basic Mahayana view of compassion for others as the basis upon which genuine enlightenment becomes possible -- the view of the Bodhisattva path.

In a talk here at the Abbey recently, Tim Olmsted said that the nature of the basic Refuge vow is that we begin to take responsibility for ourselves, while the nature of the Bodhisattva vow is that we begin to take responsibility for others. Olmsted was a student of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (incidentally, I've been reading Urgyen's memoir "Blazing Splendor" at bedtime each night for the past month or so, and it's wild). He once asked Tulku Urgyen, "Rinpoche, my mind is not very strong. Please remind me again, what is the main point?" Tulku Urgyen replied: "Compassion for those who have not realized the View, devotion for those who have, and genuine love and affection for all beings without exception."

From the Mahayana point of view, that is the nature of taking Refuge: devotion for the view of liberation and enlightenment and those who have realized it, and compassion for those (including ourselves) who have not. On the basis of this devotion and compassion, love and affection for all sentient beings becomes possible.

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