Thursday, 20 November 2014


Neak Pean, Angkor, Camboya, 2013-08-17, DD 01

Zen is all about refuge. To this end, monastery monks daily intone the Three Refuge (or Three Jewel) Chant:

I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in Dharma.
I take refuge in Sangha.

(In theory, the first and third "refuges" are only a means to the second, which is the ultimate point of Buddhist practice. As a famous Zen teaching advises, even the Buddha himself is only toilet paper: really valuable when used, really objectionable after.)

In my practice, I find that this issue of refuge – specifically, where I seek it – comes up every minute. Every experience I've ever had has led me to the conclusion that the Buddha's teaching – that the Dharma is the only shelter, and all else a trap – is scientific fact.

So I'm enlightened. Schedule me to address the UN; I'll straighten those people out.

On second thought, maybe you better hold off, just yet.

Turns out "knowing" is not the same as "doing". Even "learning over and over and over again", for some reason, is still not attaining.

I keep seeking refuge in other stuff. Especially people. People suck as refuge. That's not misanthropy; it's just that all of us are so busy screaming our lungs out in our pitch-dark cells that we're not reliable refuge for others. Even those who don't want to, are going to fail you. (And most aren't even trying.) I know this, but somehow I can't shake the notion that – for example – female companionship would make me happy. Reams of research have proven that well dry, and I've even stopped drilling there. (Is it just me, or did it suddenly get Freudian in here…) But still that voice whispers, "That's where it all went wrong. If you'd found a loving woman, you'd be fine."

No I wouldn't. I'd be fretting about something else. Like jobs. Yeah, I know this culture teaches that a "productive" life (which bears a remarkable resemblance to slavery) is the key to happiness, but my success at finding an enlightened, non-exploitative employer is a precise mirror of my love life. Score: zero.

And I've been blessed with a pretty good family, when I look around at what others drew, but that's no source of enduring happiness either. I also have excellent friends, but they have their own lives, worries, and issues.

In sum, no-one I've ever met is any more perfect than me. And boy, is that bad news.

I've tried other things, too. Pretty much all of them, in fact: nationalism, religion, ideology, advocacy of this and that, marketing my skills and talents, competing, coöperating, obeying, rebelling, serving others, serving myself. None of it is worth a crock of warm spit.

The only thing that works is the Dharma. I call it keeping your eyes on the horizon. When things get really bad, I literally lift my eyes to the sky. It's big. Bigger than me. Bigger than you. Bigger than big, in fact.

According to Zen, "don't know mind" is the road to that refuge, and all my research to date endorses that. How else you gonna learn what you already know? One way or the other, it's crucial to remember that time is long, space is big, and people are stupid. Don't get attached to being one. This is only temporary.

May we all find a warm and lasting refuge.

(Photo courtesy of Diego Delso and Wikimedia Commons.)
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