Be an Island - Selections
Chapter 1: Taking Refuge: A Kind of Love Affair
Taking refuge in the Enlightened One (Buddha), the teaching (Dhamma), and the community of enlightened disciples (Sangha) has a deep significance. A refuge is a shelter, a safe place. There are very few safe places in this world. In fact, to find a totally safe shelter anywhere in worldly life is impossible. Physical shelters burn down, get demolished, disappear. Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha is not a physical shelter but a spiritual one, a haven protected from the storm. On the ocean the storms, winds, and waves make progress difficult. When a ship finally reaches the shelter of a harbor, where the water is calm, it can come to anchor. This is what it means to take refuge in Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha.
We feel that we have finally found the place where we can come to rest: the teaching that promises, without a shadow of a doubt, that there is an end to suffering, to all the ills besetting mankind. The teaching, the Dhamma propounded by the great teacher and perpetuated by his Sangha, shows us the way. “Sangha” here means those who become enlightened through the Buddha’s teaching, not necessarily those who wear robes. When we accept that promise by realizing the possibility of an end to suffering and by trusting in the Dhamma’s efficacy, taking refuge is very meaningful.
Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi To the Buddha I go for refuge.
Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi To the Dhamma I go for refuge.
Sanghaṃ saraṅaṃ gacchāmi To the Sangha I go for refuge.
It is essential to understand the meaning of the Pali. Otherwise we are repeating words in a foreign language just like parrots, who don’t know what they are saying.
When we feel that taking refuge is a reality for us, our hearts open up in devotion, gratitude, and respect toward Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha. We feel grateful that cessation of suffering is available; we feel devotion to the path, which promises an otherworldly reality; we feel appreciative of those who made propagating the path their life’s work.
Taking refuge can become the most important thing in our lives. Everything that we do can be done for Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha. I can carry stones for Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, and they weigh nothing. But if I carry stones because somebody tells me to carry stones, they’re heavy and the work is tiring. It is not difficult at all to perform tasks for the highest ideal that promises another level of being once we have seen that the reality in which humanity lives is unsatisfactory and are willing to let go of it.
Most of us gladly take refuge—with utter devotion, gratitude, and respect—in someone who has reached the most elevated consciousness possible and is able and willing to explain the path in such a way that we can actually follow it.
When we feel gratitude, devotion, and respect, we have love in our hearts. Love and respect go hand in hand with the spiritual path. These two feelings are appropriate and essential for any relationship we may have, but even more so for the spiritual path, which is the closest relationship we can have because it concerns our own being. Heart and mind must both be engaged. The mind understands and the heart loves, and unless that fusion happens, we may limp along on one leg. The integration of intellect and emotion helps us walk ahead steadily.
Unsteadiness in our practice will again and again bring dissatisfaction into our hearts and also skeptical doubt: Am I doing the right thing? What’s this all about? Why don’t I do what everybody else is doing? Skeptical doubt arises because a lack of emotional connection to our practice leaves us shaky. We need to be solidly grounded and have both heart and mind wholeheartedly involved in all our actions.
In this human world we are beset by troubles, difficulties, and constant fears for ourselves and our loved ones. Finding a refuge, a safe place within all that anxiety, is so rare and valuable that most people cannot fathom its importance.
We call Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha the Three Jewels, or the Triple Gem (Tiratana), because they are of the utmost value. The jewels are not the physical bodies of the Buddha and the Sangha but the transcendence that they represent, the nibbānic consciousness, overriding all human desires and foibles.
Being able to take refuge is not only rare but denotes excellent karma. But such a wonderful opportunity will bear fruit only if we take refuge with our hearts and not just with our mouths.
All of us have at least once in our lives been in love, and we can remember the feeling, especially if the love was reciprocated. It felt marvelous, didn’t it? The same exhilarating emotion can be ours if we love BuddhaDhamma-Sangha, because we meet all three within our hearts. This can be a perpetual love affair, and whatever we do, we do for the ones we love, which becomes an easy task. Energy becomes natural and doesn’t have to be aroused over and over. It arises from certainty and direction, from a heart fully connected to all we do.
The Buddha promised that we can come to the end of every bit of suffering that ever was in our hearts, and that we can reach the end of all anxiety, fear, and worry, the end of even the smallest niggling feeling that something isn’t right. When we enter the path leading to the final elimination of all dukkha (suffering), we enter a relationship that can purify us totally and that will eventually make us part of the Enlightened Sangha. If taking refuge is understood in this way, we derive great benefit from it.
The same chants that encourage gratitude, devotion, and respect also help us memorize the teaching, leading us thereby to wisdom and insight. Here I give the English translation of the Pali original.
Homage to the Buddha:
Indeed the Blessed One is thus:
The accomplished destroyer of defilements,
A Buddha perfected by himself,
Complete in clear knowledge and compassionate conduct,
Supremely good in presence and in destiny,
Knower of the worlds,
Incomparable master of those to be tamed,
Teacher of devas and humans,
Awakened and awakener,
And the Lord by skillful means apportioning Dhamma.
Homage to the Dhamma:
The Dhamma of the Blessed One is perfectly expounded, To be seen here and now,
Not a matter of time, Inviting one to come and see, Leading inward,
To be known by the wise each individually.
Homage to the Sangha:
The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples has entered on the good way.
The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples has entered on the straight way.
The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples has entered on the true way.
The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples has entered on the proper way.
That is to say:
The four pairs of humans, the eight types of persons,
This Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples is fit for gifts,
Fit for hospitality, fit for offerings, and fit for reverential salutation,
As the incomparable field of merit for the world.
Wisdom has three stages. The first one is knowledge acquired by hearing or reading. We reach the second stage when we make this knowledge our own by taking its guidelines to heart and trying to actualize them through thought, speech, and action. As we do this more and more, our thoughts, words, and deeds are purified, and the third and highest stage of wisdom arises.
We have all seen statues or pictures of the Buddha. Nobody knows what the Buddha really looked like, for in those days there were no cameras, and no drawings of the Buddha were made either. The statues and pictures we see depict each artist’s idea of beauty and compassion.
We can make our own Buddha statue in our minds, according to how we visualize perfection and beauty. We can let golden rays emanate from it, make it the most wonderful thing we can possibly imagine, and carry it around in our hearts. This will develop love for ourselves and also help us to love others, since we see that they might be carrying the same beautiful statue around in their hearts. Even if they speak differently and look different from us, they still carry the same beauty in their hearts.
Unless we practice loving feelings toward everyone we meet, day in, day out, we’re missing out on the most joyous part of life. If we can actually open our hearts, there’s no difficulty in being happy. Anyone who has a successful love affair has a happy heart.
When we love the Three Jewels it is the kind of love affair that cannot disappoint us. Our lover does not run away or pick someone else. And since we haven’t yet discovered the depth and profundity of the loved one, new horizons open up all the time. When we become enlightened, the whole consciousness of our beloved, the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, will be available to us, and we cannot possibly be disappointed.
This is a kind of transcendental relationship, not dependent upon a human being who will eventually die and who is imperfect. It is a relationship with perfection itself, which is difficult to find in the human or any other realm. We are extremely privileged to have that opportunity. Yet we must also turn our perception toward our imperfect inner reality and recognize clearly what the Three Jewels mean for us. Then loving devotion will arise and fill us. When we see the greatest beauty and purity, the greatest wisdom, we cannot help but love their expression.
We have a lot to be grateful for, and it is our own good karma that has made it possible to be here at this moment. The Dhamma protects the Dhamma practitioner. We are protected because our reactions are dependable and we have found the pathway to freedom. This is the only safety we can find.
Chapter 2: The Dhamma of the Blessed One
The Dhamma of the Blessed One is perfectly expounded,
To be seen here and now
Not a matter of time,
Inviting one to come and see,
To be known by the wise, each individually.
The first line of this chant proclaims real faith in the Dhamma—not a belief in everything without inquiry, but an inner relationship of trust. When we are faithful to someone, we trust that person, we put ourselves in his or her hands, we have a deep connection and an inner opening. When we have faith in the teaching of the Buddha, this is all the more true. Those aspects of the Dhamma that we do not understand we leave in abeyance, but that does not shake our faith and trust.
Dhamma is the truth expounded by the Enlightened One, the law of nature surrounding us and imbedded within us. If we feel that it is “perfectly expounded,” then we are very fortunate, for we have found one thing in this universe that is perfect. There is nothing else to be found that is without blemish, nor is there anything that approaches such perfection. If we have that trust, faithfulness, and love for the Dhamma and believe it to be perfectly expounded, then we have found something beyond compare. We are blessed with an inner wealth.
“To be seen here and now” means that understanding the Dhamma is up to each one of us. The Dhamma has been made clear by the Enlightened One, who taught it out of compassion, but we have to see it ourselves with an inner vision.
“Here and now” means never forgetting the Dhamma, but being aware of it in each moment. This awareness helps us to watch our reactions before they result in unskillful words or actions. When we see the positive within us, we cultivate it; when we see the negative, we substitute the positive. When we believe all our thoughts and claim justification for them, we are not seeing the Dhamma. There are no justifications, only the arising and ceasing of phenomena.
“Not a matter of time” means that we do not depend upon a buddha being alive in order to practice the Dhamma. Some people think there has to be a perfect teacher or perfect meditation. None of that is true. Mental and physical phenomena (dhammas) are constantly coming and going, changing without pause. When we hang on to them and consider them ours, we will believe any story our mind tells us, without discrimination. We consist of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, which we grip tightly and believe to be “me” and “mine.” We need to take a step back and be a neutral observer of the whole process. “Inviting one to come and see, leading inward”: the understanding of the Dhamma leads us into our inner depth. We are not invited to come and see a meditation hall or a Buddha statue, a stupa or a shrine, but to see the dhammas arising within us. The defilements as well as the purifications are to be found inside our own hearts and minds. The arising and ceasing phenomena, which are our teachers, never rest. Dhamma is being taught to us constantly. All our waking moments are Dhamma teachers, if we make them so.
Our minds are very busy, remembering, planning, hoping, or judging. We could make our body equally busy by picking up little stones and throwing them into the water all day long. But we would consider that a foolish expenditure of energy, so we direct the body toward something more useful. We need to do the same with the mind. Instead of thinking about this and that, allowing the defilements to arise, we should direct the mind toward something beneficial, such as investigating our likes and dislikes, our desires and rejections, our ideas and views.
When the mind inquires, it does not get involved in its creations. It cannot do both at the same time. As it becomes more observant, it remains objective for longer periods. That is why the Buddha taught that mindfulness is the sole means of purification. The clear and lucid observation of all arising phenomena eventually shows that there are only mind and body constantly expanding and contracting, in the same way as the universe does. Unless we become very diligent observers, we will not notice that aspect of mind and body and cannot know the Dhamma “here and now,” even though we have been “invited to come and see.”
“To be known by the wise, each individually” means that no one can know the Dhamma for another. We can chant, read, discuss, and listen, but unless we watch all that arises, we will not know the Dhamma by ourselves. There is only one place where the Dhamma can be known—within our inner being. It has to be a personal experience. Meditation helps. Unless we inquire into our reactions and know why we want one thing and reject another, we have not seen the Dhamma. This practice will also give us a clear perception of impermanence (anicca) because our desires and dislikes are constantly changing. We will see that the mind, which is thinking, and the body, which is breathing, are both unsatisfactory (dukkha).
When the mind does not operate with an uplifted, transcendental awareness, it creates suffering (dukkha). Only a measureless, illumined mind is free from that. The body produces dukkha in many ways, through its inability to remain steady. Seeing this clearly will give us a strong determination to know Dhamma by ourselves.
Wisdom arises from within and comes from an understood experience. Neither knowledge nor listening can bring it about. Wisdom also means maturity, which has nothing to do with age. Sometimes life experiences may help, but not always. Wisdom is an inner knowing, which creates self-confidence. We need not look for somebody else’s confirmation and goodwill; we know for ourselves with certainty.
Treading the Dhamma path is like walking a tightrope. It leads along one straight line, and every time we slip, it hurts. When we first start to walk on the tightrope we are not used to balancing. We sway all over the place, going in many directions, wherever it is most comfortable. We may feel restricted and coerced, not being allowed to live according to our natural instincts. Yet to walk on a tightrope we have to restrict ourselves through mindfulness. These restrictions may at first feel irksome, like fetters or bonds, but later they turn out to be liberating.
To have this perfect jewel of the Dhamma in our hearts, we need to be awake and aware. Then we can prove by our watchfulness that “the Dhamma of the Blessed One is perfectly expounded.” There is no worldly jewel that can match the value of the Dhamma. Each one of us can become the owner of this priceless gem. We are most fortunate to have such an opportunity. When we wake up in the morning, let this be our first thought: What good fortune it is for me to be able to practice the Dhamma.
How to cite this document:
© Ayya Khema, Be an Island (Wisdom Publications, 1999)
Be an Island by Ayya Khema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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