• Taking Refuge

    On Taking Refuge

    Many people hold that formally taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is what makes one a Buddhist.  Although, I do not hold this position the formal act is a great way to solidify and reinforce your commitment to the spiritual path laid out by the Buddha Shakyamuni. For me what makes you a Buddhist is what is in your heart.  Your intentions to aid all sentient beings, to remove any obstacles on your own spiritual path, to learn and apply wholesome methods and to achieve the great nirvana even if it takes thousands of life times is really what makes you a Buddhist.  Being human though, we often like a point of passage and so in Buddhism there is the refuge ceremony.

    What is Refuge?

    Actually, this is rather a broad term. So say you have a broken heart and you buy a container of chocolate ice cream.  You eat the whole thing.  That is taking refuge in ice cream. Or you buy an expensive car and you show it off.  That is taking refuge in a car. Or you have some tragedy in life and you making offerings to a god and pray he will remove the tragedy. That is taking refuge in a god. Or in order to get along in life, you find a powerful person who can grant favors like a job.  That is taking refuge in a person. Or you can take refuge in your emotions, your intelligence, and your strength and so on.

    In Buddhism, it is recognized that you may have to take refuge in this or that to get by in life. But as for our spirituality, we take refuge in the Buddha as the ultimate example of how to be free from the cycle of birth and death, the Dharma as the guide so we don’t have to discover all the information needed ourselves, and the sangha as a community of like-minded followers who aid in our progressing along the way.

    Who should take refuge?

    Once there was a famous man named Upali who was not a Buddhist and decided to challenge the Buddha. So he went to see Shakyamuni to debate him.  After talking to the Buddha, Upali completely changed his mind and realized the Buddha’s answers were better than his own.  Being impressed he told the Buddha he was going to become a follower of his teachings. But Shakyamuni told him to wait.  He said that Upali should make a complete investigation.

    So, you may ask yourself, “As far as humans can tell, was Shakyamuni a Buddha?”  A Buddha is someone who is awakened from the dream like state we call normal consciousness. Did he have some experience that woke him up?  We cannot ask the Buddha about this but we can rely on history.  Although the story of his awakening is full of myth and various tropes, the root of the story is that he did awaken and many people were witness to his being so. This included many people from other religions, political leaders and common people.  Further, since people today still have awakening experiences then we know for sure that Shakyamuni was not claiming something impossible.  We know from psychological studies that a person can experience a state where their limited self is dissolved and they “merge” with the universe.  So a non-dual state is possible.  For most people they have this experience and then they are back to their regular state of mind.  What if, one could always be in that non-dual state?  That person would be awakened!

    The articulation of what the Buddha realized sitting under the Bodhi-tree, is called the Dharma. The Dharma is the collected teachings of the Buddha.  According to tradition Shakyamuni did not actually speak all the teachings. Some were provided to students by other’s advanced disciples and then the Buddha Shakyamuni approved them. But the tradition holds these as being his teachings too. In side those teachings there are many different topics.  Much deals with one or another aspect of the awakened state and how to cultivate it. There is also some myth, some parables, some history, and so on. Why are these teachings important?  Although, nirvana is actually inside you and not something you manufacture from outside, you need a way to reveal it.  You could search for thousands of lives to find all that is necessary and then spend thousands more to practice what you learned before you arrive at being a Buddha. But we do not have to do this because the search was done by the Buddha and so we can learn from him and apply it.  This cuts the time to nirvana. So we take refuge in the Dharma as our guide to spiritual advancement. An interesting point is that the Buddha Shakyamuni did not say follow my teachings because I am Buddha.  He said investigate the teachings and see for yourself it they are spiritually conducive and wholesome. Other religious teachers declared that their teaching was the answer, they did not have the courage and the certainty to allow people to find out for themselves. This is why I say Buddhism is for those who are spiritual mature. Mature people investigate and think through questions then come to a determination.  Children are told an answer and simply believe it because some authority told them.

    The sangha or community is also a refuge. In our everyday lives, we set goals and work hard to achieve them.  This is the way of the world.  However, Buddhism works in reverse of this. Let’s look at meditation. If you strive in your meditation you will certainly never achieve the freedom of meditation.  The striving itself will prevent you.  As I often say, you have to relax into meditation; it’s about letting go and not making happen.  In short, we can say a major aspect of the Buddhist project is to remove the false notion of an ego, self, or soul. But if you strive to do this, it will never happen because the self that is striving is trying to remove the self.  If you are successful, you still have a self.  So like meditation, getting beyond the false self is a matter of letting go and not trying to make happen.  However, if you are spiritually working of letting go and you live in a world that screams act and get, there are conflicts that arise both internally to your thinking and externally to your getting on in life. That is why there is a sangha. Teachers can help guide you particularly as your readings need deeper understandings, senior fellows can direct you and the rest can support you. So all of us are working together.  At times this is so needed and at times others need your help.

    Therefore, taking Refuge for the first time is a passage indicating your commitment to your spiritual growth and a formal joining the expansive community of those following the Way.  Repeating the refuge on a daily basis is a reaffirmation to keep current in our mind stream that commitment to freedom and compassion.

  • What is Shunyata

    You are all slaves. You, each and everyone, are enslaved by your thoughts and emotions. Do you think not? Let us try an experiment. You only have to sit there and stop thinking for one minute. Ok now just don’t think.  Try it now.

    How many made it fifteen seconds? How many twenty? I know none of you made it a minute. You are trapped by your own mental activity. Your thoughts and emotions — for after all emotions are just thoughts too.

    Because you are enslaved by your mental activity, you are not free and thus you constantly have many trials, tribulations, consternations, and more. Your life is like a roller coaster that you can not get off. Your reach great heights when you accomplish something that your ego determined was needed or desired and great lows when you do not.

    This is precisely what Buddhism addresses. Buddhism is not some religion that is going to give you all the answers. Actually, I do not think it is a religion at all. It is not big daddy in the sky fixing your problems. It is not the same as pop psychology. Buddhism is about your quality of life! How are you going to live this life free from being enslaved by your own mind?

    First, in order to be enslaved by my own mind, I have to have an “I” a self, an ego. We think this self is some sort of permanent thing, enduring from one experience to the next. There is some consciousness of there being an I who is experiencing all these things. However, Buddhism teaches that there is no such self. The self is just as created as the thought content that you experience. In fact, the experience and the experiencer are generated in the same instant. Seeing past this trap is called the experience of no-self. We have techniques that will help you realize that this is so and there are people in this room who have been working with me and who have realized it. What is realization, it is not some intellectual understanding but something you touch with the fiber of your “being.” It is the ground you operate from not some new trinket you can add to your collection of wonderful ideas and thoughts you collected along the way. So the self as we normally understand it is an illusion.

    Second, actually, things are an illusion too. We go through life not only acting but actually accepting that things are really out there. This table will be the same table next week when you come. This building is the same building that you passed last year, and so too with all these objects. Oh, yes, things get old and eventually break down but we still think it is the same thing – just broken. However, even modern science will tell you that nothing is the same from second to second. The atomic structure is constantly changing and so the whole universe is different each second. We do not see life this way because our senses are limited. Buddhism teaches that to constantly hold on to that naive view adds to our suffering and enslavement, just as holding on to some permanently existing self does. There are techniques to bring about the realization that things are constantly becoming but never are. This experience is called “shunyata” in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. Shunyata means that things are both empty of an inherent essence that makes them exist as such and that there is an open dimension to being in the world that allows for a dynamic and liberating way to walk through life.

    Third, since both self and other are generated at the same time and from the same movement, then in fact all that really is, is the non-dual. The separation of the universe into experience and experiencer is not real. This non-dual wherein no two things can be posited is the sphere of completion. In it, there is no enslavement, no suffering, no problems and it is punctuated with joy and depth of wisdom. Buddhism has techniques to help each person quickly experience this freedom.

    Fourth, the expression of the no-self, shunyata, non-dual life is great compassion to all sentient beings. We do not just look at the human situation but take into account all sentient life. If you have even one sense then you suffer. Those who experience these things, who make this their own foundation from which wisdom can arise are concerned about the suffering of others. If there is truly no self, then all your interactions with other beings is based on compassion because there is no self interest involved. In this way, those who follow the Buddhist life, are like tuning forks when some being is vibrating with suffering, the Buddhist also vibrates. Bringing their profound wisdom to bear, they engage the other in ways know and unknown to help alleviate the suffering. Buddhism has techniques that help develop one’s compassion.

    Fifth, The Buddha is not some god or god substitute. He is not some high and mighty up there somewhere that we use to measure our failings. He is your own absolute highest expression, something deep inside each of you. Your own profound wisdom and compassion, living free from your self-made enslavement –that is Buddha. Sometimes we externalize him as a way of trying to facilitate our realization but in fact he is no different than you and you are no different than him. You must have a relationship with this real Buddha if you are to be free, for he is freedom. This is why we meditate on the Buddha.

    Finally, no-self, shunyata, non-dual, compassion, and Buddha are in fact all the same thing. These are just different words used so that those of us lost in our enslavement can start to gain some understanding. But when you have these experiences, when you have these realizations you come to know that indeed all is one.

    Thank you.

  • What is Buddha Nature

    Once the Buddha Shakyamuni was teaching on the famous Vulture Peak, a low mountain in Bihar that has the shape of a vulture.  Today there are the ruins of a monastery on that location and the stone road built by the king so as to be able to visit the Buddha is still walkable. At the time of the Buddha’s teaching, there appeared in the sky above innumerable Buddhas sitting on lotus flowers all aglow. Although the lotus flowers were incredibly beautiful and fragrant, giving off rays of light, in an instant they all withered, blackened, smelled like rotten vegetation and completely enclosed the Buddhas and all their glory.

    This is the opening image from the Tathagatagarbha Sutra to illustrate the fact that you, with all of your supposed impurities, with impure body and mind, are really the glorious Buddha full of wisdom and compassion. The rotten flowers did not hinder in any way the glory of the Buddhas inside.  Just like your body and mind, even if impure, does not hinder your real Buddha nature.

    Are you surprised to hear this?  In Buddhism it is common to listen to talks or to read about how we are impure and need to do many practices to purify ourselves. For example, some forms of Buddhism teach that because you have desire you are impure. To purify this, you need to become a monk or nun and renounce the life of desire.  Some of the lower tantras teach that a yogi must maintain ritual physical purity like eating off of gold plates. But this sutra says that even if you have mental or physical impurities they do not really obscure your real Buddha nature.

    You can think of it like a prostitute who is considered low and vile by society.  One night in disguise a king comes to her and that evening she conceives. Because society says that she is lowly, she thinks of herself as low and vile, impure in a thousand ways, driven by her desires to perform such acts.  But inside, unknown to her, is a noble child.  So in fact, she is not lowly. You are no different. You should not think of yourself as low or inferior in any way to the Buddha.  You are no different.  You are the Buddha. The defilements are accidental not part of your real nature.

    The Tathagatagarbha Sutra also states that this Buddha nature is like a treasure store in the house of a poor man who has forgotten about it. But the Buddha sees the store and can help the poor man find it within.  This store is inexhaustible and consists of wisdom and compassion. To find this treasure store, you must have confidence in the Buddha’s teachings.

    What is the Buddha nature?  It is none other than wisdom and compassion, the greatest virtues in the Buddhist tradition. What is wisdom? It is the ongoing insight into the nature of reality which is shunyata of shunyata.  What is compassion?  When one realizes there really is no self and this becomes the base of one’s activity, then all actions are for the sake of others, helping end their suffering.  How do we come to find this great treasure within?  We need to have confidence in the teachings of the Buddha.

    The Nirvana Sutra in speaking about the ultimate true reality and the one vehicle says that the term “ultimate,” in the mundane realm means the perfections of giving, discipline, patients, energy, meditation, and wisdom. In the supramundane realm, the “ultimate” is the one vehicle. This one vehicle is the Buddha nature. The sutra also states that true reality is the single way, pure and undefiled—there simply is no other! This true reality is the Buddha nature –there simply is no other! What is this Buddha nature?  The Nirvana Sutra says it is compassion, equanimity, and confidence.

    So through coursing in confidence in the teachings and particularly the teachings on Buddha nature, through coursing in the activity of giving, discipline, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom that is insight into shunyata of shunyata, through coursing in compassion, through coursing in equanimity, one realizes Buddha nature which is none other than liberation itself.  How do we come to course in this way?

    Again the Nirvana Sutra informs us that a person does not give birth or produces the Buddha nature, rather he or she produces its opposite –blind passions. If the person only did not give birth to blind passions then they would see the Buddha nature. We can accomplish this by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  The Buddha represents the ultimate reality of non-duality and was the great teacher. The Dharma is the teachings that allow us to move away from all self-indulgent thoughts and actions. The Sangha are the group of followers who will walk with you as your course.  By taking refuge you can course in the non self-indulgent way coming to rest naturally in the Buddha nature.

    The Srimaladevi Sutra says that the Buddha nature is in the domain of the Tathagata that is in the realm of the non-dual, the locus of the Four Noble Truths, samsara and nirvana are based on Buddha nature.  How surprising!  Yet it could not be otherwise.  If Buddha nature is the non-dual then the duality of samsara and nirvana both have to arise from it. The significance here is this. First, take refuge and stop your self-indulgence in your body acts, mental acts, and speech acts. You are manufacturing blind passions moment by moment. If you rest in the pure awareness of Buddha nature, then you can stop manufacturing your samsara. After seeing the stopping of samsara then you can even stop the duality of samsara and nirvana. This is resting in Buddha nature the non-dual liberation.  Each moment Buddha or devil.  Awakening at your fingertips!