Going for Refuge

Step six: Placing positive values at the centre of our lives

Eight Step Recovery

When I reflect deeply on this step, I can see how unreliable my addictions are. In the end they bring great suffering. Once upon a time, my addictive habitual behaviours were at the centre of my life. I was so unhappy. I didn’t realize how unhappy I was until I began to place more reliable refuges at the centre of my life.

In the 12 step tradition people turn their lives over to a God of their understanding, they do this because it is a reliable refuge. Placing a God of your understanding at the centre of your life is far more reliable than our addictions.

In Buddhism we call this Going for Refuge, or taking Refuge in the Three Jewels. We take refuge in the Buddha, not the human being, but the aspiration of what the Buddha attained at the centre of our lives. We place the Dharma, the truth, the teachings at the centre. And we place the Sangha, the enlightened spiritual community that has gone before us.

The Eight Steps

So we turn our lives over to freedom and liberation from Samsara, from the hell of our minds.

We can begin by turning our lives over to the breath. Often we turn our lives over to our thoughts, because we think we are our thoughts. We think our thoughts are facts. Often we lean into our suffering with thought and become so overwhelmed that we end up in the vicious cycle of addiction.

If we leaned into our suffering with breath, disappeared into the breath rather than disappearing into the thoughts, when we are at risk, it may keep us abstinent and sober.

  • So reflect on what is at the centre of your life.
  • What are you turning your life over to?
  • What is your God of understanding? Is it reliable?
  • What are you going to refuge too when things get hard in life?

For a free sample of the book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

Read More

Get over it

Vimalasara

So I have survived one month of mentorship through my own programme of ‘Eight Step Recovery.’ I’ve relapsed twice, and am back on track with three days of abstinence. I tried harm reduction and it didn’t work for me. Told myself I will eat a handful of raw cashews a day. I even left them out on the kitchen counter so my hosts could share them with me too. But once they were finished, I went out bought a 500 gram packet and proceeded to eat them for my lunch, during a period of three hours. Now you may think: ‘Get over it, you don’t have an addiction. It’s not a matter of life and death. You’re hardly going to wreck the family, or cause any great harm’.

While I do have a mild allergy to nuts, I can’t claim that if I carried on eating them that they would kill me, but I do know that consuming them stunts my emotional growth. Why? Because the nuts have replaced the cigarette I once used to put in my mouth, it has replaced the gum I used to chew obsessively, the food I used to binge on and purge, the substances I used to consume.

Although I’m not in the throes of a life threatening addiction and admittedly avoiding my direct experience has lessened, I still at times turn away from my direct experience enough to disturb my peace of mind. Every time I turn away or avoid, I am resisting and triggering the urges to pick up. These urges manifest into the mental proliferation and mental obsessing, multiplying my initial experience of discomfort several fold. ‘Now I must eat those cashews because it has become too overwhelming.’

I took the opportunity to reflect on my attachment to raw cashew nuts and I wrote this to my sponsor.

‘I’m on the bus licking my wounds and thought I could email you from my phone. As I walked today I realized I do not want to let go of cashews and that is my problem. I know I need to and that I should do as it is a neurotic behaviour that usurps my equilibrium. After that thought, I found myself buying cashews and ate them all over the next two hours not a huge amount but now I feel sick and wish I could turn the clocks back but I can’t. I can see I was turning away from the discomfort of knowing I don’t want to stop. So the question is how do I move from not wanting to let go or knowing I need to let go, to wanting to let go?’ I know eating them in small doses does not work as I end up bingeing as I did today’.

“What I recommend for you is to meditate and reflect on what you are believing about this behavior that is not true. Usually we are believing an untruth. And usually its a variation on ‘it will be okay this time’ (in spite of what has always happened in the past) or ‘even if it’s not okay, it will be worth it’. These are the lies that we most often keep on deluding ourselves with. Another common one is that: ‘I just can’t do this and I might as well give up’. It may be as simple as ‘it will make me feel better’, which of course is not true, because it never does. So there’s your challenge, to bring awareness to your unspoken beliefs, and then to investigate them for current validity. Uncover the lie that you’re believing.

Most of these bad habits did actually have a valid coping function at one point in our lives, before they became debilitating addictions. They did help us cope. But now we have to uncover the dynamics, and ask ourselves ‘what did this do for me in the past?’, ‘what is it doing for me now?’, and ‘what is it doing TO me now?’. But mindfulness of the inner dynamics is a prerequisite. Then we can face our issues instead of having them ambush from behind.”

Great advice for somebody who has co-created Mindfulness Based Addiction Recovery MBAR course. While delivering the training the trainer MBAR course this weekend, I could not help realize, that I had few thoughts about eating cashews over the three days.

I realized that I have needed the dharma, the mindfulness teachings, rather than actually wanting them. It’s a subtle and gross difference. Nothing wrong in needing the teachings, but what does one do once they have been rescued by the teachings? Often go back to their ways.

If I want the dharma enough, I will wholeheartedly place positive values at the centre of my life moment by moment. I did this while delivering the training. I needed to, to deliver the course, but now the course is over, can I want the dharma enough to go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, effectively and absolutely. This is step six. More about this step next month.

For a free sample of the book study and 21 meditations of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

Read More

A heart that is ready for anything

When the Buddha was dying, he gave a final message to his beloved attendant Ananda, and to generations to come: “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge.”

In his last words, the Buddha was urging us to see this truth: although you may search the world over trying to find it, your ultimate refuge is none other than your own being.

There’s a bright light of awareness that shines through each of us and guides us home, and we’re never separated from this luminous awareness, any more than waves are separated from ocean. Even when we feel most ashamed or lonely, reactive or confused, we’re never actually apart from the awakened state of our heart-mind.

This is a powerful and beautiful teaching. The Buddha was essentially saying: I’m not the only one with this light; all ordinary humans have this essential wakefulness, too. In fact, this open, loving awareness is our deepest nature. We don’t need to get somewhere or change ourselves: our true refuge is what we are. Trusting this opens us to the blessings of freedom.

See also:

Buddhist monk, Sayadaw U. Pandita describes these blessings in a wonderful way: A heart that is ready for anything. When we trust that we are the ocean, we are not afraid of the waves. We have confidence that whatever arises is workable. We don’t have to lose our life in preparation. We don’t have to defend against what’s next. We are free to live fully with what is here, and to respond wisely.

You might ask yourself: “Can I imagine what it would be like, in this moment, to have a heart that is ready for anything?”

If our hearts are ready for anything, we can open to our inevitable losses, and to the depths of our sorrow. We can grieve our lost loves, our lost youth, our lost health, our lost capacities. This is part of our humanness, part of the expression of our love for life. As we bring a courageous presence to the truth of loss, we stay available to the immeasurable ways that love springs forth in our life.

If our hearts are ready for anything, we will spontaneously reach out when others are hurting. Living in an ethical way can attune us to the pain and needs of others, but when our hearts are open and awake, we care instinctively. This caring is unconditional—it extends outward and inward wherever there is fear and suffering.

If our hearts are ready for anything, we are free to be ourselves. There’s room for the wildness of our animal selves, for passion and play. There’s room for our human selves, for intimacy and understanding, creativity and productivity. There’s room for spirit, for the light of awareness to suffuse our moments. The Tibetans describe this confidence to be who we are as “the lion’s roar.”

If our hearts are ready for anything, we are touched by the beauty and poetry and mystery that fill our world.

When Munindraji, a vipassana meditation teacher, was asked why he practiced, his response was, “So I will see the tiny purple flowers by the side of the road as I walk to town each day.”

With an undefended heart, we can fall in love with life over and over every day. We can become children of wonder, grateful to be walking on earth, grateful to belong with each other and to all of creation. We can find our true refuge in every moment, in every breath.

Read More

Taking refuge in the Buddha

As a teacher I’m often asked: What does it mean in Buddhist practice when you agree to “take refuge” in the Buddha? Does this mean I need to worship the Buddha? Or pray to the Buddha? Isn’t this setting up the Buddha as “other” or some kind of god?

Traditionally, there are three fundamental refuges are where we can find genuine safety and peace, a sanctuary for our awakening heart and mind, a place to rest our human vulnerability. In their shelter, we can face and awaken from the trance of fear.

The first of these is the Buddha, or our own awakened nature. The second is the dharma (the path or the way), and the third is the sangha (the community of aspirants).

In the formal practice of Taking Refuge, we recite three times: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.” Yet, even though there is a formula, this is not an empty or mechanical ritual, but a practice meant to expand our understanding and intention.

With each repetition, we allow ourselves to open ever more deeply to the living experience behind the words. As we do, the practice leads to a profound deepening of our faith: The more fully we open to and inhabit each refuge, the more we trust our own heart and awareness. By taking refuge we learn to trust the unfolding of our lives.

The first step in this practice, taking refuge in the Buddha, may be approached on various levels, and we can choose the way most meaningful to our particular temperament. We might for instance take refuge in the historical Buddha, the human being who attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree 2500 years ago.

This doesn’t mean that we are worshipping the man who became enlightened, or setting him up as “other” or as “higher” than ourselves, but bowing and honoring the Buddha nature that already exists within us. For instance when the Buddha encountered Mara, he felt fear—the same painfully constricted throat, chest and belly, the same racing heart that we each experience when fear strikes our heart.

By willingly meeting fear with his full attention, the Buddha discovered fearlessness — the open, clear awareness that recognizes the arising and passing of fear without contracting nor identifying with it. Taking refuge in the truth of his awakening can inspire us on our own path toward fearlessness.

At the same time, those who are devotional by nature might seek safety and refuge in the living spirit of the Buddha’s awakened heart and mind. Much like praying to Christ or the Divine Mother, we can take refuge in a Being or presence that cares about our suffering.

In taking this first refuge, I sometimes say, “I take refuge in the Beloved” and surrender into what I experience as the boundlessness of compassion. When I am feeling fear, I surrender it to the Beloved. By this, I am not trying to get rid of fear, but rather letting go into a refuge that is vast enough to hold my fear with love.

In the most fundamental way, taking refuge in the Buddha means taking refuge in our own potential for liberation. In order to embark on a spiritual path we need faith that our own heart and mind have the potential to awaken. The true power of Buddha’s story, the power that has kept it alive for all these centuries, rests in the fact that it demonstrates what is possible for each of us.

We so easily believe limiting stories about ourselves and forget that our very nature—our Buddha nature—is aware and loving. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are taking refuge in the same capacity of awareness that awakened Siddhartha under the Bodhi Tree. We too can realize the blessing of freedom. We too can become fearless.

After taking refuge in the Beloved, I turn my attention inward, saying “I take refuge in this awakening heart mind.” Letting go of any notion that Buddha nature is something beyond or outside my awareness, I look towards the innate wakefulness of my being, the tender openness of my heart.

Minutes earlier, I might have been taking myself to be the rush of emotions and thoughts moving through my mind. But by intentionally taking refuge in awareness, that small identity dissolves, and with it, the trance of fear.

By directing our attention towards our deepest nature, by honoring the essence of our being, our own Buddha nature becomes to us more of a living reality. We are taking refuge in the truth of who we are.

Read More

What is at the center of your life?

In the 12-step tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous it clearly states in the third step that we need to make a decision “to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a God as we understood him,: if we are to maintain sobriety and abstinence.

Buddhists, whether in recovery or not, or have an addiction or not, turn their lives over to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. When we surrender to this action, we are placing positive refuges at the center of our lives. We are placing the ideal of liberation and freedom, the teachings of the Buddha and the spiritual community at the center of our lives.

What this means is that we surrender to the potential of waking up to reality and begin to see things clearly, without the story, judgments or interpretation. This is what helps to take care of our lives.

‘In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.’ From the Bahiya sutta.

It is a different way of experiencing the world one that helps to dissolve our obsessions and addictions.

Inevitably what we often go to refuge to will bring about suffering. Those of us with addictions know that all to well. Our addiction has been the thing that has been at the center of our lives.

‘We are likely to have used our addiction as a refuge to cope with difficulties, and we may have engaged in other damaging behavior, such as self-harm or getting involved in destructive relationships, to manage painful emotions. We call these refuges that don’t help us in the long run, false refuges. False refuges look like they are going to be reliable, are going to relieve our pain, but they let us down. They don’t work, except perhaps in the short-term.

They are like a derelict house, empty, no life, or breath, with weak walls and a leaky roof. We flee from the storm only to find that the rain starts to come through the roof. Then as the wind picks up, the whole structure blows over, and we are left exposed to the elements with pieces of the building falling on us. We are no nearer to safety. Instead we are soaked and have cuts all over from the fallen timber.’

‘When we reflect on what is truly valuable to us, what we really want our lives to be about, and what sort of person we deeply want to be? If we are clear about what is important to us and what we really value, it is easier to steer our lives in a meaningful direction, and it helps us to keep going when the going gets tough.’ Eight Step Recovery – Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction.

“A God of our understanding” does not have to be a person – do not let that fool you. A God of our understanding can be the compassionate care of practices, like mindfulness, loving kindness or ethics. Far better to have qualities like these at the center of our lives rather than relationships, people and teachers, because inevitably one day these relationships will cease. We may abandon the practice of mindfulness, loving kindness and ethics for a while, but we can always go back to them and cultivate them again in our lives. They will not let us down in the same way people will. They are far more reliable.

  • What is at the center of your life?
  • What do you spend most of your time thinking about?

The answers to these questions will tell you what you go to refuge to.

  • How reliable are the things you put at the center of your life?
  • Are they a false refuges or positive refuges?

Next month we will look at one of the reliable Buddhist teaching that is helpful to put at the center of our lives.

Read More

An uncertain refuge

Google-Plus-LogoI remember the day I realized I was an atheist. I was sitting on an S-Bahn in Stuttgart, reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker for the second time – this time paying more attention. I finally came to know that for my purposes there was no credible need to believe in the god I had been raised to worship. The ties were already very loose by then. Dawkins just helped me to be honest with myself.

There has always been some kind of searching going on in my life (if you are reading this blog then there is no need to explain that idea). I had tried out Buddhist meditation a few years previously and found it to be good thing. But then I started travelling, living a whole new life with lots of money and lots of fun. Meditation had given me a kick start, and now I had moved on. The moment of realization on that S-Bahn brought me to the conclusion that there was no need to seek any more. Silly me.

The question about whether or not there is a god takes up a lot of space on YouTube these days, but I’ve come to see it as a bit dull. Once you’ve answered the question for yourself – in whatever way that works for you – the really interesting questions remain: How do I live well? What is the nature of mind and experience? And who the hell is asking, anyhow? I’ve never been comfortable calling myself Buddhist as it has too many associated assumed beliefs to which I don’t adhere and which I don’t wish to defend. But something has moved in the years since The Blind Watchmaker, and again I find myself forced into honesty.

On the 44th anniversary of the moment I started breathing air, and at the end, more or less, of the 4th year that I have returned to observing that breath in Buddhist meditation, it seemed like as good a day as any to acknowledge what has changed. I still choose not to call myself a Buddhist. But there remains the realization that I have already taken refuge in the Buddha – as much in my own presumed Buddha nature as in the historical seeker and scientist Gotama.

I have already taken refuge in the Dhamma – it describes in a very satisfactory way the things I experience in life, and much of what I read about in the sciences.

And now in the past few months, I have taken refuge in a very special Sangha: the Wildmind Community.

These are not refuges into which one flees in fear to avoid uncertainty, but towards which one gravitates in hope and confidence but with some trepidation. Whatever word I might or might not use to describe myself, there is a path ahead of me now that I cannot imagine leaving.

Read More

Presence in the face of dying

At the end of a daylong meditation workshop, Pam, a woman in her late sixties, drew me aside. Her husband, Jerry, was near death after three years of suffering from lymphoma. “I wanted so much to save him,” she told me. “I looked into ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, every alternative treatment I could find, tracked every test result . . . We were going to beat this thing.” She sat back wearily in her chair, shoulders slumped. “And now I’m keeping in touch with everyone, giving updates, coordinating hospice care. If he’s not napping I try to make him comfortable, read to him . . .”

I responded gently, “It sounds like you’ve been trying really hard to take good care of Jerry . . . and it’s been very busy.” At these words, she gave me a smile of recognition. “Hmm, busy. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” She paused. “As far back as I can remember I’ve really been busy. But now . . . well, I just can’t sit back and let him go without a fight.”

Pam was silent for a few moments, then looked at me anxiously. “He could die any day now, Tara. Isn’t there some Buddhist practice or ritual that I should learn? Is there something I should be reading? How can I help him with this . . . with dying?”

“Pam,” I said, “you’ve already done so much . . . but the time for all that kind of activity is over. At this point, you don’t have to make anything happen, you don’t need to do anything.” I waited a moment and then added, “Just be with him. Let him know your love through the fullness of your presence.”

At this difficult time I was calling on a simple teaching that is central to my work with my meditation students and therapy clients: It is through realizing loving presence as our very essence, through being that presence, that we discover true freedom. In the face of inevitable loss, this timeless presence brings healing and peace to our own hearts and to the hearts of others.

“In those most difficult moments,” I suggested, “you might pause and recognize what you are feeling — the fear or anger or grief — and then inwardly whisper the phrase ‘I consent.’” I’d recently heard this phrase from Father Thomas Keating, and thought that as a Catholic, Pam might find it particularly valuable. Saying “I consent,” or as I more frequently teach, “yes,” relaxes our armoring against the present moment and allows us to meet life’s challenges with a more open heart.

Pam was nodding, but she had an intent, worried look. “I want to do this, Tara, but when I’m most upset, my mind speeds up. I start talking to myself . . . I talk to him . . . How will I remember to pause?”

“You probably will forget, at least some of the time,” I said, “and that’s totally natural. All you can do is have the intention to pause, the intention to feel what is going on and ‘let be.’” Pam’s face softened with understanding. “That I can do. I can intend, with all my heart, to be there for Jerry.”

A month after my conversation with Pam, she called to tell me what had happened after the workshop. She acknowledged that, even in those final weeks of her husband’s life, she had struggled with the urge to be busy, to find ways to feel useful. She shared that, one afternoon, Jerry began talking about having only a short time left, and about not being afraid of death. She bent over, gave him a kiss, and said quickly, “Oh dear, today’s been a good day, you seemed to have more energy. Let me make you some herbal tea.”

He fell silent, and the quietness shook her. “It became so clear to me in those moments that anything other than listening to what was really going on—anything other than being fully present—actually separated us … I avoided reality by suggesting a cup of tea. But my attempt to steer away from the truth took me away from him, and that was heartbreaking.”

While Pam boiled water for tea, she prayed, asking that her heart be fully present with Jerry. This prayer guided her in the days that followed. During those last few weeks, Pam said she had to keep letting go of all of her ideas about how her husband’s dying should be and what else she should be doing, and just remind herself to say “I consent.”

At first she was mechanically repeating the words, but after a few days she felt as if her heart actually started consenting. When her gut tightened with clutches of fear and feelings of helplessness, she’d stay with those feelings, consenting to the depth of her vulnerability. When the restless urge to “do something” arose, she’d notice that and be still, letting it come and go. And as the great waves of grief rolled through, she’d again say, “I consent,” opening to the huge aching weight of loss.

This intimate presence with her inner experience allowed Pam to fully attend to Jerry. As she put it, “When all of me was truly consenting to the fear and pain, I knew how to take care of him. I sensed when to whisper words of encouragement or just listen, ways to reassure him with touch . . . how to sing to him, be quiet with him. How to be with him.”

Before she ended the call, Pam shared with me what she considered to be the gift of her last days with Jerry, the answer to her prayers: “In the silence, I could see past a sense of ‘him’ and ‘me.’ It became clear that we were a field of loving—total openness, warmth, light. He’s gone, but that field of loving is always with me. My heart knows that I came home . . . truly I came home to love.”

Pam’s willingness to be present with her inner life, no matter how painful, made it possible for her to connect with the vastness of love. Her growing capacity for staying with the truth of her moment-to-moment experience, for embracing the true refuge of presence, enabled her to find her way home, even in the midst of great loss.

Read More

Finding true refuge

My earliest memories of being happy are of playing in the ocean. When our family began going to Cape Cod in the summer, the low piney woods, high dunes, and wide sweep of white sand felt like a true home. We spent hours at the beach, diving into the waves, body surfing, practicing somersaults underwater. Summer after summer, our house filled with friends and family—and later, with spouses and new children. It was a shared heaven. The smell of the air, the open sky, the ever-inviting sea made room for everything in my life—including whatever difficulties I was carrying in my heart.

Then came the morning some years ago when two carloads of friends and family members took off for the beach without me. From the girl who had to be pulled from the water at suppertime, I’d become a woman who was no longer able to walk on sand or swim in the ocean. After two decades of mysteriously declining health, I’d finally gotten a diagnosis: I had a genetic disease with no cure, and the primary treatment was painkillers. As I sat on the deck of our summer house and watched the cars pull out of the driveway, I felt ripped apart by grief and loneliness. In the midst of my tears, I was aware of a single longing. “Please, please, may I find a way to peace, may I love life no matter what.”

This was the beginning of what would become an earnest search for a place of peace, connectedness, and inner freedom that I could count on, even in the face of life’s greatest challenges. I now call this place “true refuge” because I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t depend on anything outside ourselves—a certain situation, person, cure, or even particular mood or emotion. The yearning for such refuge is not mine, personally; it’s universal. It’s what lies beneath all our wants and fears. We long to know we can handle what’s coming. We want to trust ourselves, to trust and love this life.

In the Buddhist tradition, the Pali word dukkha is used to describe the emotional pain that runs through our lives. While it’s often translated as “suffering,” dukkha encompasses all our experiences of stress, dissatisfaction, anxiety, sorrow, frustration, and basic unease in living. But if we listen deeply, we will detect beneath the surface of all that troubles us an underlying sense that we are alone and unsafe, that something is wrong with our life.

The Buddha taught that this experience of insecurity, isolation, and basic “wrongness” is unavoidable. We humans, he said, are conditioned to feel separate and at odds with our changing and out-of-control life. And from this core feeling unfolds the whole array of our disruptive emotions—fear, anger, shame, grief, jealousy—all of our limiting stories, and the reactive behaviors that add to our pain.

Yet, the Buddha also offered a radical promise, one that Buddhism shares with many wisdom traditions: We can find true refuge within our own hearts and minds—right here, right now, in the midst of our moment-to-moment lives. We find true refuge whenever we recognize the silent, awake space of awareness behind all our busy doing and striving. We find refuge whenever our hearts open with tenderness and love. Presence, the immediacy and aliveness and warmth of our intrinsic awareness, creates a boundless sanctuary where there’s room for everything in our life.

That day on Cape Cod, I didn’t know if I could ever be happy living with a future of pain and physical limitation. While I was crying, Cheylah, one of our standard poodles, sat down beside me and began nudging me with concern. Her presence was comforting; it reconnected me to the here and now, and to a deeply tender inner presence. After I’d stroked her for a while, we got up for a walk. She took the lead as we meandered along an easy path overlooking the bay.

In the aftermath of grieving, I was silent and open. My heart held everything—the soreness of my knees, the expanse of sparkling water, Cheylah, my unknown future, the sound of gulls. Nothing was missing, nothing was wrong. These moments of true refuge foreshadowed one of the great gifts of the Buddhist path—that we can be “happy for no reason.” We can love life just as it is, recognizing that no matter how challenging the situation there is always a way to take refuge in a healing and liberating presence. This understanding inspired me to write the book, True Refuge, and is a deepening blessing on my path.

Read More

The Fourth Truth: There is a path that leads us away from suffering

Figure standing at the end of a path on a high point overlooking a lake

I used to be confused about why the third truth came before the fourth. And I realize now that if I could not accept or believe that there was an end to suffering, I would not have trudged the path. After all, I would not have known what would be at the end of the path—or if there would even be an end. If somebody had described to me the path that would lead me away from suffering before telling me that there is an end in sight for suffering, I would have most probably had an attack of horrified anxiety. And convinced myself that the life I was living was much more manageable than stepping on to the path that would supposedly lead me away from suffering!

The Four Noble Truths

The path that continues to lead me away from suffering is the threefold path of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

Threefold PathEightfold path
Ethics/VirtueRight Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
MindRight Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
WisdomRight View
Right Intention

Ethics/Virtue

I cannot say how contented I have become, how much simplicity there is in my life, and how much stillness, too, since I have become more ethical. The five Buddhist precepts opened a door in my heart. They gave me tools to begin living my life differently. I remember becoming a mitra (a friend of the spiritual community) in my tradition. During my ceremony, I took on the five spiritual precepts. I knew as I recited them that they had given me a way to purify my heart. I took them on seriously, and recited the positive and negative forms daily for almost 5 years. Since my ordination in 2005 I have recited ten precepts daily. They have been the principals that have trained me to live my life with mindfulness. They are some of the tenets of right speech, right action and right livelihood: These are the five training principals that are universal to all lay Buddhist traditions. Many monastic communities can have as much as a 100 or more.

  1. I undertake to abstain from harming life. With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. I undertake to abstain from taking the not given. With open handed generosity I purify my body.
  3. I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct. With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
  4. I undertake to abstain from false speech. With truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

(The positive and negative precepts appear as cited by Urgyen Sangharakshita.)

Mind

After a week of learning to meditate, I walked out onto the street and thought the whole world was changing. I had “beginner’s mind.” I paused and chuckled to myself as I realized it was I who was changing and that there was no going back. I had a glimpse of seeing things as they actually were. Meditation caused a revolution in my physical, spiritual and emotional self. I began to walk, think and pray differently. The practice of metta, cultivating loving kindness for (a) myself, (b) a friend, (c) someone I do not know, and (d) an enemy, continues to revolutionize my life. People I thought I would never speak to have come back into my life, because this meditation allowed me to forgive my enemies in the fourth stage (d). The fourth stage cultivated compassion in my heart for my enemies. As the hatred melted away, my self-hatred also melted away, and I am a much happier person.

However, after my beginner’s mind began to fizzle, the real work began. I had to apply right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration to develop my meditation practice. I committed myself to the path of transformation. I began TO study, took up a daily meditation practice and went on retreats. In 2005 I effectively went for refuge, hence placing the three jewels at the centre of my life. The ideal of enlightenment (buddha), the teachings of the buddha (dharma) and spiritual community at the centre of my life (sangha.) I had a lay person ordination into the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I was named Vimalasara (she who’;s essence is stainless and pure), took on the Bhodisattva vow, the ten precepts, and a visualization practice. My mind had most definitely changed; no longer were my decisions based solely on my sexuality, skin colour or gender. My decisions more and more are based on my going for refuge to the three jewels.

Wisdom

This part of the path, right view and right intention, brings me back to the fourth truth. I continue to develop my understanding of these truths. The Buddha says everything we experience has three characteristics, which are known as the three marks of conditioned existence. He says all life is (a) unsatisfactory, (b) impermanent, (c) unsubstantial, and nothing is fixed at all. These three marks have impacted my identity. I am not so attached to my female self, black self, or queer self. I used to experience everything through these filters. Hence I was often not open to others who were not female, black or queer. I was often judgmental and reactive. Although they had been part of my raft to help me along my recovery, if I was to continue to grow I had to let go of my fixed identities. They were at the centre of my life, and one could say I went to refuge them to them.

Letting go of identities meant I had to forgive those people who discriminated against me. Let go of those people who tried to label me with black stereotypes such as ‘intimidating, loud, aggressive, chip on my shoulder, athletic etc.’ I continue to learn to have compassion for those people who continue to discriminate against me. Without forgiveness, there is no room for wisdom. We must let go of fixed identities, thoughts and grudges. Integrate self and let go of self. Wisdom stops me from settling for the life I live now, which is much better than what it was 15 years ago. Despite how far I have come, I am committed to further understanding the truth. Training my mind, opening up to the possibility of real insight, letting go of self, practicing forgiveness and cultivating transformation, for me is a life time service.

Since stepping onto the path, the three jewels have become what is at the centre of my life. The majority of my decisions are based on going for refuge to the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha.

The Path

So I am on a path that leads me away from suffering. But sometimes I fall off, I stumble, and sometimes I choose not to walk it. But I always get back on. Fear can eat away at my faith and keep me off the path. But my faith can also eat away at my fear, and keep me on the path. There is no vacation from the spiritual life—I must strive on. If I reflect on the day I first walked into a Buddhist centre 23 years ago I know there is no alternative to the path. The Buddha made it simple with the eightfold path: live by these principals and we will gain insight and, perhaps even enlightenment.

Read More

Coming home to the sacred

The word “sacred” has two kinds of meanings. First, it can refer to something related to religion or spirituality. Second, more broadly, it can refer to something that one cherishes, that is precious, to which one is respectfully, even reverently, dedicated, such as honesty with one’s life partner, old growth redwoods, human rights, the light in a child’s eyes, or longings for truth and justice and peace.

Both senses of the word touch me deeply. But many people relate to just one meaning, which is fine. You can apply what I’m saying here to either or both meanings.

I think each one of us – whether theist, agnostic, or atheist – needs access to whatever it is, in one’s heart of hearts, that feels most precious and most worthy of protection. Imagine a life in which nothing was sacred to you – or to anyone else. To me, such a life would be barren and gray.

Sure, some terrible actions have been taken in the name of avowedly sacred things. But terrible actions have been taken for all kinds of other reasons as well; the notion of the sacred is not a uniquely awful source of bad behavior. And just because some people act badly in the name of something does not alter whatever is good in that something.

Opening to what’s sacred to you contains an implicit stand that there really are things that stand apart in their significance to you. What may be most sacred is the possibility of the sacred!

If you’re like me, you don’t stay continually aware of what’s most dear to you. But when you come back to it – maybe there is a reminder, perhaps at the birth of a child, or at a wedding or a funeral, or walking deep in the woods – there’s a sense of coming home, of “yes,” of knowing that this really matters and deserves my honoring and protection and care.

How?

For an overview, notice how you feel about the idea of “sacred.” Are there mixed feelings about it? How has the rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide over the past several decades – or the culture wars in general – affected your attitudes toward “sacred”? In your own life, have you been told that certain things were sacred that you no longer believe in? Do you feel you have the right to name what is sacred to you even if it is not sacred to others? Taking a little time to sort this out for yourself, maybe also by talking with others, can clear the decks so that you can know what’s sacred for you.

In this clearing, there are many ways to identify what is sacred for someone. Maybe you already know. You could also find a place or time that is particularly peaceful or meaningful – perhaps on the edge of the sea, or curled up with tea in a favorite chair, or in a church or temple – and softly raise questions in your mind like these: What’s sacred? What inspires awe? A feeling of protection? Reverence? A sense of something holy?

Different answers come to different people. And they may be wordless. For many, what’s most sacred is transcendent, numinous, and beyond language.

Whatever it is that comes to you, explore what it’s like to open to it, to receive it, to give over to it. Make it concrete: what would a conversation be like, or what would your day be like, if you did it with a sense of something that’s sacred to you?

Without stress or pressure, see if there could be a deepening commitment to this something sacred. How do you feel about making sanctuary for it, in your attention and intentions, and in how you spend your time and other resources?

Then, when you do sustain a sense of the sacred, or involve it in some way in some action, sense the results and let them sink in to you.

However it shows up for you, the sacred can be a treasure, a warmth, a mystery, a light, and a profound refuge.

Read More
Menu