Thursday, August 8, 2013

On Taking Refuge

Two weeks ago, Rhonda and I were up at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Summit Monastery, a secluded and beautiful site about fifteen minutes from our house in Corydon.  We were there at the invitation of the Reverend Thich Hang Dat, at a luncheon in honor of Mayor Greg Fischer's visit to the monastery.  For those of you outside our area, that's the Mayor of Louisville,  Rhonda's ultimate boss in Louisville Metro.  

We were at the event independently (i.e. not part of the Mayor's entourage) but we sat at the same table with him and Rev. Hang Dat—very pleasant company among two engaging and intelligent community figures.  Rhonda knows the Mayor, of course, and though I can't claim more than a passing acquaintance, I think he's a good man and a good mayor.  Before things settled in for the luncheon, he asked us, "Are you Buddhists?"

And hence the subject of the blog.

Rhonda gave a longer and very thoughtful answer to the question.  Like a good Catholic girl (and I mean that description in the best sense possible) she said that no, we weren't Buddhists, but that we were drawn by the spirituality and kindness of the tradition, especially as we saw it in display among the people in the Summit Monastery's community.  We've been there a few times, she informed the mayor, and always come away with a sense of welcome and hospitality.

There was nothing in that answer with which I disagree.  Mine would have been shorter: to the mayor's inquiry as whether I was a Buddhist, I would have to say, simply, "Not yet."

As I understand, to become an "official card-carrying Buddhist", one "takes refuge" in  1) a belief in the Buddha's enlightenment and example to those who seek their own enlightenment, 2) a belief in the dharma (the basic Buddhist teachings), and 3) an embrace of the sangha, the Buddhist community of faith.  As of now, I'm inclined toward taking refuge, though I'm spending some time in mindful consideration of what is an enormous spiritual step.

The meditation I've been doing, under the guidance of Rev. Hang Dat and (of course) on my own, is a practice that is already bearing enormous psychic rewards: if I go no further into Buddhism than simply meditating morning and evening and being more mindful in the way I pass my days, that alone will make this experience worth my while in abundance.  I am very new to meditation, but already notice an equilibrium and focus that I've experienced only at moments before, and certainly never in a daily, sustained fashion.  I have a feeling that if I am observant, I'm pushing the second heart attack out of the way and enabling emotional and physical health.  Those are good things.

The rest of the bargain I'm puzzling through.  And here are some of the issues.

I've never been a believer in a personal God, which is the kind of deity that most of my Christian and Jewish friends profess.  I tried to be for fifty years, because I can remember distinctly not believing when I was about four or five, feeling awful then as though something was really wrong with me, and masking the disbelief with excuses, compromises, false professions of faith.  Folks, I did this for half a century—partly because I feared facing the distance and disfavor of some people around me, but not so much that as something else: a kind of residual fear like the one in the old Blood Sweat and Tears song…to myself, I swore there was no heaven and I prayed there was no hell.  I respected and even envied the faith of some of my friends, especially when I saw it give life and breath to their actions, and even more so when I saw it emerge from an intellectual and emotional vigor I respected.  That faith was apparent to me in a few of the people I knew, and it was probably at work where I didn't see it in others.  I always respected it (except for about a 3-year period in late high school and early college, but nobody respects anything at that time, so I apologize to you and forgive myself in one fell swoop for that particular irreverence).  

Buddhism has a wide range of belief on this issue.  The Buddha himself never talked much about metaphysics, and there's that wonderful metaphor of the arrow in one of the sutras, which in short says that if you're shot with a bow, the first thing you think of is how to tend the wound rather than who made or fired the arrow.  I really understand this: metaphysical ultimates are so far beyond my grasp that I have to leave the jury out.  If you know the essential truth and ground of your being, again I envy you because I don't.  What I do know is that it makes sense to live the happiest and most mindful life you can, for yourself, for those around you, and for the community of living creatures at large.  When the time comes to answer for that, I hope to do so without regret or reservation.  It's making a beautiful thing of the here and now, tending to the well-being of others as well as of yourself.  I think that's the heart of the good life in most religious traditions: if we learned it from some divine and ultimate source, evolved it as an idea of the best way to live with each other, or whether it was a combination of these things or something else entirely, I have no idea. 

But I do know this.  If you believe in that kind of living and don't subscribe to a Christian theology, then you're pretty much out to lunch with many Christians.  If you don't buy the metaphysics, you fall grievously and eternally short.  In other words, if you swear there ain't no heaven, you get the hell you've been praying all along doesn't exist.  It's clear cut, either/or, and it still scares me.  Not that I've found out what to do with that fear.  But Christianity tells me that what I should do with it is to believe something I don't believe.  The idea of hell scares the hell out of me, I know it's residual from childhood when it was stoked by being afraid that I couldn't believe what everyone around me seemed to believe, and it's strange how something so early and primal stays with you, like the tattoo you got when you were drunk.  

Is such a fear a sign that somewhere, deep down inside me, I believe some early teaching I have since forgotten?  Maybe or maybe not.  I don't believe that a fear of hell is the only thing on which I can base a worldview, because a worldview born out of fear strikes me as brittle, miserable, and ultimately weak. So is a worldview born of exclusion, and as much as I love the commitment and dynamism of some Christians I know, I get a little exasperated when others circle the wagons.

I know, I know…Buddhism (or some Buddhism, or most) has the whole thing of reincarnation.  Something that a skeptic finds a little out there, a little hard to believe as well.  But here's the thing about that.  The life Buddhism sets before one who takes refuge may have a past, but it is not contingent on the past—whether your own or a previous life you've lived, or even whether you lived that previous life in the first place.  It's about the mindfulness of now, the intensification and deepening of the time you have, and of finding a way to share that kind of poetry with others.

This time next year, if I see the mayor and he asks that question again (as well he might, because when you meet so many people, how can you keep track of what you've said to each one?) my answer may be the one Rhonda gave, the one I give in this writing, or something altogether different from both or either.  It will be, however, the fruit of thought and mindfulness and meditation, and of the gratitude for brushing against a tradition every bit as ancient and profound as the one that I've never quite grasped, even though I wanted to.  It took fifty years to find Buddhism, and whether it's a destination or a way station on the road, I wanted my friends to know I'm spending some time exploring the surroundings.


  1. can't say how nice it is to know that you are also wandering these paths. being the only "not yet" out here was getting a little lonely.

    maybe you will like the blog (called One Human Journey) of a "not anymore" (well, he is still Buddhist, but no longer a monk) who is quite good at reminding me that spiritual journeys can take any form: linear, circular, winding, short or unending, mountainous or flat like Kansas. There's no one right way.


    1. Thank you! I'll look at the blog, and I appreciate the solidarity like you wouldn't believe.

  2. Oh, Michael, you are SO not alone! One of the main reasons I go to the church I go to is the lack of doctrine. I can follow my chosen path without anybody else telling me where to place my feet.

    But I still think reincarnation is a rotten trick to play on somebody who expects to be safely dead after death. ;)

  3. Thanks so much, Marian. As always, you find an excellent thing to say and you say it excellently.

    The Buddha makes a specific point to his followers that they should test the dharma to determine what is suitable for them personally. If something works, it's yours: if not, set it aside. That's choosing one's path, too, I think.

    As for reincarnation...I think it's a cool idea in theory, but am unsure how I'd feel about it in practice. I think the whole "one-shot" idea of living, though, has an edge of melancholy, in that I've reached an age when I look back and see how much of my life I have flat-out wasted. Let that be a warning to the younguns, who don't ever heed warnings to begin with.