A native of Wales, Ayya Anandabodhi has been a Buddhist monastic for 30 years. In 2009, she moved to the US with a wish to create more opportunities for women monastics. She co-developed Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery in Placerville, CA—the ancestral land of the Nisenan and Miwok people.
The Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery will be coming to a close at the end of 2022, as each of the monastics find situations that support their practice and teaching without the workload of taking care of a large property. Ayya Anandabodhi will be going on a long-awaited sabbatical in 2023 following the closing of the Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery. To learn more or to get in touch, click here.
The following has been adapted from the first day of Ayya Anandabodhi’s online program, Refuge: A Monastic-Led Weekend Retreat. For a full list of IMS’s online programs, click here.
We human beings have always had the tendency to go through different disruptions and then find some equilibrium until another disruption arises. This is the nature of being human. We live in a time when there is a fair amount of instability. Although this is always true, we’re probably much more aware of it here in the US and in many other countries across the world at this time.
What does it mean to take refuge?
The Buddha is pointing to the ever-changing nature of things—that everything in this world is changing all the time. It is unstable, in a state of flux. What we take to be “me” and “mine” is also in a state of flux. So where do we find stability in the midst of change? This is the important question.
We want things to last. We want a sense of security. So, we hold on to various things along the way. And, inevitably, we have to keep letting go again and again. And truly, we’ve been having to let go since we left the womb. As we grew and changed and discovered the world, and as the world around us changed, we’ve had to keep on letting go. And yet—interestingly enough—we keep on holding on.
The Buddha is pointing to a place of peace, a place of refuge. But it’s not a place that we can go to. Sometimes people talk about nibbāna or nirvana as some wonderful place that we can go to. And when we get to nirvana, then we’re going to be peaceful, as if we leave this body and float off to some other nice place, and that’s going to be our peaceful nirvana. But that’s not the way it works. The Buddha is pointing to finding peace and stability right here in the midst of this ever-changing life and this ever-changing world.
How do we do that? We come right back to the present. Our practice is essential in training our attention to be in the present. Learning how to rest back into this moment. When we were tiny babies, we were wide open, taking in everything we experienced. Over time, through necessity, we learned to filter our experiences and we learned to distract, to dissociate, get into planning for the future and reflecting on the past. This is just how we evolve as human beings. And all these things have their uses at times. But this practice of awakening is a training to bring our attention right back to what is happening here and now.
There are times when our attention is naturally very present, and probably a fair bit of time when it’s not very present—when we’re daydreaming or getting a bit obsessed about the future or ruminating about the past or being lost in the senses. These are times when we’re not really present, we’ve fallen into something, and we lose ourselves for a while and then we come back to presence.
The present is the place of refuge. It’s not conditional. We’re not saying, “I’ll be present if/when things are nice. I’ll be present when I’m comfortable. I’ll be present when people are kind to me. I’ll be present when it’s not too hot or too cold. I’ll be present when I don’t have any pain or when there’s nothing to worry about in the future.” It doesn’t work like that.
The invitation is to bring presence to each moment, frequently paying careful attention. The Buddha’s refrain that comes up again and again in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the four establishments of awareness, are “frequently paying careful attention.” And so, we’re learning to frequently pay careful attention to what is happening to our experience, to this body, to the feeling tones that arise and pass away. We’re paying attention to that—knowing the causes and conditions, knowing it and letting it be that way, knowing that it will change. These are all establishments for awareness. And it’s the awareness itself that gives us a place of refuge.
What are we taking refuge from?
The Buddha is pointing to taking refuge from the endless wandering of samsara. You could also call it wandering in circles, going around and around, doing the same things over and over again. It’s funny how we do that. We know that if we follow that road, it’s going to give us a little temporary satisfaction and then that satisfaction is going to be gone and we’re going to be looking for some peace again. We know this, yet we do it again and again.
I think of that as taking wrong refuge. For example, we may take refuge in a nice meal or in a moment of comfort or in distraction like browsing the internet and then we find ourselves somewhere we didn’t intend to be. Why does that happen? Because there’s a sort of release or relaxation that temporarily happens through wandering. And so, we wander.
And yet the simple act of paying attention to what is and learning how to make space around whatever is arising—that is the place of freedom. It’s the place that gives us freedom from this endless reaching out to something and moving away from something else.
If we could create a life that was only pleasant, then it would make sense. But the reality of life is that there is pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, gain and loss, being appreciated and being rejected. This is how life is; this is the nature of life. And yet we keep looking for just the nice half, and we want to push away the other half. But it just doesn’t work like that.
The Buddha is pointing to this very simple truth, and it’s a truth that we don’t really want to hear. No matter how much we try to get away from unpleasant feeling, it arises all the same. And if we think it shouldn’t, then we create more difficulty on top. The Buddha is pointing to making more space in the heart and mind to meet things as they are. Look here—this is where you can change the world. This is where you can transform the experience of the world. You can’t change very much out there. We can do some things, but the world is not going to turn out the way we think it should because there are other people who think it should be different and they are working on that too. So, it will never end up being a perfect world.
Can we find room in our hearts—through the practice—to make space for the way things are? And to respond with clarity, openness, patience, kindness, appreciation, and letting go? When we cultivate those wholesome qualities, we meet the world differently and we show up in the world differently. We find that, just being here, abiding here in this body and mind, can in itself be a place of refuge.
Why is it so hard to be here?
The Buddha talks about three kinds of craving, or taṇhā. The craving for what is pleasant and delightful, the craving of becoming—thinking about the future, a strong sense of who I am, who I’m going to be, what I’m going to become, and what people are going to think about me. It’s a projection of oneself into the future. And finally, there’s the craving to not exist, the craving to get away from the craving, to just stay under the covers, and not to have to look out.
The Buddha talks about how these three kinds of craving keep us stuck, caught in endless wandering on this wheel of samsara. And the remedy to this is sati, presence. And part of presence or sati—awareness—is making room for the whole gamut—difficult emotions as well as great joy. Making space for a painful knee or a delicious meal—making space for it, but not clinging to it. Not clinging to the pain, not clinging to the delicious flavors, but enjoying them in the moment and letting them go. Feeling the painful feeling in the moment, and knowing that right now, it’s like this. It’s about receiving and letting go.
It’s easy to say this and yet it takes practice to really live it—receiving and letting go. When we can do that, resting into the present, resting back into things as they are, there is a natural wisdom to it. Sometimes we think if we’re not pushing and pulling, negotiating and controlling, we’re just going to be like a rag doll or a doormat. People are going to take advantage of us. But that’s not the way it works. Because there is a natural wisdom that arises and the more we bring our attention into the present, the more this natural wisdom grows, and that natural wisdom knows how to respond to life.
Ignorance is always telling the story that if you don’t control things, it’s all going to be terrible. “I’ve got to make it the way it should be.” That’s the voice of ignorance. Wisdom doesn’t have to worry about this because wisdom knows how to arise and respond in the moment. It takes time and practice for this wisdom to become stable. It’s not a quick and easy job. One has to have a certain commitment to the practice and a certain amount of faith that it will transform your life.
Over time, as we practice and find a greater stability in awareness and clear out a lot of the clutter in our hearts and minds—the old difficulties that we’re carrying around with us––the stories that we’re not good enough, that we don’t belong, that there’s something wrong with us––when we learn to let go of those stories and those feelings and the clutter that we’ve accumulated inside—then we find the place of stability and safety right here.
It’s a safety that allows us to rest into this body, this mind, this moment, this situation. And however that is, we allow it and we’re fully with it. The feeling washes through like an ocean wave. And then it passes. There’s safety in that—if we have awareness. We’re not overwhelmed, or we are overwhelmed but we know that, and we’re with it through every moment, until it passes. We don’t have to distract ourselves or create something more exciting or interesting. We can just be here in this very ordinary moment.
We find this place of refuge and awareness in the truth of the way things are—that everything is changing—everything arises and passes away.