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The Official Website of Dr. John WorldPeace JD

A Response to:

"Living Buddha, Living Christ"
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Copyright 1999-2002 by John WorldPeace

All  rights reserved


CHAPTER EIGHT:  TAKING REFUGE

A.  A Safe Island

In every religious tradition there is a devotional practice and transformational practice.  Devotion means relying more on yourself and the path you are following.  Both of these are paths that can help us relieve suffering.  But being devoted to the Dharma can be different from practicing the Dharma.  When you say, "I take refuge in the Dharma," you are showing your faith in it, but that may not be the same as practicing.  When you say, "I want to become a doctor," you express your determination to practice medicine.  But to become a doctor, you have to spend seven or eight years studying and practicing medicine.  When you say, "I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha," this may be only the willingness to practice.  It is not because you make a statement that you are already practicing.  You enter the path of transformation when you begin to practice the things you pronounce.

But pronouncing words does have an effect.  When you say, "I am determined to study medicine," that already has an impact on your life, even before you apply to medical school.  You want to do it, and because of your willingness and desire, you will find a way to go to school.  When you say, "I take refuge in the Dharma," you are expressing confidence in the Dharma.  You see the Dharma as something positive, and you want to orient yourself toward it.  That is devotion.  When you apply the Dharma in your daily life, that is transformational practice.

Mindfulness is the key.  When you become aware of something, you begin to have enlightenment.  When you drink a glass of water and are aware that you are drinking a glass of water deeply with your whole being, enlightenment is there in its initial form.  To be enlightened is always to be enlightened about something.  I am enlightened about the fact that I am drinking a glass of water.  I can obtain joy, peace, and happiness just because of that enlightenment.  When you look at the blue sky and are aware of it, the sky becomes real, and you become real.  That is enlightenment, and enlightenment brings about true life and true happiness.  The substance of a Buddha is mindfulness.  Every time you practice conscious breathing, you are a living Buddha.  To go back to yourself and dwell in mindfulness is the best practice in difficult moments.  Mindfulness of breathing is your island, where you can be safe and happy, knowing that whatever happens, you are doing your best thing.  This is the way to take refuge in the Buddha, not as mere devotion but as a transformational practice.  You do not have to abandon this world.  You do not have to go to Heaven or wait for the future to have refuge.  You can take refuge here and now.  You only need to dwell deeply in the present moment.

B.  Mindfulness is the Refuge

In Buddhism, we take refuge in Three Jewels -- Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  These refuges are a very deep practice.  They are the Buddhist trinity:

I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life.
I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding and love.
I take refuge in the Sangha,
the community that lives in harmony and awareness.

Many years ago I encountered some children on a beach in Sri Lanka.  It had been a long time since I had seen children like that, barefoot children on a very green island with no sign of industrial pollution.  These were not children of slums; they were of the countryside.  I saw them, and to me they formed a beautiful part of nature.  As I stood on the beach alone, the children just ran toward me.  We didn't know each other's language, so I put my arms around their shoulders -- all six of them, and we stood like that for a long time.  Suddenly I realized that if I chanted a prayer in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali, they might recognize it, so I began to chant, "Buddham saranam gacchami" (I take refuge in the Buddha).  They not only recognized it, they continue the chant.  Four of them joined their palms and chanted, while the other two stood respectfully.  This chant is a common prayer, like the Our Father.  "I take refuge in the Buddha.  I take refuge in the Dharma.  I take refuge in the Sangha."

I motioned to the two children who were not chanting to join us.  They smiled, placed their palms together and chanted in Pali, "I take refuge in Mother Mary."  The music of their prayer did not differ much from the Buddhist one.  Then I embraced each child.  They were a little surprised, but I felt very much at one with each of them.  They had given me a feeling of deep serenity and peace.  We all need a place that is safe and wholesome enough for us to return for refuge.  In Buddhism, that refuge is mindfulness.

C.  The Foundation of Stability and Calm

When we were in our mother's womb, we felt secure -- protected from heat, cold, and hunger.  But the moment we were born and came into contact with the world's suffering, we began to cry.  Since then, we have yearned to return to the security of our mother's womb.  We long for permanence, but everything is changing.  We desire an absolute, but even what we call our "self" is impermanent.  We seek a place where we can feel safe and secure, a place where we can rely on for a long time.  When we touch the ground, we feel the stability of the earth and feel confident.  When we observe the steadiness of the sunshine, the air, and the trees, we know that we can count on the sun to rise each day and the air and the trees to be there tomorrow.  When we build a house, we build it on ground that is solid.  Before putting our trust in others, we need to choose friends who are stable, on whom we can rely.  "Taking refuge" is not based on blind faith or wishful thinking.  It is gauged by our real experience.

We all need something good, beautiful, and true to believe in.  To take refuge in mindfulness, our capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment, is safe and not at all abstract.  When we drink a glass of water and know we are drinking a glass of water, that is mindfulness.  When we sit, walk, stand, or breathe and know that we are sitting, walking, standing, or breathing, we touch the seed of mindfulness in us, and, after a few days, our mindfulness will grow stronger.  Mindfulness is the light that shows us the way.  It is the living Buddha inside of us.  Mindfulness gives rise to insight, awakening, and love.  We all have the seed of mindfulness within us and, through the practice of conscious breathing, we can learn to touch it.  When we take refuge in the Buddhist trinity -- Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha -- it means to take refuge in our mindfulness, our mindful breathing, and the five elements that comprise our self.

Breathing in, breathing out,
Buddha is my mindfulness, shining near, shining far.
Dharma is my conscious breathing, calming my body and mind.
I am free.
Breathing in, breathing out,
Sangha is my five skandhas, working in harmony.
Taking refuge in myself,
Going back to myself.
I am free.

When we practice this exercise, it takes us directly to a place of peace and stability, to the most calm and stable place we can go.  The Buddha taught, "Be an island unto yourself.  Take refuge in yourself and not in anything else."  This island is right mindfulness, the awakened nature, the foundation of stability and calm that resides in each of us.  This island shines light on our path and helps us see what to do and what not to do.  When our five skandhas -- form, feelings, perceptions, mental states, and consciousness -- are in harmony, there will naturally be right action and peace.  Conscious breathing brings about calmness and harmony.  Aware that practicing this way is the best thing we can do, we will feel solid within and we will be a true vehicle for helping others.

D.  Embracing Not Fighting

In the Orthodox Christian church, the idea of the Trinity is quite profound.  Sometimes our Orthodox friends call the Trinity their "social program."  They begin with the Holy Spirit and the Son.  The Father belongs to the realm of inexpressibility, but it is possible to touch the Son and the Holy Spirit.  We have the capacity to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit whenever and wherever in manifests.  It, too, is the presence of mindfulness, understanding, and love, the energy that animates Jesus and helps us recognize the living Christ.  When a Christian makes the Sign of the Cross or says the names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, she is taking refuge.

The Buddha said that his body of teachings would remain with his students but that it was up to them to make it last.  If we don't practice, there will be only books and tapes, but if we practice, the Dharma body will be a living Dharma.  Dharmakaya later came to mean soul of the Buddha, spirit of the Buddha, true Buddha, or nature of the Buddha.  It developed an ontological flavor -- ground of all being, ground of all enlightenment.  Finally, it became equivalent to suchness, nirvana, and tathagatagarbha (the womb of the Tathagata).  That is a natural development.  The Dharma is the door that opens to many meanings.

In the Greek Orthodox church, the idea of deification, that a person is a microcosm of God, is very inspiring.  It is close to the Asian tradition that states that the body of a human being is a minicosmos.  God made humans so that humans can become God.  A human being is a mini-God, a micro-theos who has been created in order to participate in the divinity of God.  Deification is made not only of the spirit but of the body of a human also.  According to the teaching of the Trinity in the Orthodox church, the Father is the source of divinity who engenders the Son.  With the Word (Logos), He brings about the Spirit that is alive in the Son.  This is very much like the nondual nature of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  

Alphonse Daudet wrote about a shepherd on a mountain who made the Sign of the Cross when he saw a shooting star.  The popular belief is that at the moment you see a shooting star, one soul is entering Heaven.  Making the Sign of the Cross is a form of taking refuge in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  When you believe that something is the embodiment of evil, you hold out a cross to chase it away.  In popular Buddhism, when people see something they think of as unwholesome, they invoke the name of Buddha.  These are all practices of devotion.  When you shine the light, darkness disappears.  We may understand this as a kind of fight between light and darkness, but in reality, it is an embrace.  Mindfulness, if practiced continuously, will be strong enough to embrace your fear or anger and transform it.  We need not chase away evil.  We can embrace and transform it in a nonviolent, nondualistic way.

E.  Touching the Living Christ

When we invoke the Buddha's name, we evoke the same Buddha-qualities in ourselves.  We practice in order to make the Buddha come alive within us, so we can be released from afflictions and attachments.  But many people who invoke the name of Buddha do so without really trying to touch the Buddha seeds in themselves.  There is a story of one woman who invoked the name of the Buddha hundreds of times a day without ever touching the essence of a Buddha.  After practicing for ten years, she was still filled with anger and irritation.  Her neighbor noticed this, and one day while she was practicing invoking the name of the Buddha, he knocked on her door and shouted, "Mrs. Ly, open the door!"  She was so annoyed to be disturbed, she struck her bell very hard so that her neighbor would hear she was chanting and would stop disturbing her.  But he kept calling, "Mrs. Ly, Mrs. Ly, Mrs. Ly, I need to speak with you."  She became furious, threw her bell down on the ground, and stomped to the door, shouting, "Can't you see I'm invoking the name of the Buddha?  Why are you bothering me now?"  Her neighbor replied, "I only called your name twelve times, and look at how angry you have become.  Imagine how angry the Buddha must be after you have been calling his name for ten years!"

Christians may do exactly as Mrs. Ly did if they only follow the rituals mechanically or pray without really being present.  That is why they have been urged by Christian teachers to practice "The Prayer of the Heart."  In Christianity, as well as in Buddhism, many people have little joy, ease, relaxation, release, or spaciousness of spirit in their practice.  Even if they continue for one hundred years that way, they will not touch the living Buddha or the living Christ.  If Christians who invoke the name of Jesus are only caught  up in the words, they may lose sight of the life and teaching of Jesus.  They practice only the form, not the essence.  When you practice the essence, your mind becomes clear, and you attain joy.  Christians who pray to God also have to learn deeply Christ's art of living if they want to enter His teachings.  It is by watering the seeds of the awakened qualities that are already in us, by practicing mindfulness, that we touch the living Buddha and the living Christ.

F.  A Mini-Pure Land

I became a monk at the age of sixteen in the tradition of Zen, but we also practiced Pure Land Buddhism in our temple.  Pure Land Buddhism, which is very popular throughout East Asia, teaches people that if they practice well now, they will be reborn in the Western Paradise of the Buddha Amida, the Land of Wondrous Joy of the Buddha Aksobhya, or the Heaven of Gratitude of the Buddha Maitreya.  A Pure Land is a land, perhaps in space and time, perhaps in our consciousness, where violence, hatred, craving, and discrimination have been reduced to a minimum because many people are practicing understanding and loving-kindness under the guidance of a Buddha and several bodhisattvas.  Every practitioner of Buddha's way is, sooner or later, motivated by the desire to set up a Pure Land where he or she can share his or her joy, happiness, and practice with others.  I myself have several times tried to set up a small Pure Land to share the practice of joy and peace with friends and students.  In Vietnam it was Phuong Boi in the central highlands, and in France it is our Plum Village practice center.  An ashram, such as the Community of the Arch in France, is also a Pure Land.  A Great Enlightened Being should be able to establish a great Pure Land.  Others of us make the effort to begin a mini-Pure Land.  This is only a natural tendency to share happiness.

A Pure Land is an ideal place for you to go to practice until you get fully enlightened.  Many people in Asia practice recollection of the Buddha (Buddhanusmrti), reflecting on the qualities of the Buddha -- visualizing him or invoking his name -- in order to be reborn in his Pure Land.  During the time of practice, they dwell in a kind of refuge in that Buddha.  They are close to him, and they also water the seed of Buddhahood in themselves.  But Pure Lands are impermanent.  In Christianity, the Kingdom of God is the place you will go for eternity.  But in Buddhism, the Pure Land is a kind of university where you practice with a teacher for a while, graduate, and then come back here to continue.  Eventually, you discover that the Pure Land is in your own heart, that you do not need to go to a faraway place.  You can set up your own mini-Pure Land, a Sangha of practice, right here, right now.  But many people need to go away before they realize they do not have to go anywhere.

G.  Devotional and Transformational Practice

The practice of taking refuge can be done every day, several times a day.  Whenever you feel agitated, sad, afraid, or worried, you can go back to your island of mindfulness.  If you practice when you are not experiencing difficulty, it will be easier to go back to your island of self when the need is great.  Don't wait until you are hit by a wave to go back to your island.  Practice every day by living mindfully each moment of your life, and the practice will become a habit.  Then when a difficult moment arrives, it will be natural and easy to take refuge.  Walking, breathing, sitting, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness are all practices of taking refuge.  This is not a matter of belief.  It is very grounded in experience.  If I am ever in an airplane and the pilot announces that our plane is about to crash, I will practice mindful breathing and taking refuge in the island of self.  I know that is the best thing I can do.  If, down below, you know that I am practicing mindful breathing and taking refuge in the island of self, you will have confidence.  I always practice walking meditation at airports.  I try to leave for the airport early so that I will not have to rush when I am there.  Mindful breathing unites body and mind.  Many people call mindfulness the heart of Buddhist meditation.  It is the first condition for touching anything deeply.  When you practice mindfulness, you touch the Holy Spirit and become peaceful and solid.

Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is at the foundation of every Buddhist practice.  Taking refuge in the Trinity is at the foundation of every Christian practice.  Devotional and transformational practice may sound distinct, but devotional practice can also be transformational, and transformational practice requires devotion.  Devotional practice relies more on the other, but there is also self-effort.  Transformational practice relies on the self, but a community and a teacher are also necessary.  Mindfulness and the Holy Spirit are at the heart of both.

Go To Chapter Nine

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