A True Refuge

Is there a quality of happiness, is there a kind of peace that is not a compounded thing subject to change, to destruction, as conditions change?
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From the beginning of my meditation practice in 1971, I was very moved by a sense of the Buddha as an integrated being. Most of us can easily experience our lives as somehow fragmented, split apart. We might feel perfectly filled with complete lovingkindness, strongly in touch with the radiant essence of our being when we're alone, but as soon as we're with people, it's very difficult. Or we might feel fine when we're with other people, but feel terrified when we are alone. We might feel one way at work, a different way in the context of our families. Our lives can easily be experienced as split up into these little bundles, whereas for a being like the Buddha, it is seamless. There are no parts, there's no division, there's no fragmentation. His life is of one piece with threads of wisdom and compassion guiding his actions whether he's alone or with others, whether he's wandering through India or being still; whether he is teaching or meditating, it is at the root of his being. It is all of one piece. I found that tremendously inspiring. I felt so fragmented. I knew that integration was exactly what I wanted.

The Buddha said, "From time to time, the enlightened one is born into the world an arahat, fully awakened, abounding in wisdom and goodness, happy, with knowledge of the worlds unsurpassed as a guide to those willing to be taught, a blessed one, a Buddha. By themselves they thoroughly understand. They make this knowledge known to others. They proclaim the truth, both in the letter and in the spirit, "lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely in the end," abounding in wisdom and goodness, happy. What a wonderful sense of a possibility!

This Buddha, our Buddha you might say, arose in India in this world around 563 BC. He sat under a tree in Northern India and became enlightened. He came to birth as a human being, just as each of us has. This was perhaps accentuated for me by being in northern India, the land of the Buddha. I could take a short walk and be at the spot where, as bodhisattva, a being aspiring to enlightenment, the Buddha had the milk rice that fortified his body after so much extreme self-denial. And of course, day or night, I could go to the tree. The presence of the Buddha was intimate and everywhere, as though visiting the land of one's ancestors.

As a human being, the Buddha's questions, his very compelling questions, were about the nature of life. It's as though he were asking, "What does it mean to be born into this human body, to be so vulnerable and dependent as an infant, to grow up, to grow older whether we like it or not, to die, unbelievably enough, even as we see all others die around us?" and "What does it mean to have this human mind which seems to veer constantly from one extreme to the other, always changing, so that we might wake up in the morning delighted to be alive, full of faith, really happy, and by the afternoon we're freaked out, we're frightened, we're angry, we feel guilty, we question our very right to be happy. It seems incomprehensible to us. And then at night it's something different again."

What does it mean as a human being to look for happiness, peace, joy, that is not confined within the body, within that changing mind? Is there a quality of happiness, is there a kind of peace that is not a compounded thing subject to change, to destruction, as conditions change? He had questions in effect that are very similar to our own. As he phrased the call to awakening for himself, he said, "Why should I who am subject to birth, old age, sickness, death, sorrow, and suffering, seeing the danger in these things, why should I take refuge in that which is also subject to change, to death, to sorrow, to suffering? Let me find that which is changeless, which is deathless, which is without sorrow, which is unborn and undying, that is a true refuge." And in fact this is what he found. He found a true refuge.

We say a human being sat under a tree 2600 years ago, motivated by compassion, brought there, moved there on a wave of moral force. There was no other place he could be. Throughout the night as he sat there, which was a full moon night, the full moon in May, he saw the conditioned nature of suffering, sorrow, grief, loss, and death. He traced it back. He traced it back until he came to ignorance. He saw his own and others' countless past lives stretching back over many ages and eons of the world. He saw in effect the spectacle of the whole universe, beings being born and dying in accordance with the laws of nature. He saw the cyclic path of all beings, the unfortunate and the illustrious and the rich and the poor, all beings tossed about on these waves of birth and old age, sickness and death. As the night went on, he saw the means of liberation. He saw suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering. At the first light of dawn, just as the star Venus broke in the morning sky, he saw through the very last trace of ignorance in himself and was completely enlightened.

And, it is taught, we too can be enlightened, every one of us. We can be completely freed from the bonds of limitation and conditioned confusion through our own endeavor, inspiration, effort and development. There is a path, and we can traverse it.

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