The first thing that used to come to mind when I thought of refuge were images of people in distress, looking for a place to rest. Today I know it as something far more beneficial and profound. Refuge has become one of the most important exercises in my spiritual practice and my life. But it wasn’t always so.
Over more than a decade ago, unbeknownst to me, I took refuge in something wholesome, not Buddhist, and my life changed forever. As an alcoholic, either you do that, or you face irreversible physical, social and emotional damage. Much has been written about the hazards of untreated addiction, so I will not focus on them. Since I had developed the illness, I did the most logical thing at the time and took refuge in a recovery group. I was fortunate enough to experience relief during the first AA meetings I attended. It is not always the case. Many feel nothing but guilt, resentment and a lot more pain. But not me. I thought: “I will stay here because this feels good.” Upon reflection, the feeling coming from the members of the recovery group can be described as empathy and genuine compassion.
The first day almost everyone at the meeting shared their story with me and delivered some hard truths about alcoholism. Such brutal honesty actually made me feel safe and to me, that’s what a refuge is supposed to do. Months later after attending the gatherings almost every day, a deeper kind of refuge was taking place in my mind. Just by being there, I was cultivating not only sobriety but also ideas that would later help me avoid hardcore cravings to drink again. Wholesome ideas are a refuge indeed.
This became evident years later, when I figured out how mental accumulations work in Buddhism. After a year of being sober and getting used to this awesome lifestyle, I met a Buddhist lama who talked about the usual stuff Buddhists talk about: compassion, emptiness, meditation and more. He also talked about taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, also known as the Three Jewels. As simple as that sounds, these words were hard to understand for me. The third step in the 12 step recovery program, requires one to turn one’s life and will over to a God. As an atheist, that was difficult enough for me and now the lama was talking about taking refuge in a guy from India who lived 2,500 years ago.
Yet I took refuge, whatever that meant for me at the time, in the Three Jewels and became a follower of the Enlightened One. Why? Because this lama was talking about stuff that I could identify with: “There is suffering, clinging causes pain and there’s a cure.” Later I realized that I had done it because deep down I knew, as I had learned in recovery, that surrendering to something wholesome made me feel better. Refuge meant giving up and resting on safe ground, whatever that was.
However, the equity surrendering to something wholesome = taking refuge wasn’t evident right away. Earlier I said I was fortunate enough to feel relief in my first AA meeting. But that’s not right. I wasn’t fortunate. I was broken and due to this I had no resistance whatsoever. My vulnerability placed me in direct contact with a wholesome community and their spiritual program, and thus I was able to experience the benefits of recovery right away.
It took time to see this. Like all addicts, at first I resisted many times. However, I had to pay attention and comply because, either an addict surrenders his will to the advice of the healthy and wise, or bad things never go away. Before spiritual treatment, my will was ill will. After treatment, the illness had diminished immensely. I learned that honesty helped me stay sober and sane. So I began to overcome my fear of acknowledging mistakes. That was hard. Accepting I was wrong always felt like betrayal towards myself. Now I find it impossible to function without being mercilessly honest about my words and deeds. Pride began to fall apart and then I realized that if all my defenses are dropped, one learns to abide in a non-violent humbleness. Since such abiding kept me serene, I suddenly was all about being humble.
After a year of learning how to dismantle pride and ill will, back in the Buddhist temple the lama mentioned and eventually taught me one of the Tibetan preliminary practices known as ngondro. I was compliant as hell. “You say this will help me end suffering for good? Sign me up”, I thought. Although my life was more balanced, I was still having a hard time with my anger, fears, material cravings and pride bursts. The idea of ending emotional suffering for good was very appealing. So just like I had chanted in recovery, I recited the Buddhist prayers. Just like I had thought a lot about the words I read from AA’s Big Blue Book, I reflected a lot on karma, impermanence, suffering and the never ending cycle of rebirth. To take refuge, the Dudjom Tersar Ngondro required prostrations while reciting refuge verses, and so I prostrated with devotion over and over. I did that regardless of the fact I had been, and still am, one of the most skeptic persons.
Why on Earth would I prostrate to a statue of someone I have never met? The answer lies in what I verified during recovery countless times: if one surrenders one’s ill will to something wholesome, things get better. After the pink cloud of sobriety had faded, just a few months I had stopped drinking, as I was struggling with anger and resistance to accept I was being an asshole to my loved ones, my sponsor asked: “have you kneeled to God lately?”. I was utterly surprised by that question. “What in the world is he talking about?”, I thought. I felt offended. I couldn’t believe he had the nerves to ask me to kneel. Needless to say, I replied I had not. And then he said: “Want to feel better? Just start kneeling every day.” Since I didn’t want to continue feeling like crap. I gave it a try. That night, I reluctantly kneeled. To what? Honestly, to nothing. And then I felt a dim sense of relief. Kneeling was a small gesture of giving up and it made me feel better. So there it was, my first evidence of the efficacy of surrendering to something wholesome. Without doubt, nothingness was and is way more wholesome than acting out anger. From that point I was ready to do more surrendering. By the time I was in front of a Buddhist altar, I had no doubt prostrating would improve my condition.
The Buddha seemed one of the most wholesome ideas ever: Here’s a guy that not only gives you precise instructions on how to purify oneself from harmful ways of being, but also is able to describe the nature of the mind, cognition, suffering and many more topics related to the most difficult questions in morality. Plus, plenty of people in his day and today have verified his methods and can vouch for their functionality.
Little by little something really unique began to reveal itself. As I gave myself to the verses and the prostrations, I realized that taking refuge is like dying, but in a good way. When giving up our will, we disappear briefly. This ending of ourselves becomes the space to be occupied by whatever we surrender to. I discovered that sacrifice through taking refuge, allowed me to cultivate Buddha qualities. After all, I was giving up my will to Gautama’s patience, love and basic goodness. Those “Buddha virtues” began to build up. This realization made me understand recovery in AA meetings: Just like we feed harmful habits through repetition of harmful actions, the same thing happens with wholesome actions. One dies as an addict through surrender to an idea of wholesomeness, and then clarity flourishes. Accumulation of refuge, hence, is not just about protection. It is the deal itself. Real happiness and balanced life. Nonetheless, this alchemy is possible only when certain factors manifest.
In brief, this is the process I have identified, based on the experiences from recovery and my personal Buddhist practice: When one suffers, one gets tired of suffering. Such tiredness makes one vulnerable, enough to defeat oneself and finally give up fighting. Defeat, then, arises dependently with powerlessness and it is this lack of will that manifests a humble space. Such open field is imbued little by little with serenity, until one is completely permeated with relief. After such experience, all doubts vanish. A clear path to the end of suffering rises and all that’s left to do is walk the path.
May this testimony inspire others to take refuge as well.
Photos: A dharma student & Buddhist altar by Wonderlane. TianTan Buddha by Joe Hunt.
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