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The concept of refuge

The concept of refuge

  • We can think the concept of refuge is a “beginning” practice
  • Looking at the definition of the word refuge
  • The closer we look at the meaning of refuge in a Buddhist context, the deeper our refuge becomes
  • Quotes from various teachers about refuge

Welcome back to the Abbey and our BBC. And today I want to talk in a kind of very beginning way about the concept of refuge. As many of you know, Venerable Chodron’s gone to India for a while and this week four of the monastics are gone to the annual conference for western monastics in California. And so we’re kind of a spare crew here taking good care of one another and the Abbey. And because of her being gone we’re taking some turns doing the BBCs but also will be taking turns doing the Thursday night teachings and we hope that you’ll be able to join us for those.

So my topic for, not this Thursday but the one week away, is refuge so I’ve started thinking about it in a deeper way, and one of the really interesting things is how our minds fool ourselves. Like I’ve been a student for a while, so I’m like, oh yeah, refuge, I take refuge, I’m doing refuge ngondro, you know where you repeat the prayer taking refuge in the Guru, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha over and over and over, trying to keep your mind actually alive and learning something. But when these opportunities come up to actually give a talk or go deeper it’s so interesting because I start realizing I know things on a very surface level. And as I begin to read deeper and think about it, and really deeply meditate on it, it’s quite fun and enlivening.

So I just want to share with you a few things. And I have this stack of books here. I felt almost like I was getting ready for a closing argument or something. But what it really is is I don’t feel…. I feel very in the midst of this study so I just want to share some of the early things I’m looking at. It doesn’t feel very…. It’s not soup yet. We’re just doing chopping and thinking about a recipe.

I really love words so I often end up going to the dictionary first and just saying, well what’s the common meaning of this word refuge. And it’s quite wonderful. The common meaning is “to preserve, to protect, to shelter, or give sanctuary from danger or hardship.” And this is what thinking about refuge leads us to. We don’t have any reason to take refuge unless we understand that we are in a hardship situation and there’s some danger. So right away the concept of refuge brings up this concept of what’s called renunciation or the determination to be free. To be free of what? To get refuge from what? And unless we understand our situation very clearly then we have very weak—and this is me I’m describing—very weak impetus towards taking refuge. It’s like, oh yeah, I don’t want to suffer anymore and so I’ll kind of take refuge, you know. But the deeper that we look at the Buddha’s first two noble truths, about suffering, what is it? It’s to be known. And the causes of suffering, which are to be abandoned. And the deeper and deeper we look at them the more our impetus towards refuge rises in a very palpable, realistic way in our lives.

Other definitions, and some of these were from the thesaurus as well as the dictionary. “A source of help, relief, or comfort in times of trouble.” I like that. We’re mostly constantly in times of trouble. We might get a little relief with our usual example, chocolate chip cookies. Or our other example, you know, you go to the hot tub or go to a nice movie, and for a little while you sort of forget. But as soon as you’re out of there you’re, oh, all that long list of things that I have to take care of, or that conflict I’m in.

And the interesting thing, the root of the word is fugere and it means “to run away, or flee from.” So this leads us again, to think what do we need to flee from? What do we need to run away from? And again a deepening meditation on the kinds of suffering that we’re in. The “ouch” suffering, the most common. You know, we’ve had quite a little bout of flu and colds and back pains and things here at the Abbey right now. So we’re really experiencing some of that. And then there’s the second kind of suffering, which is the suffering of change: (e.g) I really like this thing that’s happening right now, and I start grabbing onto it, and right away it’s not so much fun anymore. I’m already grasping and worrying and thinking, well that cookie was good so the second one’s going to be better and the third one’s going to be great…. And now I’m headed towards some really difficult stomach problems. And of course the third kind, which is the most difficult for us to grasp but it’s just simply being in these kind of bodies where we have no control over death, we’re all going to do it. Sorry folks. None of us want it, and that’s where we’re headed. We don’t know when. And we don’t know where we’re going to go, where the consciousness will be after death. And just aging. You know? I didn’t sign up to be 65, but here I am. You know. And if I’m lucky I’ll keep getting older, because the other option is you-know-what.

So these are some of the things that we are thinking about fleeing from. And you know, I start thinking about refugees who flee from war and they cross over, you know, what can you rely on? You want to find something reliable, not from out of the frying pan into the fire, as we say. Which is mostly what we do. I take refuge in relationship A until that person doesn’t do what I want, and now I’m jumping over to refuge in relationship B! That’s what will be the answer! But they don’t do what I want either. So maybe C or D or E or F…. Um, yeah, okay…. Well, good luck.

So I just wanted to share, beyond that, a few of my favorite thinkers. And of course Geshe Sopa is one that many of us turn to. This beautiful three volume set, I think, it might be four. It’s headed towards five. Steps on the Path to Enlightenment. It’s his commentary on the Lam Rim Chenmo, the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. And you know you just open Geshe Sopa any day any page and you’re going to have such wonderful relief, so much to think about. But here’s what he says about the causes of going for refuge. He starts out by quoting Yongzin Yeshe Gyaltsen, who I don’t know, but here’s this wonderful stanza:

I’m on a difficult path to an unknown destination,

This is not describing someone else, folks. This is us.

I’m on a difficult path to an unknown destination,
When the way is blocked by the army of the Lord of Death,
I recognize that the pursuit of worldly treasure was a deception.
I regret it now, but it is far too late.

He’s pointing at: let’s think about this now. And let’s deepen our refuge now because later we don’t want to be in that position of “too late.”

And so what are we taking refuge in? You know, I was out from the Abbey this month two different times. Once in Portland, Oregon, once in Kansas City. And I was visiting family and friends and another Dharma teacher I have. And this was one of the meditations I was doing as I was going around saying, what are people taking refuge in? What am I taking refuge in in this moment? And we take refuge all day. We rely on things all day. You know, I was riding on an airplane and I realized, in a certain way, I’m taking refuge in this airline pilot and this airline, and in their safety precautions, and in the people that check airplanes and build them. Because I’ve stepped on this plane and said, okay, take me up 30,000 feet and fly me around. And then watching the kind of things that people grab for, again relationships is really big. Entertainment. Food. Distractions. This is what we do. This is so human. There’s nothing like it’s bad or anything. But just noticing when we get to our death, which of these things are we going to say, I wish I’d done a lot more. I wish I’d seen a lot more movies. I wish I’d read a lot more novels. Or are we going to say, I wish I’d been kinder to people. I wish I’d studies some more about what reality is, and the situation that I’m in.

So I love this, and here’s another one. Geshe Sopa never messes around. He can kind of get…. I think he scares our self-centeredness in a very nice way. So here’s another beautiful stanza:

Living in the bottomless ocean of samsara” (the situation we’re in)
My body is devoured by the sea monsters
Of insatiable desire (just endless desires:I don’t want it like that, I want it like this) and other afflictions (you know, endless anger, irritation, confusion rising)
Where can I go for refuge today?

He says,

The ocean of samsara is boundless in depth. When you live there you are eaten up by desire, hatred, and other mental afflictions, just like a small creature is devoured by crocodiles. So beginning immediately, take refuge to be protected from them.

And then we do this beautiful prayer that Venerable Chodron has given us. I’m just doing a time check here so I’ll probably end with this one. Twice a month it’s renewing our refuge and our precepts. She wrote this and it’s just a gorgeous comprehensive prayer. And it appears in our blue book which you can get from Amazon. Or write to the Abbey. “Pearl of Wisdom” And it’s got massive amounts of prayers and practices in here to keep you going.

So it says:

From beginningless time until the present, in my attempt to find happiness (which is what everyone’s doing), I have been taking refuge, but the things I rely upon have not been able to bring me the lasting state of peace and joy that I seek. I’ve taken refuge in material possessions (so think about that, we don’t feel good we go out and buy something, or we don’t feel good we go to our comfy little home and close the door and shut everybody out, so those are our material possessions, we go for a ride in our new car), I’ve taken refuge in money, status, reputation, approval, praise, food, sex, music, and a myriad of other things. And then (this is the key piece) these things have given me some temporal pleasure. (We acknowledge that. There’s nothing wrong with that. Enjoy all you want. We’re here to be happy. As long as it’s responsible.) But they lack the ability in themselves to bring me the lasting happiness. Why? Because they’re transient and do not last long. My attachment to these things has in fact (and really, a meditation on this is a great meditation) made me more dissatisfied, anxious, confused, frustrated, and fearful.

Think about that.

And I guess I do want to read this one thing Jack was talking…. I was talking to him this morning and he referred me to this book. This beautiful book by Pema Chodron on taking refuge. She has this wonderful couple sentences, I mean the whole chapter is just amazing. It’s called The Wisdom of No Escape.

Taking refuge in the Dharma….” So we’ve got the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. She’s referring to the Dharma. The Path. The teachings.

Taking refuge in the Dharma is traditionally taking refuge in the teachings of the Buddha. Well, the teachings of the Buddha are ‘Let go and open to your world. Realize that trying to protect your own territory, trying to keep yourself enclosed and safe, is fraught with misery and suffering. It will keep you in a very small, dank, smelly, introverted world that gets more and more claustrophobic and more and more misery producing as you get older.

Okay, so that’s just one little teeny piece of the kind of teachings and depth that we can look at. And on the next BBC that I get to do and then Thursday a week from this one, we’ll talk about why the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are reliable when these other things aren’t. What are the qualities that make a reliable refuge that you no longer have to run away from? Okay, so let’s keep going in the Dharma and supporting one another. Thank you.

Zopa Herron

Karma Zopa began to focus on the Dharma in 1993 through Kagyu Changchub Chuling in Portland, Oregon. She was a mediator and adjunct professor teaching Conflict Resolution. From 1994 onward, she attended at least 2 Buddhist retreats per year. Reading widely in the Dharma, she met Venerable Thubten Chodron in 1994 at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center and has followed her ever since. In 1999, Zopa took Refuge and the 5 precepts from Geshe Kalsang Damdul and from Lama Michael Conklin, receiving the precept name, Karma Zopa Hlamo. In 2000, she took Refuge precepts with Ven Chodron and received the Bodhisattva vows the next year. For several years, as Sravasti Abbey was established, she served as co-chair of Friends of Sravasti Abbey. Zopa has been fortunate to hear teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Geshe Lhundup Sopa, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Geshe Jampa Tegchok, Khensur Wangdak, Venerable Thubten Chodron, Yangsi Rinpoche, Geshe Kalsang Damdul, Dagmo Kusho and others. From 1975-2008, she engaged in social services in Portland in a number of roles: as a lawyer for people with low incomes, an instructor in law and conflict resolution, a family mediator, a cross-cultural consultant with Tools for Diversity and a coach for executive directors of non-profits. In 2008, Zopa moved to Sravasti Abbey for a six-month trial living period and she has remained ever since, to serve the Dharma. Shortly thereafter, she began using her refuge name, Karma Zopa. In May 24, 2009, Zopa took the 8 anagarika precepts for life, as a lay person offering service in the Abbey office, kitchen, gardens and buildings. In March 2013, Zopa joined KCC at Ser Cho Osel Ling for a one year retreat. She is now in Portland, exploring how to best support the Dharma, with plans to return to Sravasti for a time.

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