Refuge, pt. 1Download
Participants’ experience of previous week’s meditation on trust; an exercise in trust; overview of material covered to date; the importance of a foundation to spiritual practice; origin of refuge; in what can one trust; outer, inner and mystery interpretation of the three jewels; each jewel meets a different motivation; meditation instruction for the upcoming week: what needs to happen for me to take refuge seriously? The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 8.
Ken: February 19th. This is the seventeenth class—eighteenth, thank you—eighteenth class in the Then and Now. Last week we looked at loving-kindness and compassion. This week we’re going to be looking at refuge.
At the end of last week I gave you very briefly two or three things to think about and to reflect on, and I’d like to hear from you. I think the first one was, “In what do you trust?” So, and rather than answering these questions, what I was interested in—like, I trust this or I trust that—what I am particularly interested in and wanted you to explore is, when you ask this question, what do you experience in your body physically, emotionally, and cognitively?
So, we have a couple of mikes. Who wants to start? One of the great advantages about the podcasts is that it has whittled this class down to a relatively small group so I can actually put everybody on the spot. And those who don’t want to be on the spot listen to the podcasts. Art?
Art: What I noticed immediately is a complete disconnect from my body.
Ken: When you asked this question?
Art: Yeah. My mind would immediately just go, “Okay, well what do I trust?”
Ken: So you’d start to think?
Art: I’d immediately start to think. And then when I caught myself doing that, it became readily apparent why I immediately start to think. Because there was an unbelievable amount of nervousness in the body about this. I mean, my stomach would just start to churn, and there was a great deal of anxiety, and just real nervousness over it.
Ken: It sounds like it’s—there’s some fear in there as well?
Art: Um. Yeah, yeah, a little bit. Yeah.
Ken: Okay. Did you go any further with it?
Art: Yeah. It would…I can’t…what would happen—what would seem to happen next is I would start to breathe and calm myself down and rest with the breath. So I think I am missing a step in there.
Ken: So, you know, just calm yourself down from these traumatic questions.
Art: Yes. And then, cognitively what arose out of this as I was, you know, resting with the sense of being nervous and just trying to be with it as best as I could, is—the answer in my head immediately kept coming back—“Well, you trust your experience, you trust your experience, you trust your experience.” When it was, “Well, no, I really don’t.” And I think that was what was causing the disconnect: some sort of realization that I don’t necessarily really trust what I should.
Ken: Okay. Can you say a bit more about not trusting your experience?
Art: What became apparent to me the more I sort of sat with this on and off throughout the week was that in a sense I sort of trusted what was familiar. And to that extent it’s my experience, because it’s my past. But there was sort of this other type of understanding or realization. I can’t articulate it.
Art: Yeah, yeah. That at times I would trust and at other times I would just acknowledge and just turn my back on it.
Ken: This knowing—from the way you are talking about it, I am inferring that it wasn’t a conceptual knowing. Or it isn’t a conceptual knowing. It’s a different kind of knowing.
Art: If by that you mean [not] an intellectual knowing, correct, correct, yeah.
Ken: Okay. All right. Thank you. Anybody else? Susan.
Susan: I confess I was not in class, and I didn’t know about this assignment. So I didn’t do it. I read the book chapter.
Raquel: Well, as opposed to last week, where I was having a lot of difficulty with the kindness exercise, I actually felt quite a bit of peace with this one. I don’t know if peace is the right word, but when I asked myself, “What do I actually trust?” I felt…I felt relaxed. And what I felt like came was almost, sort of, this feeling of peace. So I thought well maybe I am just making this easier than it should be. So I recalled like the most difficult, horrible times in my life, places—like the darkest times. And in that moment, “What do I actually trust?” And it was still there, and it was still the same.
Ken: Okay. What do you experience physically at that?
Raquel: Kind of an upright posture. Not…I’m not sure…
Ken: Tension in the body?
Raquel: Not that I recall.
Raquel: Yeah, I felt relaxed.
Ken: Okay. Does the body feel heavy, light?
Ken: Okay. All right. Pat. You want to throw anything in here?
Pat: I trust no one. I wasn’t, I for some reason thought there was no class. So I wasn’t here and I didn’t listen.
Pat: But trust is huge with me. And it’s interesting that this is what it is, because I interpret things very often as, to be things that I have to be on my guard about when very often they’re neutral or they’re sometimes even in my best interest. Or not in my best interest, but they’re…but they’re…sometimes people even trying to help me. But I interpret them as I have to be on my guard.
Ken: As a potential threat.
Pat: As a potential threat. And it just came up this week, where a military wife emailed me asking me about if there was a business proposal for my new project, and my immediate reaction was, “Oh no. Oh no. How do I get out of this?” And I actually was able to step back, not answer her, walk away, go for a walk, think about it, and be willing to consider that the inquiry was maybe that she was trying to help me. And to consider looking at that question differently.
Pat: Without knowing really what the truth was behind the question.
Ken: But not relying on a pre-formed assessment.
Pat: Right. And it didn’t make me want to deal with her necessarily any more. But I was willing to look differently, to consider looking differently at the question.
Ken: So, in that process, what were you trusting?
Pat: I wasn’t trusting as much as—I was trusting that there was more than one possibility? No?
Ken: Okay, all right.
Pat: I was trusting that there was another possibility other than my own mind. Does that make sense?
Ken: Yes. Thank you.
Pat: I was trying to trust that there was something other than me in the equation.
Ken: Okay. Thank you.
Pat: But the sensation when I saw that email was just dread. I have dread a lot. If dread‘s a feeling. It’s not fear or maybe that is fear.
Ken: Dread is a form of fear. But that’s the default setting.
Pat: Just…just…oh, can I go back to bed. [Laughter] Just like please don’t make me have to…
Ken: Okay. Alex. The second question was, “What way do you trust? What path or way?”
Alex: I would probably just say that I trust effort, making an effort.
Ken: Okay. Joe. I think the third question was, “How do you know what you trust?” Is that right? Yeah. How do you know?
Joe: I wrote these questions all down perfectly…
Joe: …on a piece of paper, but when I got to actually meditating with them I seemed to keep looking for the answers.
Ken: Instead of the experience?
Joe: Instead of the experience.
Joe: Right. The answers indicated to me that I was in great unease at the question. And I was not happy with the answers.
Ken: Like Art?
Joe: And then I got to the point where I wondered what the word meant and what I was actually asking. And could not actually come up with an answer to that.
Ken: Okay. Cara.
Cara: I didn’t really—I didn’t like this one much. Thanks for that.
Ken: Too bad. [Laughs]
Cara: Right. I…I don’t know…I’ve been on a path where I’ve felt a lot of trust in my decisions and in, you know, the people around me and like that. But I found that like from the moment you posed this question, I have done nothing but fight with my boyfriend. [Laughter] And it’s all around trust. And in one particular instance he was telling me that you can’t trust feelings. [Laughter] Like if I say, “When you say X, I feel Y.” He would say, “You can’t trust your emotions on that.” And so I would just stand there like dumbfounded. Not…I mean…but yes, you can, you know? And then how do you argue the semantics of feelings? So I don’t know what I trust. I know that when I feel that doubt in my own—I know that I feel a lot of doubt when the question of trust comes into the equation.
Ken: Okay. Thank you. Julia.
Julia: Well, I’m in the same boat as Pat all around the block, because I didn’t…I wasn’t here last week, and I didn’t listen to the podcast, and I experience a lot of dread.
Ken: [Laughs] Okay.
Julia: So it’s pickle jinx.
Ken: Chris, did you have a chance?
Chris: No. I actually…as you know, I didn’t even know that I was going to be here.
Ken: Chris literally stepped off a ship.
Chris: Yeah, so I haven’t kept up with this part of the podcast.
Ken: Okay. All right.
Chris: But trust, what comes to mind for me is trusting letting go, you know, having that ability to let go and trust that process.
Ken: Yeah. We are going to talk about that tonight. Lynea, Steve. [Laughs] What you got?
Lynea: What I’ve noticed is that my responses to this question have changed. The first time there was something very specific, and when I did it today it was very specific. So I feel like…what I do know is that what I quote unquote trust is not consistent. It changes…it’s…I don’t know what the word is.
Lynea: Yes. And it really matters what’s happening at that moment. Which relates to something I felt the first time I sat with the question. Which was that just the question, “What do I trust?” immediately for me, internally, felt like I was crusty and like I was hanging on a part of myself onto something. And there was a real distinction between “What do I trust?” and “What do I know?” And so almost, like, when I was asking that question, well, “What’s the point what I trust?” I didn’t like what I trusted. It pointed to what—behavior, so that was useful.
Ken: Can you give an example?
Lynea: Yeah, well the initial thing was, “What do I trust?” I trust money because I ‘m making decisions around work and safety and security. And that that felt very much like, you know, as long as I have income in a certain way, then I will be okay. But underneath that, it didn’t, it wasn’t the same thing. Yet…there was a very distinct split. This is what I’m doing—and this is what I know. And I could feel them both.
Ken: And with respect to money, what do you know?
Lynea: That I can’t know it. Does that make sense?
Ken: I’m going to venture something. You know you can’t trust it.
Lynea: Yes, but I don’t like the word trust.
Lynea: I really feel when the word trust—it feels like where do I hang my self and fears…
Ken: Yeah. I chose the word quite deliberately.
Lynea: I’m sure you did. Okay.
Ken: Steve. Thank you.
Steve: I immediately go to the work I do, because I was trying to see if…if trust plays into artistic expression. Is it that you’re trusting what will come out, and it didn’t seem like the right word for that. So…
Steve: It seemed like that’s…that’s so much of a getting out of the way. It’s not that you are trusting that something is going to happen. It’s that you’re trying to get out of the way so that you are present in the experience. So I was…the word didn’t resonate entirely with what the experiences of creation…of creating artistically.
Steve: Because you don’t trust. You don’t ever know each time. That’s why the word didn’t—trusting would mean it’s gonna happen. And you never know. So you have to get out of trusting or not trusting for that. So then I looked into—I had an experience of—having an anxiety over a work thing at two in the morning, which is a great time to have it. And that’s where it came into play where I was able to trust that I was playing a hate game with myself. And I was actually able to just let it go. And that was a form of trust, I felt. Like just, this is what I do, I do it at two in the morning so I can’t sleep, and it’s really not probably that valid, and you can trust that to some extent—and that’s where the trust word resonated more with me.
Ken: Raquel, you have something to add.
Raquel: Well, Steve just made me think of this. When sitting, I felt like I was—I was at some point and maybe even off the cushion—thinking about trust in terms of results positive or negative. And where I got to with reflecting on this very difficult experience was, I didn’t trust that there was going to be some positive result. All I trusted was that even in this, pretty much the worst situation of my life, I’m still going to be okay.
Raquel: So that was just like getting away from the result, the results.
Ken: Okay. We are going to have to take this a step further.
Student: Can I say something about that?
Student: In the—because the bigger picture is that while I don’t trust anything, I think that many of us would be gone by now if we didn’t trust.
Student: It’s sort of like why—I think every day you sort of make a decision.
Ken: Oh, there is trust operating—
Student: You sort of trust the existence of being a human being or you would just…you’d kind of leave.
Ken: Oh, there’s trust operating all of the time. And sometimes the trust—one of the ways I’m interpreting what you were saying Lynea, is that what you trust depends on which realm you’re in. And it keeps changing according to the realm. That’s what I inferred from your comment.
And others of you are talking about a trust which isn’t realm-dependent. But I’d like two volunteers. There’s Cara.
Student: It’s hard to volunteer without even knowing why.
Ken: Yeah, well, you’re here for a reason. Anybody else? Joe, thank you. You both stand up here. You have a choice. And you can decide between who’s going to trust. Do you want to do the trusting or do you want…or Cara do you want to do the trusting?
Joe: I’ll do the trusting. I’m not…
Ken: Okay. Turn your back. No, no. Okay, you are going to catch him. Exactly.
Cara: I knew you were going to do trust falls.
Ken: [Laughs] So Joe, just lean back. Okay. Now, thank you, Cara. Thank you for catching him. What was that like, Joe?
Joe: I have to admit to having a lot of experience with it.
Ken: Use the microphone please.
Student: Well, it’s okay…he’s an actor…
Joe: I have to admit to having a lot of experience with that exercise, as an actor. It is easy and fun. And I was glad to get back to it. [Laughter]
Ken: Now, how many know this exercise? How many have not actually done it? Everybody here has done it! Interesting! Okay. At the moment that you lean back, what are you trusting?
Cara: That you’re going to get caught.
Ken: What are you trusting at the moment that you actually lean back?
Student: The other person.
Ken: That you are going to get caught by the other person. You sure? Cara?
Cara: I could take all day. Um, I think that this exercise—or not this exercise, but the whole trusting is sort of synonymous with faith.
Ken: At the moment that you lean back, you make the decision. There you are—there’s that person whom you know or you think you know or you think you can rely on or whatever. But right at that moment when you let yourself go off-balance, so you’re committed. What do you trust right at that moment that you make that transition? What’s actually happening?
Cara: You’re making a choice.
Ken: I know. And what are you trusting? What is happening in you at that moment?
Student: You’re not going to get hurt?
Julia: You are trusting in your own capacity to let go of fear and move into the experience.
Ken: Uh, there’s too many words.
Student: You’re going to be okay.
Julia: You’re actually trusting in your capacity to just do it.
Ken: Okay. Go a bit further.
Julia: Without hesitation.
Ken: Do you know what is going to happen?
Ken: So right at that moment, what are you trusting? Or to put it slightly differently, right at that moment, what is happening in you?
Julia: You’re resting.
Ken: Yeah. There is an opening right there. Okay. That, to me, is the essence of trust.
Julia: Yeah, that’s what I wanted—I guess I wanted to interject that earlier. That when you say trust it has a lot of connotations to it. Whereas being able to rest in what is happening somehow seems to me to be more…an accurate description of what you’re…
Ken: Well, yes, but there’s only a moment resting, so that’s why I didn’t want to use the term resting. But what I am trying to get at here, and this is highly relevant to our discussion of refuge, which we are going to go on to in a minute, is that at the moment of trust…let me back up for a sec.
Many of you described a whole set of emotional reactions that come up around the word trust and the act of trusting. And that’s normally what we associate with the word trust—that it has a lot to do with emotional reactions and our relationships with people and how we feel about them, and so forth, and situations.
And when I was writing the commentary on the Heart Sutra, I looked into this because there was a certain point where I wanted to, I decided to translate a certain phrase using the word trust even though that’s not strictly…normally how that particular Tibetan phrase is translated. But experientially that seemed to be what they were talking about. And I found several of my colleagues just took tremendous issue with it because they thought this was about emotional projection. But what I’ve been trying to point you to here is that in the actual moment of trust, you are just opening to whatever is there. And as you’ve said, Cara, letting go. And there’s an experience of no separation, however brief, right there.
And another way of putting it, which is my own vocabulary—at that moment, you are trusting nothing whatsoever. It’s just like—there. And I think that element of openness is present whenever we actually act on trust. Because we don’t actually know. And we’re just trusting, we’re just opening to what actually is, without any reservation, even if it is only for a fleeting moment. Does this makes sense to—? Okay. So, thank you. Julia, do you want to say anything more?
Julia: Yeah, I guess I just had one thought about trust. Because there’s a whole literature on trust. And some of it takes this interpretation you’ve got. But in economics there’s something called calculative trust, which is based on reputation.
Ken: Rational choice theory?
Julia: Yes, exactly. So I think that’s where I get some of the confusion. But I’m also realizing as you’re talking, that that sense of dread that I experience is how do I know that I really know, or when I’m just not hornswoggling myself?
Julia: That is, am I doing this, am I sort of releasing into this out of clarity or out of confusion?
Julia: Is this some sort of tyrannical sort of subtext there that is itself reactive.
Ken: Yeah. And this links to Lynea’s comment about realm-based trust. Because then our trust is based on a projection and is intrinsically problematic, because it’s not based on actual experience but based on a distortion of it. And that is a very valid concern. And if we want to reduce the whole discussion on refuge down to one point, it is about cultivating a non-realm-based trust in experience. That’s a very different wording for refuge. But I think we could make an argument that that’s what it’s actually about.
So let’s turn to the text. Now that we’ve consumed a good half of the class on that. I think it’s worth it. I think these experiential things are much…
I’m going to work principally from Konchog Gyaltsen’s commentary. This begins on page 137, which is beginning of chapter 8, Refuge and Precepts.
Now, just to remind you where we are in the book. We started off with an examination of the genesis of spiritual practice, and that was the first chapter on Buddha-nature. And then the working basis, or the framework in which this was possible, which is the precious human existence. The factor, the condition which is crucial, which is association with a spiritual teacher, someone who can show the way and guide and reveals possibilities. And then we got into methods of instruction: clearing away a number of very specific obstacles. So the attachment to the reality of this life is cleared away by contemplation on death in which we come to realize, or we come to appreciate, the distinction between the life in which we think we live—which is the life of shared experience and society and trading and interaction and relationships and jobs, careers, families, and so forth—and the life in which we actually exist, which is simply what we experience: thoughts, feelings, sensations. That’s it. And in that world, it is meaningless to talk about trading or sharing experience or interaction, because it’s a world of experience.
And then there is the—what’s the problem in that world? Well, the problem in that world is that most of the time we aren’t relating it to that world; we’re relating to it as the projected world, that is, the six realms. What’s the problem with that? Well, they’re all, none of them are very much fun. Some of them are more fun than the others, but none of them are very much fun, and none of them are really satisfying—and cannot satisfy, because of the imbalances which are present in the basis, in the genesis of each of those realms.
And how do those realms come about? Well, that’s what we explored through the workings of karma—which is the way that our actions condition what we think, what we say, what we do—sets in process…sets in motion a process of evolution which gives rise to these solidifications of these projected realms. And then…and so, this gives a good basis of impetus for saying, “Okay, I want to get out of this mess, I want to get out of this cage.” And then, and then get some sort of peace.
And the last thing that we did, which is what we focused on last week, was that in order to come to some real freedom, every aspect of our experience has to be engaged in that. And one of the mythic ways that they talk about, that one talks about every aspect of one’s experience, is to talk about “all sentient beings.” Because in the world of experience all sentient beings are a reflection, essentially, of every aspect of our mind, every aspect of our experience. And so this raises the possibility and engenders the intention to wake up completely, i.e., buddhahood. And the only way we can do that is by being willing to relate to every aspect of our experience, which in another way of looking at that is to be able to relate and be willing to open to the possibility of waking up every person and every being with which we come in contact. So it becomes a HUGE thing. Which is actually very wonderful, because it moves us away from a solipsistic self-interest.
Now, what we start with the chapter on Refuge is how do we actually do this? Everything up to this point has been motivational or groundwork or preparatory, however you want to look at it. And in saying that—and I much prefer the word groundwork rather than preparatory, because I notice a penchant in this culture for everybody wanting to skip over the preparations and get to the “real thing.”
When Rinpoche came to the West, he was not particularly interested in tourist attractions. You know, you’d take him to Niagara Falls, and he’d say, “Yes, that’s nice. We have that in Tibet.” And so forth. But what he was absolutely fascinated by was construction. [Laughter] And, you know, if there’s…when you are in Toronto, at a new construction site, he’s just go and sit. And you know how construction works. The first thing when they’re building a big building is they dig down into the ground a very long way, they put all of that foundational stuff in, etc, etc. And then they put the footings for the construction crane, etc. And that’s what takes the time. Once they start building, the thing just goes sheeewww! up, like very, very quickly. And Rinpoche was just fascinated with this.
But all of that, you can call it preparatory work, but it’s really the groundwork that forms the basis for everything that comes after it. So what we’ve been talking about is in the opinion of many, many teachers, they like to say that the groundwork is more important than the actual practice. And there’s a reason for this, which, and a quotation from A Course of Miracles sums it up very nicely. If I can remember exactly how it goes— which I can’t, but I’ll get it close: Teachers always emphasize foundations, because when the foundations are in place, change comes about naturally.
And this is something that Kalu Rinpoche just drummed into…I mean, I don’t know how many times I translated—I listened to or translated or did both—Dharma Talk 101: You are going to die; Six Realms; Karma, etc. Over and over and over again. But certainly through my own practice I’ve come to appreciate that when you really take into…really understand and appreciate I’m going to die, so this experience which I call life, this is all I’m ever going to know. What am I going to do with it? This is entirely up to me. And from that point of view, it’s a bit existentialist, but I have to take responsibility for this. There isn’t anybody else. There isn’t anybody who actually lives my life. This is mine and mine alone. And it’s up to me to find my way in it in a way which brings peace, understanding, openness, balance—whatever you want. And increasingly, as one explores that, one finds oneself moving into deeper and deeper understandings. But it’s all about becoming clearer and clearer in one’s own experience. So this is the process, this is the section we are going to start now.
And it goes through…I’m going to start on page 138 here, Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels. Now this is why I posed the question, “In what do you trust?” and wanted you to explore to some extent, anyway, all of the emotional stuff that comes up in connection with that. Because what refuge is—refuge is a metaphor. It goes back very, very early in Buddhism. Buddha himself may have used it. And it’s a refuge that…it is a metaphor, that comes from a medieval culture.
Now, how do things work in a medieval culture? Medieval cultures first and foremost are almost all feudal cultures. And in a feudal culture things work very simply. You have a warlord, who can be a king or a baron or something like that. And he’s got a big castle, and it’s got good fortifications. And he’s got an army; he’s got troops. And around the castle are all of the serfs, the peasants, who are farming land. And, but the problem is that there is a whole bunch of these castles, and everybody wants to get more land and more produce—things haven’t changed that much over the centuries—and so there is a war that takes place. I mean, China was a wonderful example of this in the Warring States period there was—that’s a period that goes from about 500 BC to 200 BC approximately. Three hundred years of continuous warfare. Which is why—that period of time which gave rise to the Art of War and later Mastering the Art of War. It’s a really deep understanding of what takes place in warfare, because they had three hundred years of it, almost without break. And it ended in, I think, 215 BC when an empress finally succeeded in uniting China under one emperor. And that put an end to it.
So, if you are a serf and another of these warlords come, what’s going to happen to you? You’re going to be—your land’s going to be burnt, things are gonna happen, you’re likely gonna be killed, your family is going to be taken away, because that’s what the other warlord is going to do. And so what do you do? You run to nearest castle for help. You run to the nearest castle for refuge. So it was something to protect you from the vicissitudes of the world. That’s the origin of this metaphor. Now the question is, “Where do you run?” And lots of people run to god. How helpful is that? Well, one has to take a look at how Buddhism views gods versus how theistic religions view gods.
From the Buddhist point of view, gods are just other sentient beings. They have a bit better karma, so they have a nice heaven, they’ve got lots of power, etc., etc. And some of them think they created the world; some of them think they are in charge of destroying the world; some think that they are maintaining the world—that’s Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. But from the Buddhist cosmology, everything is impermanent. And the gods themselves, when their karma is exhausted, recycle in samsara.
So from this point of view, can a god provide you with refuge from vicissitudes of your life? And the answer is, No. Okay. We can interpret that a little more deeply by saying any projection on our part cannot protect us or shelter us or provide refuge from the experience of suffering. So, nothing in the six realms works, and this includes things like money, and fame, and beauty, and reputation—all of which are things that people do take as sources of refuge. That is, a lot of people—a very large number of people in this culture—feel that if they get a certain amount of money, then they will be safe. Well, that’s fine until the bank collapses. You know? And then the money is gone. As people in England found when Northern Rock ran into trouble, and it’s being nationalized now. Same thing with Enron in our culture. People thought they had their pensions nice and locked away, and kaboom, suddenly, it was all gone. Don’t forget: money these days doesn’t exist as such. It’s simply some binary digits associated with your name. Which is truly frightening, actually, because all it takes is a certain amount of magnetic fluctuation and it’s all gone. Right?
Student: That’s why the price of gold is now $900 an ounce.
Ken: Yeah, well, and it’s not going to stop there, probably.
Ken: Some people think that if they’re famous enough, some people think if they have enough power. So refuge is an exploration of—in a very deep level—in what can I actually trust. And the answer, from a Buddhist point of view, is we can’t trust an external savior; we can’t trust anything outside of us. The only thing we can actually trust is the natural openness and clarity of our own…in our own experience. That’s what Buddha is.
Now, another thing we have to remember is that in the Tibetan formulation of Buddhism, as I’ve said a few times before, Tibetan Buddhism started over a thousand years after Buddha lived. So there was a thousand years of history. And this is in some sense quite analogous, say, to the development of the medieval church in the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in Christianity, where the original teachings had gone through many formulations and many layers of symbolism had been built up.
You read in here that—it says that in order to be able to develop awakening mind, bodhicitta, you have to have taken the vow of refuge. Well, this is very interesting, because in the Theravadan tradition there isn’t any vow of refuge. So are those guys out of luck, or—you know? And the Theravadan tradition derives from a much earlier formulation of Buddhism, basically within about the first five hundred years [after] Buddha lived.
And the nature of the evolution of religions is that things which were natural become codified, and then they become ritualized. And they are made into very, very specific forms. And that’s what we are dealing with refuge. There is a vow of refuge in the Zen tradition, but it’s not terribly, not a great deal of emphasis is placed on it.
Part of the reason that it is so heavily emphasized in the Tibetan tradition is that in 1042 Atisha came to Tibet and saw that over the two hundred years that Buddhism had been practiced, there were a lot of problems. A lot of corrupt practices had entered in, and people were doing high-level meditations without a proper foundation. So he went around insisting on a proper foundation and giving this vow of refuge over and over again. And shortly before he died he was told that his nickname in Tibet was the “Refuge Scholar,” because he was one of the great scholars of Indian Buddhism. And he went, “Hmmm. Oh well. Maybe I did some good here after all.” He was quite pleased with that. He wasn’t so concerned about the founding of monasteries, etc., but if he was known as the Refuge Scholar, then he felt that he had done something that might be worthwhile.
Now, in the classical formulation in Tibetan Buddhism, we say we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—the three jewels. This is in the Theravadan tradition and in the Zen tradition, you take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. But how Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are understood varies greatly. One of the facets of the Tibetan tradition, and when you get into Vajrayana you find this over and over again, is there’s the outer, inner, secret, and ultimate interpretation of everything. Sometimes there’s just the outer, inner, and secret, but the secret and the ultimate are sometimes equated with each other. But there are almost always at least three levels of interpretation. And this is actually a very useful framework.
In terms of the three jewels: the outer—I’m going to call this the exoteric understanding of the three jewels—is the historical Buddha; the volumes of teaching—that’s the Dharma; and the monastic Sangha. So, the historical Buddha appeared in India, or was born in India, approximately 2500 years ago, lived a life, and in the course of that life came to an experience which he regarded as central to the human condition and taught about it for approximately, well, at least forty, closer to sixty years. And very different from Christ’s ministry, which was three years. He lived a life and died, I think, in his eighties. And if you recall his last words were, I’ve shown you the way. Work out your own freedom. And this is the way we regard the Buddha, not as a savior, not as a supernatural being that governs the world, but as a human being who came to an understanding and showed or revealed what was possible. And in that sense the Buddha—the metaphor for the Buddha is the teacher.
So he showed the way. And then he taught the way, and that’s the Dharma. That’s one of the meanings Dharma is the way. So we have this huge volume of teachings which have come down not only from Buddha but from later teachers, and all of this experience has come together, and all of which is organized around and focused on waking up in some way.
And then there are the people who have followed this way of life and have committed themselves to a way of waking up. That’s the monastic Sangha. They’ve undertaken a commitment, which is in the form of vows or an ordination. So they’ve devoted their lives to this. And that has provided the avenue through which these teachings have been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation. And in that sense—a prayer that I used to say in retreat—The Sangha is the foundation of the Dharma, because it provides this avenue of transmission. So that’s the exoteric [interpretation], and that’s what we can relate to. These are all historical things that actually happened, and we can dig up the history.
The second level of interpretation—which we could call esoteric, call it inner—is more metaphorical. Here, we take refuge in Buddha as the principle of awakening. So Buddha now is not just a historical figure but is a symbol for the possibility of being awake and present in life. And this is where we get into the iconic representation of Buddha, and I think arguably the two most powerful religious icons are the Buddha seated in meditation posture in the earth-witnessing [posture] and Christ on the cross. These are both very powerful icons but for very, very different reasons. And it’s hard not to get some sense of peace when you look at a statue of Buddha. Because there is this person and just sitting like this. And that gesture of touching the ground conveys some sense of groundedness, but there’s no sense of struggle in this. So this iconic symbol represents—I mean, putting it very simplistically—a grounded peace, which immediately, which is evocative pretty well to everybody.
And then, on this more interior level, the Dharma is not the words, it’s the experience. It’s the experience of the meaning of those words in yourself. So, for instance, we had the teachings on loving-kindness and compassion last week. So when we’re studying the words, that’s the outer Dharma. When you experience loving-kindness and compassion and just that willingness to be present with the suffering of the world, that’s what I mean by Dharma as experience. It’s something you know through your experience.
And the Sangha gets a bit interesting. Here we move into a Mahayana framework. And this interior interpretation of the Sangha is the Sangha of bodhisattvas. The eight great bodhisattvas which are—I can’t remember them all—but Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Kshitigarbha, and so forth. What’s going on there? This is a representation or a symbol, in my mind, of compassionate presence in the world. So that, or to put it differently, that is, we’re taking refuge in being an on-going response to the suffering and pain of the world. That’s what I think is being represented by that, what’s called the noble Sangha, the higher level Sangha of all of these bodhisattvas. Because that’s what bodhisattvas are—they are an on-going response to the pain and suffering of the world. They aren’t doing this, aren’t present in the world for themselves. They are present in order to be able to help others become free. And that’s essentially what we’re aspiring to. So that’s a more interior interpretation.
And then we get to what refuge is actually about. Which, interestingly enough, when I was discussing this with a Theravadan colleague, he said, “Well, that’s where we start. We don’t worry about the other stuff.”
At this hidden—I suppose the right English would be actually this is at the level of mystery. Which is usually translated as secret or hidden, but I think it would be better to translate it as mystery. And remember that in this context, I’m not—when I use the word mystery, I’m not talking about something which is unknown or unknowable. I’m talking about something which can be known but only through experience. It’s not something you can put into words. So now I’m gonna put it into words—yay.
What is Buddha? Buddha is the emptiness of experience, or, if you wish to use another word, the ineffability of experience. That’s a four or five syllable word, so I feel good using it. Very simply, everything seems solid and real, you know—chairs and room and light and books and people and things like that. But when we—and many of you know this because you’ve done this with me a number of times—when we examine what is this experience, its solidity seems to run out like sand running through your fingers. And you cannot find anything there.
This is what I was referring to and encouraging you to look at in the original question—what do you trust? And what we end up trusting is nothing whatsoever. Because that is the nature of experience. There actually is nothing whatsoever there! We can’t find it. And yet, we have this experience. Now that nothing whatsoever quality is extremely important because it’s what makes everything possible. And it makes everything possible. So, that’s what Buddha represents or Buddha is, depending on how you want to look at it. And taking refuge in Buddha means that we are saying: the only way that I can be free of suffering is to know that there is nothing whatsoever. And that’s actually true. Because as long as you think there’s something, or if I am thinking that I am something, then there’s something around which suffering forms. But by knowing that I am not a thing—and I am not talking about an intellectual knowing that there is nothing here whatsoever—then there is nothing around which generates suffering or which experiences suffering. Now that sounds very idealistic. It actually does work out that way in practice, but it’s an awful lot of work.
What is this Dharma then? Well, we can say there’s nothing whatsoever. But is this nothing the same as empty space? You know, there’s nothing here. Anybody? It’s the same as empty space? What’s the difference, Art? Microphone.
Art: Well, I don’t know if this is a fair comparison, but it’s like, form is emptiness, emptiness is also form. I’m mean, there’s…
Ken: What is there there?
Art: No thing.
Ken: Yeah, but what is there there which differentiates it from empty space? In your own experience?
Art: There is something tangible. Something like—
Ken: What? Lynea wants to help you out.
Ken: I could tell by the expression on her face.
Ken: What is that?
Lynnea: Or awareness.
Ken: Okay. So there is this clarity. That’s what the Dharma is. So when we take refuge in the Dharma, we’re taking refuge in the clarity aspect of experience.
Now, one of the ways that Rinpoche often explained this is he would say, Emptiness is like the space in this room. Clarity is like the light in this room. When you have space and light, what happens? Well, you can see everything, can’t you? So experience arises without restriction. That’s what the Sangha is. The Sangha is the arising of experience without restriction. Steve?
Steve: How is that Sangha, though, how does that relate to the other two meanings of it?
Ken: What do you hang out with? All this experience, right? And when you can actually hang out with the experience, the experience itself points you to the possibility of awakening. So the experience that is arising performs the function of the Sangha, which is to support and guide your practice. Julia?
Julia: So there is a principle of inclusiveness there?
Julia: Unbounded inclusiveness.
Ken: Unbounded inclusiveness. Lynea.
Lynea: When does knowing…um—maybe this is how I’m experiencing what we’re talking about. I feel like knowing…
Ken: You cannot separate knowing from experience.
Lynea: How do we talk about knowing without it becoming a thing?
Ken: We have to use words, but what I’m pointing to here cannot be described by words. I am trying to…I’m just trying to give you a sense of it, its explanation. The actual experience of it is refuge itself. So it’s not a case of understanding this, which is what we all want to do, is we try to understand it. But what I’m…really, the purpose of what I am trying to do here is to point you in a direction.
So, you have this outer refuge, then this inner refuge, and then this refuge at the level of mystery—which is the actual refuge. When you know the empty clarity and unrestricted experience, then you are not separate from your experience at all, and there is no basis for reactivity, and hence the cycle of suffering. Okay. It’s quite possible to know that in glimpses. That’s actually not too difficult. To live that way, that’s a little more work. Okay?
Now, this takes us about halfway through the chapter.
On the top of page 141 [Gyaltsen]. Very interesting three paragraphs there.
Furthermore, in order to demonstrate the qualities of the teacher, the Buddha is the refuge for persons of the bodhisattva vehicle and those who are interested in performing the supreme activities of a Buddha.
Then the next is
In order to demonstrate the qualities of the teachings, the Dharma is the refuge for persons of the Solitary Realizer vehicle and those who are interested in the work of the Dharma.
In order to demonstrate the qualities of the practitioners, the Sangha is the refuge for persons of the Hearer vehicle and those who are interested in the work of the Sangha. They take refuge in the Sangha…
Now, on the one hand, this seems like just—okay, that’s nice—but what does it mean? I want to suggest that in those three paragraphs, Gampopa is referring to three very different motivations and interests in practice and how the three jewels actually answers each of those needs or interests.
The hearer or the sravaka, which I think we’ve talked about in connection with the different—I didn’t call them Buddha families—the different families, the different kinds of practitioners; these are people who, they just want to hear the stuff and take care of it themselves. So what are they primarily interested in? They’re primarily interested in other people who are working on this stuff. They are just going to sit down and listen to them, and then go off by themselves and practice. And that’s a certain kind of practitioner.
And then there are other people whose—and it is appropriate for them [the hearers] to take refuge in the Sangha, in the practitioners. And then there are other people, who…their interest is in the teachings. And they find the teachings very, very intriguing.
There is a colleague of mine, who, I asked him once why he taught. He said, “Well, I teach in order to help all beings become free of suffering.” The usual Mahayana propaganda. And I said, “Yeah, I know, that’s what all of the tradition says. But in your own words, why do you teach?” And he stopped. He said, “I don’t know what to say.” But I could tell from conversations that we’d had, he teaches because he loves the Dharma. And when he’s talking about the Dharma, there’s a palpable love for it. That’s what Gampopa is referring to in this second paragraph, people who just are enthralled, and they love the Dharma and the way it works, and all the ins and outs of it, and understanding it, working with it, deepening one’s experience of it, and so forth. They take refuge in the Dharma.
And then there are other people who—you know, and probably these people should be locked up—they are primarily interested in teaching others. And there’s Cara shaking her head.
Cara: They should stop.
Ken: Yeah, they should stop right away. Yes. I am sorry you had a fight with your boyfriend. [Laughs]
Cara: You know, that was related to my conversation with you about how I’ve gone on this odyssey of different teachers and schools of Eastern philosophy.
Ken: Oh, okay.
Cara: No. Yeah. On the other thing, yeah.
Ken: Okay. So what do they aspire to? They aspire to the bodhisattva ideal; they aspire to be a Buddha. So they take refuge in Buddha.
So in these, what appear to be three very mundane paragraphs, when you really look at them, they are talking about three different ways of approaching. And why refuge in the Sangha is more appropriate for one kind of person, refuge in the Dharma for another kind of person, refuge in Buddha for another kind of person.
Now, it’s difficult to sift this stuff out of Gampopa because this is all highly coded language. And one of the efforts that I am trying to make is to show you these different layers of meaning in here. So, that when you read this or other texts, you have an idea about how to decode this stuff and appreciate the richness of this material even when it’s being expressed in very formal, dry language, which looks just like a bunch of items and lists. But there’s something quite tangible being expressed in there.
Now, we need to close here for this evening. So I am going to give you this as an assignment for next week. This evening I talked about three interpretations of refuge—the exoteric, the esoteric, and the mystery. I’d like you to sit just for a few minutes right now—and this is what I want you to do over the next week—and ask yourself the question: what needs to happen for me to take this seriously? What needs to happen for me to take this seriously?
Now, as before, I don’t particularly want you to reason this out. I want you to work with your own experience. So I am going to say this question again, and I want you to note: what happens in your body? What do you experience physically in connection with this question? What needs to happen for me to take refuge seriously? What needs to happen for me to take refuge seriously?
And then again, I’d like you to observe what happens emotionally: what needs to happen for me to take refuge, or going for refuge, seriously? What emotions arise? And there can be a lot of different ones. And then you do it a third time with the stories. What stories arise? And you’ve gone through those three, then I want you to sit in the whole thing: the physical sensations, the emotional sensations, and the stories. And I want to see what you come…I want you to see what you come to through that process. What kind of knowing, what kind of understanding—insight—what kind of questions arise. And that’s what we’ll look at the beginning of our class next week. Okay?