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Going for Refuge

by Viveka

Going for Refuge

by Viveka

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM775
Talk given at San Francisco Buddhist Center, 2006


Okay, so this year at San Francisco Buddhist Centre we are exploring the theme of Going for Refuge throughout the year. It’s a very broad topic, so in some ways you could just continue to do the meditation, Dharma study, we normally do and it would all fit under the umbrella of Going for Refuge in some way. But we are going to try to emphasize this theme along the way because it’s a very, very important aspect of the Buddhist teaching and tradition. And the founder of our tradition, Sangharakshita, has especially emphasized the act of Going for Refuge or the teachings on Going for Refuge and they are actually acknowledged by all of the main Buddhist traditions. So if you go to a Tibetan temple and you say something about Going for Refuge they will very much know what you mean, and if you go to a Mahayana temple, like a Zen or Chinese Pure Land place, they will very much know what you mean, and if you show up at a Theravadin place, maybe Thai Forest tradition and talked about Going for Refuge, they would very much know what you meant. Very much like I said when we chant the Refuges and Precepts, its something that all Buddhists would recognize.

Tonight I’m going to talk a little bit about what it is and I especially wanted to go back to some things that Sangharakshita had to say about it because I think it is one of the areas in which he has contributed a lot to the Buddhist world by lifting up this Teaching and saying, “It’s actually quite important.” In some ways it’s just considered a first basic thing in many other traditions and Sangharakshita said, “Actually it’s a teaching we should spend much more time with, and rather than thinking that’s its something we do at the beginning, actually to think of it as something that we do continuously if we are interested in deepening a Buddhist practice and that would help us to think of it as something we can deepen.”

So I was quite inspired to go back to some of his teachings and I will let you know when they are his words, because I certainly don’t want to take credit for them.

The Buddha’s Pursuit of the Spiritual Life Out of Dissatisfaction

So this act of Going for Refuge, which I’ll say a little about what it is as we go along, but it goes back to the stories of the Buddha’s life. So the Buddha is the founder of this tradition and he was a human being that experienced quite a lot of dissatisfaction as a young man although he was raised in a very privileged environment. He had everything he could materially want, he was in a wealthy family, and he left home like many other spiritual seekers were doing at the time. I think if you think about the 60s when at the time there was really an alternative movement we can think about the time of the Buddha as a similar thing going on. [laughter] Actually, traditional culture was in a lot of upheaval and there were a lot of people just hitting the road. It’s kind of wild to imagine this: people were hitting the road just being spiritual seekers, just setting out looking for the truth of things. Existential, you know, big questions. So he joined that kind of movement and was seeking and did eventually study with some very well known teachers of the time and then felt still there was something missing. And through his meditation practice, and building on what he had been taught, broke through that last bit that he felt no one else had been able to help him break through. So that he felt he was, at that point he was Fully Enlightened. [Laughing] I think that word ‘fully’ emphasizes that last little bit he felt was significant to break through. And then he continued to wander and teach. He did not really have much time in solitude. He was really constantly teaching to all sorts of people.

Early Taking of Refuge in the Buddha

So in stories from his life, in what is now India and Nepal, some 2,500 years ago, after his Enlightenment experience, he was described as having a very particular kind of presence and people kind of noticed him. He maybe didn’t look like some of the downtrodden people that were stressed out from their job kind of wandering around in a daze; he had a slightly different quality than that. And the name Buddha that was given to him just means ‘Awake’. He just looked like someone who was Awake, alive, present – that was the most striking quality. There was a glow or a kind of energy to him. I think maybe we know some people that are relatively more Awake than others, that kind of have that quality, so we can kind of imagine that, I think. Someone that actually had something intriguing going on there that you might want to know more about. So sometimes along the road he might come across someone else who had hit the road looking for truth or maybe a merchant that was traveling from one town to the next. And they would be struck by his presence and maybe there would be a very short dialogue there that would ensue and in many cases these people would spontaneously say, “I Go for Refuge to you”. There are very specific stories of this. Other times rather than passing someone on the road he might actually be sitting under a tree, you know it’s pretty hot in India, having some kind of very detailed debate with some of the more philosophical types. And debates are recorded which I can’t really understand which hairs they’re trying to split exactly. And after a long debate with a skeptic or even a critic, well sometimes they laughed and said, "Well you’re full of ... " whatever, and did not Go for Refuge to him [laugh] but sometimes other people did feel that he was able to explain something – those key existential questions that they were seeking. And again, sometimes to the point when they would say you know. “You’ve answered all my questions, I Go for Refuge to you”.

There’s one story I like where there are sixteen different Brahmins. So these are very educated religious people of the time, who one by one ask the Buddha all these very deep questions and they are all recorded, these are the conversations that I find hard to follow, and one by one he answers them and they are at the Rock Temple in Magda, so they are sitting under these rocks, these cold rocks, and this dialogue is going on. The way it was described afterwards by someone who was there, they say:

‘The Buddha answered the questions with the exactness of truth just as things are. The Brahmins were pleased to hear the words of this wise man and so filled with pleasure by the clear-sighted vision of this kinsman of the sun they settled down to a life of purity and goodness spent in the shelter of the precious wisdom of the Buddha.’

So again, this idea of the shelter of his wisdom. This act of Going for Refuge happened with wealthy kings and queens and merchants; it happened with the Dalits who were at the time incredibly badly discriminated against and still are considered untouchables by the Hindu caste system; and also with these people he talked to them about the nature of human condition. And you can imagine for them how having someone actually say to them that by following certain practices and by cultivating themselves that they could become like him, fully Enlightened. You know that must have had a huge impact on people that had been told they were quite literally spiritually garbage. So it’s not that hard to imagine in this situation how these people were very drawn to following his tradition. There was also a vicious murderer who went for Refuge to the Buddha but only after he had tried to kill him very seriously. [laughter] So it goes on and on these stories, right?

What is Going for Refuge to the Buddha?

So what is this? We don’t really have the phrase Going for Refuge in our time. So what is it that these people are doing? So, in Going for Refuge to the Buddha, these individuals would be meeting something in his person – I think it would take some imagination so what would it be like in these stories, these encounters. What would it be that they would be meeting? And he must have embodied and realized a degree of development that, upon meeting it, they felt they too wanted to be a Buddha basically. You know it’s like when someone has a really good haircut and you think, “Hey who’s your hairdresser?” [audience laughs] Imagine how much more so, right? They are looking pretty much free from suffering and totally compassionate and aware. So maybe its, “Hey, being fully Awake – maybe I can be fully Awake, maybe I want to be fully Awake”. So I think that’s the heart of the matter. Part of the experience must have been seeing someone that’s fully Awake, and maybe I’m not fully Awake, or I am partially asleep. [laughter] There must have been something comparatively quite striking about his presence and development as a person that many people felt that he had something to teach too, because a lot of these very highly learned practitioners probably were pretty sure of themselves when they met him and of course a lot of them didn’t decide to follow him, but those that did must have felt there was something that he could offer. So I think it was something like that that was going on. So meeting the Buddha was something like having a mirror held up and you could see both how far you had to go but you could also see that you could get there. You know there was something about it, people felt like, “Hey I can do this”, and so there was both sides: seeing there was more to go and also seeing that this was something that could be real, could ...

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