BEYOND ALL DIRECTIONS
If you’d had the opportunity to approach the Buddha and ask to be his student, he would have expected a few things of you: to be honest and observant, to show him respect, to pay him careful attention, and to try your best to master the skills he taught. When you met these conditions, he in turn would have felt some obligations to you: to give you thorough instructions, to test you to make sure you understood the instructions, and—most interestingly—to provide what he called, “protection in all directions.”
The idea that teachers should offer protection to their students was apparently common in ancient India. This is one of the reasons why people would seek out teachers. It also explains why many people, on becoming convinced that the Buddha was the teacher they wanted, would take refuge in him, in his Dhamma (his teachings), and in his Saṅgha of monks. They wanted the protection offered by him, his teachings, and those who also lived by those teachings.
The type of protection offered by different teachers in ancient India would depend on the skills they taught and the dangers from which they felt those skills would offer protection. This was not simply a cultural oddity from the Buddha’s time. Researchers have found that people are most likely to master skills when they have a keen sense of the dangers that come from not mastering those skills, and of the safety that comes when the skills are thoroughly mastered.
In the Buddha’s case, the skill he taught led to the safety of nibbāna, free from the dangers of aging, illness, and death. In fact, although we think of nibbāna as the name for the final goal of his teachings, it was only one of many names he gave to that goal. Some of those names—shelter, island, harbor, security, and refuge itself—make the point that his teaching is aimed at safety.
Others—the ageless, the undecaying, the beyond, the deathless, the ultimate— indicate that this safety is of an extraordinary sort: the ultimate protection from any and all dangers, the ultimate refuge to which anyone might go. Once you’ve reached this refuge, the Buddha has more than fulfilled his responsibility to protect you in all directions, for he’s pointed you to a refuge that goes beyond all directions, a protection transcending the confines of space and time.
However, the Buddha also saw two types of dangers within space and time that can stand in the way of your achieving this refuge: outside dangers and inside ones. The world around you is a dangerous place; and your mind, a dangerous mind. Outside dangers come in the form of other people’s examples and teachings that might discourage you from making the effort to follow the path to nibbāna. Inside dangers come from your own greed, aversion, and delusion, which can totally block any desire to follow the path.
In fact, these inside dangers are what leave you susceptible to unskillful outside influences to begin with. If you were innately trustworthy and good, bad outside influences would have no power over you. But, as the Buddha pointed out, the mind is capable of anything. And although he was a master of finding apt analogies, he had to admit that he could find none to adequately describe how quickly the mind can reverse itself. Love can turn to hate, good qualities to vicious ones, and even “the flash of an eye” is slow by comparison.
Only when trained can the mind become its own refuge, and only when gaining a sense of heedfulness—the realization that its actions can cause harm, but that the harm can be avoided through careful effort—will it willingly undergo training. Only when it sees the dangers it’s capable of producing will it look for external refuges under which to train.
This is why, in his capacity as a responsible teacher, the Buddha recommended that his students—after gaining a sense of heedfulness—take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha as a first step in overcoming both the outside and inside dangers that stand in the way of the ultimate refuge of nibbāna.
When, having gone
to the Buddha, Dhamma,
& Saṅgha for refuge,
you see with right discernment
the four noble truths—
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
& the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
that’s the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.
To offer protection against outside dangers to that supreme refuge, the Buddha offered himself as what he called an “admirable friend.” Through the example of his life and the content of his teachings, he made it possible for others to realize that nibbāna is an attainable and desirable goal. In a famous exchange, when his disciple Ānanda thought it was generous to say that having admirable friends is half of the holy life, the Buddha replied No: It’s the whole.
Of course, given the nature of the path to nibbāna, the Buddha couldn’t tread the path for his students. He wasn’t a sufficient cause for their awakening, but he was a necessary one. Only by having his example and his teachings would his students possess a reliable touchstone against which they might measure other examples and teachings as to what human beings can and should attain.
Without that touchstone, they could easily fall prey to teachings that would lower their sights—and to their own internal qualities that would be happy to keep their sights low. Having that touchstone would allow them to expand their horizons and raise their aspirations to a higher level.
Because he wouldn’t live forever, the Buddha also trained his students so that they could be admirable friends for succeeding generations. This is why the Saṅgha—in both its traditional forms, monastic and noble—is counted as one of the three refuges. The monastic Saṅgha has kept the teachings alive; and the noble Saṅgha—the Saṅgha of the Buddha’s awakened disciples, both lay and ordained—have kept his example alive to the present day. (The modern sense of saṅgha, as any group that meditates, cannot provide these sorts of refuge, which is why a wise policy would be to revive the traditional name for such a group—parisā—to avoid confusion.) It’s because of both types of Saṅgha that admirable friends on the path are still with us.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at Sean@MindfulnessExercises.com
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