On forgetting to take refuge

Bread by Monika Grabkowska“I want you to stop running from thing to thing to thing, and to sit down at the table, to offer the people you love something humble and nourishing, like soup and bread, like a story, like a hand holding another hand while you pray. We live in a world that values us for how fast we go, for how much we accomplish, for how much life we can pack into one day. But I’m coming to believe it’s in the in-between spaces that our lives change, and that the real beauty lies there.” ~ Shauna Niequist

Last week I struggled with my mood. I felt distractible, jittery and vaguely dissatisfied. As the feelings intensified I finally decided to pause and chant nembutsu for five minutes.

After the five minutes of chanting, I came to an unavoidable conclusion. I had been spending far too much time on Facebook, and it was making me feel bad. I put myself on an immediate internet diet, deciding to check Facebook, email and all the rest only once a day.

The effects were almost instant. My head started to clear, like mist being burnt off by the sun. I felt a new calm descending upon me as my brain was denied of the opportunity to skip here there and everywhere.

Living in this world means that we are constantly being bombarded by all kinds of seductive invitations that lead us into greed, hate or delusion. As a culture we have all sorts of ‘go-to’ habits and compulsions which help us avoid things we don’t want to look at or feel. Some of these habits are more socially acceptable (workaholism, seeking praise, TV, buying stuff) and others less (alcoholism, stealing, being mean).

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of these invitations. They will be more or less powerful depending on what kind of people we hang out with, whereabouts we live, what kind of job we do and what kind of family we have. They also vary depending on what our ‘training’ was, i.e. if we were shown to repress our sadness or use food as a comfort, invitations to do so when we’re older will be more irresistible.

When I chant nembutsu, I am taking refuge in something very different to all of that – the Buddha. When I take refuge I can relax for a moment and ‘get my bearings’, separated momentarily from the usual props. Those props are sticky – and they are so delicious! But, to use Shantideva’s memorable metaphor, taking our pleasure from these sources is like licking honey from a razor blade – the more we want, the deeper we cut ourselves.

A note for human beings: we all use these things all the time, and some are less harmful than others. I don’t want you to feel bad about taking comfort in your bed-time hot chocolate or your detective novels. Rather, I’m talking about those times when we keep on going back (like my internet checking) when the sweetness has long gone, and all we really get is more agitation or pain.

Connecting with something bigger and wiser than ourselves helps us to see these things more clearly. After my nembutsu, I was clearly shown that I needed to let go of seeking affirmation from red notifications. It puts things into perspective, and allows us to ‘step back’ and see what’s happening. It also comforts us a little, so we can feel safe enough to take the risk of putting our compulsions down.

I sometimes feel that, as a Buddhist priest living in a temple full of Buddhas, I ought to be better at remembering to take refuge. Well, I’m not. I need to remind myself over and over. It’s helpful for me to set up habits that facilitate this like regular snippets of practice, and to use rupas in every room – one can never have too many Buddhas.

Even so, I’ll forget again. That’s okay – Namo Amida Bu. The Buddha is always there, waiting patiently for me to turn my head. When I stop running from thing to thing, I can dwell in those delicious in-between spaces and know that everything is going to be alright.

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Bread by Monika Grabkowska via Unsplash with gratitude

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