Posted in Zen Buddhism

Taking Refuge

Yesterday, my cousin killed himself.

I wanted a bag of Oreo cookies and a quart of ice cream. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.

But I’ve learned that there are healthier things to seek solace in than food: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

When we speak of “taking refuge” in Buddhism, we mean turning to those things which bring us comfort. Inappropriate refuge items are those that mask our emotions. They can include just about anything:

  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Sex
  • Food – there’s a reason some things are called “comfort food,” after all
  • TV and books
  • Shopping – retail therapy, anyone?

When we seek refuge in these things, we are seeking a way to “numb out” to the pains of life. We’re trying to hide from the reality of our situation instead of facing it, fully aware. It takes courage to live mindfully, and sometimes, we want to close our eyes, just for a little while.

I did this for a while last night. I hid in a work of fiction. At least these days, I know I’m doing it. I remember making the conscious choice to numb out for a few minutes, because I didn’t want to cry.

After a couple of chapters, I came to my senses. What’s wrong with crying? I miss Scott. I feel sad that he was in so much pain he opted to end it with suicide. I feel guilty that I hadn’t spoken to him since my Aunt’s funeral in 2010.

And do you know what? None of those feelings went away while I was hiding in my book. I had to come out and face the truth of my grief in order to assimilate it.

So I thought of Scott and cried. And then I stopped thinking and watched myself cry. I used my tears, rather than my breath, as the focus of my meditation. I felt them, really experienced them, as they ran across my skin. I tasted the salt. I became fully present for my mourning, without reliving old memories.

Like a fire with no fuel, my crying ended fairly quickly. It’s hard to sustain that level of internal pain when you’re not dwelling on it. Pema Chodron calls this process “letting the storyline go.” Just sit with the naked emotion, and see what comes up.

By meditating on my tears, I was taking refuge in the Dharma: the teachings of the Buddha. I used a process I’d been taught to find comfort. In the moment, it wasn’t about finding comfort, it was just about being in the moment. Yet I was comforted. My tears dried. My sobbing slowed and then stopped.

Then various teachings on the great work of life and death arose in my clear mind. How we are like clouds in the blue sky, appearing and disappearing – without any appearing and disappearing. More refuge in the Dharma.

I could have taken refuge in the Buddha, the man himself, the teacher. I do this when I consult my living teachers, which is usually weekly. Or when I think of stories from the life of the Buddha and see how he handled himself in various situations.

I did take refuge in my Sangha. Since I’m away from home, I posted a note about my cousin’s death on Facebook. The outpouring of love and compassion was overwhelming and instantaneous. My online community of Dharma brothers and sisters, some of whom I know in person and others only virtually, gave me refuge.

That’s what we mean by taking refuge: learn from the teacher, practice the teachings, reach out to the community on the path and let it enfold you in grace.

After my tears dried naturally, I chanted Jijong Bosal. I asked the Bodhisattva of Travelers and the Departed to guide Scott through the Bardo. I asked Jijong to help Scott have a good rebirth, gain enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.

I no longer wanted the cookies and ice cream.

~ Rev. Jăbō