Friday, December 24, 2010

Refuge Taken

The Winter Solstice Moon pre-eclipse
Tuesday was an auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar, and a most auspicious day for me. At 2:17 AM, a rare event occurred that has not been seen in 372 years: a total lunar eclipse coinciding with the winter solstice. And Tuesday, night Lama Deshek offered Refuge, Lay Precepts and Bodhicitta Vows.(Bodhicitta is the wish to attain enlightenment.) And yes, I took Refuge in the Buddhist vows. This means I've made a formal commitment to conducting myself mindfully with the intention of extending loving compassion to all, and ending suffering and the causes of suffering in others and myself. No lying, or stealing. No killing and no inappropriate sexual conduct. I'm also being more mindful of my drinking, though I didn't take the fifth vow--no intoxicants- just yet. (For a full description of the Vows, see my blog entry entitled appropriately On Taking Buddhist Vows.)
   Growing up Catholic, I lived by the Ten Commandments, and the Buddhist Precepts aren't so different, yet there's a lot to be said for making a commitment to living mindfully. I always thought I was a fairly good person, but after studying Buddhism, I realize I am often thoughtless and selfish, and these action could, potentially, harm others. Thankfully, I've caused more harm to myself than anyone else.
   Don't get me wrong, I think the Big 10 are great, even if the language is a bit antiquated. I memorized them dutifully in grade school and took inventory of my sins when it came time for confession. I imagine priests who hear First Confessions must have to suppress their laughter when the line of angelic second graders cues up for the first time to recant their evils. My biggest offense was under the category of Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother, and later, taking the Name of the Lord in Vain. But whereas the commandments were literally cast in stone, the Buddhist Precepts are much more personalized and up to the practitioner to interpret and uphold. There is no God in Buddhism to absolve you of your sins, so if you transgress, you must make your own atonement. It's sort of like the honor code we had in college, but with next-life consequences instead of a trip to the Dean's office.
   For this reason, taking the Buddhist Vows is serious stuff to me, even though I believe I'm already pretty much living by them. As it was explained to me, when you promise to live by the Buddhist Precepts, you are taking refuge in the Dharma (the teachings of Buddha), and thereby you can sort of relax knowing that those parts of your life are covered—providing, of course, that you uphold the terms of the vows. 
   And I love that sense of refuge, shelter in the storm that is life, and being mindful in all ways of my actions and how they effect me and those around me. Taking refuge concedes that the world is a difficult place in which to live, and I need a safe place to go when things get a little too stressful. I need a place to touch ground, and feel secure, and that's what Buddhist Practice has become for me. I don't know that I will reach true enlightenment in this life—and isn't that a remarkable goal!—but every time I edge a little closer too it, I feel this distinct ding!—like the sound of a new email in my inboxthat validates I'm on the right path.
   On Tuesday, I was headed to my weekly therapy session and my therapist called to say she was doubled-booked and could I come an hour later. I felt that initial wave of disappointment (I really look forward to these weekly sessions, they've become another lifeline for me) and then a feeling of annoyance, since I had arranged my day, and Jack's, so I could be at the appointment on time. But I quickly recovered and said, sure, of course I could come later. I had errands to run, and thankfully, Jack was at a friend's house and a quick call to the parent (thanks Todd) assured me he could stay an hour longer. So instead of fuming and having the change ruin my day, I took some packages to Fed-Ex and then treated myself to lunch. 
   In honor of the auspicious day, I wore a Tibetan-style top that I bought for the Buddhist Temple's "gift shop" (it's a card table offering Dharma books and prayer beads for sale, along  with a rack of cute Free Tibet  t-shirts and mandarin collar tops and the like). A young waitress promptly took my order. She complimented me on my top and asked where I got it. When I told her about the Buddhist Temple she gave me a questioning look. "Sounds like a cool place to shop," she said "Well, yes," I said, kindly. "But it's also a cool place to practice Buddhism and meditate. There's even a real Buddhist monk from Tibet who teaches there." "Oh," she said, genuinely impressed. "I didn't know we had anything like that in Birmingham. So, are you a Buddhist?"  "Yes, well, I practice Buddhism," I said, smiling. "It's a way of living your life, being nice to everyone." "That's cool," she said. "Here's your menu." 
   As she walked away to get my chicken taco salad (and no, I don't have to become a vegetarian now), I felt really happy and contented. It's nice to know where you stand in the world, and to be able to explain your beliefs to a stranger is less than a dozen words. It's also comforting to have convictions—a road map, so to speak—that I can carry with me for the rest of my life. I'm not saying practicing Buddhism will be easy. But taking refuge will help. I practice Buddhism. It's a way of living life, being nice to everyone. What could be better than that?

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