Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Tara Brach’s book True Refuge and explore the theme of Chapter Four: “Three Gateways to Refuge.”
Tara describes “truth,” “love,” and “awareness” as three archetypal gateways or refuges on the universal path of awakening: The first gateway of truth refers to the reality of each present moment and to taking refuge in the dharma. In the Pali language, dharma has a variety of meanings: “the way,” or “the nature of things” or “the teachings.”
We can take refuge in truth through meditation practice, through ethical behavior, and through accepting courageously the reality of our experience. Regular meditation develops a relaxed and attentive mind, which allows us to see the truth of who we are. Ethical living implies cherishing and preserving life, acting generously and compassionately, caring for our bodies and minds, and being conscious and respectful in relationships. When we follow the Buddha’s five main precepts (to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, misusing intoxicants, and causing harm through sexual activity), we cultivate inner peace and live in harmony with life as it unfolds naturally. With an ethical foundation, it’s easier to accept the reality of even very difficult experiences.
Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, has written an inspirational book called Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. He documents his wrenching experiences as the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in the poorest barrio of Los Angeles, where members of more than 800 gangs from all over the country come to seek employment, tattoo removal, mental health counseling, case management, and legal services.
In 1987, Gregory was pastor of Delores Mission Church, which provided sanctuary for undocumented immigrants from Central America, who were desperate for work. Because so many men stayed overnight in the pews, the congregation began to complain about a sweaty odor in the church. One Sunday Pastor Boyle decided to confront the truth of the situation in his homily: He begins, “What’s the church smell like?” Old Don Rafael booms out, “Huele a patas” (Smells like feet). “Excellent, but why does it smell like feet?” “Cuz many homeless men slept here last night,” says a woman. “Well why do we let that happen here?” “Es nuestro compromiso.” (It’s what we’ve committed to do) says another. “Well, why would we commit to do that?” “Porque es lo que haría Jesus. (It’s what Jesus would do.) “Well then…what’s the church smell like now?” A man stands up and bellows, “Huele a nuestro compromiso.” (It smells like commitment.) The place cheers. Guadalupe waves her arms wildly, “Huele a rosas.” (It smells like roses.) The packed church roars with laughter and a newfound kinship…. The stink in the church hadn’t changed, only how the folks saw it.
They accepted the reality of the smelly church as part of the larger truth of their ethical principles and of their shared compassionate mission.
The second gateway of love refers to a sense of connection or unity with life and to taking refuge in the sangha or conscious community of spiritual friends. In our sangha here, we share a particular set of values and practices that serve our spiritual awakening. We welcome people from many religious traditions and from secular backgrounds. Most of us find it easier to concentrate during meditation when we’re surrounded by a friendly community of meditators who are focusing on the same practice. Belonging to a circle of spiritual friends helps us to transcend the trance of separation and to recognize the awareness that shines through every being.
Gregory Boyle writes eloquently about love: “Gangs are bastions of conditional love—one false move, and you find yourself outside. Slights are remembered, errors in judgment held against you forever….Homeboy Industries seeks to be a community of unconditional love. Community will always trump gang any day.” Gregory quotes Derek Walcott: “Either I’m a nobody or I am a nation,” and says, “Homies who used to work at Homeboy always return on their days off or on their lunch break.” One visiting homie told Gregory, “I just came by to get my fix.” Asked “Of what?” he replied, “Love.” Father Boyle concludes, “Everyone is just looking to be told that who they are is right and true and wholly acceptable. No need to tinker and tweak. Exactly right.”
The third gateway of awareness refers to the silent wakefulness underlying all experience and to taking refuge in the Buddha or in our own essential pure nature. When her meditation students become discouraged, Pema Chödrön tells them, “You are the sky. Everything else is just weather.” You may have benefited from being with a wise and caring person like Pema, who motivates you to realize your full potential.
When I met my principle meditation teacher Jack Kornfield on a retreat in 1988, I recognized him immediately as a mentor who embodies qualities of awareness, wisdom, and compassion that inspire me and that remind me to foster those same qualities within myself. I gratefully acknowledge Jack’s pivotal role in my devotion to the dharma path, just as he often expresses gratitude for the teachings of his own spiritual mentors. It’s an honor to follow the footsteps of teachers who trace their lineage back to the Buddha. Motivated by the example of “the awakened one,” we’re practicing meditation to discover the space and wakefulness of our own mind.
Tara notes that, “Beyond any meditation technique, it is remembering what matters most to us that awakens and frees our spirit.” As a way to connect with deep aspirations that underlie any immediate wants and fears, I’ll lead you through an adapted version of the guided reflection that closes Chapter Four:
Find a comfortable, relaxed way of sitting. Notice the state of your heart. Is there a sense of openness or tightness? Of peace or anxiety? Of contentment or dissatisfaction? If there is a particular concern in your life or a strong emotion that is surfacing, let it express itself. Whatever arises, allow it to be there, and ask yourself, “If I got what I wanted, what would that really give me?”
Continue to inquire, “What does my heart really long for?” It can also be helpful to ask, “What matters most in this life?” Or, “If I were at the end of my life, looking back, what would be most important about how I lived today?” Sense that you’re directing these questions directly to your heart.
After asking, simply listen and be aware of any words, images or feelings that arise. Try to be patient—it can take time for the mind to let go of its habitual ideas and to connect with what is most alive and true. You might repeat several times, “What does my heart long for?” and then listen receptively for what arises. As you listen, stay in touch with feelings in your body, and particularly in your heart.
Your aspiration will probably express itself differently at different times. There is no “right” aspiration. Sometimes you will have an immediate intention that supports your aspiration such as a yearning to express yourself creatively. The point is to attune to what is most true for you in this moment.
Signs of arriving at a clear intention or deep aspiration are a felt sense of sincerity, innocence, energy or flow. You might sense an inner shift that gives you fresh resolution, openness and ease. If there’s no such connection, it’s fine to sit quietly and open to whatever arises naturally.
If you sense what feels like a pure and deep aspiration, connect with your longing in a cellular way, as it expresses itself through your whole body and being. Let your aspiration be the prayer of your awakening heart.