The North Star: Taking Refuge in One Another

Monday, February 15, 2016 - 5:37am

The North Star: Taking Refuge in One Another

Taking refuge is not at all the same as declaring yourself a Buddhist, or rejecting anything else. It doesn’t involve adhering to a dogma or adopting a set of beliefs. Taking refuge begins with recognizing the fact that many of us feel cast off and alone.

When I was a college student, I was interested in meditation because I felt so fragmented and alone. I felt like the lonely steward of my own suffering. I wanted to take a step in a different direction. Even though the activity was meditation, which we tend to think of as a solitary an activity, it turned out to be a gateway to a larger and ever-expanding sense of community. I didn’t know it at the time, but while I was learning to show myself more generosity and compassion, I was also learning to show the same to others.

My first meditation retreat was with a teacher named S.N. Goenka. On the first evening of our retreat, Goenka led us in the tradition of taking refuge, which involves reciting three phrases — first in Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, and then in English:

"Buddham saranam gachāmi."
"I take refuge in the Buddha."

"Dhammam saranam gachāmi."
"I take refuge in the dharma."

"Sangham saranam gachāmi."
"I take refuge in the sangha."

We want a sense of refuge somewhere, a sense of home, and more than anything, a north star by which to navigate the sometimes perilous and often confusing journey we call life. Taking refuge in the Buddha is acknowledging he that was a human being, and that each of us has a capacity to break through conditioning, to know boundless love, to have wisdom, and to be free. Taking refuge in the Buddha is taking refuge in our own potential.

The word dharma means “the way” or “the path,” the truth of things, the laws of nature. We take refuge in the truth of things as they are. No need to hide from, obfuscate, or deny the reality of experience; how everything changes, how our actions are consequential, how suffering is a part of life, how interconnected we all are.

The funny thing to me about the three refuges is that the first two are referred to much more commonly than the third. Many people relatively familiar with Buddhism are aware of the Buddha, the historical person Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha is looked to as an inspiration because he asked, and answered, myriad questions about what it means to be human. The dharma — with its several, connected meanings, all generally related to the idea of the truth, the way things are — is also fairly well known.

Less well known is the third refuge, the sangha. The word sangha means “community.” We take refuge in the community of countless men and women, those who from beginningless time have sought a deeper truth, who didn’t just accept conventional understanding but themselves became exemplars of another way of being. As I listened to Goenka’s teaching about the sangha, I felt myself alive in history, present among all the men and women, regardless of religion, ethnicity and class, seeking happiness and freedom from destructive habits, painful situations, persecution, and more.

We take refuge in whatever current community we have who walks a path with us. This may mean those who share the same values we have, even if not the same practice as we do. It may mean those we feel OK being vulnerable with, so that we can accept a helping hand reaching out to us. It may mean those we feel called to reach out to when they seem vulnerable. Ultimately, it means the whole of life, no one left out, because our lives are so inextricably intertwined.

The practice of taking refuge felt immediately powerful. Even though the ritual is traditional, it felt so open, free, and fun. I felt connected with others all the way back to the time of the Buddha — all of us on a quest for freedom, for actualization of a capacity that was said to be within each of us, including me.

And I felt deeply connected to those taking that retreat with me. We were a band of about 100 people, mostly Westerners, from many countries, all drawn to that place in time, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, to see what we could do about our own. Forty-five years later, several people from that group are still amongst my closest friends.

Perhaps this is why, many years later, I was so drawn to teaching lovingkindness meditation. The practice of offering phrases of lovingkindness to ourselves, to a loved one, to a neutral person, to a difficult person, and then to all beings is an exercise in exploring this interdependence regularly. When I teach this method of meditating, I often hear from students that sending lovingkindness to “all beings” can be very difficult, as it’s the most abstract. But there’s something about the refuge of the sangha that helps us realize the richness of what it really means to be connected to “all beings.” It’s a powerful daily reflection, helping us to remember that we’re not so alone after all.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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In Judaism, at the close of the Sabbath we say: "It is God who is my salvation - I shall not fear...". That is our ultimate refuge.

Jews have God, Torah and Israel.

In Judaism, Buddhism's Metta compassion practice is understood as being inappropriate, as we shouldn't wish safety, health, happiness and other good things to ISIS, terrorists and others who only want ill for others. They are included in the category of "all beings."

That's the hard part. His Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds us that all beings are trying to be happy. Some of us just go about it in futile ways, harming ourselves and others in the process. But everyone has at their core the same bodhichitta, or whatever name you give to the underlying essence. The Christian platitude "Love the sinner, hate the sin" turns out to be pretty accurate. We can and must generate compassion for those miserable souls, and have the aspiration that they find peace and become free from the root of all suffering. Many Jews have practiced metta/maitri for Hitler. We can try this for ISIS members and see what we learn.

You've identified a fundamental difference between Buddhism and Judaism.

In Judaism, while there is an understanding that every person is made in the image of God and has a spark of godliness, it's their actions in the world determine how we relate to them.

If they are terrorists and murderers, we make every effort to control them and limit the effects of their violence. We don't send them wishes for safety, health and happiness, for those things only increase the suffering of the good people around them.

My friend the Zen roshi tells me he calls that "idiot compassion". That's when Buddhists don't differentiate between good and evil, and indiscriminately send wishes of safety and happiness to all sentient beings, including the murderers, rapists and terrorists. That's what I hear Sharon teaching. And perhaps it's also what you are advocating.

I wish I had my sangha. My fellow practitioners are global but not concentrated near here. The option may be to create my own. At 63 I am still reminding myself to be a leader and founder if there is no group yet to join.