from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 21 May 2012

taking refuge on the edge

It's a truism, of course, that the only certainty is that our lives here are uncertain. We say it glibly. We know it's true. And (yet) we are all so often still driven by fear – largely, surely, of that which is uncertain, one way or another; and try to create structures against it.

And some of us also actively enjoy it, find it exciting, are driven by a vast desire to seek out all uncertainty's edges. I know, I'm one of the latter; and have paid for it hugely in gross ways, eg broken bones, and more subtle ways (eg in chronic restlessness). Finally, finally, for myself I recognise the significance of relating with more equanimity, from an altogether more harmonious place.

Again Buddhism has wisdom here. We can't change uncertainty, nor guard against it. All we can do is change our relationship to it to one more skilled, learn to dance with it. Avoiding it ('aversion') doesn't help; craving or courting it ('attachment') is the other pole.

As an ex-Roman Catholic, I have a love/hate relationship to ritual. Part of me, the pagan/shamanic part, is completely entranced by it (and I mean that in its literal sense; one of the aims of ritual, of course, is to create near-trance states, or entry into altered states of consciousness). Part of me, the Zen part, is more attracted to altogether simpler plainer practice with no distracting fripperies.

Ritual it seems goes back many thousands of years. Initially, I believe I'm right in saying, it was thought that shamanic ritual practice dated back at least 16,000 years (can't find Mircea Eliade's book to check); recent cave art discoveries suggest it might even be double that.

It is, I guess, a way of propitiating the gods, whether inner or outer.

The reason I'm saying this is that common to almost all Buddhist practice is the recitation of the Three Refuges: 'I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Sangha, I take refuge in the Dhamma (or Dharma)'. (The sangha is the community of Buddhist practitioners, the dharma is the Way or the Truth.)

As a disaffected teenager who'd left the Catholic Church, it was easy for me to replace the Catholic rosary with my Buddhist sandalwood mala, or prayer-bead string. As part of my rather erratic meditation practice I'd chant the Three Refuges in Pali (or was it sanskrit?) as a 'way in' to a meditational state of mind.

And yet, until just a few years ago, I had a deep resistance to the idea of 'worshipping' the Buddha as a kind of external deity-substitute, just as I'd had (and have) problems with the idea of worshipping God.

I also felt uncomfortable with the idea of 'taking refuge' – surely Buddhism wasn't about hiding from all there is?

For many years I'd been looking, nonetheless, for a statue of the Buddha for the garden – one that I really liked, one whose face wasn't too smug, too austere, too soppy-smiley. I found a small one in my local rural garden centre.

Gradually a profound change has happened in me. I am introjecting the quality of serene energy the statue radiates in the Buddha's face (OK it hasn't quite got to the surface yet).

In Buddhist thinking one is not 'worshipping' the Buddha. He is not a God, nor the equivalent of a Christ figure: Buddhism isn't monotheistic, and the Buddha is simply a symbolic representation of someone who's found enlightenment, and who shows the way to anyone else who wishes to do the work.

I knew this intellectually, and I knew that a Buddha figure is simply a reminder of the inner potential for peace and wisdom.

But I didn't experience this until much much more recently. It's only in the last few years of serious family illness and death that I have at last understood the potency of saying the Three Refuges at the opening of my meditation practice.

It is not, I discover, about 'hiding from' but about entering fully into the experience from a place of the Buddha-nature – that is in fully facing life's uncertainty without requiring it to be different, or to meet my needs, with – at last! – at least transient entry into being OK with that, being OK exactly with how things are, on this edge, right now. It's only taken me the best part of 35 years.

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