Discovering Inner Refuge
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯
I often speak about the importance of becoming aware of the significance of taking refuge in the Three Jewels as among our primary action when making a dedicated effort in establishing a Buddhist practice. This is both an inward act of recognition that something greater then our self-interest is important for our own happiness, and an outward act of extending an altruistic hand that embraces the teacher and Sangha. In other words, taking refuge is both a personal and social response to our spiritual awakening. The Four Ennobling Realities also directs our attention to another aspect of taking refuge, the discovery of inner refuge we can realize when this fundamental Buddhist principle is even remotely understood. And it is this dimension of a Buddhist practice often overlooked in the beginning of a serious practice.
We frequently disconnect from ourselves through the negative, habitual patterns of distractions and cravings we have taken for granted as the keys for making us happy. As a result, we are often depleted in body and mind, because we do not fully receive useful and productive energy that a positive worldview offers, what nature offers, or what others may offer, and we do not recognize opportunities to benefit others which, in turn, positive karma returns to us as rewards for generating good. You may be sitting on a bench in a beautiful park, yet not be seeing the trees, hearing the birds, or smelling the blossoms sort-to-speak. Perhaps you are distracted by your smartphone or worrying about something, and though you are breathing, you many have no actual relationship to your body-mind, your speech, or to the park. A Zen teacher will call this “sitting on a rotten cushion.”
This can happen anywhere, in a business meeting or at the family dinner table. You may even be at a party, but your mind is not part of the social activities. Caught up in thoughts about some problem, or just self-centered desires, we strategize solutions, or imagine fantasies, but this never brings lasting satisfaction because it never reconnects us to our true self. In reality, our thoughts and strategies are the imaginations of our ego-mind, ego speech, and ego driven wants. The ego or identity we mistake as “me” comes about simply because it is so familiar. Trying to improve this ego-state of mind does not bring liberation from unsatisfactoriness; it only reinforces the disconnection.
It is very important to acknowledge that unsatisfactoriness exists and to have the proper relationship with it. This is the primary lesson we need to discover that the Buddha gave in the First Turning Of The Dharma Wheel, or the Four Ennobling Truths. The root cause of suffering is ignorance and the potential for prolonged unhappiness, unless we recognize the true nature of our body-mind, which is always open and clear and the source of all positive qualities. By failing to understand this core concept, we seek for happiness outside ourselves without even knowing it. This fundamental disconnection from the actual source of positive qualities within, and the restless search for satisfaction outside ourselves is something we do habitually, yet we often do not even experience this as suffering because it does not seem all that dramatic.
Until we recognize this ego mind-state and truly acknowledge our own disconnection, there is no possibility from acts of healing available and we will not realize our full potential for achieving our own happiness and life’s flourishing. So acknowledging our unsatisfactoriness is the first step on the journey to awakening the authentic body-mind which is who we truly are when we are fully present in each moment. Because when we are present in each moment, and with keen awareness, the ego has nothing to do but be quite. It is our job to make sure it stays that way. Not an easy one for sure, but is critically important for us becoming aware of inner refuge.
We begin by acknowledging the habitual patterns that arise from our disconnection from ourselves. These patters arise from what I call ego-body, ego-speech, and ego-mind. We may experience this disconnection in a variety of ways, such as irritation, boredom (which is nothing more than satisfied ignorance), sadness, or just an underlying feeling that something is wrong. If we are to transform these patterns, we need to generate a relationship with our own ego and our true being if we are to really come to realize this disconnection. One way perhaps to do this is to recall how me feel supported when we are with friends who our open and nonjudgmental, and then bring those very qualities to our own experience as we work to quite the ego. The power of healing, compassion, and even love, we can show toward ourselves is a human quality, and one that has the power to overcome this ego-state of mind. It is a matter of taking control back from our ego in order to achieve sustained useful and positive outcomes in the way we live our lives. Remember, at birth the ego-state is neutral. It is only after we begin to experience what is going on around us that we begin to develop attachments, cravings, and conceptions of what is real that becomes a driving force behind the ego-driven sense of our wants and needs. It is the failure to control the validity of these thoughts that the real problem arises. We begin to create filters by which we interpret the world around us that over time develops a possible distorted worldview. In the beginning of our Buddhist practice it is our objective to become aware of this state of ego-driven existence and connect with stillness, silence, and spaciousness of mind, which enables us to observe, allow, and feel what ever we experience without undo stress or unconstructive judgment. In this state of our practice, we are working to subdue what we think we want, and open our body-mind to what we need for our own flourishing. Once that is achieve, we then project this state of being outward to others. So a Buddhist practice is both an inward and an outward journey. It is important to note here how much of what Siddhartha became awakened to is as much physiological as it is philosophical.
I have spoken about how to view the term “human being”. I have also often spoken about a part of our nature as being “expressions of the Universe”. Now let us put these two terms together. At birth the “spark of life” brings elements together to FORM a human being. The genetic code gives us our human qualities. At the moment of our creation this spark of energy is what also comes to express our being “one with”, or our being-ness. So you can say that the FORM is us being human, and the being is the “empty of independent” nature of our being. Do not confuse this as being a duel nature. It is not. We are both human and being at the same time.
Taking this analogy a bit further, the portion of our brain (remember our brain is a sense organ) that has human-nature is responsible for the organic and automatic functions of the body, problem solving, as well as safety of the organism. The flight or fight response for example. Scientific studies now know that this portion of the brain is very small when compared with it’s potential capacity. This area of the brain I call “small” mind. This is where our ego resides. The portion of our brain that has the being-nature is responsible for skill development, self awareness, advanced reasoning abilities, and spiritual interest. This area of the brain is what I call “big” mind and is the area that I refer to as spacious. I say spacious because it is vast and is the area we are opening up during meditation. Our journey on this planet is to become awakened to this fact. We can only discover it for ourselves. No book, no teacher can give it to us, they can only point to it. Be warned here, just accepting what I am saying as true without full experience on your own, is the ego-mind’s way of keeping the gate shut. We can only realize it for ourselves, and validate what is being taught when we achieve liberation from our ego driven shadow world. The state of mind that is activated in this spacious region of our brain is what Zen teachers call the “clear” mind. A mind free of delusion that comes when we turn inward to experience the connection between human and being.
How do we turn inward then when all our senses are requiring our attention outward? In a way when we are in this ego-mind state, it is like the tail waging the dog. In the middle of a confused or disconnected experience, or even at a seemingly ordinary moment, stop what you are doing and draw your attention inward. Do you experience yet the stillness that becomes available? Stress comes from our small brain response driven by ego-mind in overdrive, stillness comes for the spaciousness of calm thought. It sounds easy and therefore may not seem very convincing as a remedy in a stressful situation, yet it can take years or even a lifetime to make that simple shift and discover what becomes available when you do. Some of us may not make the shift and may always perceive the world as potentially dangerous and threatening. But if you are able to make that shift again and again, it can transform how you see yourself and how you react to your experiences. Being aware of a moment of agitation or restlessness and knowing there is another way to experience it, to turn our attention inward and connect with the fundamental stillness of our being, is the discovery of inner refuge through stillness. It is how we make real the statement, “Out of every adversity is an equal or greater opportunity.”
When you turn your attention inward, you may notice competing internal voices. Turn toward the silence. Simply hear the silence that is available. Most of the time we do not listen to the silence but listen to our thoughts. We negotiate, we strategize, and we are pleased when we come up with a good solution, confusing this with clarity. Once again, this is the “small” brain doing what it is designed to do. Sometimes we try not to think about something and push it out of our minds and distract ourselves with other things. This is all noise, and considered ego-speak. When we listen to the silence that is available in any given moment, whether we are in the middle of a busy airport or sitting at a family dinner table, our inner noise dissolves. In this way we discover inner refuge through silence. This comes about when we begin to realize that this “monkey chatter of the ego” is only loud and disturbing in the small space, but up forward. When it is experienced by merging it with our total brain capacity it becomes almost a whisper. Our you beginning to get the picture here?
When you have lots of thoughts, turn toward the spacious aspect of the mind. Spaciousness is always available because that is the nature of our brain as a sense organ. Do not try to reject, control, or stop your thoughts. Even during meditation. Simply allow them. Look at thinking as it is. It is like trying to catch a rainbow one Zen master described it. As you go toward it, you simply find space. In this way you discover inner refuge through spaciousness. It is important to neither reject nor invite thoughts. If you look at thought directly, thought can not sustain itself. If you reject thought, that is another thought. And that thought is only a smarter ego-state. In this state you catch yourself talking to yourself. The ego-mind that strategies is itself the creator of our unsatisfactoriness. So instead of coming up with a winning strategy, we must shift our relationship with this ego-mind altogether by hosting our thoughts, observing our thoughts, and then allow the observer to dissolve as well. Now I ask you, “Who is this observer?”
What is left you may wonder? You have to find out by directly observing. The mind that wonders what is left if we do not rely on thinking or strategizing, or constant problem solving, is still the ego-mind, but one that is now confused, and maybe even feeling a little threatened. This is the stage of body-mind that we want to achieve in order to make the next transition to open awareness.
When ego is the result of disconnection, awareness is the state of mind that results in connection. This is awakening to the forth reality in the Four Ennobling Truths (Realities). The method of transforming suffering into the path of liberation. In open awareness, everything is processed. The moment you become aware, your negative patterns are dispelled. Stillness, silence, and spaciousness bring us to the same place: open awareness. But we go for refuge through a particular gate: one through the body, one through our mind, and one through our speech. Once you arrive, which gate you entered through is no longer important. The gate is only important when you are lost. The path is not a long one, but we may never find it if our looking is distracted. The ego acts as a smoke screen for obscuring this gate to liberty away from our false self. The gate allows the connection of human and being resulting in what Zen calls “calm abiding”. It is interesting how often we do not value what is closest to us. This notion of open awareness is best recognized when we turn our attention inward, it seems quite easy, yet we do not do it most of the time.
How is it possible to become more familiar with this inner refuge? If we are ill and are given a prescription for medicine that we have been told is necessary for our recovery and well-being, we are motivated to take our medicine. So perhaps we need to think of turning toward inner refuge as taking the medicine that will release us from our habit of disconnecting from the source of what promotes human happiness. There is a reason why the Buddha is often referred to as the medicine Buddha. The Four Ennobling Truths is a prescription for alleviating suffering. The Eightfold Path is the medicine. Generally we start by asking you to take the pill of meditation. Why? Meditation is how we begin to awaken to this idea of open awareness, and toward an enriched and healthy life. Silence is an ingredient in this pill of meditation.
The moment you hear complaint in your voice you can recognize this as the time to take the pill of silence. What do you do? Go toward your complaints. Be open. Hear the silence within your voice. Silence IS within your voice because silence is in the nature of sound. Do not search for silence, rejecting sound. That is not possible. Likewise, do not look for stillness, rejecting movement. It is the same with your body-mind. When your mind is going crazy with thoughts, take the pill of spaciousness. Remember, do not look for space by rejecting your thoughts, space is already there in your brain. Avoid bottling up your thoughts. If you give them room, they will disappear. It is important to make that discovery for yourself. Work on it every day.
So that is my prescription for you today. May the medicine of stillness, silence, and spaciousness liberate the suffering experienced through the three ego-driven states of body, mind and speech, and in doing so, may you benefit many others through the positive qualities that become available to you as your Buddhist practice advances.