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Going for Refuge

by Viveka

... could really happen.

Questioning Convention

So, I don’t think really we are that different from those people 2,500 years ago. I think for many people there is a sense that everything is not quite exactly right. It’s a kind of nagging little sense. It’s deeper than feeling like, sometimes we experience it like, “Well if only I had this in place and that in place then things would be alright”, but I think it is actually deeper than any of those things. Like you could try to get a million things in place and this niggling feeling would never quite be resolved. So there’s a sense of questioning and it can start even as very young children. I just heard a very nice story over dinner, someone saying how as a young child they were questioning all sorts of things. Like a lot of people would say, “Your kids have turned out quite well – does God really exist?” I mean, you’re all telling me that God exists, I mean how do we really know that He exists, or She exists or, well, why? Why do we have to do it this way? So I mean the fresh mind not really completely indoctrinated, [laughing] is just challenging convention. Convention, that is how eventually we can be so conditioned by convention, that convention becomes true. So just because people do it that way that is the way it is.

Once you, for example, start just looking at something as basic or present as cross-cultural awareness you quickly become aware of that people have very strong ideas about how something is. Like how you behave at a dinner table, and that is ‘absolutely sacrosanct … that is the way it is’, and in another culture that is ‘absolutely not the way its going to be’ and that is an absolute way it is too, and it goes back hundreds of years, you know.

The wisdom teachings of Buddhism that really question reality have a term called Conventional Reality. It’s labeled as such – it is merely a convention. And these are all the ideas that we kind of collectively [agree to]. Like time, for example, is a conventional reality. Like, who said 9 a.m. is 9 a.m.? [laughter] We just put that system on nature and call that 9 a.m. Someone in a different time zone calls it 3 p.m. [laughter] 9 a.m. is someone else’s 3 p.m. And when you meditate a minute can seem like an eternity or it can seem like a nanosecond. So, what’s time, what is time really? It’s a convention; it is useful but also not absolutely solidly real. I think some people experience quite a lot of this kind of doubt about conventions just being conventions, and having to live a certain way. And also along with that is a sort of feeling that maybe a more fulfilled life could be found by not completely living by all these conventions. It doesn’t mean that you want to break every rule and rob every bank you see but it may mean that maybe you feel there’s a freer or more creative way to live.

Some of us recently saw The Matrix as part of Buddhist film night and I think some people regretted seeing it and some people were glad they saw it, but just referring back to that movie if you’ll indulge me. [laughter] Who’s seen The Matrix – show your hands please. [Audience members raise hands] Okay, so enough of you, and so the main character who is (pause), thank you, Neo, has this niggling feeling, right? He’s like totally within the system but he’s kind of feeling like there might be something other than the Matrix, right? And I think there are a lot of other great subversive films. We need something in our culture that is kind of questioning – I particularly like films by David Lynch and one of my all time favorite subversive films is a film Happiness. Has anyone here seen Happiness by Todd Solandz? He did Welcome to the Dollhouse too. It’s very subversive; it’s kind of like taking very happy suburban America and the whole veneer, and saying, “What really is going on underneath that veneer?” Some of what really goes on is really quite unsavory – not everything is unsavory but it’s their way to try to poke at convention. So in some ways these films could be seen as very Dharmic in that they are trying to get us to question the status quo and our conditioning and to question that whole idea that we should spend our whole lives, living our lives very particularly in being productive members of a somewhat questionable society [laughing].

So, yes, I think Buddhism is counter-cultural in that it causes us to question, or it asks us to question, conventional society, and again its not the point of this or that or anything, it asks us to Wake Up like in the middle of living, to wake up and to be alive.

Conventional Society and the Eight Worldly Winds

So one way that conventional society is talked about is this endless blowing of the eight worldly winds that characterizes what is called conditioned existence – the existence that is lived very much within convention unquestioningly trying to make it work. These winds are just opposite of each other.

So, on the one hand there’s praise and then there’s blame, so we like to get praised and don’t like it when we get blamed. So inevitably when you get praised be ready because there’s going to be blame as well. Good reputation and bad reputation, gain and loss, and pleasure and pain. These are seen as inevitable comings and goings of our lives. Sometimes there is pleasure, and then there is also pain, and sometimes we do gain things and then there’s also inevitably loss as well. So this is just what characterizes life. To the degree that we want praise and fame and gain and pleasure we spend a lot of time struggling to try to secure these kinds of securities, things that make us feel okay, and of course we don’t want blame or disrespect, we don’t want to lose things, we don’t want pain, so to some extent we do our utmost to keep these out of our lives, but the winds, they just keep blowing – you can’t really control everything in that way. I was actually talking to a friend – she’s a mom – and it’s funny we were talking about how planned our lives are or not planned. And she was saying it’s kind of funny meeting some people that you know who say “By age 25 I will have mastered the violin, by age 32 I will be a surgeon, [laugh] by age 35 I will have a wife, living in a 2 or 3-bedroom house and have a boy, and when I’m forty I will have a girl”. [laughing] Things are planned out for them and that’s how they approach life. And we were just laughing saying how much our lives had not been like that at all and certainly there’s not no reason not to plan anything, but all the best-laid plans may not turn out the way you think. Like maybe you can’t play the violin because you have a strange pinky finger that won’t actually hit the strings the right way so your dream eludes you or whatever it is.

So, being too wrapped up in trying to navigate all this is called the world of samsara, the world of self-made suffering. So, it’s like pain isn’t the suffering – that’s not self-made suffering – pain is like a condition that might happen. It hurts, but you know pain is natural, it’s part of life. Whether its emotional pain, knee pain, or whatever it is. But what is self-made suffering is the inability [to accept] or intolerance to the existence of pain, if you get the difference? Do you get the difference? So if we can’t accept pain as being part of experience then that will cause us suffering, because it is, and it will barge in on us as well as pleasure, which we tend to like more. So this is the world of samsara and it’s a certain way of looking for security that is constantly frustrating. And I think we probably all agreed that we have life experience to some extent in doing this, so we don’t have to look very far to reflect on this. So part of life is this experience, then, of dissatisfaction because of this frustration, because we can’t get things to just... if only everything would just line up perfectly. How is it in this moment it never totally just does that or people don’t totally do what you think they should do?

You know events don’t totally do what you think they should do. In my case, Bush got reelected and now that has been all sorts of dissatisfaction for me personally – other people may feel differently. So dissatisfaction is part of our human experience to the extent that we are not yet Enlightened.

Engaging with and Learning from Dissatisfaction

But I think what we do when we feel dissatisfied is that we try to get rid of it. So when we get dissatisfied, one response is just to try harder to make everything work, so we feel frustrated so we spend more time, I don’t know, making plans, trying to make everything fit and actually the option related to Going for Refuge is seeing dissatisfaction as a very beneficial moment, a very beneficial event, and actually to see it as a starting point in the spiritual path. A starting point not just once but over and over again. So I think that’s one very important point that I want to make, that dissatisfaction, as the Buddha taught, is a very universal experience because of us being caught up in trying to make life work in a certain way that it will never work, and some of us sort of have this little light bulb that’ll go off. We are getting that, you know, again and again and again. We are getting this questioning feeling you know, “Is this working for me – maybe there’s another way?”

So questioning can unplug us from the status quo. It’s a counter-cultural creative act and to some extent we maybe don’t want to have to live so creatively. Sometimes I think we would want to plug into a formula and it would all work, because sometimes it is quite challenging to be ethical, to be Awake, it can feel quite challenging. But, I think for some there really isn’t a choice. The rabbit is out of the hat already, there’s no going back. That sense of questioning ...

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