Taking Refuge

While I don’t identify myself as a Buddhist, I resonate strongly with many of its concepts and practices. Its brilliant clarity about the fundamental practice of “taking refuge” really struck me the other evening, while present at a rare talk in Evanston, IL, by Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. In truth, it made me realize once again that all the great spiritual paths lead us to the same one home…a place within: a refuge of safety, peace, truth, and joy. 

Rinpoche opened her talk with a reference to the grave state of the world today. It was personally daunting to hear an esteemed Tibetan Buddhist lama make reference to this global crisis occurring now. Somehow, some escapist part of me may have hoped she’d call this global catastrophe an illusion. But of course, the world is very real. Our eager little community that night, overly packed into a warm, small room, was waiting hungrily, as birdies in a nest might wait, for their mother to feed them.

The theme of Rinpoche’s talk was primarily on the significance of having compassion, and fed us, she did. She described the path, pointed us in the direction, and invited us to let our hearts crack open in compassion; for cultivating compassion is one of the greatest gifts, purpose and essential challenges of practicing Buddhism. However, in order to attain the selfless state of compassion, one must ceaselessly do much inner work. And one must take refuge within, in order to reach compassion.

As Rinpoche spoke in that beautifully anointed shrine room at Heartwood Center, filled with delicate Tibetan sacred objects, luscious flowers and elegant pictures of deities, I was moved by the simplicity of her words. She is an extraordinary, master teacher; Her deceptively matter-of-fact explanations stripped away the illusive smoke screen of the human mind. Yes, the world is real, but our minds flap and flounder in illusions. We suffer terribly because of these chattering, conflicted minds of ours, which live in the past and the future, but rarely in the present moment.

Rinpoche said that a key to finding peace within is to see things as they truly are, and to see each other in our sameness. Seeing the sameness is essential to experiencing compassion. Sadly, we humans get stuck so often in seeing differences. Humans struggle with fear of what is different, but also fear of what is like us – what mirrors the sameness in us that we so desperately want to reject.

We’re plagued with many conflicting emotions that tear us apart. We are a hot mess of reactivity, judgement, and self-involvement, or as Rinpoche said, “self-cherishing.”  In trendier terms, we’re self-absorbed and narcissistic.

Self-cherishing, Rinpoche said, constricts us. It narrows our views. It strangles our creative capacity. The mind becomes rigid and linear.  Most importantly, our true identity becomes masked. But underneath all that mental infrastructure – or inner jail, as I see it – there is a sacred Mind that exists in its true nature. Rinpoche’s words are underlined in my scrawling notes: Refuge is surrender to one’s true nature, to the Self (capital S), to who we truly are. For it is in our true Self, that we achieve compassion and peace.

Do you know who you truly are? You’re not your job or career. You’re not your role as a mother, father, sister, brother, niece, or aunt. You’re not your body. You’re not your troubled, reactive, fearful mind either.

When you uncover the true Self, what you experience is joy and peace. Despite what is going on around you. Despite the desperate state of human affairs. Within each of us, there is a place of refuge in the true Self. It’s a place of safety, freedom, creativity, and infinite connection to what is uniquely sacred to each of us. Take refuge, people. As we each find our true Self within, we will become a mighty force of good in the world. We can make that inner journey – it’s not as far as you think.

You may need a little help. Many of us are available to help. You might want to find your community – we find Self when in sacred community too. There is a way, but it’s an inside job, so do the inner work. Find your refuge for the sake of all. We need your compassion. We need your innate joy. We need to see the Light in your eyes, and to feel alive, safe, seen. When you take refuge, you bless us all. Look underneath all those thoughts. Look outside of time. It’s there, as close as your breath. Take refuge in your true Self.