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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth > Session Two: Safe Direction (Refuge)

Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth

Alexander Berzin
Munich, Germany, June 1996

[lightly edited transcript]

Session Two: Safe Direction (Refuge)

Letting Down the Walls toward Learning

As we discussed yesterday, what we try to do is to feel open to being of help to others – relating to others directly, with the walls down. The walls need to be down not only toward people, but also toward learning things. It’s a similar type of process. They must be down in order to be open and able to apply things to ourselves personally, rather than putting up a wall or some sort of barrier made of our intellectuality. In other words, we might put up a wall in order to protect a seemingly solid “me” inside, and we think, “I’m only going to listen to things as an exercise in intellectuality, so that I learn something curious or interesting. Because if I have to touch something deeply inside, that’s a little bit too threatening, so I’ll put the wall up.” We need to take down such walls as well.

We try to be open in this way to learning and to making some sort of self-transformation, so that we can in turn be of help to others to whom we’re open at the personal level. Similar to what we described yesterday, we can develop this sort of heart-feeling by first looking around at others, either the other people in this room or the pictures of the Buddhas on the walls, and then, after putting the walls down, feeling the motivation to being open to a transformation, on a deeper level, of ourselves and our relations with others.

Let’s do this for a moment. And please do this with the intention to be attentive and to concentrate. It’s not that we want to just sit and have our minds be all over the place.

[pause]

Using Buddhist “Practice” as a Wall

When we approach Buddhism, basically what we’re working on is some level of self-transformation. Self-transformation is something that can be frightening. We spoke a little bit about fear yesterday. In order to avoid having to change, we put the walls up. Then, with the walls up, we approach Buddhism as some sort of diversion, a type of sport or a hobby. We look at Buddhist practice as something that’s quite unrelated to our lives.

It’s very interesting when we ask people who’ve been involved with Buddhism for a while, “What’s your practice?” very often they say that their practice is doing some sort of ritual each day, which comes from their having taken a tantric initiation. They have to recite something each day and that’s their practice. Perhaps they even look at it in a Christian way: “I have to say my prayers each day.” And in fact many people call these ritual texts their “prayers.” As we’ve been using the metaphor of painting a picture this weekend, we can add here a few brushstrokes to the side of the painting that’s dealing with the sense of “should” – “I should say my prayers, because I want to be a good person, because I’ve promised to do so....” Then we get all involved with the idea of God and the guru.

Now we start to put little strokes on many parts of the painting. Even if we’re not doing some type of tantric ritual like that, perhaps we’re making prostrations or some other practice in the same way. As I said, it’s quite easy to do them as a sport; something that’s quite separate from our inner reality. In other words, we say we do our “practice” either as a duty – “ something I should do because I said I was going to do it” – or as some sort of sport that’s not really related to our lives – “and that’s my practice!”

That’s a big mistake in approaching Buddhism. Many people have been involved with Buddhism for many, many years on that level and yet, because of that mistaken view, they derive only minimal benefit. There can be some benefit; sure, I won’t deny that. But it’s not as great as it could be. When we or somebody else – usually it’s somebody else – says, “My practice is compassion, voidness, impermanence, and so on,” some people have rather strange reactions. If we’re doing rituals as our practice and someone says that to us, we might think that this person is being pretentious and very proud, and, in a sense, putting us down and criticizing us for doing ritual practices. In a sense, we see it almost as threatening.

Again, it comes back to a misconception of a solid ME that’s inside the walls, reciting all these various ritual formulas, almost as a way to make those walls stronger. We’re doing that so that, by being inside the walls, we don’t have to face ourselves and our lives. We keep very, very busy with rituals so that we don’t actually have to deal with others or ourselves. You know how some people put the radio on or some sort of music on the first minute they wake up in the morning and keep it playing all day, or even have the television on all day in the house. Many people now walk around all day with earphones and a Walkman blasting music into their ears. Although it’s not conscious, the effect is that they never have to really think or be alone with themselves. It’s a weird way of working with loneliness, but anyway we know what that means as people with a Western life style. In effect, what such habits do is they distract us from ever really having a serious look at our minds and our lives.

It’s quite easy to follow that same type of pattern with the Buddhist practice. We do a ritual or we say a mantra all day long, which is similar to having music on all day long. It’s not really touching a deeper part of us. In other words, we’re using that practice as another wall; it’s another layer of a big wall around ourselves. Even if we become quite sophisticated in our practice – let’s say we’re visualizing all sorts of things all day long in terms of mandalas and deities and things like that – it’s quite easy to use that as another wall so we don’t actually have to relate to life. I think it’s very important to have as the basic structure of our practice not some sort of extra thing outside of our lives that we do for an hour or however long we do it each day. Our lives need to be our practice.

The First Noble Truth – True Sufferings

In order to make our lives our practice, we need to go back to the basic structure of the Buddha’s teachings, which are the Four Noble Truths, the Four Facts of Life. It’s necessary to take them quite seriously. The first of these truths, as we formulated it last night, is “life is difficult.” You can say, “Everything is suffering,” but that’s a very uncomfortable way of phrasing it. It’s much more relevant to say, “Life is difficult.”

The point is that it’s necessary to face that fact and to accept that life is difficult. Sometimes, we’re in a state of denial about that. Or, putting the walls up, we just sort of say in theoretical words, “Yes, there’s all this suffering,” but we don’t really apply that fact to ourselves and see it as true in our own lives. We’re too preoccupied with trying to find happiness. We’ll discuss either later today or tomorrow this whole issue of happiness and whether it’s okay to be happy while being a Buddhist practitioner. That’s another very delicate point for Western practitioners and one that we have quite a lot of difficulty in reconciling. But, let’s leave it for the moment.

A lot of people, particularly women, but not only restricted to women, find themselves in difficult situations in life, for instance having to take care of children, having to take care of the household, in addition to maybe also having to work. Sometimes they find a lot of difficulty with their husband or the man in their life, because either he doesn’t help or he doesn’t appreciate the difficulty of the situation. Often, the man finds it quite difficult to relate to the woman’s situation, because a typical male way of responding is to say, “Tell me, what’s the problem?” and then he wants to go fix it like it’s a broken pipe. That’s not really what the woman is looking for in this situation. Often what she’s looking for is just an acknowledgement of the difficulty and to be given some sympathy, not in the sense of “Oh, you poor thing,” but sympathy in the sense of some emotional support and understanding. This is a real practice of generosity, the first paramita or far-reaching attitude.

Another point that’s quite relevant here is from the Indian master Shantideva, who said, and I’m paraphrasing him, “You can’t really rely on ordinary beings for anything, because they’re childish and immature and will always let you down.” Thank you, Shantideva. This is relevant to situations in many households, because the husband often can’t really provide the type of support that the woman wants. It’s relevant to our discussion here of the First Noble Truth, because the situation of a woman maintaining a home and children is just one example of “life is difficult.” Life is difficult for men as well, feeling a responsibility to make everything happen in terms of providing the financial security for the household and somehow protecting everyone and everything. That’s difficult too.

When we talk about this First Noble Truth, how can we talk about it so that we’re not in a state of denial and so that it really seems relevant to us? I think what we need is to somehow satisfy this drive for getting some sort of emotional support and understanding for the fact that our life is difficult and that life in general is difficult.

Turning to the Three Jewels for Support

The question is, to whom do we turn for that sympathetic understanding and support? If we turn to ordinary beings, they have their own problems and it’s difficult to get support from them. This brings us to the topic of refuge. I don’t really like “refuge” as a term because I think it’s too passive. I always think of it as a more active process of putting a safe and positive direction in our life. If we want to turn to something that can really give us sympathetic support, then as a Buddhist, within the context of refuge, we would turn to the Three Jewels – the Buddhas, their teachings and accomplishments – namely the Dharma – and the Sangha community.

In the West, we’ve started to use the word sangha in a totally non-Buddhist way, to be the equivalent of a congregation of a church. We use it to mean the other people who go to a Buddhist center. That’s not the original meaning. Nevertheless, although the other members of our Buddhist community are not objects of refuge, still we can get a certain amount of companionship and acknowledgement from them within this context of life is difficult – MY life is difficult, not just life in general is difficult.

Also, the Second, Third and Fourth Noble Truths look like a typically masculine way of going about solving things: “We’ll find out the cause and then repair the problem,” like fixing a broken pipe. But, we need to do that within the context of this more feminine approach, which is the acknowledgement and support that life is difficult. It is difficult. Whether we’re men or women, we need a combination of both. We mustn’t think that gender determines an exclusive point of view.

How do we get that support? Turning to the other members of our Buddhist community, on one level seems quite nice. But often we find that the people in our community are not terribly mature and so we tend to be judgmental; we tend to be closed to each other. In many of the Western Buddhist communities, people have very strong walls because people think that somehow they need to present a picture of being very holy and spiritually advanced. So, often, we come together to attend a lecture or do some sort of ritual together or meditate together and then everybody leaves and we think that that’s what it means to practice in a group – to just sit together or recite a mantra together, similar to thinking that that’s what it means to practice individually. In fact, the real focus for practice in a Buddhist group is being friendly to each other, being helpful to each other, being understanding, and being open and loving. If we’re focusing on that as a group practice, then, in fact, we can get some sort of emotional support from each other in face of the fact that life is difficult and that we’re all working on ourselves within the confines of that truth. But still, we’re ordinary beings and sometimes it’s very difficult to really provide that level of support for someone else.

If we look at the actual Sangha Refuge, that’s referring to arya beings, those who have had nonconceptual cognition of voidness. That makes quite a difference, doesn’t it? Even though such persons have not yet liberated themselves from suffering, still they’re going to be on much weaker ego trips, so that they can provide some sort of support much more easily to us. But there aren’t very many aryas around us, are there?

Then perhaps we can turn to the Buddha Refuge to provide this sort of support. We feel, “Buddha understands me; Buddha understands my difficulties of life.” That does provide a certain comfort, surely. It’s reminiscent of the function in Christianity that’s played by the statement, “Jesus loves me.” If Jesus loves me, I can’t be so terrible. The more that we really believe that Jesus loves me, the more we have a certain type of reinforcement of our value as human beings, which then gives us strength to deal with our lives. Somehow, it’s not sufficient with just the fact that my dog loves me!

We can transfer this same type of Christian attitude toward Buddha, “Buddha loves me, Buddha understands me.” That gives us some sort of comfort and support. Now we can paint another stroke on the side of the spiritual teacher part of the picture we’re painting here – again a proper spiritual teacher, not just anyone. I remember very well my own main teacher, Serkong Rinpoche. One of his outstanding qualities was that he took everybody seriously. No matter how absurd the request that people would make of him – like some really strange hippie coming in off the street and saying, “Teach me the Six Yogas of Naropa” – no matter how strange this person might have been, he took them seriously. He said, “Oh that’s great! You really have interest in this wonderful teaching and if you really want to learn it, well, you have to start by preparing yourself inside.” Then he would teach them something that was appropriate to their level. That functioned very well with the person, because if the teacher took them seriously, then they could start to take themselves seriously.

We can see that “my teacher understands me and loves me” would work in a parallel way to that of “Buddha understands me and loves me.” But we don’t always have close personal contact with a teacher – the same as is the case with Buddha. Also, sometimes the teachers that we do have contact with are not ideally qualified. Yet, we look to them because it seems almost a little bit too theoretical and distant to say, “Buddha understands me” or “Buddha loves me.”

Thus we have to turn to another level of refuge. We can take safe direction not only from Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as some sort of inspiration that causes us to go on the spiritual path; we can also take refuge and safe direction from the resultant stage that we ourselves will attain from following that path. That means that ultimately we have to gain this comfort and understanding from ourselves, because we all of us have the complete potentials and abilities, within the context of Buddha-nature, to reach this state of liberation and enlightenment of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We also have all the potentials to give that understanding and support not only to ourselves, but to others as well. I think that that’s really a very important point. I found it very important in my own development.

Shantideva said – and my mother said it as well, “If you want to do something right, do it yourself. If you ask somebody else to do it, they’re not going to do it the way you want it to be done.” The same thing is true in terms of deriving this understanding, this acknowledgement and comfort that we need in order to support ourselves in face of the fact that life is difficult. What’s going to be most reliable is giving that support to ourselves through our own understanding of ourselves, our own acceptance of our life situation, and our own kindness to ourselves in terms of those circumstances – and being nonjudgmental throughout the whole process.

Being Nonjudgmental toward Ourselves

If we’re judgmental, we’re just adding another stroke to the painting of “I should do this and I shouldn’t do that and I want to be good, I don’t want to be bad.” If we have that attitude, then actually we’re looking at ourselves and saying, “My life is difficult. That’s because I’m ‘bad.’ There’s something wrong with me.” If we look at our lives in that judgmental way of “I want to be good, I don’t want to be bad,” then we judge ourselves in terms of our life: “My life is difficult. I must be doing something wrong. I’m bad.” Instead of giving ourselves some sort of emotional support, we end up scolding ourselves and pointing the finger in a judgmental way. That doesn’t give us any support; it just makes us feel worse.

Just to get sympathy from ourselves, however, doesn’t mean to treat ourselves like babies and then not do anything about our situation. Obviously, when a woman wants sympathy and understanding from her husband, that’s not all she wants. It would also be nice if he would wash the dishes! Likewise, we might want someone to pat us on the head like a dog, but we also want some genuine help. The same thing is true regarding turning to ourselves. We need, on the one hand, to be understanding and warm toward ourselves, but then we also need to fix the broken pipe ourselves and do something about meeting our deeper needs.

This whole thing is rather complex. It’s quite a delicate matter. I think of the example of people who didn’t have very nice childhoods or very understanding parents. Such persons are often looking for parent substitutes, whether it’s a mother or a father. They get into relationships and then project the mother or the father onto the other person unconsciously and demand that the other person give them the type of understanding that they didn’t have as a child.

How do we treat somebody who has this type of problem? These are quite neurotic relationships. We can say, “Try to see the unconscious pattern of what you’re doing and realize how stupid you are and how much you’re causing yourself problems and stop it!” It’s like if a dog dirties the floor, some people put the dog’s nose in it and say, “Look at the mess you’ve made! Stop it!” But that doesn’t work so nicely. Maybe it would work with the dog, but it’s not going to work so nicely with ourselves, because it merely reinforces the feeling that I’m a bad person and it generates feelings of guilt and longing, “I want to be a good girl; I want to be a good boy.” All of these judgmental things revolve around this idea of a solid ME.

Acknowledging Our Entitlement

If we look at a little bit more sophisticated psychological methods, what’s very helpful is to acknowledge to this person that they were entitled to have had a loving and understanding parent. Everybody is entitled to that and, it really was a tough deal that they didn’t get that. The psychologist acknowledges that, so that the person themself can also acknowledge and accept it. The parallel is acknowledging within ourselves that life is difficult and, in particular, our life is difficult and we’re entitled to be happy. We’re entitled to become a Buddha, because we possess Buddha-nature.

On the basis of that acknowledgement, what we usually find is that the need to have had a good parent in the past gets transformed. It’s satisfied by individually being a good parent to somebody else. I’ve found from my own experience that it really does work. By acknowledging that our life is difficult and in a sense giving ourselves some emotional support by means of that acknowledgement, then what really is going to be the most healing in this whole process of dealing with the difficulties of our life is giving that acknowledgement and understanding to others. The more that we give that to others in a very sincere way, the more that we’re able to deal with the difficulties in our own life and, in fact, we find that those difficulties become far less intense. That’s very different from a compulsive do-gooder social worker who’s always going out and trying to do things for others, but never faces their own life. Usually their own personal life is a mess. All of this comes down to how, in the end, we give refuge to ourselves.

Let’s spend a few moments acknowledging to ourselves the difficulty of our lives – and be nonjudgmental about it. Try to just acknowledge it. To acknowledge it obviously means to face it. Not with the walls up. Not with some sort of extraneous practice about which we say, “This is my Buddhism.” This also means to do it in such a way that we don’t feel sorry for ourselves. Just as the overburdened mother doesn’t want the husband to go, “Oh, you poor thing, tsk tsk tsk” and feel sorry for her, we don’t want to do that for ourselves either.

This kind of acknowledgement we’re talking about here is something that’s very gentle. It’s rather like “being there” – if we can imagine this strange way of conceptualizing it – just “being there” with ourselves. If we’re very sick, we don’t want somebody to come and say, “Oh, you poor thing” and patronize us like that. What really helps is somebody not being frightened by our illness and who has the ability to sit there and maybe hold our hand and keep us company. Although the conceptualization of it is completely the opposite of the understanding of voidness, on an emotional level what we need to do is to hold our own hand, without being afraid and without feeling that we have to somehow make a dramatic show of our sympathy or feeling of self-pity. Let’s try that.

[pause]

Feeding the Demon

We might find it a little bit difficult to do this practice abstractly like we just did, and so we can do this practice in the manner of “feeding the demon.” We can look at different problems that we’re having as some sort of demon within us. We can then try to get some sort of feeling for what this demon looks like and its qualities – this demon who wants some sort of sympathy, for instance: “My life is so difficult. I have so many responsibilities. I have so many things to do. I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough energy, I don’t have enough support...”

First, we ask ourselves what does that demon look like? When we have some sort of image of what that demon looks like, we send that demon outside of us and have the demon sit on a cushion in front of us. Then we ask that demon, “What do you want?” We can go sit on the cushion and answer that question or just do that in our imaginations: “I want understanding. I want support. I want acknowledgement of the difficulties that I have in life.” Then from the position where we’re sitting, we imagine feeding the demon. We give support, we give understanding, we give nonjudgmental acknowledgement to the demon – whatever it wants.

By doing that, we find that it’s a far more effective method for giving support to ourselves than just sitting and trying to do it abstractly. Feeding the demon is also very helpful in the sense that it starts to train us to give that understanding to other people as well. Slowly, we can start to understand how by giving that understanding and healing to others, by being a good parent to somebody else, it’s a healing process for us as well. It functions in the same way. Just as giving understanding to the demon is healing for ourselves, likewise giving support to someone else is also healing for ourselves.

Let’s just for a few moments give that understanding and acknowledgement to the demon – that life is tough for the demon as well and that’s what’s eating me inside. Do this process, starting from the beginning, of seeing that need within ourselves, and then externalizing it and feeding it. Give the demon within us what it needs and wants.

[pause]

Now look at some of the people in your life and give that same understanding and acceptance of the difficulty of life to them. Whether they’re sick or old or have too much work, whatever it might be, acknowledge that, accept that, and give them the support. This includes people who have emotional difficulties – someone who’s always angry or someone who’s always acting terribly with other people. Acknowledge that their life is difficult too. Feed it to the other person, the same as feeding the demon. Imagine that we have an infinite supply of what the other person wants, just as we have an infinite supply of what the demon wants.

By just letting an infinite supply of this understanding and acceptance pass through us and out to the other person, we can experience being generous in a nondisturbing way. If we’re disturbed about it, we feel, “Oh, I have to do something about the difficult situation, but I can’t actually do something about it. I’m powerless; I’m hopeless. How horrible the whole situation is...” and then we’re very emotionally disturbed by the whole thing. Rather, we let generosity simply flow through us like an endless stream of refreshing water.

That’s a little bit of what’s symbolized when we imagine that nectars flow to us from the Buddhas in these visualizations. It’s a similar type of thing, but on a simpler level. We can send this stream out as much as is needed. There’s no problem of the stream drying up; it just flows in a very refreshing and uplifting way to others. It’s effortless; it just flows. How do we get it to flow? Put down the walls! There’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be lost.