Looking For Refuge in All the Wrong Places

The following article is from the Summer, 2011 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

by ROB PREECE

As both a psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher, Rob Preece is an excellent guide for dealing with issues that emerge for Buddhist practitioners. In this adaptation from Preparing for Tantra—an excellent guide to the preliminary practices—he looks at the ways we take refuge in the wrong things.

We are extraordinarily adept at taking refuge; the problem is that we take refuge in the wrong things.

We take refuge from our stress, our emotional problems, and our relationships in anything we find that will temporarily relieve us of discomfort. As we get older, the range of potential refuges available to us becomes more and more sophisticated, but the intention usually remains the same. We take refuge in food, money, our home, the TV, entertainment, alcohol, drugs, sex, even work and relationships; the list is endless. These things are not by nature refuges, but if we desire to relieve our dissatisfaction, stress, and unhappiness, and think, albeit mistakenly, these things will bring us happiness, then in the way we use them, they have become a refuge.

It is disturbing that we are very often unaware that this is what we are doing until we take an honest look at our life and behavior, and it may be only be when our refuges fall apart that we realize how dependent on them we have become. It is equally disturbing to see that most of what we put our energy into, as encouraged by our modern culture, is an attempt to satisfy an insatiable need to consume. Far back in the eighth century, Shantideva recognized that we all seek happiness and yet constantly create the causes for suffering, and it seems we have not changed very much since then.

Those of us involved in the dharma may feel that we are not so caught in this confusion. We recognize the unsatisfactory nature of relentless consumerism and know it will not bring us happiness. Many of us have realized that we do not need to constantly put so much energy into what are usually described as worldly concerns. We have probably already made some attempt to turn our life around and are taking refuge in something we feel will bring us far deeper happiness, namely, the dharma.

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Taking refuge has sometimes been called taking a safe direction, which offers an interesting twist on the idea of refuge. From a Buddhist viewpoint, taking refuge is turning around in our life and no longer expecting external things to be able to bring us ultimate or lasting happiness. At the heart of Buddhism is the understanding that both suffering and happiness come from the mind. If we change the mind, then we can free ourselves from suffering and experience happiness.

Reaching this understanding, however, doesn't imply that we abandon our life and stop every-thing that has held some meaning for us. We don't immediately give up our work or relationships because they are not a real refuge. Rather it means that we don't hold them with so much expectation, and we don't rely upon them as an ultimate source of happiness. It also means that we don't become so upset or distressed when things don't go exactly as we expected.

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We take refuge in food, money, our home, the TV, entertainment, alcohol, drugs, sex, even work and relationships; the list is endless.

After entering the world of Tibetan Buddhism, during my early years, the teachings I received were so radically different, so exciting to encounter, and so profound that I was hungry for more. I recall the hours and hours I spent listening to extraordinarily profound instructions and taking reams of notes. I felt that I had found something priceless that would radically change my life.

However, after four or five years of constant study, it began to disturb me that I had received a mass of teachings and taken endless notes and yet my emotional life was still a mess.

I had, I thought, taken refuge in the dharma, but all the practices and knowledge I had accumulated didn't seem to be helping. I remember going to see a Tibetan lama who was teaching a group of us Tibetan language at the time. I told him I was feeling very disillusioned with how my life and practice were going and that all the things I had learned did not seem to bring any great benefit.

He was remarkably understanding. He suggested to me that my refuge in the dharma had become another kind of materialism and that all the knowledge and practices I had studied were still on a relatively superficial level. I needed to go deeper, but to do so I had to give up holding on to the dharma teachings as a kind of crutch. He suggested I put all my notes away and let myself go deeper to discover what the dharma really was, from within. I needed to put what I had learned into practice so that it would become a natural inner experience and understanding rather than something that was just in my head.

I do not think I am alone in having gone through this experience. We may hear vast amounts of teachings and yet still not have a deep sense of what the dharma is as an inner refuge. The relative dharma, as it might be called, is like the finger pointing to the moon, but it is not the moon. To take refuge in the dharma is to absorb its true meaning, beyond the concepts and ideas, and to then open to a deep inner taste of our innate nature.

There is a famous story told of the Indian scholar Naropa, revered as one of the greatest, most knowledgeable debaters at the University of Nalanda, near Rajgir, India during the late tenth and early eleventh century. One day Naropa was walking outside the monastery when an old woman came up to him and asked him if he understood the dharma. Being a somewhat self-assured monk with great knowledge of the dharma, he said, Yes, of course. But do you understand the meaning of the dharma? she asked. When he replied, yes, she fell to the ground laughing, so amused was she by his arrogance. The old woman was in fact an emanation of Vajrayogini, and she told Naropa he needed to go and search for a teacher known as Tilopa, who would really teach him the meaning of the dharma.

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He suggested I put all my notes away and let myself go deeper to discover what the dharma really was, from within.

Taking refuge in the dharma is a deepening process; it may begin with the teachings and methods of practice, but gradually it must deepen beyond this relative form. Often we speak of relative dharma and ultimate dharma, where relative dharma is the collection of teachings, and ultimate dharma is the realization of emptiness, or the nature of mind. When we experience the essential pristine nature of mind, then we have tasted ultimate dharma. As a refuge, the primordially pure, empty nature of mind is an incomparable resource. When we have emotional, difficulties, or are suffering in some way in our life, to rest in the nature of mind can transform our experience totally. Once we are able to practice like this, then we are truly taking refuge in the dharma.

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