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Taking Refuge

A Talk by Ines Freedman (IMC, June 28, 2010)
(Transcribed and lightly edited by S.C.L. Eiler)

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It’s good to see a lot of old friends. I haven’t been here on a Monday night for quite a while; so, it’s wonderful to see some of those familiar faces.

What I thought I’d talk about today is taking refuge. In Theravada Buddhism, taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is something that’s done on retreats, in ceremonies, at temples. But it can also be something that’s done at a certain point in our practice, where we reorient our lives in a way that we focus, that our entire lives are oriented towards what’s most important to us. I’ll talk about that, but starting somewhere else. First, I want to tell you a little about my personal life.

I grew up in a home where my parents were World War II refugees. They were very disillusioned in the world, and life, and in God, and so they were pretty much atheistic, but not only atheistic; I grew up with a very strong distrust of religion, of all religion. I saw religion as being, not the root of all evil, but kind of helpful to support the evil in the world, and a way to manipulate people. You know, when Marx talked about religion being, “the opiate of the masses,” I definitely resonated with that. So I was very leery about what religion was doing in this world, but at the same time I had a very strong spiritual longing.

When I was a teenager, I got involved with a Hindu-based yoga group that taught us to meditate and do yoga, but it was open, as it was in the times, anybody could come and you donated a flower. It was a very loose-knit group, and there was a teacher from India, and it was a really nice home. I started changing my whole life, the way I did everything. I started wearing all white (it signified purity) and eating a certain way. I stopped all distractions. I stopped reading books, except the ones that they made me read in school of course. No music, no distractions, just this spiritual life.

All my friends changed. I went to India with the teacher and it was all going well, and then very gradually the teacher started coercing us to convert to his religion. All of a sudden marrying people, saying, “you marry this person,” people who had never met before; and, just started telling people what professions to go into. It was a series of things that happened over a gradual period of time, and I was fortunate that my very strong distrust of religion was what allowed me to disengage from this group. It was a huge loss. My whole life was centered around it. I left the group very disillusioned, very angry, and it was more than a decade before I went back to meditation life.

I was introduced to mindfulness meditation by Jack Kornfield, and Jack was a breath of fresh air. The practice was very non-dogmatic; you didn’t have to believe anything. The whole practice was, ‘try it out, see what happens.’ One of my favourite quotations from the suttas was from the Kalama sutta, and to summarize it: Do not believe in anything simply because you’ve heard it. Don’t believe in tradition simply because it’s been around for many, many years; because it’s spoken or rumored by many; because it’s written in books; or, because teachers or people in authority or elders believe it; but, try it out, see for yourself if it rings true to you. And then, if it rings true to you, act on it with diligence, with effort. To me that was the heart of the practice.

That particular perspective allowed me to get involved in this practice. I started going to retreats, and at some point one of my teachers said that it was good to sit in a Sangha, in a group of people; and, I found out about this group, and in 1994, I joined the early IMC Sangha and started sitting with this group. It was very nourishing to me, and it was a really wonderful place to grow in the practice. Every once in a while Gil would invite a monastic, and they’d come here in their robes, and with the thousands of years old tradition, and a lot of religion. I never heard that we were supposed to believe anything, but there was a dissonance to me between the monastics, who not only brought the Buddhist religion as a religion; there was also the relationship to women in the countries that they came from, that their tradition came from.

It was very dissonant to me. The monks have 217 rules (I think it’s 217); and, here’s this whole practice about freedom, and here they have these incredibly tight rituals, and it was just like I didn’t know how to hold it. On the one hand, “try it out for yourself,” and then here’s this monk saying, “here’s all these rules.” Also, women in Asia, in the Theravada tradition, don’t have the rights of the men. If you go on retreat in Asia, the male monks eat first; then the men lay people, then the women nuns, and then the women lay people. Coming out of the feminist movement that just didn’t sit well with me. There was a little bit of religion here that was showing its shadow side; but, I met the monk and I sat with him, and one of the abbots of the monastery, and in the connection with him he was just this very loving, compassionate presence, this teacher, and he taught me the Dharma. I learned despite the fact that I just so disagreed with all this stuff. It was a very interesting thing to hold. It disturbed me, pushed my buttons, and so it kind of sat around for quite a while.

Continuing over the years coming here, and Gil would periodically do a refuge class. How many of you here have taken Gil’s refuge class? —So, some of you. He does that every few years. That seemed like, to me, taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, seemed a little bit religious. It had that kind of tone to me.

The Buddha said, when he was dying, there are different ways of translating this, but, “be lamps unto yourselves,” or “be an island unto yourself, be refuges unto yourself. Take yourself no external refuge. Hold fast to the truth as the lamp. Hold fast to the truth as a refuge. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.” And so, I wondered how did that work with taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. It was a little bit uncomfortable for me.

I was on a long retreat, and one of my teachers I really respected quite a bit gave this wonderful talk on taking refuge, and it was the only Dharma talk at the retreat (this was a very long retreat where they gave these beautiful talks every night) with which I couldn’t connect. I couldn’t find a way that, that actually gave me refuge. What does it mean to take refuge? One of the things that happened to me on my early retreats, almost every single retreat, I would spend very significant periods of my retreat with images of a lot of the horrors in the world, just showing up in my mind.

My parents had gone through some pretty horrendous life experience, and I’d grown up hearing about it, and so all those images would show up; and, how do you take refuge in the face of that? Where do you find refuge when the world can be so harsh and there can be so much suffering in the world? How can I take these words, how can they help? I went to my teachers during the interviews and this was really very up in my mind. I’d meditate but this would come up; it just kept coming up.

I said, “what does it mean to take refuge in the Dharma?” One of my teachers said, “the teachings,” but that kind of seemed a little bit dry at the time. And then another teacher said, “take refuge in nature. Walk around outside.” We were in a beautiful forest and the teacher said, “walk around outside and contemplate on what taking refuge in nature is.” So, I went for this really long hike and got bitten by all these black flies. I had these huge welts, and, you know, ‘I don’t think I’m taking refuge here.’

I just kept thinking about what is the heart of the Buddhist teachings. It’s The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. We hear all these other teachings and there are thousands of pages, but really the heart of it is, The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. I just spent actually several days for hours just hanging out with what did those mean. Could any of that really be a refuge to me?

And finally, as I sat with each one of the steps, I realized that the one thing I could do in the face of tragedy, in the face of great suffering, is to show up for it, to be present for it. It was really the only thing I could do, and that I didn’t have to turn away from it. That there’s a choice in those moments of suffering, where we can either rail against it, which doesn’t add anything good to the situation, or we can actually be there and witness it, meet it; and, respond in whatever way we can without adding suffering to the situation. If the situation is really very, very difficult, say major illness; it’s very, very painful; it doesn’t add anything good to say, “Oh! It shouldn’t be this way.” Right?

So, how do we meet that? When we meet that and we don’t add anything else, that’s where wisdom can arise, and that’s where I found my first feeling of, ‘ah, this is what refuge is.’ I can meet suffering just one moment at a time, one moment of suffering, one moment at a time. And so, I started a practice that day, of every sitting, every time I meditate, or most times, of starting my sittings with taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I don’t see it as a religious thing; I see it as skillful means. It’s really a very practical thing that the Buddha taught in The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path.

What I wanted to do is just go over The Eightfold Path and how I reflect on it each time that I sit. I will start with The Four Noble Truths, the first of which is the truth of suffering, that there is suffering in the world. There’s also joy in the world, but there is suffering. The Second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is craving, is wanting things to be different than they are, really wanting them to be different. If what’s happening is something we don’t like, we are unhappy, we want it to go away. If it’s something we like, we want to grab onto it; so, clinging is the cause of suffering.

Now it doesn’t mean that if you break your leg it’s not going to hurt. It doesn’t matter whether you cling or not, there’s still going to be pain; but, we refer to the clinging, that’s what we add on top of that. We have to deal with our pain; there’s no question about it. There’s oppression in this world. Oppression hurts. Our hearts hurt, but we don’t add any more suffering to it. We don’t spend our energy trying to resist what’s already there.

The Third Noble Truth is that suffering ends when we stop clinging, not pain but suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to ending suffering, The Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path, we talk about it in order, you know, one, two, three, four, but it’s really one thing, where each part of the path supports each other part of the path. I’m going to talk about them in order, but when I work with them in my own mind I don’t do them in order. I do them in the way that I connect with them personally.

The first part of the path is right view, and right view has two aspects. The first aspect is just the understanding that craving causes suffering, The Four Noble Truths. The second aspect is the understanding of karma, that everything we do, all our actions, whether they’re verbal, whether they’re actions of the body or actions of the mind; they all have consequences. They all have an impact, and they condition us. The more we do anything the easier it is to do it, right? The more you play, if you’re learning a song on the piano, if you hit a wrong note, every time you hit the wrong note it gets easier to hit the wrong note. Or if you hit the right notes you get better, and better and better. Whatever it is that we do with our minds, every thought actually conditions the next thought. A happy thought conditions a happy thought. A grumpy thought conditions you. You get a flat tire and you go, ‘oh, that ruined my day,’ and that sure conditions what’s going to happen the rest of the day.

The right view is the filter through which we live our lives. The view that we have if we see our entire life through this concept of, is there suffering, and can I let go of suffering? We live our lives very differently than if we live our lives trying to get something all the time. Right view, very naturally, when we see that all our actions and thoughts matter, naturally leads to the second part of the path, the second step, right intention; which is, well if everything matters, everything that’s going on in here matters, then I want to be kind. I want to be compassionate. I don’t want to cause harm in the world, either to myself or to anybody else, and I want to let go.

I want to be able to let go instead of cling. So those are the three right intentions. It’s just what naturally follows, when we really see our own suffering and we see our own clinging; and, when we’re connected with those three right intentions: kindness, compassion, renunciation, then we naturally live lives based on that. Our actions are going to be connections; we’re not going to steal, we’re not going to kill, we’re not going to abuse people. We’re not going to say cruel things to people. We’re going to speak in ways that create harmony in life. Our intentions just naturally go into the third, fourth and fifth steps of the path; which are our actions, or we call our ethics or virtue; which are, right action, right speech and right livelihood. Those are the things that we do in the world.

The sixth step of the path is right effort, and what we mean by right effort is actually taking responsibility for the state of our mind. It means that it’s the effort to cultivate skillful mental habits, and to let go of unskillful ones. That’s what right effort is, and you have to have enough wisdom from right view to know what is skillful, what do we cultivate. If we find ourselves, we just got a flat tire, and we go, ‘oh God, now I’m going to be late, my afternoon is ruined,’ and we wake up: we go, ‘oh yeah, look at this state of mind; I’m in this kind of dark state of mind.’ It’s not an accident it’s a habit. States of mind like that are habits. We don’t get what we want; we’re like little kids: ‘now I’m unhappy!’ You know, we’re not that different than four-year olds in a lot of ways.

Taking responsibility, okay, so here it is, this state of mind, I’m kind of feeling bummed out, feeling sorry for myself, but I don’t have to keep supporting that. It doesn’t mean that we become phony, we go, ‘okay, now I’m going to be always happy and a little prima donna.’ It just means that, okay, I have some mental habits going on right now that are unhelpful. They’re moving me towards suffering instead of moving me towards happiness; so, I can start cultivating and say, ‘okay, I’m going to stop, I don’t have to keep feeling sorry for myself.’ I can just come back to the present, and it’s okay, I’m just standing there, nothing terrible is happening, I just have to change a flat tire. So that’s wise effort, right effort.

The next step of the path, and again this is what we do in the cultivating of the mind in meditation and during the day, is right mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of what’s going on in the present: just knowing what’s happening without judging what’s happening, without resisting what’s happening but just really seeing what’s going on right now. Now, one of the things, we keep using the word, “right,” you know, “right this,” “right that.” What we mean by that is that, for instance, you could be very mindfully about to punch someone, and you could feel every muscle moving, and really, really be present for it, but that’s the missing word there, “right.”

So, right or wise refers to that it’s mindfulness in relation to right view. It’s always in that reference point of our view of, am I paying attention in a way that it’s skillful? Or, am I just paying attention, ‘yeah, I’m really, really bummed out. Yup, yup, I’m mindful, I’m really bummed out. Things are terrible, yup, very aware of it.’ How are we mindful? We’re mindful in the context of right view. None of these pieces of the path stand alone.

In the way that mindfulness helps us see clearly, concentration gives us the power to really penetrate and see even better. It gives us the strength to stay mindful, moment after moment, after moment. We can all be mindful, right? I mean, just right now you turn your attention up, ‘here I am.’ We can all do that, but concentration develops a steadiness of mind that allows the mind to stably keep looking, keep being here, steady, steady, steady.

All of these steps work together, and for the purpose of the way I like to think of it, is for disentangling the heart from craving. I like the word, “disentangling,” because that to me, it feels like this knotted thing which is kind of releasing inside me, whenever I have these moments of real freedom, it’s to me that feeling of like a bunch of knots just going, ‘ah!’ That’s the imagery that I like to use. This is the practice that I do, and what I’d like you to do with me is, I’ll just take about a minute to do this. If you’d like to close your eyes, and I’ll just briefly use the words that I use, and see as I say it, chose for a moment if you can connect with the meaning of these parts of the path.

Go ahead and close your eyes.

(Silence)

I take refuge in the still heart of the Buddha, in the stillness and peacefulness that’s available to me in the potential for awakening and compassion found in each one of us.

(Silence)


I take refuge in the Dharma, in this path of purification; in training the mind in mindfulness, connect with a moment of mindfulness; in concentration, keeping the mind steady; in the cultivation of wise effort; in living a life based on kindness, compassion and renunciation; in freeing the heart of entanglement.

(Silence)

I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of beings with awakened hearts, whose love and compassion support me. May I waken for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

(Silence)

(Bell)

(Silence)

BACK TO TALK:

If you’re inspired to work with The Eightfold Path on a daily basis, I think it’s really helpful to write it out in your own words, not memorize somebody else’s words, but really look inside you, what supports you, what words support your understanding of it.

I’d like to end with a couple of stanzas from the Dhammapada:

“People threatened by fear go to many refuges: to mountains, to forests, parks, trees, and shrines. None of these is a secure refuge; none is a supreme refuge. Not by going to such a refuge is one released from all suffering, but when someone going to refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha sees with the right insight The Four Noble Truths: suffering, the arising of suffering, the overcoming of suffering, and The Eightfold Path leading to the ending of suffering, then this is the secure refuge. This is the supreme refuge. By going to such a refuge, one is released from all suffering” (XIV, 188-192).

(Bell)

Thank you.

We have a few minutes, if anybody has any comments or questions.


QUESTIONS

Student 1: Could you explain the word renunciation, what you mean by that?

Ines: Very briefly, renunciation is letting go of clinging. For instance, some people sometimes they want to give money away, and they’ll give money as, they’ll make a donation, but they do it because they’re showing off. They want their name up in the lights, or they might do it because they feel guilty. They’re clinging to these different aspects; so, from the outside, by giving money looks like, ‘Oh, I’m renouncing some money,’ but it‘s really what’s in the heart. It’s the quality; so, maybe I give my best friend my favorite piece of jewelry, and I feel a little bit of a loss. There’s this little feeling of ‘oh!’ but my motivation is that I really want to see the joy in her. I practice renunciation even though there might be a little bit of that clinging there, but it’s done with the intention of letting go; not of, it’s not the outward letting go, it’s the inner letting go.

(Silence)

Ines: If anybody wants to share a new way that they use The Eightfold Path on a regular basis I would love to hear that too.

Student 2: I use The Eightfold Path regularly, naming it; so, when something comes up that’s an unhealthy mind state I say, ‘okay I’m mindful of it.’ I have the, whatever the steps are that I’m using, and when I’m sitting alone, obviously not here, when I’m sitting alone, I’ll actually say it out loud. I find what that does is it helps to draw me out of being so stuck and caught.

Ines: Great. Yes, often by doing something different it can get us out of a mind state. Sometimes people who are very angry, very upset, they’ll actually go for a walk. Just doing something different, it allows you to change what you’re doing. Speaking out loud is a great way to do that. Thank you.

Thank you all for being here and for sharing this evening with us, and practicing together. Have a good night. Thank you.