It's true, as they say, that we can only love others when we first love ourselves—and we can only experience real joy when we stop running from pain. The key to understanding these truisms is simple but not easy: we must learn to open ourselves up to life in all its manifestations. Here, spiritual teacher and When Things Fall Apart author Pema Chödrön presents a uniquely practical approach to doing just that, showing us the true value in having “no escape” from the ups and downs of life.
Drawing from her own experiences with marriage, divorce, motherhood, and more, Pema reveals that when we embrace the happiness and heartache, the inspiration and confusion—all the twists and turns that are part of natural life—we can begin to discover a true wellspring of courageous love that’s been within our hearts all along. As she writes in chapter four: “Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.”
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Chapter 13: Taking Refuge
I want to talk about taking refuge in the three jewels—the buddha, the dharma,
and the sangha—and what that really means.
we're helpless infants, we totally depend on others to take care of us;
otherwise we couldn't eat and we wouldn't be clean. If it were not for our
helplessness, there would be no nurturing. Ideally, that period of nurturing is
one in which maitri, loving-kindness, can be fostered in us. The Shambhala
teachings tell us that the young warrior, the baby warrior, is placed in a
cradle of loving-kindness. Ideally, among people striving to create an
enlightened society, in the period of nurturing, individuals would naturally
develop loving-kindness and respect toward themselves and a sense of feeling
relaxed and at home with themselves. That would be a ground. In an enlightened
society, there would be some ceremonial rite of passage, such as many
traditional peoples have had, in which the child formally becomes a young man
or a young woman. It seems that too often we're victims of not enough nurturing
in the beginning, and we don't know when we've grown up. Some of us at the age
of fifty or sixty or seventy are still wondering what we're going to be when we
grow up. We remain children in our heart of hearts, which is to say,
any case, whether we feel that we weren't nurtured properly, or whether we feel
fortunate that we were—whatever our situation—in the present moment we can
always realize that the ground is to develop loving-kindness toward ourselves.
As adults, we can begin to cultivate a sense of loving-kindness for
ourselves—by ourselves, for ourselves. The whole process of meditation is one
of creating that good ground, that cradle of loving-kindness where we actually
are nurtured. What's being nurtured is our confidence in our own wisdom, our
own health, and our own courage, our own goodheartedness. We develop some sense
that the way we are—the kind of personality that we have and the way we
express life—is good, and that by being who we are completely and by totally
accepting that and having respect for ourselves, we are standing on the ground
always thought that the phrase "to take refuge" is very curious
because it sounds theistic, dualistic, and dependent "to take refuge"
in something. I remember very clearly, at a time of enormous stress in my life,
became a heroine for me because she fell into this hole and she just free-fell.
She didn't grab for the edges, she wasn't terrified, trying to stop her fall;
she just fell and she looked at things as she went down. Then, when she landed,
she was in a new place. She didn't take refuge in anything. I used to aspire to
be like that because I saw myself getting near the hole and just screaming,
holding back, not wanting to go anywhere where there was no hand to hold.
every human life (whether there are puberty rites or not) you are born, and you
are born alone. You go through that birth canal alone, and then you pop out
alone, and then a whole process begins. And when you die, you die alone. No one
goes with you. The journey that you make, no matter what your belief about that
journey is, is made alone. The fundamental idea of taking refuge is that
between birth and death we are alone. Therefore, taking refuge in the buddha,
the dharma, and the sangha does not mean finding consolation in them, as a
child might find consolation in Mommy and Daddy. Rather, it's a basic
expression of your aspiration to leap out of the nest, whether you feel ready
for it or not, to go through your puberty rites and be an adult with no hand to
hold. It expresses your realization that the only way to begin the real journey
of life is to feel the ground of loving-kindness and respect for yourself and
then to leap. In some sense, however, we never get to the point where we feel
one hundred percent sure: "I have had my nurturing cradle. It's finished.
Now I can leap." We are always continuing to develop maitri and continuing
to leap. The other day I was talking about meeting our edge and our desire to
grab on to something when we reach our limits. Then we see that there's more
loving-kindness, more respect for ourselves, more confidence that needs to be
nurtured. We work on that and we just keep leaping.
for us, taking refuge means that we feel that the way to live is to cut the
ties, to cut the umbilical cord and alone start the journey of being fully
human, without confirmation from others. Taking refuge is the way that we begin
cultivating the openness and the goodheartedness that allow us to be less and
less dependent. We might say, "We shouldn't be dependent anymore, we
should be open," but that isn't the point. The point is that you begin
where you are, you see what a child you are, and you don't criticize that. You
begin to explore, with a lot of humor and generosity toward yourself, all the
places where you cling, and every time you cling, you realize, "Ah! This
is where, through my mindfulness and my tonglen and everything that I do, my
whole life is a process of learning how to make friends with myself." On
the other hand, this need to cling, this need to hold the hand, this cry for
Mom, also shows you that
edge of the nest. Stepping through right there—making a leap—becomes the
motivation for cultivating maitri. You realize that if you can step through
that doorway, you're going forward, you're becoming more of an adult, more of a
complete person, more whole.
other words, the only real obstacle is ignorance. When you say "Mom!"
or when you need a hand to hold, if you refuse to look at the whole situation,
you aren't able to see it as a teaching—an inspiration to realize that this is
the place where you could go further, where you could love yourself more. If you
to yourself at that point, "I'm going to look into this, because that's
all I need to do to continue this journey of going forward and opening
more," then you're committed to the obstacle of ignorance.
with obstacles is life's journey. The warrior is always coming up against
dragons. Of course the warrior gets scared, particularly before the battle.
It's frightening. But with a shaky, tender heart the warrior realizes that he
or she is just about to step into the unknown, and then goes forth to meet the
dragon. The warrior realizes that the dragon is nothing but unfinished business
presenting itself, and that it's fear that really needs to be worked with. The
dragon is just a motion picture that appears there, and it appears in many
forms: as the lover who jilted us, as the parent who never loved us enough, as
someone who abused us. Basically what we work with is our fear and our holding
back, which are not necessarily obstacles. The only obstacle is ignorance, this
refusal to look at our unfinished business. If every time the warrior goes out
and meets the dragon, he or she says, "Hah! It's a dragon again. No way am
I going to face this," and just splits, then life becomes a recurring
story of getting up in the morning, going out, meeting the dragon, saying,
"No way," and splitting. In that case you become more and more timid
and more and more afraid and more of a baby. No one's nurturing you, but you're
still in that cradle, and you never go through your puberty rites.
we say we take refuge in the buddha, we take refuge in the dharma, we take
refuge in the sangha. In the oryoki meal chant we say, "The buddha's
virtues are inconceivable, the dharma's virtues are inconceivable, the sangha's
virtues are inconceivable," and "I prostrate to the buddha, I
prostrate to the dharma, I prostrate to the sangha, I prostrate respectfully
and always to these three." Well, we aren't talking about finding comfort
in the buddha, dharma, and sangha. We aren't talking about prostrating in order
to be safe. The buddha, we say traditionally, is the example of what we also
can be. The buddha is the awakened one, and we too are the buddha. It's simple.
We are the buddha. It's not just a way of speaking. We are the awakened one,
meaning one who continually leaps, one who continually opens, one who
continually goes forward. It isn't easy and it's accompanied by a lot of fear,
a lot of resentment, and a lot of doubt. That's what it means to be human,
that's what it means to be a warrior. To begin with, when you leave the cradle
of loving-kindness, you are in this beautiful suit of armor because, in some
sense, you're well protected and you feel safe. Then you go through puberty
rites, the process of taking off the armor that you might have had some
illusion was protecting you from something, only to find that actually it's
shielding you from being fully alive and fully awake. Then you go forward and
you meet the dragon, and every meeting shows you where there's still some armor
to take off.
refuge in the buddha means that you are willing to spend your life
acknowledging or reconnecting with your awakeness, learning that every time you
meet the dragon you take off more armor, particularly the armor that covers
your heart. That's what we're doing here during this dathun, removing armor,
removing our protections, undoing all the stuff that covers over our wisdom and
our gentleness and our awake quality. We're not trying to be something we
aren't; rather, we're rediscovering, reconnecting with who we are. So when we
say, "I take refuge in the buddha," that means I take refuge in the
courage and the potential of fearlessness of removing all the armor that covers
this awakeness of mine. I am awake; I will spend my life taking this armor off.
Nobody else can take it off because nobody else knows where all the little
locks are, nobody else knows where it's sewed it up tight, where it's going to
take a lot of work to get that particular iron thread untied. I may have a
zipper that goes right down the front and has padlocks all the way down. Every
time I meet the dragon, I take off as many padlocks as I can; eventually, I'll
be able to take the zipper down. I might say to you, "Simple. When you
meet the dragon you just take off one of your padlocks and then your zipper'll
come down." And you say, "What is she talking about?," because
sewn a seam up under your left arm with iron thread. Every time
the dragon, you have to get out these special snippers that you have hidden
away in a box with all your precious things and snip a few of those threads
off, as many as you dare, until you start vomiting with fear and say,
"This is enough for now." Then you begin to be much more awake and
more connected with your buddha nature, with buddha—you know what it means to
take refuge in buddha. To the next person you meet, you say, "It's easy.
All you have to do is get your little snippers out of your precious box and you
start—" and they look at you and they say, "What is he talking
these big boots that come all the way up and cover their whole body and head.
The only way to get the boots off is to start with the soles of the boots, and
they know that every time they meet the dragon, they actually have to start
peeling. So you have to do it alone. The basic instruction is simple: Start
taking off that armor. That's all anyone can tell you. No one can tell you how
to do it because you're the only one who knows how you locked yourself in there
to begin with.