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Buddhistdoor View: Seeking Refuge in a Post-COVID World

Mural at Mogao cave no. 428, Dunhuang, China. From
Mural at Mogao cave no. 428, Dunhuang, China. From

It has become almost a cliché to repeat that even when a vaccine arrives—hopefully sometime next year—the world will have been fundamentally altered by a once-in-a-century pandemic that has so far taken the lives of some 1.5 million people, exposed key weaknesses in the global economy, thrown societies into upheaval, and restructured geopolitical alignments. The loss of loved ones to COVID-19, experiencing the virus’s ravages personally, the chaos of the school year for students, and the prolonged but necessary social distancing and self-isolation that has led to increased rates of depression, suicide, and domestic abuse are only some aspects of the anguish that has been visited on families and individuals. Social rituals such as festivals, gatherings, and family events have been disrupted. Many economies have been hurt severely, with people being laid off or having to take pay cuts. International travel has been dealt a catastrophic blow and the airline and tourism industries will need years to recover.

There have been many positive stories emerging from all the bad news. Many of them start with the individual or the local community. Whether it is professionals recommitting to their heart’s calling and vocation rather than simply a lucrative career, or entire fields or industries adapting to a new age of cheaper and less costly collaboration—especially through Zoom and other web platforms—the common thread running through all of these stories is that a certain sense of perspective has been restored or rediscovered.

Old assumptions about work, well-being, and even how societies are structured have been swept away. After all, a microscopic entity that can bring an entire interconnected civilization to its knees is emblematic of a system that is quite brittle and unsustainable, as many ecologists have predicted. While there is inevitably a sense of loss, scholars, journalists, policymakers, and other participants in civic life are asking whether 2020 and beyond might provide opportunities for replacing what has been lost with something better.

In our previous Buddhistdoor View, we looked at the concept of heroic effort (virya), and how we can take on the roles of heroes simply by assuming the civic responsibilities expected of us in a global pandemic. Sensei Alex Kakuyo advises that surrender is a beautiful concept to bring into a protracted global crisis that is prompting or prolonging personal ones: “We just need to let go of the things we can’t control and realize that we can feel joy in the midst of pain.” In another editorial, we looked at how bringing uncertainty and the acceptance of constant flux and change into our daily lives can be helpful and enlightening.

But what about that which makes us feel grounded and secure? While we can accept  impermanence, we cannot live life well as nihilists or cynics. Furthermore, the acceptance of constant flux does not mean disbelief in the transcendental. The Buddha foresaw this and offered the taking of refuge in the Triple Gem as humans’ commitment to something meaningful and lasting.

What does taking refuge mean, fundamentally? It consists of a commitment to go to three entities for refuge: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The traditional formulation is as follows: “I go to the Buddha for refuge, I go to the Dharma for refuge, I go to the Sangha for refuge.” This is repeated three times in traditional liturgical rituals, and is also the key phrase in any lay initiation into the Buddhist order. The fifth century Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa wrote in his commentary on the Bhayabherava Sutta (MN: 4):

‘I go for refuge to the Lord Gotama’ (bhavanta.m Gotama.m gacchaami). This means: The Lord Gotama is my refuge and my guiding ideal. . . . This last explanation is based upon the fact that in the Pali language, the verbal roots denoting ‘going’ (gati) may also have the meaning of knowing (buddhi). Therefore the words ‘I go for refuge to the Buddha’ may also be taken to express the idea: ‘I know and understand him to be the refuge.’ . . . Accordingly, the Dhamma (meant in the formula of refuge) is the (supramundane) Noble Path as well as Nibbana. . . . the Sangha (meant in the formula of refuge) is the group of the eight noble beings (ariya-puggala: those in possession of 1) the path of stream-entry, 2) the fruition thereof, etc.). (Access to Insight)

Buddhaghosa further splits the going for refuge into the supramundane and the mundane. The supramundane provides the transcendental grounding for the refuge-taking’s purpose: Nirvana itself. But it is in the mundane refuge, for worldlings, that we see how applicable refuge-taking is for our COVID or post-COVID world:

To the Exalted One I am giving my self, to the Dhamma I am giving my self, to the Sangha I am giving my self. I am giving them my life! Given is my self, given my life! Until my life ends, I am taking refuge in the Buddha! The Buddha is my refuge, my shelter and my protection. (Access to Insight)

The onslaught of COVID-19 heralded what could be called a deconstruction of already shaky projections about how our world is and what it ideally should be. This reflects our own attachment to that most fundamental yet intuitive of delusions, the non-existent self. The taking of refuge grounds us in a true and lasting home that is not simply a roof over our heads, a conventional house, or even a social circle or typical family. It also simultaneously liberates us from the self that feels all these difficulties amidst the pandemic: alienation, loneliness, fear, stress, and much more—by giving the Triple Gem one’s self. Through the surrender of the self, true security is attained because the loss of the most fundamental grasping severs all related forms of grasping. Furthermore, the taking of refuge under the Triple Gem allows us to see the hollowness and futility of everything else that we had taken refuge under before COVID-19, and perhaps still cling to today.

This pandemic, like all things, will not last. It is the intensity, the knock-on effects, and the spread that have done much damage, and there will certainly be a period of mourning, especially for those who have lost friends and loved ones. The cliché about a forced, or at least accelerated, change in mindset is at least partially true, however. What is important to remember is that refuge-taking is not running away from the world; quite the opposite. It means staying within the world and simply reorienting one’s perspective toward the truth of reality and the nature of the cosmos. The switch is nothing supernatural, but within the person. It is not simply a route to emotional comfort, though that plays an important part: it is our greatest tool for finding and embodying peace amidst all things, including COVID-19.

Our refuge in the Triple Gem will serve us well far beyond pandemics and other disasters, and take us well into a hopefully brighter future.

See more

The Threefold Refuge (Access to Insight)

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