Going for Refuge

What makes someone a Buddhist?

From time to time I get emails from people who wonder how to become a Buddhist. Often they’ve been practicing meditation for a while, and want to call themselves Buddhists, but they’re not sure if it’s — and please pardon the miscegenation of religious terminology — “kosher” to call themselves a Buddhist.

Traditionally, the starting point of regarding yourself as a Buddhist is known as Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. The Three Jewels (Triratna, or Tiratana in Pali) are the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The Buddha isn’t just the historical individual we call the Buddha, but the ideal of enlightenment itself, which I’d characterize as the attainment of a state of deep mindfulness and compassion that arises from an insight into the non-separateness of the self. The Dharma is the path, the teachings, and the practices that lead ultimately to the realization of that insight, and to the attainment of that state of deep mindfulness and compassion. The Sangha is the spiritual community of all those who are treading that path and putting those teachings into practice, using meditation and ethical observance in order to deepen their mindfulness, their compassion, and their insight.

So what does “Going for Refuge” (saraṇa-gamana) mean? The word “refuge” unfortunately has associations with the word “refugee,” which is so redolent of failure and weakness that the displaced millions during Hurricane Katrina were rarely described in the US media as “refugees.” But seeking refuge is something we all need to do. As Jim Morrison said, “No one here gets out alive.” We live in an uncertain world. We all need a source of security in life, something that gives life a sense of meaning and purpose.

The Buddha observed people doing this all around him:

People, driven by fear, go for refuge to many places:
mountains, forests, gardens, trees and shrines. (Dhp. 188)

He pointed out that these are false refuges, because they’re unable to provide true security. What can provide security in a world marked by change and loss? Only complete non-attachment: the deep realization that everything, including ourselves, is subject to change, and the profound peace that accompanies that realization. Those who are enlightened stand confident in the midst of the flow of change, because they do not fight that which cannot be fought. They see others vainly trying to find something stable to grasp onto, and feel compassion for them.

Ultimately the Refuges are not external. Some of the Buddha’s last recorded words were:

Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

(Attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.)

This may sound a little contradictory — “seek no external refuge” and “take the Dhamma as your refuge” — but the Dhamma is the truth that is to be found by closely examining our own experience, so it’s not, in the end, something external. We find the truth by looking within.

Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels involves taking this awakened stance of compassionate non-clinging as its goal. When we Go for Refuge we say in effect that we are dedicating our lives to the pursuit of spiritual awakening.

So how do we do this?

Going for Refuge is something that you can do for and by yourself, simply by reciting the words:

To the Buddha for Refuge I Go
To the Dharma for Refuge I Go
To the Sangha for Refuge I Go.

In Pali this is:

Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi

(You can hear this formula being chanted on this page about the Refuges and Precepts. Although many people talk about “taking refuge,” the verb in the original refuge formula is definitely “to go.”)

Actually, chanting these verses is more of a verbal acknowledgement — to yourself — of your already-existent Going for Refuge, since Going for Refuge fundamentally is an act of the heart, rather than an act of speech. Repeating the words without a sincere wish to commit oneself to the Buddhist path changes nothing.

It can be more meaningful to chant these words in the presence of others, since there’s something powerful about having our Going for Refuge witnessed by others. And in any event, since Sangha is one of the refuges, it makes sense to actually participate in one! However, depending on where you live, there may not be a spiritual community for you to join, or those that you find may not be compatible with your own style of practice. But essentially, it’s reciting the words above with a sincere heart that marks the transition to being a Buddhist.

That’s not the end, of course. While reciting the Going for Refuge verses could be looked at as a kind of initiation into Buddhism, actual Buddhist practice requires a life-long process of self-examination and of self transformation. We need to bring Buddhist ethical principles (as expressed in the five precepts, for example) more and more into our lives, and need to meditate in order to reduce the amount of craving and ill will in our hearts, and so that we can cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and insight. Going for Refuge is not a one-time act, but an ongoing act of “steering” our being toward awakening.

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“The Heart of the Buddha,” by Chogyam Trungpa

heart of the buddha trungpa

Trungpa Rinpoche was a deeply flawed man, but an inspiring teacher. A new book gives Suriyavamsa a chance to reflect on Trungpa’s genius, and on the visceral and striking teaching it gave rise to.

I remember studying with my teacher Sangharakshita in a group of Triratna Buddhist centre teachers a couple of years ago. He expressed his admiration for Chogyam Trungpa and, using Gurdjieff’s distinction between the narrow saint and the broad genius, considered Trungpa to be a flawed genius of intelligence, flair and imagination. Sangharakshita went on to encourage us all to become ‘geniuses’ – to be broad and other regarding, and to develop the many diverse talents necessary to spread the Buddha’s teachings.

Title: The Heart of the Buddha
Author: Chogyam Trungpa
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-0-87773-592-2
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

This memory returns to me on reading The Heart of the Buddha, a recently re-released collection of Chogyam Trungpa’s articles. Trungpa was certainly broad. He had the genius, the flair and talent necessary to inspire many people to take up the Buddha’s teachings and he has had an enormous impact on Buddhism in the modern world. Many of the famous Buddhists teaching today such as Pema Chodron, Sherab Chodzin Kohn, Judith Zimmer Brown and Reginald Ray owe their foundation in the Dharma to Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa has had an enormous impact on Buddhism in the modern world.

It pays to watch some of the YouTube videos of his lectures and get a sense of the author before reading this book. On these we see him sitting calmly, holding court before hundreds of people. He is immaculately dressed in a suit and tie and is carefully emphasizing each sentence with an impeccable elocution acquired during his stay at Oxford University in England. This is not a traditional Tibetan teacher fresh out of the Himalayas with trumpets and robes but someone deeply immersing himself in Western expressions. Someone out alone in a foreign culture determined to communicate the heart of the Buddhas teachings in a language accessible to the people before him. Trungpa’s presentations combined a thorough training in traditional Tibetan Buddhism with a radical re-visioning of what it means to practice the Dharma today. He tapped into a broad range of sources from Erich Fromm and psychology to Zen flower arranging and military discipline, and was keen to avoid the distracting allure of exotic Tibetan cultural trappings.

The articles in The Heart of the Buddha were chosen to represent “as complete a range of Rinpoche’s teachings as possible,” according to the introduction. There are edited introductory talks with questions and answers as well as more scholarly essays. In the first section we have a more experiential evocation of what is involved in meditation practice, in devotion and in the integration of intellect and intuition. Here is a taster from the article on mindfulness:

‘It (mindfulness) is a worldwide approach that relates to all experience, it is tuning into life. We do not tune in as part of trying to live further […] Rather we just see the sense of survival as it is taking place in us already. You are here, you are living: let it be that way – that is mindfulness. Your heart pulsates and you breathe. Let mindfulness work with that, let that be mindfulness, let every beat of your heart, every breath, be mindfulness itself. You do not have to breathe specially; your breath is an expression of mindfulness. If you approach meditation in this way, it becomes very personal and very direct.’

I’ve never found a clear overview in a Chogyam Trungpa book. He never wrote a 101 of Buddhism. I have thoroughly enjoyed my wanderings through these articles, but have been glad of my studies in my own tradition for an underlying framework to help hang it all together. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend even this broad compendium as an introduction to Buddhism. What you do get with Trungpa Rinpoche is something at least as important – vivid evocations of spiritual experience and a living sense of the scale and detail of the Buddhist perspective. He uses unexpected and surprising imagery which is often visceral and always striking. Reading his books is like making out the Buddha’s Dharma by flashes of lightning – you are left with memorable impressions and a stack of vivid quotes. Here are a few:

‘People have difficulty beginning a spiritual practice because they put a lot of energy into finding the best and easiest way to get into it. We might have to change our attitude and give up looking for the best and easiest way. Actually, there is no choice. Whatever approach we take, we will have to deal with what we are already.’

‘True admiration has clarity and bite. It is like breathing mountain air in winter which is so cold and clear that we are afraid that it may freeze our lungs. Between breaths we may want to run into the cabin and throw a blanket over our heads lest we catch cold – but in true admiration we do not do that.’

‘Spiritual shoppers are looking for entertainment from spiritual teachings. In such a project devotion is nonexistent. Of course if such shoppers visit a store where the salesman has a tremendous personality and his merchandise is also fantastically good, they might momentarily feel overwhelming trust of some kind. But their basic attitude is not desperate enough. Their desperation has been concealed or patched over, so they make no real connection with the teaching.’

The second section of the book contains three articles chosen to represent the three phases of the Tibetan Buddhist path –  taking refuge, the self transcendence of compassion, and the tantric path of ‘Sacred Outlook’.

The chapter on “Sacred Outlook” is the longest article at just under forty pages. Originally written for the catalog of an exhibition of ancient Buddhist Silk Route art, it is one of the best introductions to Tantric Buddhist practice I have come across, both in the thoroughness of its description and in its simplicity.

I found reading these articles induced an experience not unlike that of digging out old rock music and being struck by its fresh energy and imagination…

The final section is a bit of a mixture with articles on relationships, death, poetry, money, Buddhist/Christian dialogue and a piece on drinking alcohol. This is where Trungpa’s dangerous side comes out. He writes on the limitations of a moralistic attitude to pleasure and on the difference between alcohol being poison or medicine lying in the level of one’s awareness. A meditator undertakes ‘conscious drinking’ as a means to keep connected to others. It is difficult to read this as anything but naive in the light of his early demise at forty seven from cirrhosis of the liver and the chaos of his community after his death.

Nevertheless, I found reading these articles induced an experience not unlike that of digging out old rock music and being struck by its fresh energy and imagination in contrast to the formulaic, safe and commercial nature of so much of today’s music. These articles come from a time when Buddhism in America was more radically alive. Their vitality, originality and indeed danger, as well as their deep rootedness in the Buddhist tradition contrast strongly with so much of what passes for Dharma today. Amidst the mountain of secular Buddhism, domestic Buddhism for couples, therapeutic Buddhism for stress management and a strange fixation on our everyday, commonplace laundry, this book stands out for its ability to inspire and stir us from our complacency. Cold, clear mountain air indeed.

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