Alex Wright

Taking Refuge

March 13, 2003

He who knoweth the precepts by heart, but faileth to practice them, Is like unto one who lighteth a lamp and then shutteth his eyes.
- Nagarjuna
This Sunday morning, I will travel to Davis, California, to participate in the Refuge Vow, a ceremony to be led by David Schneider, a senior Buddhist teacher and former student of Shunryu Suzuki and Chogyam Trungpa.

The Refuge Vow marks an important step on the Buddhist path. It is the point at which one becomes, formally, a quote-unquote Buddhist. But to approach the Buddhist path in the context of religious affiliation is to miss the central point that Buddhism has little to do with �joining� anything.

It is a deeply personal proposition, a process of individual transformation depending on individual aspiration, critical thinking, and on one's ability to cultivate a true sense of compassion towards others. It is also a long, long road; and one does not become a Buddhist, in any meaningful sense, by showing up somewhere on a Sunday afternoon.

So what does it mean, exactly, to �take refuge�?

The vow itself consists of 18 simple words:

I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

The Buddha in which we take refuge is, on one level, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni; but this is not an act of worship. Rather, we are striving to recognize - and awake to - our own inherent good nature. All beings are said to have Buddha nature; by taking refuge in the Buddha, we are not bowing down to some external authority, but aspiring to cultivate our own basic goodness.

While the enormous body of teachings that constitute the Buddhist dharma constitute the closest thing to a Buddhist dogma, these teachings are never presented as articles of faith. One is always encouraged to think critically, to debate, criticize � even, importantly, to reject � anything that one finds questionable about the dharma. Taking refuge in the Dharma does not imply taking anything on faith; rather it is a profound commitment to exercising one's reason.

The Sangha, or body of fellow practitioners, support and encourage each other on the path. But they are not really a congregation, in the sense that there is nothing really to "belong" to. One turns to the sangha not for hymns or prayers or church committees, but rather to support each other directly in progressing along the path.

Having it Both Ways?

When I told my fianc�e Jennifer that I was contemplating the vow, she asked me:

�Does that mean you're giving up Christianity?�

I can always count on Jennifer to toss me the hardballs.

I suppose one could argue that Buddhism has a lot more to do with philosophy than theology. Indeed, most Buddhist teachers hold Christian teachings in high regard, and many Buddhists I know view Jesus as a fully enlightened being, deserving of the highest possible esteem. Saint Francis gets mentioned with astonishing regularity as an exemplar of a western Bodhisattva.

And no less an authority than the Dalai Lama has said: �I believe it is possible to progress along a spiritual path and reconcile Christianity with Buddhism.�

So, then, couldn�t I profess both Buddhism and Christianity - and avoid hurting anyone�s feelings?

Alas, it�s not quite that easy. While both traditions may have much common ground, they differ importantly on fundamental issues (like, for example, the existence of a single, all-powerful God). And while the Dalai Lama may accept the possibility of ultimate reconciliation, he also cautions that in terms of one�s day-to-day orientation: �[O]nce a certain degree of realization has been reached, a choice between the two paths will become necessary.�

So while I have gradually come to accept that I may not be able to have it entirely both ways, I nonetheless aspire towards the inclusive view of teachers like Thich Nhat Han, the legendary Vietnamese Buddhist monk who once wrote:

On the altar in my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors.

The Big Question

Having dipped in and out of the Buddhist path for the better part of fourteen years, I find myself compelled to explain (at least to myself) why I feel the need to take this step � and why now?

After all, it�s not as if I�m planning to become a monk. I have no aspiration to go live on a mountaintop, shave my head, or spend the rest of my life reciting mantras. I fully intend to go on living my current worldly life: working, looking forward to marriage, family, the whole samsaric routine.

Wouldn't it be far easier to go on living as a kind of spiritual free agent, sampling whatever tradition happens to pique my interest that week, maybe shlepping to church a few times a year, maybe trying a bit of meditation now and then. Life is hard enough - why overcomplicate things when I could spend my life getting comfortably by in a state of secular limbo (or perhaps the Tibetan �bardo� � �between-state� - is a better word?). Why not just slow down and take it easy?

A few months ago, I went to hear a lecture by the English-born Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, who went to live in Nepal in her early twenties and returned to the west after a twelve-year retreat. Her message was simple: if you are going to consider the Buddhist path, you ought to take it seriously. She gently derided the spiritual dilettantism that characterizes the way so many Americans approach Buddhism (what Chogyam Trungpa called �spiritual materialism�). She encouraged us to sit down, take a hard look at ourselves, and ask whether we were prepared to take this whole business seriously.

I wonder how many of us took that world religion class in college, maybe read a book, even tried meditation? How many of us have dabbled with this or that technique, sampled the enormous buffet of religious and spiritual traditions available to us in this cross-cultural age - only to leave them behind when the thrill wore off?

By taking the Refuge Vow, I suppose I am making a commitment to stay on this path after the thrill wears off, to stick with it after I get bored. To take the whole business seriously.

By this time next week, I will be entitled to call myself a Buddhist. How will it feel? Will I feel one step closer to enlightenment? Will I have some kind of weird twinkle in my eye? Will I levitate? I don�t know, I doubt it. My suspicion is that there will be no fireworks, that I won�t be walking on air, that when I get home the dishes will still be dirty, the laundry will need putting away, and there will still be bills to pay. The Buddhist path is a long road; and to expect instant results is to guarantee oneself a profound disappointment.

Walking on air (or stepping on eggshells?)

By this time next week, I will be a quote-unquote Buddhist. How will it feel? Will I feel one step closer to enlightenment? Will I have a weird twinkle in my eye? Will I be levitating? I don�t know, somehow I imagine not. My suspicion is that there will be no big fireworks, that I won�t be walking on air, that when I come home the dishes will still be dirty, the laundry will need folding, and there will be bills to pay. It is a long road; to expect instant gratification is to guarantee onself profound disappointment

Perhaps - if I can allow myself a small hope - I will feel at least a positive nudge of inspiration, and allow myself to enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that I have taken at least a small - but determined - step forward along the path.

March 2003
San Francisco

File under: Dharma

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