Inner Refuge Through Inner Strength
When we were in Brazil, someone asked why sitting along with a guided meditation got much better results than sitting there meditating on your own—even in a group, in the presence of the teacher. My answer was basically that the person giving the guided meditation is doing a lot of your work for you. In other words, the instructions are doing what your mindfulness should be doing. That’s why although it may be useful to have a couple of guided meditations every now and then, there comes a point where you have to do the work yourself. Nobody else can make you mindful. No one can make you awakened. Someone once asked the Buddha, “Please remove my doubts.” And the Buddha said, “I can’t remove anybody’s doubts. You have to remove your own doubts.” So we’ve got the instructions, and it’s up to you to remember the instructions and to carry them out.
You focus on the breath, try to stay with the breath as much as you can. If you need a meditation word to help, use buddho, which means “awake”; or you can just do in and out—anything that helps you stay with the breath. Then, when you can stay with the breath, you can drop the meditation word. And the more continually you can stay with the breath, the more you begin to notice where the breath is rough or uneven or too long or too short. You can make adjustments. Try to make your attention on the breath steady and constant, and that will help smooth out the breath. As for whether long breathing feels good or short breathing feels better, that’s up to you to decide. You develop not only your mindfulness—i.e., your ability to keep things in mind—but also your powers of judgment as to what’s working, what’s not working, how to compare. The more you meditate, the more you have to depend on your own powers—of judgment, persistence, discernment. And this is what the meditation is for, to teach you how to depend on yourself—how to become your own refuge.
We talk about how we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha—both on the internal and external levels. On the external level, you’re inspired by the story of the Buddha; inspired by his teachings; inspired by the Dhamma; and inspired by the example of the noble Sangha. We take these people as examples for how we should live. As I was saying today in class: Try to live your life in such a way that if people read about your life, they would be inspired. Not that you’re showing off, but just keep that in mind, that you’re setting an example for others, too, as you act. You see the good example that the Buddha has set, the good teachings he has given us, the good example of the noble Sangha, and one way of expressing gratitude for that is to try to pass on that example. But more important than that is for our own sake, for our own strength—we want to take them as examples so that we can depend on ourselves. As for other people, whether they take you as an example or not, that doesn’t lie within your power. There’s no way you can force them. And even if they don’t take you as an example, your practice is not wasted, because you have taken care of your own true responsibility.
Now, the question is: How do you take the example of the Triple Gem and turn it into a refuge inside?
That’s what the teachings on the five strengths are about: five steps by which you internalize the qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and make them your own refuge. All five steps build on heedfulness. You realize that if you can’t depend on yourself, you’re living in a dangerous world, because even your act of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha becomes uncertain. Some days you take them as examples; other days you live as if they never existed. Sometimes the change is not from day to day. It can even be from moment to moment. This is scary. So you’ve got work to do. There are dangers here inside the mind, and there are dangers outside. But the dangers inside the mind are important ones. Keep that thought as your motivation and then, based on that, develop the five strengths.
The first is conviction—conviction in the Buddha’s awakening, the three knowledges he gained on the night of his awakening, and most importantly the knowledge he gained about kamma: that actions have results, and that the results depend on the intentions inspiring the action and the skill with which you carry it out. And you really do have the choice—you have the choice to change the way you’re acting. You’ve got to have that conviction, that you have it within you: If you see that you’re doing something unskillful, you can figure out how to change. It’s a possibility, which means that you’re also convinced that you’ve got it within you to carry it through.
If you don’t have that conviction in yourself in addition to the conviction in the Buddha, the practice is not going to work. You run up against an obstacle and you just run away. As Ajaan Lee said, it’s like digging down into the ground to find the gold there, but first you run into a big rock. Some people, when they hit the rock, just throw away their shovels and run off. But if you’re convinced that the gold is there and you can find it, you’ll be able to find some way of getting through the rock or around it.
Years back when we were getting ready to build the chedi at Wat Dhammasathit, we had to bring in some people to put some dynamite in the rock in the mountain. They had no fancy equipment, just a spike and a hammer—that was it. They would tap, tap, tap lightly on the rock, and then turn the spike a bit, and then tap, tap, tap. And I kept thinking to myself, “These people will never get anywhere into the rock.” But, sure enough I came back two hours later and they had gotten a couple of feet into the rock. Just tap, tap, tap—it was the consistency of their effort that got them through the rock—along with their conviction. They had seen in the past that it had worked, so they just kept at it.
So you’re going to need that kind of conviction. It may seem that not much is changing from day to day, but over time, you get deeper and deeper through the rock, until finally there is gold on the other side. So conviction is what gives you a sense that your own actions are important, and if you have any unskillful qualities, you have the ability to change that.
Building on that conviction is persistence: the effort to develop what’s skillful and abandon what’s not. But it’s more than just effort. As the Buddha said, an important part of right effort is generating desire—your motivation. You have to keep reminding yourself why you want to do this. You’re not doing this because somebody else tells you. You’re nobody’s servant. This is your own choice. And you choose it not because you can’t do anything else, but because it’s inherently good.
That was another one of the questions that came up in Brazil. I was asked, “So why did you ordain? What went wrong in your life?” And all the monks laughed. As I answered, it was something that went very right—I found a path that I could really give my whole heart to. And so whatever motivation keeps you on the path, try to develop that.
Goodwill is an important one; goodwill is a strength that you can generate from within. It’s your protection—it can protect you from yourself and it can often protect you from other people. If you’re radiating goodwill, people feel less threatened by you. At the same time, you’re less of a threat to yourself. You’re much less likely to do harmful things. You want to remind yourself, “Okay, I want to act in a way that harms nobody.” And it is possible—and it warms your heart. That gives you energy for the practice.
You can motivate yourself with heedfulness; you can motivate yourself with a sense of pride that you don’t want to stoop to anything low, that you want to do something noble with your life. That’s a perfectly legitimate motivation. There is also a sense of shame that comes with that pride—that you would be ashamed to even think about doing something beneath you. So you let it go.
This means that persistence is not just chipping away, chipping away. It’s also giving yourself the juice you need to keep going: that you’re doing it because it’s good and you want to do it.
And then, building on this persistence, you develop the other three strengths, beginning with mindfulness: the ability to keep something in mind. In this case, you keep in mind all the instructions you’ve received—and the lessons you’ve learned from your own practice—that are helpful for whatever particular step of the practice you’re doing at that point.
For instance, as you’re sitting here meditating, you don’t have to think about generosity or virtue too much, except when you find that it gives you strength. Your sole concern right now is to remember that you want to be with the breath. And you keep reminding yourself that you want to stay here.
Together with mindfulness, there’s alertness: You watch to make sure that you really are doing this. This is a strength because it keeps you from wandering off and losing your focus. And as you focus in on the breath, you find that your steady focus does change the quality of the breath along with the quality of your experience of the body. If it’s skillful, it gives rise to a greater sense of well-being. This is how mindfulness begins to shade into the next strength, which is concentration.
You stay consistently focused with the breath. To define concentration, the Buddha uses the word ekaggata, which can be translated as being one-pointed, but also can mean having one gathering place. In other places, he describes concentration as whole body awareness, so it’s more likely that in this case it means that everything in the mind is gathered around one topic—the sense of the body, the sense of the breath as you breathe in and out, and a sense of the more subtle levels of breath energy that course through the body. You learn to develop a sense of well-being, a sense of refreshment with the breath that fills the whole body.
This refreshment, when you gain it, really helps with your conviction and your persistence. It’s not the case that, as you develop these strengths, you develop one and then drop it and then go on to the next, or that only the first one helps the second one, which helps the third one. They all help one another. Concentration, in particular, helps with your conviction, your persistence, and your mindfulness. As the Buddha says, mindfulness doesn’t become pure until the fourth jhana, which is a fairly advanced stage in concentration.
So as you’re focusing here on the breath, once there is a sense of ease, think of that ease spreading through different parts of the body. In the beginning, it may not go everywhere, but allow it to flow wherever it can flow easily. And in the same way that allowing water into a channel widens the channel as more and more water goes through, you find that the more the breath runs through the body, the breath energy channels widen and grow more inclusive, spreading more and more to the body as a whole.
As you’re doing this form of evaluation, you develop the final strength, which is discernment—you see what’s working, what’s not working. It’s not just on the basis of what you’ve heard, it’s on the basis of what you’re actually doing. As you learn to adjust things, you begin to see which ways of breathing are more pleasurable, which ways of breathing help you stay with the breath more easily, which ways of focusing the mind and where you focus the mind have the best impact.
As you see that connection between cause and effect, that’s the beginning of discernment. Then you take that insight and start applying it to other areas where you’re causing suffering. You begin to have a place where you can stand here in the concentration, so that you can step back from the other ways of your mind and observe them more objectively: “This particular habit is not useful. I’ve got to change. Other people seem to be doing better here. Can I watch their example without feeling jealous or lessened by the fact that they are more skillful than I am?”
As Ajaan Lee said, his attitude when going to a new place was to look to see what they were doing well that he hadn’t done well yet and to learn from them. But if there was some area where he knew more than they did, he would be happy to share his knowledge. But the first point is really important, especially when you’re on the path. You want to see: “What do other people do more skillfully than me? Can I learn from their example?” And as you develop your other strengths, you feel confident that you can.
So it’s through these five strengths that you turn yourself into your own refuge. You take the example of the Buddha and it becomes the example for your own life. So instead of having to depend on someone from outside, you’ve got the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha inside, where it really counts. Then as you make yourself a refuge like this, you find that you can be an external refuge to others. That’s how the gift of refuge gets passed on.