(Originally from http://www.alternatives.com/libs/relbuddh.htm)
Taking Refuge

(This is a partial transcript of the Theravada/Mahayana conference held at BCBS in March, 1990. This text appeared in edited form in the IMS/BCBS Newsletter, Spring 1993.)

Biographical information on the invited speakers:

MARTINE BATCHELOR trained for ten years in Korea as a Zen nun under the guidance of Zen Master Ku San Sunim. He presently lives and teaches at Sharpham community in Devon, England with her husband.

STEPHEN BATCHELOR trained for ten years as a Buddhist monk both in the Tibetan Gelugpa and Korean Zen traditions. He is the author and translator of several well-known books. He lives and teaches at Sharpham community in Devon, England with his wife Martine.

JACK ENGLER was a Trappist monk, briefly, under Thomas Merton and has practiced and taught Vipassana meditation for the last twenty years. He is the co-author, with Ken Wilber and Daniel Brown, of Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development. He is currently a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, at Goddard-Medical East Hospital and The Cambridge Hospital.

GELEK RINPOCHE was born into the family of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and was recognized as a reincarnation of Khenpo Tashi Namgyal at the age of four. He holds the highest level of Doctorate of Theology in Tibetan Buddhism. At present, he helps establish Tibetan culture and Mahayana Buddhism out of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN is a co-founder of both the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and Insight Meditation Society. He first became interested in Buddhism while serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand in 1962. He has been teaching Vipassana meditation world-wide since 1974. He is the author of The Experience of Insight and co-author of Seeking the Heart of Wisdom.

BHANTE GUNARATANA has been a Buddhist monk for more than 50 years. He founded the Buddhsit Vihara Society in Washington D.C. in 1968 and also founded Bhavana Society, a meditation retreat and monastic facility in rural West Virigina. He is the author of a number of books on Theravada Buddhism.

LARRY ROSENBERG is the founder and guiding teacher of Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. He holds a Ph.D in Social Psychology and has trained in Zen traditions in Korea and Japan, as well as in the Thai forest tradition and with Thich Naht Hanh.

SHARON SALZBERG is a co-founder of both the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and Insight Meditation Society. She has been teaching Vipassana meditation world-wide since 1976.


I go for refuge to the Buddha;
I go for refuge to the Dharma;
I go for refuge to the Sangha.

Taking refuge is a fundamental ritual in Theravada Buddhism. Although not so prominent in Mahayana Buddhism, it nonetheless is a significant notion in East Asian Buddhism. For Western Buddhists, the taking of refuge is an inherited practice rather than a thoroughly understood world-view. At the Theravada/Mahayana conference held at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in March, 1990, this issue evoked a thoughtful and penetrating discussion. Here are excerpts from that discussion:

LAMA GELEK RINPOCHE: One of the crucial questions for me is taking refuge in the Buddha. This is where it all begins for me. But who is the Buddha? What is it? Is it the historical Buddha? Or are we looking at the future Buddha? Without bringing a background of textbooks and philosophy when we sit down and think about the Buddha, how is it for us? How do we encounter this Buddha?

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: I agree with Gelek Rinpoche that in a sense taking refuge is where it all begins. But perhaps there's also something in my experience, in my practice itself which is an act of taking refuge. Sometimes, taking refuge in the Buddha is reduced to some sort of a ceremonial thing. It's like joining a club; before you experience the ceremony, you are somehow outside the club but when you've taken the refuge and been given your new name, you're inside the club. And on a very crude level, somehow it's thought of that way: an initiation rite of some kind.

But for me taking refuge is something one does all the time. In a sense, much of one's daily life practice is a practice of taking refuge. There's perhaps a problem with the terminology here, using the word "taking refuge."

JACK ENGLER: Well, when you take refuge, Stephen, what are you doing?

SB: I'am affirming a certain commitment, a life commitment. I think there're two ways in which I would take refuge. There's the formal way in which I actually recite the words when there might be some ceremony involved; then I consciously reflect upon the meaning of the objects of refuge. But I think on a deeper level the act of taking refuge is a constant assessment in any given moment of where one's life is directed, what one's priorities are, what is the context out of which one makes important decisions? And in that sense the Buddha for me is what I can aspire to as a human being, maximally or optimally. And the Dharma is the commitment to a way of life that leads me in that direction or supports that aspiration. And Sangha is a commitment to those with whom I find support and inspiration in that kind of practice.

But I also think that the understanding of the Buddha is something that develops through the years. In one sense there is an acknowledgement of the historical Buddha in that understanding. In fact, in many respects, that's something I have grown to appreciate more recently, the actual recognition that there was this man who walked the earth in India in a physical, geographical place, in a historical time. Then there's the sense that he also stands for a mode of being that is a possibility that I believe is accessible to us all.

BHANTE GUNARATANA: Yes, it's a very important question. Why do we take refuge in the Buddha? Is it necessary? Why don't we take refuge in our job? In our families? In something more tangible, perceptible, easily explicable, rather than taking refuge in something either historical or idealistic or philosophical? In my understanding, we take refuge in the Buddha because we have something in our experience of daily life, some urge, some need which is not fulfilled. We have not been totally happy. We experience this gap as lacking something and in our mind Buddha is someone who has given us a plan, an outline, a method to follow by which we can fulfill this need. With this basic confidence, we take refuge in the Buddha.

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: I find that the idea of taking refuge is quite interesting in that in this act of taking refuge, without specifying where, I feel we are always taking refuge in something. Life is constantly presenting us with things to take refuge in: fame, acknowledgement, pursuit of different kinds of pleasure, avoidance of certain kinds of pain, different strategies, devices, psychological and otherwise. And so in taking refuge in the Buddha I don't think it is as if we were introducing a new kind of activity into the stream of life. Rather it's committing oneself to direct one's energy, one's focus, as it were, away from what we habitually, instinctively take refuge in.

I feel that samsara is in a sense taking refuge in the wrong things, taking refuge in that which only perpetuates dukkha, perpetuates confusion. So, in a sense, taking refuge is a conscious act to focus always, or to the best of one's ability, on Buddha, dharma and sangha as the values which inform our choices and inform our life as a whole.

And do I notice anything in myself if I say I take refuge in the Buddha? Sometimes. A lot of the time, no. I am busy taking refuge in something else. On that level of taking refuge, I think, it's very easy to have a conceit that I am a Buddhist, that I'm taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, sangha. But if I look closely, even when I am sitting meditating, supposedly doing something very spiritual, to what extent am I actually using that as a sort of opportunity to indulge in all kinds of distractions, which is not taking refuge? I mean to what extent can one's life be a taking of refuge? To what extent can we optimize that form of life? That for me is a big question, and it is something that I struggle with all the time.

JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: Just to pick up on a few of the threads. For me there are two sides to the idea of taking refuge in the Buddha or even an understanding of the Buddha. One side is the impersonal; and so when I think about it or when I take refuge in the Buddha, what I think about taking refuge or what I feel is the biggest context for me. That's a way of stepping outside of the small personality mind. And so when I take refuge in the Buddha, it's just expanding the context of understanding life to what I see as the biggest picture. And that's really helpful to me because it gives a sense of meaning and it gives a sense of direction in my life, rather than trying to ascribe meaning to particular activities, an inherent meaning to particular activities, which is often questionable. The meaning comes from the relationship of the activity to the biggest context.

The other side which I have also begun to appreciate is taking refuge in the personal, in the idea of the Buddha as a historical figure. For many years, as we were teaching, we would go into the meditation hall at IMS and there's the Buddha image. Often, we would go in and not pay any attention to it. We'd kind of go in and plop down on our cushions and start meditating. In the last few years, I started going in and paying respect to the Buddha before I sit. And it has been really interesting for me to see the relationship that has evolved out of doing that. What happens for me is that I actually imagine the Buddha sitting there and I feel that I'm paying respect to a living person. And in doing so I see the shift in myself, in my heart, how is it for me when I am relating to the Buddha as a living person. For me, it becomes very soft and very respectful in the sense that there's a lot more to do from where I am to where the Buddha is, there's much more work to do. And it's very inspiring to me, this paying of respect or taking refuge. It acts for me as the reflection of where I am and what can be done. So I like that sense of embodying of not only the impersonal in the big context but actually embodying it in a person.

There's another thought coming from how people were talking about taking refuge as a way of strengthening the courage to do what one has to do. Going back to the impersonal understanding of taking refuge in the Buddha, to see how it's really an act of faith, a strengthening of faith, and then just to observe how that faith factor works in one's mind. That faith is an important quality in the mind, in just the way it functions. And it functions to bring clarity and courage and so there's this happening that takes place in the taking of refuge from the calling forth of faith as a mental quality. So it's quite complex and many faceted in what's happening in taking refuge.

MARTINE BATCHELOR: I would say that my experience of the Buddha is very simple. In the tradition that I was in for so long, when we take refuge, we say we return to the Buddha. So in a way that's returning to your potential and that's always the feeling you have when you take refuge, that you have the potential. As Bhante said, it's a kind of light and it's reflecting your own light; or it might not reflect but you hope that you will get to that light.

But what's interesting for me is that for a long time I thought the Buddha was kind of up there and I was down here and there was not much of a connection with him. But then I read a book by Nyanamoli about the life of the Buddha and it became so alive for me; the Buddha became alive for me just like a Zen master, the way he could relate to people and talk to them became very actual for me. So the Buddha became for me like a teacher who responds to people who come to him and deals with their problems and shows them a way to help with their practice.

So in that sense there're two sides for me in taking refuge in the Buddha: in the person who was enlightened and thought of other people and was always there for them, very flexible in dealing with them in various ways, and always have the most helpful answer. The other way is as a possibility, as a symbol, my own baby Buddha, as you might say, for my own potential, for the possibility in me to become a full human being as he became a full human being.

Also, sometimes I wonder about the Buddha in a historical, sociological context. What was he like? What has come to us is 2500 years of people talking about him, expressing it, how they thought he was. And I wonder what was he truly like. People say he had the thirty marks on his body and so forth. Was he truly like that? It makes me really wonder and try to think of him as a human being and how was he, what was his context, how did he think? Where did he come from? Why was he suddenly struck by suffering, and the way he dealt with it? What was his thinking like at that point? And does it matter? May be it does not matter from my point of view.

JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: In some ways I think the interesting question about accuracy is whether there's been an exaggeration about the Buddha's quality of mind. Whether the body has been exaggerated or not seems less important to me than the question about the quality of enlightenment and the quality of the purified mind. So the questioning about the nature of the mind seems more relevant to me.

LARRY ROSENBERG: As I understand it from the scriptures, taking refuge is a sort of protection and in English taking refuge is also protection and so forth. Does it mean surrendering to a teacher? Does it mean paying respect? Can we all perhaps address ourselves to the phrase "taking the refuge" and how that phrase speaks to us?

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: Well, I think it does have a protective aspect. It is you who is seeking protection from forms of behavior, habits, impulses that lead to suffering, which you understand as leading to suffering. And you protect yourself from that by taking refuge in values, in teachings, in practices, which focus your life in a way that will be less prone, at least, to suffering. So in that sense it is protective. It is a guarding of one's mind, a guarding of oneself against self-destructive behavior and also behavior that is destructive to the well-being of others. So in that sense, it is protective.

LARRY: The whole thing about linking to this other being is very important in my thinking, and it can be seen, or needs to be seen, as not simply an idealization or a whitewashing away of things that less admirable but more a willingness to allow these things in the other person as part of their humanness. And also a willingness to let that person be the Buddha, to imagine perhaps how this person would be as he perfects himself or herself. And to link with that quality of moving in a certain direction. We can't just draw a line and only this person to be a guide when they're in the classroom as we do in our culture with teachers and professors, and we don't ask them to be Buddha in their outside life. A teacher of Buddhism doesn't stop being a teacher when they're going to the bathroom or whatever they're doing with their life. So it isn't as if you can take the quality of the teaching in an abstract way, or just the part you want to take.

MARTINE: The teachers would have much more power in their teaching if they embody the teachings in their personal life. I mean I would find it very hard to follow somebody who tells me to do something but doesn't do it himself or herself. That's why I was so taken with my teacher through the years; whatever he told me to do, he was doing it himself, even more than I did it.

STEPHEN: Yeah, but what is the teaching about? I mean the teaching is not disseminating a certain kind of information about some subject towards which you have a certain kind of
detached objectivity. The Buddha dharma is about living your life in a certain way. So you cannot make a distinction between the teacher and the teaching. Or, let me say, it's a more difficult (to make that distinction). The person's own behavior, if it does not accord with what he or she is teaching, is at that point undermining their integrity as a teacher, undermining their credibility, and undermining also your trust. And I find that very problematic.

JACK: Find what problematic?

STEPHEN: Being able to accept or tolerate a certain point of consistency between what is taught and what is done. To a certain extent, yes, we're all human and we all make mistakes, but there are limits to that, and there is an extent to which I am prepared to accept that. If the person's action becomes to me unacceptably out of accordance with what the person is propounding in their teachings. Then I have to say I can't accept this person as a teacher.

MARTINE: They are there to be living examples on the path.

STEPHEN: To the best of their cumulative ability.

PELGYE: We started this morning on the refuge, and it just kind of made my heart beat because this question has been a lot on my mind in the last couple of years. In the discussion so far, somehow we didn't get to one question that I was hoping we would get to. There were some teachings that came up at the Tibetan monastery a few years ago with Lama Yeshe Kechong (?) who mentioned that if you didn't believe in Buddha's enlightenment, if you didn't believe that he was an enlightened being, then your refuge was actually in question. And if your refuge was in question, then in fact you were not even a Buddhist. And if you weren't a Buddhist, you were in fact not a monk. And this was on my mind quite a bit, you know talking amongst ourselves as monks.

The prevalent view among the western monks was that we were raised to question things, that we have gone through so many years of schooling and so much of the schooling is to question. You know, the scientific method is to have a theory, and you look at things in terms of the theory. You don't accept the theory as being truth; you accept it as something you expect to be true and then you're going to check it out. And so we approach Buddhism in the same way. You know, like Buddha's enlightenment is a theory because in myself I don't have the experience and nobody's been able to give me that experience. I have to take that as theory and through my own checking I have to come out with some scientific results. Some suffering and a lot of checking; whether I can verify it or not, but still I hold in abeyance the actual decision that this is the truth, but rather this is what I'd like to believe.

When I checked this with Lama Zopa, we went around in circles, just traditional circles. We couldn't get anywhere and finally he told me I was a heretic I didn't fully accept the theory of Buddha's enlightenment and he told me in the end that I would have to check with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So I check with His Holiness this last summer as best I could. I wrote him a note asking him about it. He didn't respond to me directly but in the teachings he was giving to the larger audience he brought up this issue and seemed to be saying the same thing as Lama Zopa that you should have absolute faith and that's that. If you don't have faith, you are in trouble. I still don't know what to do with that question. It becomes a real problem in my life. On the one hand, there's the Buddha saying blind faith is not that useful. If you're lucky you'll have blind faith in something that is the proper object, or you'll have blind faith in something which is not a proper object, and then you'll be lost. So the faith you should develop is one of wisdom, of checking, basically what we're talking about, the western scientific method.

On the other hand, what I'm getting from my teachers is that the scientific method does not apply to the dharma. That blind faith that the Buddha spoke against is actually essential! I don't know what to do with it. So it comes down the basics of whether or not you are a Buddhist!

JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: I think this question of faith is really critical and I appreciate a lot the way both it's been taught to me and the way I've understood it in my experience. There is a distinction between the initial level of faith necessary to practice. So there has to be enough faith at least in a possibility that actually gets us to do it. And an understanding that real faith comes at the end of the practice, not at the beginning. That the real faith comes when it's verified by our experience, to me that makes a lot of sense. That seems to me to be the right order of things.

BHANTE: I think faith is the motivating factor. When we have little faith, we want to find out why. It's not blind faith, and it just doesn't happen suddenly. For example, if I have some pain, I know it. I don't need anybody to tell me I have pain. I know it; I have it. Then I begin to wonder, why? The fact that I experience this pain give me a certain reason, certain motive to find out why this pain is there. There is a question mark? That question mark is our not knowing what it is. And that helps me to go forward, to find out why. Thus very deep down in our subconscious mind, there is a faith in finding out. Why do I want to find out? Because I have this faith. Therefore faith is what is called bijou, the seed, the beginning. It's not everything, just the beginning. Then we go ask questions, we discuss this and that and so forth. Everything begins from that primary question in our mind.

That faith becomes stronger and stronger as we find more and more new things from our own experiences. When I do what I'm supposed to do with my pain, do it faithfully conscientiously, regularly, consistently, then I see that it seems to be working and then I gain what's called confidence. So from experience, confidence arises. To gain some experience we have to have faith. Faith raises the question leading to experience. From there confidence arises.

And that kind of faith is absolutely necessary to begin with, especially if you have sickness. You begin to wonder day and night. Why am I sick? So you begin to ask questions, ask your friends, relatives and so forth and finally you find that professional person, a physician or a doctor. Then he will tell you. Then you begin to think, yeah, he seems to be a specialist in this area, so what he says may be true. Maybe I will follow his advice. Even to do that we have to have faith. You know, every day we go to sleep hoping, having, faith, that we will get up next morning. Many people don't get up next morning, they sleep, they die in their sleep. But because of our previous experience where we got up every day after we have gone to bad the night before, we have the confidence that we will get up again the next morning. That kind of experiential confidence is called faith. This we have to have.

PELGYE: That puts faith in a certain light. I don't think anybody that I know of really questions Buddha's wisdom and compassion. But the point we are talking about, Buddha's enlightenment in which we are taking refuge becomes a problem for me. I mean there're great Christian saints, great Hindu saints, there're all sorts of wonderful beings, even great westerns who have no special tradition. With them I have a great deal of sense that they can help me, or that they have great advice. They can help me through painful points in my life. But are they enlightened? The same question applies to Buddha? What is that enlightenment. And if I have to be a Buddhist, do I have to believe that in fact in a reality, other than just hope that it's a reality?

MARTINE: It seems to me it depends on how you believe in enlightenment. If you look at Buddha's enlightenment more simply, what the Buddha said it's an understanding of the four noble truths and an understanding of the three marks. And you can verify these by yourself quite easily. But if you feel that the enlightenment of the Buddha is like a big explosion with lots of firecrackers, lots of light and so forth, then you can wonder did he really get that kind of enlightenment. I think one of the problems we have is in expecting enlightenment to be a kind of big something. And we put in all our fantasy in there. But maybe that's not what the Buddha had. Maybe he had a very simple understanding of the way things were and no big firecrackers. I mean, if you look through the texts, what did the Buddha understand at that point? The texts tell you that he understood the Four Noble Truths, the Three Marks of Existence, which we can all understand. He does not tell you anything else at this point.

BHANTE: Also, as Larry pointed out earlier, we have to find out in the first place what we have within ourselves. Does what we have within ourselves relate to what the Buddha has, what he has perfected? If it relates, then we have some affinity with him. The difference is that I have not perfected it. Therefore, I cannot compare my imperfected state with the perfected state. From what I have read and studied, from the Indian texts about what the Buddha said and so forth, a lot of wisdom and compassion is coming from his teaching. The seed of that fulfillment is within me. I feel it from time to time in myself but I have not perfected it. Now instead of starting from the root, if we start from the canopy, we cannot get there; we have to start from the root. The root is within us and faith in that beginning perhaps might help us not to shatter our faith or confidence.

LARRY: The standard you hold for yourself, what you insist you would need to experience or grasp in order to have faith, would be enlightenment itself. If you are holding such a high standard of evidence in order to convince yourself to go ahead, then it's set up to frustrate you, whereas there are other ways which are more palpable and trustworthy for us to get on with it, just to launch us, just sort of like, "Get on with it." So then something will happen, the experience that Bhante referred to will happen and you can go, "Oh yeah!" and then we go on more and more. It's provisional, it seems to me.

GELEK: Is it absolutely necessary to have faith in Enlightenment before taking refuge? What kind of faith would you translate as?

STEPHEN: These are technical terms in Tibetan. We have to really define what we mean by faith in terms of these three qualities you just mentioned: the sense of admiration, the sense of belief, and the sense of longing. So, faith is a complex concept in Buddhism. It's not equivalent to belief. Belief is a component of faith, but faith is almost a kind of existential act that encompasses more than just belief. It's a whole orientation of your life toward a certain end and also standing in almost a state of awe. It's the feeling-response to the tradition and the teaching.

JOSEPH: So, could you, in that way of understanding, have faith without total belief, because I think that's what Pelgye is asking?

STEPHEN: Yes, belief to an extent seems to be a necessary component, but faith is not defined purely in terms of your capacity to believe.

JACK: I wanted to come back to Larry's point, your anecdote about your dad. It seems to me that faith, however we define it, doesn't operate in a vacuum. If your father had taken you to parking space and did what he did without loving you and without you having experienced his love and care for your well-being, all he would have done is confirm a very paranoid view of the world. So the fact that he took you and you had that experience within a certain context of being cared for, being taught, was meaningful to you. Likewise asking the question of why am I sick, why am I suffering, without a context is very hard to do. So you stay stuck in one of the hell realms because there isn't the support, there isn't the context to even entertain that kind of a question; it's too fearful a question.

I see this in the patients I work with all the time. These people have been so brutalized in their lives, they're so terrorized in some way or other, that they can't entertain that question. This would be a very academic discussion for them. Before they could even raise the question of why am I suffering, or even acknowledge that they are suffering in a certain sense, there has to be a set of preconditions to even start this question. So I think it's interesting that you began by saying that your father loved you and that he took you to show you these things and teach you how to grow, how to be a man, how to learn for yourself. He just didn't put you through the experience of the cop and let you end up with this very paranoid, traumatized view of the world. So that's another aspect of this discussion, I think. It's not just a matter of faith, it's also a matter of all the internal and external conditions that need to be present before one can open up, and maybe that's something we need to talk about as we go along. The refuge may be a beginning, but there are a lot of other things that need to be present for this path to unfold.

. . .

JACK: The question then is how does one know the teacher's qualities of mind? I mean if you take the Buddha as a teacher, as embodiment of teaching, and as you were talking earlier about a personal relationship with the Buddha, a personal relationship with a teacher, how do you know? What attracts you in your own path? What has drawn you to your own particular teachers? Again, thinking back to the mess I landed in Bodh Gaya which I talked about earlier, there were these two Theravada teachers and Munindra was obviously one of them. And one of the things one heard from different people was, oh, he has no power; he's kind of fuzzy little mother hen character sitting there in his room. The other teacher had a lot of power and was more obviously a teacher. How does one know? And what elicits your willingness to make an act of refuge, to take refuge in the Buddha rather someone else, or in that particular teacher as an embodiment of Buddha? How does one work that out?

JOSEPH: I don't know whether it's the circumstances or a predilection of mine, but with me the relationship has always been primarily with the teaching rather than the teacher. With all of my teachers I have been strengths and weaknesses and so there was never a sense of idealizing them as personalities, as beings. What I have always appreciated is the degree to which the teaching was made accessible. And I think that actually has served me well.

JACK: But how do you recognize a particular person as a teacher?

MARTINE: When I was in Korea, there were many teachers who had different personalities but generally gave the same teaching. You were attracted to some or stayed more with some than others because of their personality. If you stayed more with a teacher, you more affinity with them. But one thing they all had which I could feel, which I could recognize, was their lightness of being. There was a certain lightness and a certain creativity in response, and a lot of humor.

JACK: Could you give an example of what you are talking about?

MARTINE: Well, I should also say intentional purpose. These teachers I met had a very one-pointed mind and they knew where they were going; they were going to keep on going, even after any experience of enlightenment. And they were always doing the same with their disciples or anyone who came by.

My teacher told everyone who came by that they must find their own mind and they must question. This is what he said all the time. One time these three old gentlemen came to see him; they were really sweet and wanted to know about the history of the temple. So he talked to them for about two minutes about the temple and its history, and then said, "Do you know your own mind? You must look for your own mind." They said, oh, yes. Then they go back to talking about the temple. After another few minutes, my teacher brought them back to finding their own mind. They said, yeah, and went back to talking about the temple! This went on for about twenty minutes! But it was interesting to see his intention. His point was for them to really see into their own nature, and no matter what they were into, he was going back to that point.

As for lightness, I could just see it in his actions. He was a very old man but he was so light. He was not attached to things. I travelled with him a lot and one time in Hamburg, we just waiting and standing. He is seventy years old and there is no place to sit but he just stands there and waits. It does not matter.

I would say that for me it was also the way he was an embodiment of the teaching. And he was an inspiration just by being there. When he died, we realized a light had gone out.

SHARON: We're a little bit unusual here in that most of us don't have a lifetime relationship with one teacher. And the reason we keep taking refuge in different teachers is like a development model in some ways. I mean the Buddha may be a lifetime refuge but the variety of teachers that most of us have encountered at different times is probably a reflection of the different needs at different times, and that's quite a change.

JACK: It would be interesting to talk a little bit more about Sharon just said, about different needs at different times. There is a tendency to think about all this in a sort of timeless way.

BHANTE: I wanted to say that we see the Buddha in his teaching. Joseph mentioned earlier in a very nice way that through his teaching we can know him. And that is my personal experience. Of course there are various exaggerations about the Buddha, and we can sort out what is exaggerated and what is clear. His life is more simple than we read in the scriptures and that simplicity is the most admirable thing in Buddha's life. When I reduce my own additional embellishment, additional decorations, additional things and simplify my own life, I can very easily relate to Buddha's life. Not that I have all his qualities but I can see how beautiful and how easy, how fundamental his life has been. So, for me this is the most striking aspect of Buddha's life and this is what enhances my own commitment, my dedication and devotion, to accept him more closely and respect him more. In the tradition that I come from I have found many good teachers. Not that they are free of faults which they all have, but compared to their noble qualities they are very minor. And therefore I accepted those teachers and followed them.

SHARON: In listening to all this, it seems all very interesting to me because I don't think I've ever consciously chosen a teacher. I have consciously chosen to leave teachers but in the circumstances of my life when I find a teacher, it usually feels more like a recognition. And I don't recall ever going through process of thinking if I can bear this person's faults, or can I really examine their behavior and so on until somewhere in the process when that becomes a very relevant question.

JOSEPH: So, it's appropriate to see the teacher as being the embodiment of the Buddha. That way we don't set ourselves up for either just a blind following or a whole disillusionment which actually takes us away from practice. But just to see people as being vehicles for the teaching. We take the teaching from that person as long as it's serving us, as long as it's useful. It just seems to me that for me it's been a balance way. It's never been devastating for me when different teachers do things that I think are inappropriate because I never set them up (on a pedestal) in the first place.

MARTINE: But would you not think that in order for the teaching to have some impact, you have to have lots of respect for the teacher?

JOSEPH: I think there has to be some level of respect but I think within that there could be an understanding that this person is not finished. They still have a lot more work to do but they understand this piece of the dhamma really well, and just to learn from that.

SHARON: Joseph has so much faith. I mean if you faith is very strong in the teachings, then the teacher/person doesn't need to be such a remarkable embodiment.

JOSEPH: That, I think, is the key question.

LAMA GELEK: It reminds me of a question Joseph raised in the conference in Washington. The question was about the hell realms and Joseph said, well, we don't talk much about the suffering realms but if there really is a hell realm, then what? So this is a similar question. I don't deny that you can look at the teachings as more important than the teacher. But in the tradition I was brought up in, the practice of guru devotion, of guru yoga, is the root of all development. And if that is really true, then what?

JOSEPH: That's an interesting question, if it's true.

MARTINE: Maybe that's where we have to look at whether, in a way, there is not just one refuge, but three refuges in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. And maybe these three have to work together. You have to have a teacher, and you have to have the teaching, but you also have to have the sangha. I often think that the sangha is kind of put aside, but I think you have to have the three together to really have the best situation for your learning. Besides the Buddha as a symbol and the teaching, there is the community of people who share with you and from whom you can learn and who can help you on the way. And it may be important to harmonize them, to have all together present in our practice.

STEPHEN: Going back to the point Rinpoche raised regarding the Tibetan tradition, it's something with which I have had quite a difficulty on a personal level. There you have four refuges; you have the guru in whom you take refuge and then you take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. So, in Tibetan practice one enters into a tradition which is very strongly influenced by the Vajrayana. I think the Dalai Lama has said on occasion that the emphasis on guru devotion at the beginning of the path is to a large extent an indication of the extent to which Buddhism in Tibet has been influenced by the Vajrayana doctrine.

In the Gelugpa tradition, as you have said, the very foundation of the practice is guru devotion. But what I find very interesting is that in Gampopa's Lamrim the beginning of the path is not guru devotion but faith in Buddha-nature. And I think there is a tension too to the extent to which you base your trust in your capacity to judge. And I think this would come down to the point Joseph made about your own capacity to judge. Is this teaching relevant? Is this teaching of benefit to my practice? Or, conversely, to what extent do you base that capacity to judge on how much an external authority seems appropriate to you at that time.

And I think this tension is present not only in the Tibetan tradition but throughout the larger tradition. The extent to which one relies on one's own clarity of mind, to which extent one relinquishes that, at least temporarily, to rely upon the clarity of mind of another person, that's the tension. In my own experience, I have oscillated back and forth between these two. I feel now very much that there are times when one does need to look up to those who have more experience than oneself to seek guidance, to seek advice. But the bottom line is whether that person who gives you advice is leading you to a place where you can have a greater clarity of mind within yourself. And that is central to my understanding of Buddhist tradition: part of the practice is to rely upon others, yes, but not if that requires a denial of one's own autonomy.

JOSEPH: This point came up for me very strongly in a very immediate way in doing long retreats and working with a very specific advice given by a teacher, and working with that surrendering to what they're asking to do and trying to do it. And at a certain point realizing that it was just not correct. And struggling with whether to keep surrendering because of one's doubts about one's own perception.

And what I saw was that I was willing to do that to a certain point. I mean it was a long time but there came another point when I said this is not working, this is not the right advice and I'm going to just adjust it myself. And seeing that often that actually was just the right thing to do. And so there was an interesting balance.

LAMA GELEK: For me, looking at your teachers as embodiments of enlightenment and surrender are two different issues. I never emphasize the surrender business but I look at the teachers as the embodiment of and representing the Buddha and also as linkage to the tradition and the lineage.

BHANTE: I think we learn certain things from our teachers; we also learn from our own experience. We also learn by discussing things with other people and friends and so forth. And we also learn from our own practice as we go deeper into it. So we respect and follow the teacher's instructions to a certain extent but we don't have to totally surrender ourselves and accept everything from the teacher.

We have to maintain our individuality. We all have certain potential, certain abilities, certain strengths within us. We must explore these also. To enrich and explore these possibilities through a teacher may be necessary at times but no teacher, not even the Buddha, can take us right up to the end of our liberation.

So, if we don't do our own part, we will let it rust. We must put our abilities into clear practice, and continue enhancing and supporting it by our own thinking. So we follow teachers even while maintaining our individual freedom, dignity, understanding. Historically speaking, we know that even in the time of the Buddha he was not followed by everyone. Thousands of students followed him, yes, but he gave instructions to some students only one time and then said, go, sit under a tree and meditate. Then these students discussed things among themselves and came up with solutions by themselves.

MARTINE: Like Bhante said, Buddhism is a path of transforming ourselves. So, in a way, nobody is going to do it for you. When a teacher tells us to do something, even if it hurts, try it and it will become your own experience. Another area which I think is interesting to look at is the method of meditation we are instructed to follow. Do we all understand it in the same way? Do we all apply it in the same way? If you see different people practicing the same method, they often bring their own individuality to it. Not different in the sense of being in conflict but they bring their own attitude, their own affinity to it. And their exploration goes in different ways. That's what interesting about practice. What you do on the cushion and what you do with it in your every day can be quite different from what your teacher has done.

SHARON: Another interesting side to this issue is when we talk about how we have each related to our teachers, are we also talking about how our students relate to us? And how do we want to model that in some way. I'm not sure if I want anyone to take refuge in me. (Laughter).

JACK: That's quite interesting. Why not? Don't you have to allow that to a certain point in some way?

SHARON: Well, I'd certainly feel most comfortable with people taking refuge in the Buddha or in the teaching and not in me.

BHANTE: What I understand is that you want to take refuge in yourself.

SHARON: As a student, I want to take refuge in myself. And for my students, I would like them to take refuge in the Buddha, the dhamma and in themselves. (Laughter). Well, I'm not totally out of the picture.

JACK: Let's explore that a little bit. Why?

SHARON: Why am I not totally out of the picture?

JACK: No. Why do you prefer that they leave you out of the picture? Why does it feel uncomfortable to have your students take refuge in you as a teacher?

SHARON: That's a good question, Doctor Engler. (Laughter)

JACK: Can someone really learn from you without a certain amount of taking refuge in you, or without a certain amount of idealization, even if you don't want it?

SHARON: Actually, I'd like to focus on the idealization. The taking of refuge is something I understand, and the need to surrender and to feel protect, and I would certainly hope that people take refuge in me in that sense. So, this question really is about idealization and probably that has to do with my own experience of having idealized some teachers and seeing them in probably a kind of necessary folly. I don't see that I could have done anything without having done that, that I had to go through it and come out of it, maybe more than once.

JOSEPH: A distinction that's really important for me is the difference in taking refuge in somebody's understanding and taking refuge in them as a personality. And it's both me with my teachers, and also students with me. I would feel very comfortable in taking refuge in or surrender to a certain level of understanding. That seems very different than taking refuge in the whole package of personality stuff, which I think would be a big mistake.

MARTINE: What I have found most helpful for myself and in the teachers I studied with in Korea is the concept of "sonje shik" which means, basically, good knowing advisers. And I would want to be seen in the same way, more as a person with good, knowing advice. I think the danger is in the tendency when we think in terms of master/teacher. It seems like somebody out there, separated from us and in that situation we can idealize the person and put lots of stuff into them, even if they don't want it.

But I think the concept of good, knowing advisers is really very helpful because you can still respect the person but you see them as a friend, as a good dharma friend.

STEPHEN: Could I just pick up on the idea of the necessary folly? In my own case, I can relate to that too. I can look back and say, yeah, I was pretty confused when I first got into Buddhism and was motivated by all kinds of weird ideas, probably still am. But if we define that state as one of necessary folly, are we then prepared to allow that necessary folly to be acted out unhindered from you? By your students? Are you prepared to let them engage in something which you know is folly? If so, you are not then allowing your students to behave to you as you behaved with your teacher and which you regarded as necessary.

SHARON: I have to think this through for a minute. Well, actually I don't think one can allow or disallow it.

STEPHEN: Well, encourage or discourage?

SHARON: That's true, I would discourage it but I think to the degree that it's necessary or that discouragement is effectual. I mean when you're in an idealized position and you reveal some grave and terrible flaw that you have and people respond by saying, oh, you're so humble! It's clear that no matter what you say it's being taken in a certain context and certainly I would try to be honest. But only to the degree that it's going to be necessary no matter what. Certainly my teachers didn't portray themselves as being other than what they were.

STEPHEN: In my experience with teachers, I find that they actually don't, my Tibetan teachers the least. I sense that they felt that I had a very one-pointed interest in what they were teaching, whatever form it took, whether I was confused or not, the life-saving gesture was that of taking a deep interest. With that interest, then you have a point from which you can perhaps create an avenue to a deeper understanding.

SHARON: Well, there's also a certain element in some teachers, almost an effort to disappear, to truly embody the teachings. And these were the teachers with whom it was most confusing because you knew there was a person in there somewhere. I feel that's very different from how we are as teachers in our generation. There's just more revealing of one who is a reflection of that necessary inspiration to practice, or to the dhamma or to the truth.

JACK: I wonder if there isn't a cultural confluence there too? I was wondering about this while listening to people from different cultures. In a sense, it's just another version of the same conundrum that the Buddha set for us. One the one hand, he says, or the tradition says, take refuge in the Buddha or in his teaching. On the other hand, it says be a light unto yourself. We've been talking about how you put these two things together but as the dhamma has come to the West, Westerners tend to pick up the part of being a light unto yourself. Who are you anyway that you should be telling me what to do? And how do you know what you know? It's our cultural mind set to question authority, to have very ambivalent relationships to authority. And the other side tends to get downplayed. The danger then is that the teachings get disembodied from their embodiments. And the only place they exist is in their embodiments.

So I am wondering how much of a cultural factor there is on the part of Western students in the difficulty of total surrender, to accept authority in a healthy way instead of immediately suspecting that it may be, you know, what's his agenda?

JOSEPH: Or hers. (Laughter)

STEPHEN: I don't know about that. I'm actually amazed at the extent to which many of your western students are rather keen to surrender to authority.

JACK: Too keen. But that's one way, I think, of dealing with their ambivalence. That sets them up for the eventual disillusionment. But I'am not sure that that's really a healthy acceptance of authority.

STEPHEN: No. I quite agree with you.

JACK: This is a particular way it gets played out in this culture. I'm not sure it's the same in Tibet or Sri Lanka or Burma or other cultures. On this side, refuge in yourself, being a light unto yourself tends to be the things that western students pick up on and play it out. And I wonder if that isn't true for all of us in some ways.

MARTINE: I think what's important to look at too is that we can't separate the teacher from the tradition. And that's where maybe the sangha comes in because the sangha might represent the tradition and how in the tradition there is a whole teaching, a whole phenomena. It's just practice alone; there's also study; there's ethic. There're all these elements which are important to cultivate. In a way, by just focusing on the teacher, we kind of personalize it and forget the whole tradition and the richness of what we can integrate within us. And I think that's the tendency in the West. You have a teacher and you can't quite separate it from the tradition.

JACK: That's why we founded the Study Center, to get the focus off the teachers.

MIRA BUSH: I have a very small anecdote. I was once with a great Tibetan teacher, and a student asked him if all enlightenment is within you, why do you need a guru? And he said, you need a guru to tell you that you don't need a guru!

LARRY: In listening to all that has been said about taking refuge in the Buddha, I think it's the richest description that I've heard put together from every one here. For myself, I have been watching what happens when I think I am taking refuge in the Buddha. Sometimes it seems a lot like fantasy and it gives me energy, especially if I feel I need it and I invoke it. It has a way of working for me. But it isn't quite reliable and it doesn't give me quite as much strength as something else which is the qualities of the Buddha. What I feel is that I have all the qualities of the Buddha, every one of them. It's just that mine are not that developed. The Buddha has protected those qualities. And so I feel a very real connection in that way. It's not that the Buddha is up here and I'm down there and there's a gap between us so much as there's a real connection between certain very real qualities that human beings have. And I have them, and the Buddha has them. The two qualities that have helped me the most are the qualities of understanding and compassion, which we have all the capacity for.

When I say that the Buddha is a perfected being, it's not necessarily that I picture a little person but whatever degree of understanding I have or whatever degree of compassion I am able to manifest and feel that that's not the end of it. I feel sort of like you're giving birth and it's not all the way out but it's there. There's a sense that there is more to do but it's not frustrating. It's inspiring. And that's my connection.

As for balancing, be a light unto yourself and take refuge in the Buddha. I was brought up by my father to have a very heavy individualistic streak. He was very loving and also trained me to take care of myself and was very explicit about how many people can't be trusted, you've got to take care of yourself etc. He would demonstrate things to me, like he would drive and take me to Grand Central Station and ask me to watch. He would park in front of the station and a cop would come over and ask him to move the car; my father would give the cop some money and the cop would let him stay there. And he'd say, see, I just gave that cop some money.

He also took me to my first drink in a bar. He said, I don't want you doing it behind my back. Go in and find out what's so great about these bars. I drank it and it was so distasteful, I wanted to spit it out. So, what I'm getting at is that I have been attracted to teachers like that, the ones who have me the most in terms of these qualities, about letting me learn from my own experiences. I spent a fair amount of time with J. Krishnamurti and slightly less, but extremely rich, time with Achan Maha Boowa in Thailand. What I feel is that both of these teachers in their different ways were teaching me how to be independent. Krishnamurti method was, sort of like, here's the teaching, now for goodness sake just go out and do it. And as you know some people were able to do it more than others. What I got from Maha Boowa was that he had no need for me to admire him or worship him or any of that. He was totally complete and he didn't all this stuff, not even a little bit. And he wanted you to be strong and to be able to see that everything is workable, that you can stand on your own two feet. But in order to that, he was much more willing to bring you along and give you techniques and help you. One of his key words is to be resourceful or develop ingenuity. When do you use metta? When do you need metta? When using metta would be a dodge, avoiding something? When what you're listening to your mind is just a kilesa? When is it really wisdom? And, so, he'll often say, I don't know but you go back and practice and find out.

A number of the other Thai teachers were like that. And there's a balance in them that I like. I like their loving care and the contents that go with it, teachings and techniques. But underlying it is also the sense that they'll really be relived if I can starting doing it myself more and more. And they're just trying to gauge how I am doing. The more I can do it, they more they want me to do it, and trust it.

Please address your comments to buddhism@ic.sunysb.edu, thank you.