Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 22

Persons who enter Amida's directing of virtue to beings
And realise the mind that seeks to attain Buddhahood
Completely abandon their self-power directing of merit,
Thus benefitting sentient beings boundlessly.

Going for Refuge

When Shakyamuni attained enlightenment he sat for seven days contemplating the dharma. He was approached during this time by various people, including a brahmin and, later, two merchants who were passing by. Eventually, however, he began to think what he should do, having become enlightened. Initially he was concerned that few would understand his teaching but, on further consideration, it became clear to him that there would be some people who would be receptive to his insights and were ready to hear the dharma.

Upon walking down from his repose under the Bodhi tree and moving on to the Deer Park at Isipatana, Shakyamuni encountered the five recluses, with whom he had worked in pursuing nirvana, before the time that he discovered the Middle Way that is neither self-indulgent nor the way of asceticism. To these five men he explained his experience and the discoveries that he had made during his time alone. Although the five home-leavers were initially doubtful, they were eventually convinced. It was Shakyamuni's demeanour - his evident serenity and wisdom - that convinced them. Receptive at last, they heard Shakyamuni's first discourse on the dharma, which was the Dharma-Cakra Pravartana Sutra (The Sutra that Sets the Dharma Wheel in Motion).

Initially, only one of the Buddha's hearers was moved to take refuge in the Buddha and the dharma but eventually the other four home-leavers followed suit as well. Once they were convinced that the Buddha Dharma was the way that they could follow to nirvana and transcendence (freedom, Sk. moksha) they became the first people to 'go for refuge' (Sk. sarana) to the Buddha and the dharma. They, themselves, soon made up the third element of the Tri-ratna, the Triple Gem, which is the sangha - the community that is wholly dedicated to the practice and teaching of dharma.

How wonderful and replete with significance is the word 'sarana' - refuge. Two and a half thousand years have passed and we still say these words every day:

Buddham saranam gacchami;
Dhammam saranam gacchami;
Sangham saranam gacchami.

Since the time that those first disciples took refuge in the Buddha and the dharma, countless millions of men and women have followed suit; men and women who have thrived in places as diverse as the rugged hills of northern Afghanistan, the dry and freezing plains of Tibet, the deserts of the places that are now known as Uzbekistan, the jungles of the Deccan, the emerald isle of Sri Lanka, the vast and varied stretches of Vietnam, China, Mongolia and Korea, the hot and humid world of south-east Asia - as far east as Java - and, of course, the 'far-off islands' of Japan.

Sarana, taking refuge, reveals the true nature of the Buddha Dharma. It is full of meaning and reminds us of such blissful experiences as finding rest and respite from the blazing sun and scorching heat of the day in the deep shade of a large tree, or fleeing from hail and thunder into the shelter of a verandah or a warm and friendly home. Sarana tells us of the safety, coolness, calm and certainty that the beckoning dharma promises. It is a rock in the floating world; truth in a sea of illusion; joy amid the vicissitudes of life; and a lighthouse for a dark and stormy night. Society uses the term 'refuge' in exactly the way that we can understand it in relation to the dharma. There are 'refuges' for tram passengers in the middle of busy roads at tram-stops, where they can be safe from the raging traffic; refuges for women who are fleeing cruel and ruthless lives of abuse - and so on. A person seeking safety and respite from uncertainty, fear and abuse is a 'refugee'.

When it comes the the Buddha Dharma, we are all refugees. The interesting thing about being a refugee is that it often seems - at first sight - to be a self-determined assignation. Sometimes life becomes difficult for people who do not want to participate in something that society expects them to do. They may not want to fight in a war, change their religion, get married, participate in some kind of indoctrination - or any number of other things that may bring down upon them the wrath of the privileged, powerful or the majority. In a country like Australia, you can, of course, become a pariah by dissenting or not wanting to conform to the prejudices and expectations of your peers or fellow citizens, but in other places people may face far more serious consequences; they may risk torture and other kinds of painful physical humiliations - or threats, incarceration or even death - just for dissenting in one way or another.

Sarana, then, is 'going for refuge' on the part of a refugee, one who is seeking safety and calm in the midst of oppression; one for whom any alternative may even mean death. Going for refuge is not for everyone, just as only a small number of people become refugees in the worldly sense - because they 'do not fit in'. Indeed, it seems to me, that those, who go for refuge to the Buddha Dharma, are people who wake up to the fact, one day, that their lives are utterly bereft of any significance - that, even though they may be wealthy and comfortable, life is profoundly unsatisfactory. Such people come face to face with the immovable force of decay.

Only a few people will allow themselves to admit to such a stark experience and the discovery that everything is really rather bleak. There can be many catalysts that induce such realisations, for example, fleeing from painful religious dogmas, despotic or dysfunctional families or communities, losing a loved one - or one's job or home - becoming ill, suffering from the result of some kind of accident, or finding that a comforting belief that one once cherished is suddenly devoid of any real substance. For people who do find themselves in a bleak dilemma the Buddha Dharma is a truly sweet and blissful refuge. It is shade from the heat, light in darkness, cool water for a parched and thirsty traveller.

The Buddha Dharma suggests itself in its own terms as a refuge from 'the ninety-five wrong views'. These are mainly oppressive or dangerous religious teachings and philosophies. The Dharma is a balm, because it comes to be known as trustworthy, joyful and true. So we set out as refugees in our newly-found refuge and we take up the teachings and endevour in the practice. Of those who set out in this way, there are some who come to a final and intractable obstacle.

Hermann Hesse in his enchanting novel Siddhartha describes - in the life of his hero - the very same thing that Shinran Shonin discusses in this verse. Siddhartha initially takes up the dharma and assiduously follows it for a while. However, more than anything, it gradually serves to throw light upon one contumacious fact that repeatdly gets in the way of further progress for him.

We can be refugees from any number of oppressive things, whether people, things or ideas. It is clearly sensible to seek refuge from all that bullies us. Yet the most painful and difficult discovery we must make is that the eternally resistant source of oppression in the long run is ourselves. If our salvation depends on the accrual of merit, how then is it possible for merit to be created by an existence that is driven by desire, aversion and ignorance - the basis of the karma that keeps us bound to samsara. In the age of Mappo, when we look inside and around us, greed, anger and delusion are ubiquitous; they form the basis of the economic and social order, which is our natural home. We are at once enslaved by them and wish to be free of them. Although it was possible to transcend such organic limitations in the age of true dharma, in our time even goodness has been corrupted by our afflicting passions (bonno, Sk kleshas).

Mahayana philosophy and practice is built upon the transfer of merit (eko, Sk. parinama) but how can I transfer merit for the good of others when everything I do is tainted by greed, anger and delusion? We have no option but to turn away from ourselves to the wisdom that fills all things; the pure heart of reality. And, for those who do turn away, everything changes; their outlook and their hearts find a radiant new world. It is the world of kimyo jinjippo mugeko nyorai - going for refuge to the Tathagata of Unhindered Light Filling the Ten Directions. This is to accept the transfer of merit from pure compassion, the infinite life that is free of greed, anger and delusion.

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