Wednesday, October 6, 2021

You Can Take Refuge Right Here... BY PAUL CONDON

Paul Condon draws on traditional Buddhism and Western psychology to show how the act of taking refuge is available to us in every moment, wherever we are.

“I don’t know what’s going on here, but I love you.”

My grandma Corriene died in January 2018 after suffering from dementia for years. My last visit with her was an awkward, failed attempt to interact. But as I said goodbye, something shifted, and there was an effortless, joyful, simple connection as she said those words: “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I love you.” We resonated for a moment longer, maybe not even for thirty seconds. In my mind, I can still picture her presence and how I felt as she beamed at me with love and curiosity while I put on my winter coat and hat. Years later, I realized that this simple moment of care could be the basis for meditative practice.

To take up the Buddhist path begins with taking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the accomplished sangha—other people and beings who embody qualities of awakening. In Buddhist cultures, taking refuge in Buddhist figures, lineage teachers, ancestors, and sangha provides a communal basis of support for meditation, which empowers practitioners in the challenging task of extending unconditional care to others with increasing unconditionality amidst the inherent difficulties of practice and life. In modern cultures, however, refuge in these communal sources of support can be more fraught—to ask a Western practitioner to take refuge can pose challenges due to prior traumas with family, communities, institutions, or difficulty connecting with religious icons from another culture.

Dialogue between Buddhism and modern psychology reveals a fresh way that practitioners can immediately access the benefit of refuge—to experience ourselves within a field of care and to be seen in our deepest potential, beyond our ordinary conceptual impediments. The objects of refuge mirror the enlightened potential in us, which helps draw out our capacity to extend care to others with more inclusivity, sustainability, and unconditionality. Concepts from Western psychology help reveal that sources of refuge have been presenting themselves throughout our lives, in many small moments. These moments can be drawn on as communal support for meditation—even in the absence of an in-person, flesh-and-bones community.

Grit and Willpower Are Not Enough

Like many people in the modern world, I first learned meditation by reading a book and attempting a daily practice, on my own, with the occasional support of recorded meditations. I conceived of meditation, without knowing it, as my own autonomous, self-help project. The other elements surrounding meditation—prayers, chanting, sacred art, and group meals—were nice, but in my mind, the most important focus was my effort to sit for long stretches of time.

I struggled my way through weekend retreats. Though I left with a feeling of spaciousness, each retreat included days of wrestling with difficult thoughts and emotions before any ease came. That seemed to me the essence of practice: with grit and perseverance, allow thoughts to exhaust themselves until a feeling of spaciousness dawned. Success seemingly came as the hours and days increased in my meditation app. But I continued to struggle, and I later came to see my limited understanding of meditation as part of my cultural conditioning as a citizen of the modern world.

Recent historical scholarship has revealed how Western meditation practices were adapted from communal forms of traditional practice into individualistic forms that reflect Western ways of thinking. In modern Western cultures, people tend to think of themselves as individuals that exist prior to any relation to others—as atomistic selves who choose whether or not to enter into any relationship or community, as David McMahan states in The Making of Buddhist Modernism. In contrast, people in premodern and Asian contemplative cultures have understood persons to be constituted by their relations to others within communities. For traditional Buddhist communities, a practitioner’s orientation to meditation focuses not just on efforts by oneself to generate qualities of care, equanimity, and so forth. Rather, they envision a field of refuge that includes buddhas, bodhisattvas, teachers, and other inspiring figures who bless and sustain them and their world within qualities of love, compassion, and wisdom. In this way, the person taking refuge learns to become an extension of that field of refuge by progressively extending the same qualities of love and compassion to others, to become a refuge for them.

There are many vivid examples of practices throughout Buddhist traditions that express a communal basis of support for meditation. The Buddha’s words in the Vatthupama Sutta (“The Simile of the Cloth”), for example, invoke the extension of love for all beings: “He [the bhikkhu] abides pervading one cardinal direction with a mind imbued with loving-care, likewise the second, the third, an the fourth: so above, below, around, and everywhere, and to all as to himself, he abides pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-care, abundant, exalted, immeasurable.” By reading these words, we can implicitly experience ourselves as recipients of the Buddha’s love and that of his followers, who have taken up practices of all-inclusive love before us. Buddhanusmrti and sanghanusmrti, the practices of recollection of the Buddha and sangha, involve bringing attention to the enlightened qualities embodied by the Buddha and the accomplished sangha. To imagine these qualities is to experience oneself as blessed and supported by the qualities of their practice.

In Mahayana scriptures, these practices are extended to an experience in which buddhas and bodhisattvas gaze into the meditator’s enlightened potential and into the destructive thoughts and reactions that obscure it. These powerful figures serve as models for practition-ers to take up the bodhisattva vow, as in Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara: “Just as all the Buddhas of the past have brought forth the awakened mind…Likewise, for the benefit of beings, I will bring to birth the awakened mind.” In Vajrayana traditions, a teacher’s job is to see into and resonate with students’ enlightened potential, empowering them to transcend their reductive impressions of themselves and others by joining in the deeper seeing by which they are seen (dag snang, pure perception). In his authoritative manual Moonbeams of Mahamudra, the Tibetan scholar and teacher Dakpo Tashi Namgyal repeatedly invokes teachers and holy beings as support for calm abiding (shamatha) and insight (vipashyana): “Rely upon spiritual mentors who have unerring knowledge…and who have shamatha and vipashyana realizations.” In this way, refuge is not only a starting point but also the basis for the deepest level of insight into the nature of our mind.

Concepts from Western psychology reveal that sources of refuge present themselves throughout our lives, in many small moments. These can be drawn on as support for meditation—even in the absence of an in-person, flesh-and-bones community.

These practices illustrate that there is an enlightened dimension to each of us. By calling to mind others who have actualized the enlightened dimension of their awareness, their qualities act upon our own enlightened nature, mirroring that dimension within us, even in the absence of their physical bodies. To keep our attention at that level is the key to the process of awakening—to recognize that a level of communication between beings is happening, and to become more receptive to it. By calling upon spiritual ancestors or other such benefactors, we learn to join them in relating to others in their awakened nature, rather than identifying with our superficial reactions to others as the final reality. This can empower us to relate to the buddhanature in others and in turn build a retinue of connectivity—a sangha—that supports further practice. This type of communication and connectivity has been happening since the beginning of Buddhism. With this foundation in place, meditation can reach much greater depth compared with an attempt to generate love and compassion as if on one’s own, from scratch.

Refuge and devotional practices pose clear challenges for modern Western culture. The rise of modernity has centered on increasing individualism and a growing mistrust in society, institutions, and family. The shift toward privatized religion leaves individuals free to adapt and make use of any element of a tradition they so choose. Yet the very notion of individuals engaging in meditation practice to strengthen capacities of love, wisdom, and compassion through their own willpower and grit can ironically reinforce that which Buddhism has always aimed to transcend: attachment to an autonomous, enduring self. Without the practice of refuge, we miss the experience of being seen through the eyes of our spiritual lineage—of being known through their embodied wisdom and compassion.

How can refuge and devotion be recovered for practitioners in the modern world? One avenue of support comes from the concepts and research findings of modern psychological science, which can help us experience patterns of traditional practice from Asian Buddhist cultures.

The Science Behind Refuge

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