Religion, The Heroic Life

I Abandon Refuge in the Dharma

Photo by Miss Cartier

I abandon refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

I exit the temple door. There is nowhere to spend three jewels, no beggar to receive them.

Merit earned by chanting cannot be given to those who do not chant.

I abandon refuge in the Buddha:

To exist is not to suffer,

It is to struggle, and that’s different.

I abandon refuge in the Dharma:

To quiet your desire cannot save you,

because desire is not the enemy.

I abandon refuge in the Sangha:

Their ship is built to sail a thousand lifetimes,

but the shoal will hit in 60 years.

There is no soul in this frame,

It is only earth and blood.

It hungers and I feed it,

It lusts and I turn to another.

I take risks for love, I walk across the world.

With blistered feet I sing joyful songs.

I abandon refuge,

I exit the temple door.

Let no man want what he already has.


23 thoughts on “I Abandon Refuge in the Dharma

  1. Interesting. I am not sure what to say:) This part intrigues me most “To exist is not to suffer,/ It is to struggle, and that’s different.”

    I guess in all my reading of Buddhism and Buddhist books I’ve always interpreted “suffer” with “struggle”, but never replaced that word for it.

  2. “Because desire is not the enemy”
    I’ve been saying it for years.
    I thought I was the only one who felt this way when confronted with most of the world’s religions.
    But for many people, “to live is to suffer,” is all to true. But the solution does not lie in ignoring the problem by destroying desire. It lies in working towards a better world.

  3. Josh says:

    As a Buddhist who has always enjoyed your writing (until this), I can confidently say that what you are “abandoning” is a shallow caricature of what I believe. Frankly, this piece feels rather petty. I’m sure that you could have made the same points without misconstruing and criticizing my religion.

    • Josh, I’m sorry. I don’t want to mis-portray your religion.

      Most of my experience with Buddhism is with Tibetan Buddhism. I know that other sects may interpret things very differently. Can you tell me how, exactly, I got it wrong?

      • Well, for starters, I don’t think you’ve really considered the terms you’re interpreting as “desire” (rāga/lobha) and “suffering” (dukkha) in their full original contexts. The English translations often mislead people to take these terms as much more negative and pessimistic than they actually are.

        For instance, I have seen lobha translated more accurately as “unfocused” or “unskillful” desire… and “dukkha” is a very complicated and profound term for the whole of human emotional attachment. “Suffering” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Yeah, I’m afraid I have to share Josh’s worries that you’re rejecting a slightly caricatured version of Buddhism here.

        Of course, that’s the nice thing about Buddhists. We won’t get mad at you for it, we’ll just patiently explain to you how we see it. Unless we’re doing it wrong. :D

        • Thank you for this, Rezeya. The breakdown of the original words in particular is very helpful to me.

          A question occurs. I feel that the use of the (narrower) “desire” and “suffering,” without those full connotations you explained, is pretty common in Western Buddhism. I’ve certainly seen experienced practitioners frame it that way. Is this also a valid interpretation of Buddhism, or do you feel it misses the point?

  4. Josh says:

    Hi Drew, thanks for responding. I would agree with Rezeya and also add that many Buddhists are not necessarily rejecting or seeking to curtail desire, but rather to properly understand it. Many Buddhist teachings suggest that desire can be properly channeled into spiritual practice.

    Also, regarding the “three jewels” of Buddhism, there is a somewhat broader way of looking at them. The Buddha is not just a person, but the embodiment of a spiritual teacher – a true “hero” (vira) who forged his own path and then dedicated all of his energies to guiding others. The Dharma is not just a particular teaching, but rather the “superior truth” (param-artha) that, when understood and put into practice, leads to a more authentic way of living. And the Sangha is not just the fourfold assembly (of monks, nuns, laywomen and laymen), but rather the larger community of fellow seekers – “good friends” (kalyana-mitra) whose support and positive influence contributes greatly to the individual’s spiritual journey. Are these all things that you would abandon?

    Reading my earlier post, I regret referring to your statements as “petty” – “ungenerous” is perhaps closer to what I was looking for. I think that the points you make stand on their own, without any need for Buddhism as a foil against which to articulate them.

    Anyway, much respect to you and your work. There is a Chinese expression – “coursing clouds, flowing water” – often used to describe the carefree lifestyle of the wandering Buddhist renunciant, and I often think of your journey in much the same terms.

    • No worries about your earlier post, Josh. I can stand a little critique.

      While I oversimplified matters — you’re right, there are perspectives in Buddhism that see desire and the three jewels differently than I depicted — I would point out that there are also strains of Buddhism that do view the teaching very much as I’ve presented it here. While there is a diversity of views within Buddhism, I’ve had enough exposure to it, including study, practice and living in a monastery, to say with confidence that the views I abandon here are indeed sometimes presented by Buddhists themselves.

      You asked an excellent question:

      The Dharma is not just a particular teaching, but rather the “superior truth” (param-artha) that, when understood and put into practice, leads to a more authentic way of living… Are these all things that you would abandon?

      Yes! With respect, I don’t find the Dharma compelling. Buddhists certainly believe that when properly understood & practiced it is life changing — but Baptists believe that about the teachings of Christ, and I’ve been told the same thing about yoga.

      As with the claims of my own religion, which I frequently question, I have to look at this claim about Dharma and ask: why? What makes it so great? How will it change my life? Is it truly superior, or just one of a dozen methods? Is it even a particularly good method?

      The teaching and practice of the Dharma, as it has been presented to me by professors, textbooks, monks, nuns, acharyas, my sister, and lay practitioners, is simply not my tool of choice. (Thus my views on the other two jewels, as you present them, also remains: “Yes, I abandon them.”)

      I do see some parallels between my own views and the views of the Buddha, and that has sometimes been frustrating for me since there is so much in Buddhism I disagree with. But that is the great thing about polytheism (and some forms of Buddhism): we believe there are multiple paths. I love the image of Coursing clouds, flowing water that you presented. It moves my heart. And if it represents something in common between my path and Buddhism, I’m down with that.

      I hope this is not too aggressive of an answer. I sometimes struggle with how to disagree yet be respectful. I’m doing my best to present my honest view on why I don’t follow Buddhism, but I understand it may be the perfect path for other people.

  5. Arden says:

    Hell yeah.

    I’m not a Buddhist & I don’t want to criticize the religion, exactly…. so I’m a hesitant to agree with this wholeheartedly for fear that it does misunderstand something essential. But the fact remains that on an aesthetic, gut level, I have the same response this post articulates.

    If nothing else, the way Buddhism frames things, the language that it uses, does not appeal to me at all. This does.

    • I think that is very much what it is for me too, Arden. The language and the framing.

      To use a side-by-side example, contrast it with Taoism. The practices of Taoism are hard to get into and take forever, frankly, to make a difference in the practitioner’s life. But the language it uses and the way it frames things are crystalline, fluid, breathtaking. I dream in Taoism.

      Buddhism on the other hand has these practices that are so potent and effective, that start immediately creating change in the practitioner. And yet the language used in teaching it can be really off-putting to me. It takes a certain kind of personality to really love what Buddhism teaches, at least the way it’s taught to meditators. Of course, those who grow up simply offering to the Buddha and practicing it as a lay community have a very different experience.

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  7. Kwesi says:

    Four noble Truths:
    One: The world is caught in suffering
    Two: This suffering is caused by Greed, Anger and Ignorance; in other words, the mind.
    Three: The big secret is that life is Nirvana
    Four: The path to Nirvana is also the mind.

    Buddha was a man who was tired of suffering.
    Thus, he stopped suffering.
    This he accomplished by waking up.
    Seeing the world embroiled in the flame of materialism, war
    and cruelty, he shouted the great Truth: “Everybody, wake up!”
    Some heard. They woke up.

    Stories were told about this man.
    They spread throughout India, China, Vietnam and Japan.
    People who had not woken up
    began to argue about the nature of waking up.
    They began to say the same things
    with different words, and make useless distinctions.
    Now there are many schools, all chattering
    like parakeets on a Banyan Tree.

    Do not forget the Buddha.
    He began no religion, he only woke up.
    It does not matter your religion, your nation
    or your time; to wake up is imperative.
    This is called “Buddhism.”
    Buddhism can be found in Buddhism, Taoism,
    Hindu Vedanta, Sufism,
    Mysticism, Shamanism, and so on.
    I say “life is suffering” because we are all seeking happiness.
    Who seeks suffering?
    But to touch our suffering, to transform it,
    to refrain from seeking;
    happiness is there.

    We say “suffering is craving”
    because the world is perfect.
    The moment you wish for the world
    to be not as it already is,
    then you are “craving.”
    To make peace with the world
    is to end “craving.”
    Peace is made through waking up,
    waking up is made by seeing the Truth,
    seeing the Truth is accomplished
    by quieting the mind and letting it in.
    It doesn’t matter what religion, philosophy,
    Keep meditating.
    The world is caught
    in Ignorance, Hatred and Greed.
    It doesn’t have to be.

    Nirvana and Samsara are one
    in everything but our mind;
    this is the gem of Buddhism.


    • Kwesi, I don’t believe the world is caught in suffering. Therefore, much of the rest of your comment – and of Buddhist teaching – does not particularly speak to me. I don’t mean that critically; it’s just not a path I follow.

      I have had much suffering in my life; more than some, less than many. I have also had joy, and learned that joy exists in small things, in fleeting moments, in the wind and the sun’s touch and steam rising from tea.

      Perhaps, in your terminology, that makes me “awakened”: I don’t believe so. There is nothing to wake from.

      Perhaps to other Buddhists that means I remain under illusion. I will leave that to them to decide.

      • Kwesi says:

        Perhaps you have misunderstood. I am not advocating Buddhism as a specific religion. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself, Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian, because life is a spiritual journey and to open yourself up to what it has to teach us is of utmost importance to us all. See I use to have the same problems with Buddhism that you did, as do most people who begin to study Buddhism. I began instead to study the distinct philosophy of Taoism, yet, the deeper I explored the Tao, the more I could understand “the Buddha.” Now I study Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Wicca, and Abrahamic mysticism.The deeper I study the less I feel the need to label myself as anything.

        I understand your issues with Buddhism, but I feel as if you may misunderstand the four noble truths, like most of the North American Continent. Let me try to explain myself better. Please, forgive the length of this comment. First of all, life itself, as in Nature, is not suffering. But it is what Buddhists call “Dukkha”; this refers to the insight that everything in Nature is impermanent, subject to birth, transformation, and death. This in itself is not suffering, it is the human mind’s response to the insight of impermanence that causes suffering. We often find ourselves resisting impermanence, and because resistance is inherently futile, we as a species set ourselves up for disaster. Now, a lot of folks have the misunderstanding that this means we need to “let go” of everything we know and love, give it all up so to speak, before we can find peace. But, if we look to the story of the Buddha (because it’s a story, a myth) when he became enlightened he stopped running from the world, and other human beings became the most important aspect of his life. In other words, he did not let go of the world but embrace it. The most important thing is what comes next.
        The reason why “Dukkha” and “Samsara” are one with Nirvana is because the world of impermanence and change only exists on a certain psychological level. It exists on the level of the ego, which is the part of the mind that separates itself from the environment and divides the universe into an infinite assembly of individual, finite parts. When we transcend this ego, we realize that the self is not separate from it’s environment, in fact there is no “self” and no “environment”. We realize that the infinite separate “parts” of the Universe we separate it into cannot actually exist without each other, to the point where there are no “separate parts” at all. What’s left at this point? It has variously been called “Tao”, “Emptiness”, “Nirvana”, “Brahman”, “God”, “Absolute Reality” ect. ect. but regardless, this underlying reality, which encompasses all of existence, is not subject to birth, transformation and death. It is eternal. And to top it all off, it’s as apparent as the closest cloud or flower. This realization, that the realm of changeless absolute reality is exactly the same as the apparent world of death and transformation we see every day, is the essence of the greater part of most Eastern philosophy, Buddhist or not. It is also the key, in my opinion, to understanding most of the world’s mythology (but this is the realm of opinion now). Also, my explanation of Buddhism maybe more mainstream Mahayana than Theravada, but I read all the sutras indiscriminately.

        Anyway, if we look at the world today, we see a world embroiled in competition, materialism, greed, war, environmental destruction and a whole bunch of tragedy. Is this necessary? Inevitable? I actually don’t think so. I see it as suffering brought on by the ego, which leads to the three poisons of ignorance, greed and hatred described as before. I actually think society can overcome these things, as can every individual human being. And the key to overcoming these inner demons is the three-fold system of ethics, wisdom and mental discipline that characterizes the eight-fold path. I would encourage this for everybody, whatever their religion or lack thereof. Also, I would sincerely ask you to check out the book “The Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching” by Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as “The Way of Zen” and “The Book” by Alan Watt’s. These books will undoubtedly express these views better than I can myself.

        Regardless of what spiritual path, religious or secular, you take, enjoy the journey! I wish you the best!


        • Kwesi says:

          EDIT: The books I recommend to you I do because they describe the central truths of the Buddhist tradition while at the same time transcending that tradition; therefore educating without indoctrinating one into a religion or belief-system. Because these books have changed my life as well as the life of many friends (none of whom are Buddhist), I recommend them to you as well.

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