Three Bright Jewels in the Midst of a Pandemic

I take refuge in the Buddha;
I take refuge in the Dharma,
I take refuge in the Sangha.
–– Buddhist Going-for-Refuge Chant

I once heard a scholar of comparative religion say that the above words are the closest thing in Buddhism to a “statement of faith.” So, I have worked to understand them in that way, while at the same time cherishing the Buddha’s advice to the Kalama people to not take his teachings on “blind faith” but to try them out themselves––to see if they work or not.

The word Buddha literally translates as “awake,” one who is awake. I think of taking refuge in the Buddha as trusting my own ability to be awake and clear in the moment and to be kind. Taking refuge in the Dharma means trusting the Buddha’s teachings as a means of nurturing and stabilizing that wakefulness and kindness. Taking refuge in the Sangha means trusting the goodness and kindness of others and having confidence that their wakefulness and kindness support and grow my own and vice versa. I have tried these ideas out, tested them. They work for me. I find this to be exponentially true in our current global crisis brought on by the spread of the Corona Virus.

But what about this being “a statement of faith”? What does this sometimes-problematic word “faith” mean in Buddhism if not faith in an external deity?

Gil Fronsdal has been teaching a series online on the Five Spiritual Faculties over these early weeks of the pandemic. [You can find a direct link to these and other talks on the Valley Insight Website Resource page ] Faith is the first of these Five Faculties. The word in the Pali language is saddha, which is usually translated as faith or confidence. The Burmese teacher U Tejaniya describes saddha as “that in us which wants to practice.” In this way, faith might be understood as an inner rumbling, an urge perhaps. In the Buddhist teachings, such a stirring or possibility is referred to as a faculty, something inherent in all humans. Like language, its potential is in us, but it must be activated and trained or cultivated to come into being. This inner faculty of faith is said to be conditioned––aroused and nourished––by a recognition of dukkha, another Pali word. This one is most often translated as unsatisfactoriness or suffering, but really, dukkha points to the undeniable fragility and vulnerability of our entire existence, as well as that of our loved ones and our entire world. The unreliability of our lives is now undeniable in the face of the un-predictableness of the seemingly sudden and drastic changes occurring all round us––moment by moment. As the pandemic continues to surge, uncertainty has become the norm. There is a very natural anxiety rising. What will happen next? What shall we do? Where can we turn for refuge? It may be that a parallel natural arising and growing of faith is occurring.

“I am so grateful for my practice.”
“I am so grateful for these teachings.”
“I am so grateful for the sangha.”

I have heard these words expressed so often in the last weeks. I have spoken them myself. We all have. The first sentence expresses a confidence in and a recognized reliance on the Buddha, our inherent wakefulness. The second, confidence in the Dharma, is acknowledged for the teachings. The third, of course, is a knowing of our reliance on and trust in one another, in a wakeful, caring community. Before this global crisis, we all had some level of trust in our practice and study and sangha, at least enough of what is called “bright faith” to have been exploring this path together. Now we each seem to be finding solace and refuge as we turn towards it. Our initial draw towards (faith in) the Buddha Dharma as a helpful, beneficial teaching is being tested and verified; and for many of us, it is growing. Our sense of direction is getting clearer. Easy access to the VIMS sitting groups––and to a vast array of study and practice opportunities with senior teachers in the Insight tradition via the internet––is feeding and strengthening our initial inkling that there is a way to proceed, one which can lessen our own discontent, fear, and reactivity, while also easing the stress in the lives of others. This path even opens us to happiness and a greater felt-sense of connection in the midst of the pandemic.

The Five Spiritual Faculties develop naturally into the Five Spiritual Powers as we explore them. Our growing Confidence (1) fuels the emergence of the others––giving rise to a persevering Energy (2), which supports and sustains Mindfulness (3), which builds the stability of mind, which we often refer to as Concentration (4), which allows Wisdom (5) to open into our minds and hearts. Our steadiness on and in the path is gradually becoming unshakeable. Our actions, based on wisdom, are becoming embodied compassion.

In the quiet deepening of our personal practice, we are all increasingly taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Even as we are “seeing for ourselves,” we are transformed as the pandemic’s surge continues all around us.

“All conditioned things pass away; continue with care.”
–– the Buddha’s last words

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