The Contest

Check out Ellen Sandbeck's papercuts of the Buddha on the Facebook page "A Buddha A Day." Choose your favorite image, then send a wonderful piece of your writing, one page or less, on any topic, to You may win the original papercut of your choice!

Winning entries will be posted on this page.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

winning entry from Patrice Clark Koelsch

Taking Refuge in the Buddha

Buddham saranam gochami  -- “I take refuge in the Buddha.” This is the first of the three refuges traditionally invoked by Buddhist practitioners.  Refuge is taken sequentially in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – the Triple Gem.  

What does it mean for this Western woman – a feminist schooled in the empiricist philosophy – to take refuge in the Buddha? It was easiest to first understand taking refuge in the sangha -- a community of others aspiring to live without harming themselves or the planet. And then understanding the deep wisdom of the dharma – of seeing things as they are – not as I want them to be – became another resting place for my heart and mind. But taking refuge in the Buddha – that was elusive.

First, there’s the story of the Buddha – a tale of a boy born into noble privilege and great expectation. It was said that he emerged from his mother’s side and that she died within the week. A sage predicted that he would either be a great king or a great spiritual leader, so the boy’s father made every effort to keep the young prince isolated and entertained by the pleasures of an aristocratic life. When he became a man, he was given a beautiful wife who bore him a son. Then, overcome by curiosity, he ventured outside and saw the ravages of old age in a crone, the suffering of disease in a sick man, the lamentations of grief around a corpse. Finally he encountered a mendicant with an untroubled visage and was determined to emulate him. Abandoning his wife and son and father, he cut off his hair and began the spiritual journey that would fulfill the prophecy at his birth.

This is of course just a story, an archetypal myth for a great religious leader. The prince’s quest was valorized, there was no acknowledgment of what this might have meant for his wife and child. Her perspective was irrelevant to the story, just as the death of the Buddha’a mother seemed a convenient way of minimizing any maternal influence. So in the early years of meditation practice, I simply drew a sort of spiritual parentheses around the Buddha and focused instead on the ethical and psychological insights of taking suffering as the primary reference point.

During this time, I was encouraged and supported by teachers who lived exemplary but unpretentious householder lives and by other practitioners who also struggled with jobs and domestic obligations and spiritual longing. So the sangha was my first place of refuge. Then, after I sat more and longer in formal daily and retreat practice, I began accompanying a long-time practitioner in leading simple self-awareness meditation groups in prisons. The practice was to use the breath  to stay with present-moment experience, to let go of the judging mind and the stories we continually tell ourselves. A decade of sitting in maximum security prisons, witnessing the transforming power of self-awareness, of seeing clearly how things are, broadened and deepened my understanding of the power of taking refuge in the Dharma.

Still, taking refuge in the Buddha, seemed the least tangible of the refuges. I would tell myself that taking refuge in the Buddha was simply taking refuge in the possibility of waking up in my life. But I would have nagging qualms about the historic Buddha. Especially since he was initially reluctant to admit women to the monastic life. As I read more deeply in the suttas, I found words that often spoke directly to my own spiritual confusion. But usually I felt the way I did reading Plato in graduate school. As a woman I was on the margin. This was a guy primarily speaking to other guys. At least that’s the way it seems in the tradition that was passed along from one generation of monks to another. The Buddha of the suttas is no laughing, all-embracing Dalai Lama

Then I the encountered the voices of the women who were the Buddha’s disciples in the Therigatha -- the poems of the early nuns. They were vivid, joyful expressions of spiritual freedom, nothing marginalized or second class about them. The work of Feminist scholar and Buddhist practitioner Rita Gross made a huge difference. She observes that the historical Buddha never held that women were less able to awaken than men and suggests that his reluctance to ordain women may simply have been pragmatic. The Buddha’s already radical community of caste-less renunciate men disrupted the traditional family and clan-based system of propriety and property, and admitting women ran the risk of putting a lighted match to kindling. The Buddha included famous courtesans among his followers and accepted their hospitality. Karen Armstrong, a scholar of religions but not a Buddhist herself, wrote about the tremendous social and political upheaval during the Buddha’s own lifetime. The Buddha had detractors and enemies outside and inside his community. There were even attempts on the Buddha’s life by renegade monks.
Most recently, Steven Batchelor undertook a geo-political exploration of the life of the Buddha. In Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Bachelor literally goes over the ground of the Buddha and his disciples, and tries to understand what the shifting constellation of political alliances, clan allegiances, social conditions and geographic constraints meant for the year by year situation of the Buddha. The kings who consulted the Buddha were victims of parricide, the Buddha’s cousin set out to usurp his leadership and caused a major schism in the sangha. The Buddha survived several assassination attempts, but eventually succumbed to food poisoning – which may have been intentional. Batchelor goes back again and again to the Pali canon – the suttas and the early commentaries – finding in them a wise and pragmatic human being dealing with difficult circumstances and great responsibility. The actual Buddha offered a down to earth path for meeting life’s vicissitudes, and, as a way of life, that path is liberating.

It’s this very humanizing of the Buddha that makes me able to finally, fully take refuge in the Buddha. To take refuge in the possibility of waking up and really paying attention in my life, but also to take refuge in the realization that, like the Buddha, I can only act from a sincere intention and then do the best I can in complex and confusing situations. I take refuge in the fact that the Buddha took his leadership responsibilities to heart and walked very delicately through political minefields. I can take refuge in the Buddha’s example of not succumbing to bitterness when demagogues seize power. I can take refuge in the Buddha’s acceptance of  the body’s deterioration with equanimity, and in the poignancy of the Buddha on his deathbed, mindfully experiencing not only the agony of his illness but the keen disappointment of those who had hoped he would have a more glorious demise in a better location. On a visceral level I can appreciate what a liberation it would be to be fully present without any ill-will in these circumstances. Thus I wholeheartedly take refuge in the Buddha.

                                                                        Patrice Clark Koelsch