Paul Condon draws on traditional Buddhism and Western psychology to show how the act of taking refuge is available to us in every moment, wherever we are.
“I don’t know what’s going on here, but I love you.”
My grandma Corriene died in January 2018 after suffering from dementia for years. My last visit with her was an awkward, failed attempt to interact. But as I said goodbye, something shifted, and there was an effortless, joyful, simple connection as she said those words: “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I love you.” We resonated for a moment longer, maybe not even for thirty seconds. In my mind, I can still picture her presence and how I felt as she beamed at me with love and curiosity while I put on my winter coat and hat. Years later, I realized that this simple moment of care could be the basis for meditative practice.
To take up the Buddhist path begins with taking refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the accomplished sangha—other people and beings who embody qualities of awakening. In Buddhist cultures, taking refuge in Buddhist figures, lineage teachers, ancestors, and sangha provides a communal basis of support for meditation, which empowers practitioners in the challenging task of extending unconditional care to others with increasing unconditionality amidst the inherent difficulties of practice and life. In modern cultures, however, refuge in these communal sources of support can be more fraught—to ask a Western practitioner to take refuge can pose challenges due to prior traumas with family, communities, institutions, or difficulty connecting with religious icons from another culture.
Dialogue between Buddhism and modern psychology reveals a fresh way that practitioners can immediately access the benefit of refuge—to experience ourselves within a field of care and to be seen in our deepest potential, beyond our ordinary conceptual impediments. The objects of refuge mirror the enlightened potential in us, which helps draw out our capacity to extend care to others with more inclusivity, sustainability, and unconditionality. Concepts from Western psychology help reveal that sources of refuge have been presenting themselves throughout our lives, in many small moments. These moments can be drawn on as communal support for meditation—even in the absence of an in-person, flesh-and-bones community.
Grit and Willpower Are Not Enough
Like many people in the modern world, I first learned meditation by reading a book and attempting a daily practice, on my own, with the occasional support of recorded meditations. I conceived of meditation, without knowing it, as my own autonomous, self-help project. The other elements surrounding meditation—prayers, chanting, sacred art, and group meals—were nice, but in my mind, the most important focus was my effort to sit for long stretches of time.
I struggled my way through weekend retreats. Though I left with a feeling of spaciousness, each retreat included days of wrestling with difficult thoughts and emotions before any ease came. That seemed to me the essence of practice: with grit and perseverance, allow thoughts to exhaust themselves until a feeling of spaciousness dawned. Success seemingly came as the hours and days increased in my meditation app. But I continued to struggle, and I later came to see my limited understanding of meditation as part of my cultural conditioning as a citizen of the modern world.
Recent historical scholarship has revealed how Western meditation practices were adapted from communal forms of traditional practice into individualistic forms that reflect Western ways of thinking. In modern Western cultures, people tend to think of themselves as individuals that exist prior to any relation to others—as atomistic selves who choose whether or not to enter into any relationship or community, as David McMahan states in The Making of Buddhist Modernism. In contrast, people in premodern and Asian contemplative cultures have understood persons to be constituted by their relations to others within communities. For traditional Buddhist communities, a practitioner’s orientation to meditation focuses not just on efforts by oneself to generate qualities of care, equanimity, and so forth. Rather, they envision a field of refuge that includes buddhas, bodhisattvas, teachers, and other inspiring figures who bless and sustain them and their world within qualities of love, compassion, and wisdom. In this way, the person taking refuge learns to become an extension of that field of refuge by progressively extending the same qualities of love and compassion to others, to become a refuge for them.
There are many vivid examples of practices throughout Buddhist traditions that express a communal basis of support for meditation. The Buddha’s words in the Vatthupama Sutta (“The Simile of the Cloth”), for example, invoke the extension of love for all beings: “He [the bhikkhu] abides pervading one cardinal direction with a mind imbued with loving-care, likewise the second, the third, an the fourth: so above, below, around, and everywhere, and to all as to himself, he abides pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-care, abundant, exalted, immeasurable.” By reading these words, we can implicitly experience ourselves as recipients of the Buddha’s love and that of his followers, who have taken up practices of all-inclusive love before us. Buddhanusmrti and sanghanusmrti, the practices of recollection of the Buddha and sangha, involve bringing attention to the enlightened qualities embodied by the Buddha and the accomplished sangha. To imagine these qualities is to experience oneself as blessed and supported by the qualities of their practice.
In Mahayana scriptures, these practices are extended to an experience in which buddhas and bodhisattvas gaze into the meditator’s enlightened potential and into the destructive thoughts and reactions that obscure it. These powerful figures serve as models for practition-ers to take up the bodhisattva vow, as in Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara: “Just as all the Buddhas of the past have brought forth the awakened mind…Likewise, for the benefit of beings, I will bring to birth the awakened mind.” In Vajrayana traditions, a teacher’s job is to see into and resonate with students’ enlightened potential, empowering them to transcend their reductive impressions of themselves and others by joining in the deeper seeing by which they are seen (dag snang, pure perception). In his authoritative manual Moonbeams of Mahamudra, the Tibetan scholar and teacher Dakpo Tashi Namgyal repeatedly invokes teachers and holy beings as support for calm abiding (shamatha) and insight (vipashyana): “Rely upon spiritual mentors who have unerring knowledge…and who have shamatha and vipashyana realizations.” In this way, refuge is not only a starting point but also the basis for the deepest level of insight into the nature of our mind.
Concepts from Western psychology reveal that sources of refuge present themselves throughout our lives, in many small moments. These can be drawn on as support for meditation—even in the absence of an in-person, flesh-and-bones community.
These practices illustrate that there is an enlightened dimension to each of us. By calling to mind others who have actualized the enlightened dimension of their awareness, their qualities act upon our own enlightened nature, mirroring that dimension within us, even in the absence of their physical bodies. To keep our attention at that level is the key to the process of awakening—to recognize that a level of communication between beings is happening, and to become more receptive to it. By calling upon spiritual ancestors or other such benefactors, we learn to join them in relating to others in their awakened nature, rather than identifying with our superficial reactions to others as the final reality. This can empower us to relate to the buddhanature in others and in turn build a retinue of connectivity—a sangha—that supports further practice. This type of communication and connectivity has been happening since the beginning of Buddhism. With this foundation in place, meditation can reach much greater depth compared with an attempt to generate love and compassion as if on one’s own, from scratch.
Refuge and devotional practices pose clear challenges for modern Western culture. The rise of modernity has centered on increasing individualism and a growing mistrust in society, institutions, and family. The shift toward privatized religion leaves individuals free to adapt and make use of any element of a tradition they so choose. Yet the very notion of individuals engaging in meditation practice to strengthen capacities of love, wisdom, and compassion through their own willpower and grit can ironically reinforce that which Buddhism has always aimed to transcend: attachment to an autonomous, enduring self. Without the practice of refuge, we miss the experience of being seen through the eyes of our spiritual lineage—of being known through their embodied wisdom and compassion.
How can refuge and devotion be recovered for practitioners in the modern world? One avenue of support comes from the concepts and research findings of modern psychological science, which can help us experience patterns of traditional practice from Asian Buddhist cultures.
The Science Behind Refuge
In 2013, I attended the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute at the Garrison Institute, along the Hudson River in New York. The event featured a rich dialogue between contemplative scholars, practitioners, and scientists, and time for meditation practice with well-regarded teachers. One of the teachers was John Makransky, a professor of Buddhist studies and a lama in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
John’s scholarship and teaching has focused on adapting devotional and refuge practices for modern practitioners. Importantly, his teaching illustrates that the essence of ritual and devotional practices can be immediately accessed by anyone through the qualities of love and wisdom evoked by simple moments of caring connection.
During his teaching, John asked us to recall and reinhabit a simple moment of caring connection, so as to experience its unconditional felt sense of love and care, of being seen in our deepest worth and potential. I thought of college professors who inspired me and moments from childhood when an uncle took joy in my presence. It dawned on me that John’s work directly paralleled lessons from attachment theory, one of the most influential perspectives within developmental and social psychology.
Attachment theory suggests that for better or worse, the care we receive as infants stays with us and impacts how we see the world and how we care for others. Ideally, attachment figures serve as a secure base from which children branch out and explore the world, and they serve as a safe haven to return to in times of need or distress—just as the three jewels of the Buddha, the dharma, and the accomplished sangha have served as a safe haven from samsara and the mental afflictions for generations of Buddhists before us.
A secure attachment style emerges when infants experience sensitive and consistent care, establishing the feeling that the self is worthy of care. An insecure attachment style, such as an avoidant pattern, dismisses the need for care because a person has come to believe that they will not regularly receive care. Attachment patterns accrue throughout our lives from all kinds of relationship experiences. These experiences get imprinted in the mind, like attachment karma, and influence how we perceive moments of caring connection.
Research also shows that our attachment patterns are not locked in. By calling to mind simple moments of caring connection, we can temporarily increase feelings of security. Researchers call this “attachment priming.” Makransky’s meditations provide a way to recover the spirit of refuge and devotion by integrating attachment priming into meditative practice.
The last moment with my grandma is one such moment that is particularly vivid, but there are many more such moments that I’ve been able to recover through repeatedly engaging the caring moment practice: students laughing at my jokes, holding my newborn daughter at night before she fell asleep, simple gestures of kindness from other practitioners on retreat, feeling the warmth of the sunshine, and so on. These moments can be revisited within meditation to evoke qualities of care and draw out an inner feeling of security. Devotion and refuge practices have served that very purpose—to offer a place of security and protection in which our difficult emotions can unwind and reveal their own enlightened potential right from within, and to empower the capacity to be present to others’ suffering and offer a healing presence.
Because of “selective attention,” many of us are conditioned to dismiss moments of care. A famous study explains why. In that study, people were asked to count the number of times that a basketball was passed between players on one team. During the video, a person wearing a gorilla outfit walks through the middle of the court, waves at the screen, and leaves. In some versions of the study, up to 50 percent of people do not notice the gorilla. A similar finding showed that radiologists failed to detect an image of a gorilla superimposed onto CT scans of a pair of lungs. We are conditioned to see things in our environment based on our goals. For those of us growing up in a capitalist, modern society, with our attention centered on economic and competitive strivings, we might fail to notice simple moments of care.
The invisible gorilla effect also makes sense within the scope of attachment theory. Because of accumulated moments of insensitive or nonresponsive care, we have been conditioned to dismiss or ignore many genuine moments of care. The dismissal of care is a survival script we have learned as an attempt to control our environment and to protect us from the vulnerability inherent in opening up to care. Unfortunately, these scripts interfere with our ability to relax and let go into the enlightened dimension of our deepest nature—the unity of empty cognizance, self-aware wakefulness, and compassionate capacity. We prefer to cling to those familiar scripts instead.
A new practice, then, is to learn to become more receptive to moments of care, noticing the felt qualities that come with those moments, and to allow our hearts and minds to be infused with those qualities. Over time and through repetition, this can help us discover that qualities of love, care, and wisdom are immediately accessible from within the mind and heart. At first, a particular caring moment may not immediately come to mind. But if we continue to practice in this way, we can recall many such moments, and in essence, rediscover our life and experience our world and others as expressions of buddhahood. One day in meditation, after practicing this way for seven years, I recalled saying goodbye to my Japanese host family after a cultural exchange program. It was a joy to reconnect with that moment. By paying attention to simple moments of caring connection in our own life, we can populate our own field of care analogous to the fields of buddhas and bodhisattvas that Buddhists have always relied on.
Caring Moments Are Grounded In the Body
The caring moment practice imparts an important lesson that is further revealed by dialogue with cognitive science: the presence of those who have passed before us remains accessible at any moment, and they can continue to empower our capacities for care. Consider this reflection from Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, a twentieth-century teacher, who speaks of the blessing of calling to mind Longchenpa, a thirteenth-century teacher:
By seeing his representation in form, by hearing his speech, and by remembering him, we can receive the blessing that will bring about the realization of the ultimate meaning of Dzogpa chenpo, which pervades all beings in samsara and nirvana, and so he is never separate from us. All we need to do is to open our hearts in genuine devotion, and his blessing is immediate and utterly within our reach. By praying to Longchenpa, we can awaken the intrinsic, or absolute Longchenpa within us, the wisdom of our own rigpa, present within the nature of our mind.
—Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems
This may at first feel foreign, but concepts from psychology can enhance our ability to relate to Nyoshul Khenpo’s devotion to Longchenpa. Theories of embodied cognition suggest that when we imagine the presence of teachers, bodhisattvas, or the experience of caring moments, we are simulating those experiences throughout the body’s systems—including perceptual, motor, affective, and visual systems. Imagining these figures is not merely an aspirational practice; it is a doorway to embody such qualities in our heart, body, and mind.
Simulating memories of caring moments produces patterns in the body and brain similar to when that moment happened in the past. This process allows us to re-embody moments of care in the present. If we have a felt connection with someone like Longchenpa, as Nyoshul Khenpo does, we can connect with his presence simply by imagining him and by reading his words. Or we can call to mind moments from our own life that evoke a felt quality of care. By collecting caring moments from our own life, we can begin to catch on to the embodied feeling that parallels Nyoshul Khenpo’s recollection of Longchenpa or other spiritual ancestors.
Simple moments of caring connection from our own life—with benefactors, ancestors, strangers, pets, and the natural world—have already been imprinted in the body, and by imagining them again, we are reconnecting with them with the body. By scouring our life for benefactors and caring moments, we can populate a field of refuge with our lived caring moments and benefactors, experiencing our fellow beings as expressions of buddhahood and as an ongoing communal support for practice, even when separated over space and time. This kind of practice can also serve as a doorway to better connect with traditional imagery within refuge practice—combining caring moments and benefactors from our life with the icons and figures from traditional Buddhist cultures.
The Ultimate Refuge Within Our Mind
During summer 2020, I came to rely on a nearby pond for refuge while raising my one-year-old daughter in the middle of the pandemic. The pond and its inhabitants—ducks, frogs, a great blue heron—had become a field of care for us. Each time we arrived at the pond, Lena rejoiced as she pointed and called out to the ducks. I felt nourished by the peace, simplicity, and beauty of this spot, and by the bond that we formed through the pond.
At the end of the summer, a fire started in our neighborhood and ravaged through nearby towns, destroying over two thousand homes and businesses. After evacuating for one night, I came home and visited the pond. Amidst the stress and collective trauma for our community, I felt grief over the destruction to the natural landscape.
Later that week, I relied on the pond within meditation. Visual-izing the pond, ducks, and frogs, while being there with Lena, brought an unwavering feeling of simplicity and comfort that was indestructible and untouched by the fires. Although access to the pond in relative reality was not available in that moment, the qualities that it evoked remained immediately accessible, simply by calling it to mind. The refuge of the pond felt stronger than ever before, because the qualities that it evoked were not dependent on something external.
The experience with the pond reveals an important lesson: we can cling to the things in our life that evoke feelings of happiness, peace, and so on, trying to preserve and hold onto them. Or we can allow these experiences to mirror our enlightened nature back to us, and learn, as Buddhist cultures have before us, to become more receptive to it.
By calling to mind a place like the pond, an inspiring figure like Longchenpa, moments of deep practice with other practitioners, or any caring moment, we can resonate with the qualities they embody and reunify with our basic nature. Although Nyoshul Khenpo did not meet Longchenpa in relative reality, they are undivided at the level of ultimate reality, in the nature of mind. Likewise, despite the challenges of physical isolation because of the pandemic, we remain connected with our spiritual benefactors, ancestors, brothers, and sisters at the level of nature of mind. This is a sangha we can always come back to.