Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha
How the foundational Buddhist practice of Going for Refuge is more profound than we often think, and can be a simple but powerful ritual to support us on the path.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism personify Death in the form of a deity. The two traditions’ imagination around this figure naturally has many overlaps, but I’m suddenly thinking about some that I can’t find any reference to in the scholarly literature. The correspondence is about the role of Death as Teacher, as appearing in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, and the role of Māra the Tempter in the Pāli Buddhist texts. I’ll narrate briefly two stories, then speculate wildly.
One of the marks of a great text seems to be that it can be deeply important to wildly different people from cultures separated from each other by vast distances of time and space. A theater company in Kolkata establishes a reputation for cutting social realism by putting on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, while a British director in France hubristically (and with some success) attempts to stage the entire Mahabharata. A Japanese director who traces his lineage to medieval Noh theater creates a viscerally danced Elektra, and a New York-based postmodernist turns the Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion into a meditation on the fractured 21st century urban self. Texts that have managed to be preserved across centuries and continents, through all the complex conditions that make preservation possible, acquire new forms and meanings as new hands crack the spines of new editions and translations, each version speaking to new ears, bodies, minds.
After a long day of sessions, feeling with clients/students through the morass of feelings and confusions that seem to be the near-universal experience of being human around here, I light a dry leaf of white sage, shake off the fire, and walk slowly around the practice room both clearing the air and honoring the images and statues that live there. I love these images, and each one reminds me of an aspect of reality, of spirit, of nature, of my work in the world, the questions that burn in my heart, and the healing I hope to offer to the people who come to sit with me.
I wave the glowing, smoking leaf in front of each object in a casual approximation of an arati gesture, the waving of lamps in front of deities that often happens at the end of a Hindu puja. For some I softly mouth a mantra associated with this deity. First, the large Quan Yin that dominates the altar, “Namo Quan Shr Yin Pusa”, a Chinese version of her name. Then the smaller Buddha and Ganesha sitting side by side, “Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma-sambuddhasa”, I honor the Blessed One, Perfected and Fully Awakened, “Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha”, may all obstruction be moved through.
I move counterclockwise through the room to Green Tara, a Nepalese thangka gifted from a dear friend, “Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha”, another Quan Yin painting, and offer a waft of fragrant smoke in front of a small photo of the inscrutable Neem Karoli Baba in his plaid blanket, teacher of Ram Dass, Krishna Das, and many others, whose ashram we visited in Kainchi in the Himalayan foothills. Maharaji, as he was called, is largely responsible for the lineage of kirtan I practice, and my heart swells with an indefinable joy when I stop for a moment and take in his image.
Several folks have posted this Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) interview to me, after my recent dip into the Google-Mindfulness-Buddhism-Capitalism debate following the Wisdom 2.0 protest. There’s a good debate about it on Be Scofield’s Facebook wall, and a smaller one on mine after this post, and I don’t need to repeat many of the elements of the discussion in those threads that I agree with.
[Frank Jude Boccio’s and Matthew Remski’s responses particularly enunciate positions I am inspired by, and many others chimed in fruitfully since I first wrote this post a week ago: Narayan, Carol, Nathan, and Emma on Be’s thread, and Elanne and Jonathan on mine, thanks, all of you, for an enlivening discussion! This post is slightly edited based on these conversations.]
For the last few years there’s been a growing uproar in San Francisco rooted in dismay and anger over ballooning rents, historically high eviction rates, and other markers of the intense gentrification that has been happening for 15 years or so — if I choose the tech boom of the 90s as a convenient recent historical marker. The recent acceleration follows the recovery of the tech sector after the economic slowdown of the late aughts, with Google — who perhaps evilly, or at least against vigorous recent complaint, busses employees from SF down to their mothership on the Peninsula — occupying the current symbolic center. Here’s Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful piece on the issue and its history. And one from Eric Rodenbeck in Wired. The culprit isn’t just Google, of course, but they’ve become a stand-in for the corporate juggernaut of Silicon Valley that is turning the Mission from a relatively affordable mixed immigrant/artist neighborhood (I lived there for 7 years on $300/month rent! Absurd, right? I know.) to a groovy dormitory for software engineers and the boutiques that date them.
So last Saturday at Wisdom 2.0, a gathering of tech industry progressives inspired by Buddhism and American Buddhist celebrities (including some teachers I very much respect), protestors from Heart of the City interrupted Google’s presentation called “3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way” with a strong message about, essentially, Being Evil. Here’s some video, and an account of the event published in Tricycle (Wisdom 2.0 organizers apparently cut the live feed and deleted the interruption from their official video). Here, also, is an organizer of the protest, Amanda Ream, discussing SF’s rapid gentrification and Wisdom 2.0. She encapsulates the issue eloquently:
This writing originated in a comment at the bottom of this great blog post of Matthew Remski’s, in which he continues to unpack the implications in this phrase, “I am not my body”, which first surfaced when used by Cameron Shayne as somehow yogic justification for his rant about how “No Problem!” it should be for him to have sex with his students. I got excited in writing, and because it got really long, am now housing the response here in addition to on his site… To follow the argument, read his post first, if you’re just finding this one (and for a fun, if disheartening afternoon’s study, take the Wayback machine and read Cameron Shayne’s initial grenade, which you can find a link to in Remski’s post, and in my response to it, here).
Matthew, the layers of insight in this writing are beyond what I can respond to in an enthusiastic note written on a slow moving train gliding south next to dark water late on a school night. But I’ll try. [And finish at home later, giving it some of my last night before my partner arrives home from a month away in Burma. This is a good way to spend an evening.]
I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering & stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos. (The Buddha, Rohitassa Sutta, SN 2.26)
Observe his inclination in yourself. (Shax, Hamlet, 2.1)
As a performer, a creator of charged intentional situations, who has found refuge, hope, and guidance in a Buddhist path of meditation and training, a ghost haunts me: the seemingly inevitable end of art as I understand it. I will rehearse here one version of this end, one that in some ways is the same end invoked in this passage from the Pali Canon: “the cessation of the cosmos”. The hinges, as so often in Buddhist phenomenology, are agency, activity, perception, and positionality. (This post is a version of a paper I just gave at a Graduate Symposium at UC Davis, where I study and teach. It’s a little denser than some of my non-academic writing.)
This morning, walking up the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley, through the crisp fall air, I heard a fragment of melody, whistled, in the distance. I only heard a handful of notes, but recognized it as the distinctive dorian mode hook in “Eleanor Rigby” — the part where the words are “…picks up the rice in the church…”. It passed through like a scent redolent of the past, ringing with associations: a core sample of so many layers of myself and my culture. Afterward, on my bike headed home, the song pops into my head. “All the lonely people…” I look around at the kids walking, people in cars, endless houses with their people inside. “Where do they all come from?” An existential veil descends softly over my perception and I begin to see everyone in their great aloneness. And the mystery of origin. Where does it all come from?
Another yummy and sometimes frustrating Facebook sutra [see previous post on “sutra”] has arisen, wandering through yoga history, claims of antiquity, oral transmission vs. text history, and has developed into a discussion that prompted this note from me about what is or isn’t “yoga”:
When I speak with teacher training programs on Yoga history, as I will again this weekend, I emphasize an interactive pair of concepts: “sankapla” and “upaya”.
Sankalpa (intention) speaks to the core orientation we take toward our practice and life as well as specific reasons for practicing and pursuing not just “Yoga” but anything at all in our life. Without identifying what we long for or where we want to go, it’s impossible to know what kind of practice to pursue.
Upaya (skillful means) are all the various methods for wholesome action available in this life, from exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle, to yoga, meditation, study, service, therapy, and everything else we could ever do intentionally in order to grow or change ourselves for the better in any way.
Conversations like this [that start to parse whose tradition is older, or more authentic, or whose practice is more “spiritual”] can become tribal so quickly (“this is authentic, that is not!”), but this is a fundamentalist trap that dissolves when we take a broad view of Upaya. Every kind of practice has been helpful for someone, or it wouldn’t have been invented. And humans have invented all of it (including myths of divine origin, and the cultural images of the gods themselves).