Being Held By Refuge

· Articles & Essays, Zen Training

By Sandy Joshin Del Valle

When the situation seems to be permanent, overwhelming, and full of suffering, you have to practice taking refuge in the Buddha—the Buddha in ourselves.

—Thich Nhat Hanh

To take refuge has a quality of despair to it. It feels like someone is pursuing me or there is a danger somewhere that is so large, I cannot handle it alone. I need a place of safety and security. A place where I am no longer pursued but can find succor and maybe even ease. Minimally, “refuge” implies a respite from danger, possibly from suffering.

Joshin walking kinhin at Zen Mountain Monastery

More than ever, I feel the call for refuge arising in me. I’m sure I’m not alone. In a world that feels it’s spinning on an axis of pain and fear and so many are suffering, refuge feels like something we can all use right now. But there is also a sense of temporality to refuge. It can only last for so long before we once more hurl into the vortex of life—its beauties and its sorrows.  The refuge I find sometimes at the bottom of an ice cream container or binging on a Netflix series are certainly the shortest-lived kind.  But there is also the refuge that comes from the Dharma. As practitioners we know of the three treasures and are encouraged to take refuge in them:  Buddha, dharma, sangha.  Where all three aspects come together most clearly, or most physically, are my places of practice. My spiritual homes: Fire Lotus Temple on State Street in Brooklyn, and Zen Mountain Monastery at the base of Mount Tremper.

To take refuge in these spaces is qualitatively different from digging into my pint of Ben and Jerry’s.  Since the pandemic, my Temple has changed. At first I was cranky about this: too many new faces, few established students had returned, construction in the zendo shut it down as our place to sit. We were making do and that can be powerful, but I felt ungrounded. Then I remembered my vows. I came back to what was now their refuge too, which is nothing less than taking refuge in the dharma. If I am on the bodhisattva path, then I needed to see the disruption as a teaching in impermanence, the new faces as new sangha members, my role as one of service.  

Outside the Monastery, July 2022

When I attend Sunday service at my Temple, I’m not running from the world but being nourished so that I can go back into it.  I am reminded of how to be in this world; of how to hold things with just the lightest grip–the way we can hold an egg in the palm of our hands. A gentle cup that protects but doesn’t crush. It is light, but it is also essential. Without my hand, the egg falls to the floor, smashed. I grip too tightly and both egg and I will be sorry. When I leave the Temple, physically present I can finally hug people goodbye, I am filled again with possibility. The world that seemed hostile, is approachable again. Where I saw anger and cruelty, I see fear that can be addressed. I am not running from the world, but coming back into it stronger.

Brooklyn’s Fire Lotus Zendo in June 2022

As I write this I’m just beginning a month-long residency at the Monastery. Unlike the Temple, there are no sirens in the background while I sit. Just birds. An occasional car. The sound of a soaking rain falling on roofs and ground. I am mostly happy practicing just at the Temple. I get the refuge I need and I know how to be there: what I’m supposed to do, how and when.  But sometimes I need a different space for refuge. I want to see my teacher’s face and not just on a screen. I want to be nudged into service positions I’ve never held; sleep in a bed that isn’t my own; work alongside people I’ve just met. There is a sense of displacement for me here.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel says that when we can see through the eyes of impermanence, “all of life is home.” That’s the kind of refuge I find at the Monastery.  My days are regulated by bells that tell me when to sit, when to stand, when to begin work and when to end. In the release of all that I find comfortable, I understand this other aspect of refuge: leaving behind and moving on. To hold what I know so lightly, that when the breeze comes, it can be lifted away. I leave behind people I love, rituals I’ve created, habits that are dear to me, because for a while, I want to live more lightly on the earth. Not quite knowing what I’m doing, my ears are sharpened to the tone of each bell; not accustomed to the rhythm of the day, I see everything more clearly. I am alert, living in a new way that makes sense to me on a deep level. 

I’m one of multiple residents at the Monastery this month. Most of them are much younger than I am. They came here for different reasons. Most are at a bit of a crossroads in their lives: in the midst of changing homes, careers, between schools. Despite our differences in age, experience with dharma practice, even intentions, we’ve come to the Monastery as refuge. A refuge even though we know we’ll be uncomfortable in many ways: a shower that’s too cold,  an alarm that rings too early. The refuge lies in turning away from what we know very well, the usual resources and mindsets.

We come to the Monastery as transients, carving sanctuary out of the unknown. Until we do what every refugee does: make the unknown, knowable. We will create new habits, find fresh desires to chase, a new position or work assignment to cling to. And then we do it again–leave, unmoor ourselves. Like the river that runs through the Monastery grounds we are ever changing yet familiar. Moving, and transformed.

When she’s not at the Monastery for residency and retreats, you can find Joshin most Sunday mornings at the Fire Lotus Temple, ZCNYC, in Brooklyn, NY

NextSolar Power in Han Shan Meadow