Seeking Refuge: A Quest for Understanding

“Fear results from resorting to violence. Just look how people quarrel and fight. Let me tell you now of the dismay and terror I felt. Seeing people struggling like fish writhing in shallow water with enmity against one another, I became afraid. At one time I wanted to find a place where I could take shelter, but I never saw such a place. There is nothing in this world that is solid at base, is changeless and not a part of it. I’d seen them all trapped in mutual conflict and that is why I felt so repelled.

“But then I noticed something very deep in their hearts, it was a dark spot. I could just make it out, a dart, a barb. This is a barb that makes its victims run all over the place, but once it’s been pulled out all that running is finished, and so is the exhaustion that comes with it.” (Buddha, Sutta Nipata)

Does this sound familiar? Twenty-five hundred years ago, the man who came to be known as the Buddha, which literally means “one who is awake,” left his privileged position in a village in northwestern India, seeking refuge because of what he described in the above passage. He could have been reading today’s newspaper. Eventually, through a long process of quieting his mind and investigating its tendency to create problems for itself and others, he understood the roots of confusion and pain–– and he was free. Some years ago, a friend of mine quoted his doctor as saying, “Understanding is imperative to healing.” The phrase rings loud and true for me; it describes the rationale for the methods prescribed in Insight meditation practice. “Suffering is to be understood.” This is the path to refuge.

In early Buddhism, the Buddha himself was at times considered to be a physician, and the first teaching, that of the Four Noble Truths, can be seen as a medical metaphor describing the diagnosis, cause, prognosis, and prescription for overcoming the basic problem of the human condition. The first truth presents the diagnosis of the problem: Dukkha exists. Dukkha has been most often translated as “suffering” or “dissatisfaction,” and more recently, “stress.” Last week I heard a teacher say he’s been calling it “reactivity.” That seems relevant to me. I can directly experience reactivity in my body, heart, and mind –– often before I can name it as anger or fear. That this Dukkha is to be “understood” means that one is to open towards it with interest and become intimate with it in four ways, namely, how it feels; the fact that it arises due to some condition or event; that it passes; and what conditions give rise to its passing.

The second truth describes the problem’s roots: it is an unquenchable sense of lack, which causes a person to grasp after and cling to that which cannot cure the problem of reactivity. This is the “barb” described by the Buddha in the passage quoted above. The barb is identified as bhava-tanha which means literally “the thirst for becoming.” This felt sense of lack is experienced as a broad-based drive in our bodies, hearts, and minds, which constantly and mindlessly creates a momentum away from the present moment towards the desired pleasant and away from the unpleasant. The direct understanding of this process offers refuge from it, and so the third truth offers a good prognosis to this difficult situation: there is a possible end to this suffering; the barb is removable through a mindful awareness of it, and through wise understanding. The fourth truth, the Eightfold Path, completes the cycle. It offers the prescription telling us how to find refuge from the entrenched patterns of reactivity in our lives.

Our investigation into the process of the mind represents a continuous discovery of the path to a peaceful, contented mind and an easeful, friendly heart. Active understanding offers the safe refuge, which is at the heart of Buddhist practice. When asked about this refuge of wakefulness, the Buddha replied:

“What is an awake man? He is calmed, has extinguished all cravings before the body disintegrates, has no concern with how things began or how they end; nor is he fixated on the present. He has no preferences; nothing gives him cause for regret. He is the wise man who is restrained in speech; he has no longing for the future and no grief for the past. There are no views or opinions that lead him. He can see detachment from the tangled world of sense impressions. He does not conceal anything and there is nothing he holds onto. Without acquisitiveness or covetousness, he remains unobtrusive. He has no distain or insult for anyone. He is not a man who is full of himself or addicted to pleasure. He is a man who is gentle and alert with no blind faith. He shows no aversion to anything.” (The Buddha describing himself in the Samyutta Nikaya)

Going for Refuge:

Some members of the Valley Insight Community are exploring the process of “Going for Refuge,” which is said to be the necessary gateway to fully engaging with the Buddha’s teachings. We invite you to join us in reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article on “Refuges and Precepts” as a way of understanding your own journey as well as the Buddha’s.

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