37 practices: taking refuge as a practice, verse 7 p.s.

In verse 7 of the 37 practices of a bodhisattva, Togme Zangpo reminds himself (and now us, since his writings have survived 7 centuries) to give up worldly refuges and look instead to refuges that are authentic and reliable and can actually protect us from the perils of samsara: the Buddha, dharma, and sangha.

This is not an instruction in the sense of an order or the threat of hell if we don’t follow it, but in the sense of lovingly pointing out to us that if we put this advice into practice rather than just think of it as a nice idea, the entire path of awakening will unfold before us. That is the promise of verse 3.

In the verse 7 post, I shared advice from Lama Norlha Rinpoche about taking refuge throughout the day — at specific times and in specific recurring situations, such as when we first wake up, before we go to sleep, before going out on an errand or journey, etc.

How do we actually go about taking refuge at these and other times? Based on instructions from Dilgo Khyentse and Lama Norlha, we do so by visualizing the Buddha, dharma, and sangha in front of us, thinking they are really present; and reciting the prayer in a deeply heartfelt way, not just saying the words. We can visualize all Three Jewels on their own, or in the refuge tree along with the Vajrayana refuges, or roots: the lamas, yidams, and protectors. Or we could just visualize the Buddha, the ultimate refuge; or any meditational deity, such as Chenrezig, Tara, or Medicine Buddha, if we are calling upon them in particular, or doing their mantra or practice.

Reciting the prayer is helpful as a focus and reminder — the full refuge prayer from the ngondro text or the short refuge and bodhicitta prayer, or just the words, “I take refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha” — but in some situations we may prefer to take refuge without words, just vividly remembering the benevolent protection of the Three Jewels always present in our heart.

Iphones of mindfulness: The trickiest part of this is establishing a new habit of remembering to do it. It might help to designate what Thich Nhat Hahn calls a “mindfulness bell.” My current mindfulness bell is to aspire to remember the refuges whenever I pick up my phone. Before I turn it on, I bring the sources of refuge to mind and / or say the refuge prayer. That would add up to a lot of refuge throughout the course of a typical day!

It’s also helpful because the phone is what many of us turn to automatically as a refuge or escape whenever we are uncomfortable, under stress, or just bored. What if we were to train in taking refuge in the Three Jewels whenever we find ourselves turning to any worldly refuge or escape: TV, ice cream, shopping, overwork, whatever activity we tend to find temporary relief from our problems in.

We could still indulge in the activity if we must (at least, if it’s a relatively harmless one), but we could catch ourselves before we engage, taking a few moments to recall the Three Jewels, rest our mind in awareness, and wake ourselves up a little instead of reflexively putting ourselves to sleep. Our worldly refuges would then become bells of mindfulness for our practice, and gradually over time we might redirect our counterproductive habits into the actual path of awakening.

I didn’t get to Pema Chodron’s commentary in class last week, so I’d like to share some advice she passed along from “an Australian teacher” whose name she couldn’t come up with in the moment: “Many of you are used to chanting ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha’ with hands together and a holy look on your face. So, next time things are difficult and you find yourself standing in front of the refrigerator, chant, ‘I take refuge in ice cream.’ Or television, or your computer. Put your hands together: ‘I take refuge in television, in surfing the web, in my iphone, in my ipad.’ It’s not to put yourself down, but to be honest.”

I think it could be a humorous way of identifying the patterns that trap us in samsaric confusion and suffering, and creating an opportunity to redirect our attention. We can’t expect to transform all our habits and solve all our problems at once. We need to be loving and compassionate toward ourselves even as we acknowledge how we sometimes dig ourselves deeper into the quicksand. But just noticing our patterns, even when we can’t change our behavior in the moment, is a huge step toward waking up.

More on mindfulness bells: Walnuts of Mindfulness, from year 1 of my three-year retreat

Audio of verse 7 class: August 17

Full verse 7 class notes on refuge are here.

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)