Our first experience of faith or devotion may be in or to someone or something outside of ourselves. One of the oldest recitations of faith in Buddhism is taking refuge in what is called the Triple Gem: the Buddha himself, that person who awakened under the Bodhi Tree twenty-five hundred years ago; the Dharma, the truth, the law, and the body of teachings; and the Sangha, which means, in particular, the order of monks and nuns and, more generally, the community of wise beings. “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”
But in their deeper meaning, these refuges always point back to our own actions and mind states. Although there may be many false starts and dead ends as we begin our journey, if our interest is sincere, we soon make a life-changing discovery: what we are seeking is within us. The writer Wei Wu Wei, an Englishman who lived in Hong Kong for many years, captured the import of this turning within when he wrote, “What we are looking for is what is looking.” The Buddha himself urges this understanding. In the Parinibbana Sutta, the last discourse before his death, he says, “Be islands unto yourselves; be refuges unto yourselves; hold fast to the Dhamma as an island; hold fast to the Dhamma as a refuge; seek not for refuge in anyone except yourselves. Whosoever shall be an island unto themselves and a refuge unto themselves, it is they among the seekers of enlightenment who shall reach the heights.”
In Tibetan Buddhism, another form of taking refuge also points us back to the fundamental nature of our own minds:
In the empty essence, Dharmakaya,
In the luminous nature, Samboghakaya,
And in the manifold capacity, Nirrnanakaya,
I take refuge until enlightenment
These Sanskrit words, rich in meaning, refer to the open, ultimate, empty nature of the mind, its luminous cognizing power, and its infinite capacity for response. It is this inward movement of faith and understanding—not to a self, but to the zero, selfless center of gravity—that lies at the very heart of the One Dharma of liberation. The recognition that the whole of the Dharma is to be found within our own bodies and minds changes the meaning and quality of faith for us. No longer do we look outside of ourselves for solutions. We have seen where the path lies. All we require are the skillful means that will help us walk it.
For me this first happened while I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand. I had just become interested in Buddhism and was attending a study group for Westerners at the Marble Temple in Bangkok. Fresh from the endless philosophical discussions of my college days, I was particularly outspoken in this group, so much so that several regular members, annoyed by my persistent questioning, actually stopped coming. Finally, out of what might have been some desperation, one of the monks suggested I practice meditation. At that time I didn’t know anyone who had ever meditated, and in some youthful, romantic way the idea intrigued me: the exotic Far East, beautiful temples, and Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged in their saffron robes.
After receiving some simple instruction on watching the breath and gathering just the right assortment of cushions, I sat down and set my alarm clock for five minutes. Although I might have been overly cautious regarding the length of the sitting, something quite extraordinary happened, even in those first few minutes. I saw clearly that there was a way to go inside. This itself was the revelation, not any particularly strange or exciting experience. For so long I had been trying to understand myself through books and through the eyes of other people. I had been trying to make sense of all the uncertainties I was feeling, wanting to find out who was behind the rush of thoughts and emotions that I was taking to be myself, but not really knowing how to do it. Now I saw that there was a way to directly and intimately explore my own mind. This is the transformative moment when we go from an intellectual appreciation of the Dharma to the faith and confidence that awakening is possible, that we ourselves can do this.
As we continue on the path, our faith and confidence grow stronger and stronger through our own direct experience. Faith comes, then, not only from being inspired by others, but from our own inner knowing. We begin to have confidence in the moment, in the actuality of experience. We see what is there for ourselves. What is a thought, a sensation, an emotion? What is the nature of experience free from the proliferation of concepts and limited views?
An immediacy of knowing comes from simple, uncontrived awareness. In a moment of hearing is there any doubt or confusion? We are walking in the woods; there is the sound of a bird call—just hearing. We experience a strong sense of presence. This immediacy of knowing—right now—of the breath, a sound, some movement, points to the innate wakefulness of our own minds. We learn to recognize this wakefulness, become familiar with it, and trust it. Milarepa, the great eleventh-century Tibetan yogi, said, “I attain all my knowledge through observing the mind within. . . . Thus all my thoughts become the teaching of the Dharma, and apparent phenomena are all the books one needs.” It is all within us; we are what we are looking for.
As we walk on the path of awareness, we also develop faith and confidence in the larger unfolding of our life’s journey, a journey not in time or space, but a journey of our own inner understanding. We experience the growing possibilities of awakening. We actually are awake more and more, and this gives us a strong sense of path, the experience of meaningful direction. The powerful combination of presence and path, of being grounded in the present moment’s experience even as we navigate toward a more complete freedom, provides a significant context for understanding our lives.
Today, in the West, the idea of having goals in spiritual practice has drawn some fire. Emphasis is supposed to be on the here and now, without thought or mention of destination. Although this has been a corrective move for ambitious ego striving and the comparing, judging mind, it has also caused us to lose something of immense value. It is often the intimation of a goal that inspires ardency and passion. In Mount Analogue, Rene Daumal writes that when you are climbing a mountain, “Keep your eye fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look right in front of you. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you’ve arrived just because you see the summit. Watch your footing, be sure of the next step, but don’t let that distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.” It is precisely our vision of the summit that inspires our journey in the first place. To lose the vision, the sense of possibility, is to narrow our view and limit our endeavor.
There is no contradiction between resting in the present moment and a sense of path or goal. We see the union of these two in every ordinary activity. When you get up from your seat, where are you going? You have some objective or purpose. We can see the amazing power of intention, leading us not only to physical destinations but to karmic destinations as well, indeed, all the way to Buddhahood.
It is in the journey of understanding ourselves that the circularity of our lives takes on meaning. We wake up every morning, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, play, perhaps even meditate, eat dinner, relax a bit, go to bed, wake up . . . and around it goes. Consider the growing mass of humanity and life forms on this small planet. One small planet revolving around a medium sized sun, in one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies.
What does this immensity mean for our lives? Are our lives leading onward in any way? When our faith in the process of deepening wisdom is strong, every aspect of our lives is part of a meaningful context. In every situation, in every moment, we can ask ourselves, “Are we awake to this moment? Are we present or not? Is there suffering? What is its cause, and what is its end?” These are not theoretical questions. They are the heart of the practice, the meaning of our lives.