The following is the text of the Dharma talk given by Dharmacharya Laureen Osborne on August 21st 2014 at the Pagoda Sangha in the Church of the Ascension in Ottawa.
Taking Refuge in the Sangha
When we recite the Three Refuges, what do we mean by “taking refuge in the Sangha”?
Think of the Sangha as a sanctuary; a safe place where you will be among friends, a place where you are not judged, a place where our suffering can be shared with people who care about you. We are free to set aside our burdens from daily life and dwell in the present moment.
Many times when we are suffering, we turn away from others – we just want to be “left alone”. Retreating into ourselves becomes a habit but it is a habit that can be broken. Suffering alone is not always the answer. Being stressed, tired, unhappy or “too busy” to take refuge in the Sangha is like refusing a drink of water when you’re dying of thirst!
Think of the reasons you first became interested in this practice: were you looking for meaning in your life, a spiritual element? Maybe like me, you were suffering and unhappy, thinking there must be more to life than just “living”?
The things that brought you to the Sangha are many of the same things as the rest of us. When we sit together in Dharma Sharing, it’s not only an opportunity to learn about the Dharma, its an opportunity to learn from each other; we open our ears and open our hearts and really try to hear what the other person is saying. By practising deep listening, we are already helping the person who is talking – that person could be you!
Sometimes we forget that we ‘Inter-Are’; When someone shares about their practice, and the difficulties in their daily lives, often we can relate to them. Hearing about another’s’ problems and triumphs, not only supports them, but can lead to our own insights – perhaps you have experienced the same problem and now this person has given you something to think about. We come to the realization that we are not alone. We all want the same things in life – to be happy and to enjoy inner peace.
There is no better place to experience compassion, acceptance and understanding than within the Sangha. Please don’t feel your problem is not worth sharing or that its too difficult to express what you are feeling. Someone who is listening will understand completely and you will feel their compassion for you. Another time at Sangha you may get the opportunity to help someone and you will feel your compassion arise for them.
If you’re like me, some weeks you don’t want to come to Sangha; you’re too tired, too stressed out from work, and there are too many other responsibilities for you to spend time away from your family. Something has to give and giving up time spent meditating doesn’t seem like such a big deal –or is it?
Think of the Sangha as a place to re-charge your battery. To refresh. When I come home from Sangha I feel calmer and more peaceful. I remember the welcoming smiles of my friends and it makes me feel good. When I’m away from the Sangha for a few weeks, I start to feel “adrift”, like a small boat in a vast ocean, alone and rudderless.
Sometimes the decision to come to Sangha may lead you to feel guilty – you feel you should be at home helping your family. Please try not to feel this way – by coming to Sangha and practising together you are helping your family: developing your mindfulness practice with the support of others, helps you to become more fully present, more engaged and happier when you are with your loved ones. You become more available to them and helping becomes a joy, not a responsibility.
Your partner and loved ones will begin to notice changes in you as your practice becomes more established – the changes will be positive ones. You may even influence others to consider the practice for themselves.– in time, the weekly sitting meditation and walking meditation, and study will carry over to other parts of your life. This is the Art of Mindful Living and its why we call it a “practice” – together we learn to be more mindful where it really matters – out there in our daily lives.
Allowing yourself the time for mindful reflection can create positive changes. You might begin by asking yourself why it is that you don’t even have two hours a week to spend on your spiritual well-being. Real change is possible but you have to allow yourself the time and space to experience it.
Mindful reflection is the opposite of what we do when we are driving to work, sitting on a bus or behind a desk – that’s daydreaming or escaping. Mindfulness becomes easier the more we practice it. It’s difficult to learn anything when you’re distracted or stressed so we start with sitting meditation. Focusing our attention on our breath helps to improve concentration. Merely following the breath (by its very nature), has a calming effect. Once we have some ability to concentrate and we are calm, mindfulness is there but it can just as easily disappear. That’s when a regular practice comes in handy.
Having a regular practice is important for your well-being. I know sometimes that Sangha day is the only day in the entire week when I meditate– I always sleep better after Sangha. When I meditate at home, its usually only for about ten minutes. I think the longer meditation that we do here allows me to become calmer and has a more lasting effect.
We sometimes talk about the collective “energy” of the Sangha. There is something very special about meditating together as a Sangha. I used to scoff about the so-called “energy” – that is until I experienced it for myself. The almost complete silence of a room full of people is very comforting. Hearing your neighbour gently breathing in and out along with you is very encouraging. It feels like we are “one body”.
Aside from the meditation, coming to Sangha is also an opportunity to hear the Dharma, especially those nights when we recite a Sutra or the Mindfulness Trainings. Everything we practice at Sangha is related to the Noble Eightfold Path.
We have to have faith in the impermanence of all things – even our habit energies and wrong perceptions that have contributed to our suffering are subject to change. By exposing ourselves to the teachings on a regular basis, change begins to occur – this will undoubtedly happen sooner (rather than later) if we practice regularly with a Sangha.
When you listen to a Sutra or participate in a recitation, you experience what Thay calls ‘Dharma Rain’. You don’t need to do anything to benefit from the teachings. You absorb the teachings unconsciously – as long as you are listening “wholeheartedly” which means mindfully – without distracting thoughts – the teaching will become clear. Then when we participate in Dharma sharing, the teaching will penetrate more deeply and you benefit even more.
You can also absorb the teachings consciously – It can happen while you are with the Sangha or once you get home or even a few days later when you sit quietly and the teaching comes back to you: you find yourself thinking about some part of the sutra or training. You realize it has some significance for you.
The people in the brown jackets are here to help you. They are members of the Order of Inter-Being. They are committed to practising the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and they are committed to helping the Sangha – that means you. Our goal is to grow the Sangha and create harmony. Transforming our own suffering and the suffering of others is very important to us. You can always speak to a brown jacket; they will try to find a way to help and support you.
We are all on the same path; some of us are a few steps ahead, some a few steps behind but we are all trying to get there together.