“It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified, Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety, the Wonderful, the Marvelous, Nirvana, Purity, Freedom, the Island, the Refuge, the Beyond.” (Samyutta Nikaya 43: 1-44)
We conclude our reflections on the Buddha’s above description of awakening, or enlightenment, by examining the Island, the Refuge, and the Beyond. The heart of these reflections are not the words themselves, nor the exercises imbedded in the text, but the experience to which they point. That the Buddha used so many different and differing words to describe awakening – he used many more than in the above paragraph – reveals the diverse expressions of it, and the many Dharma Gates to ‘enter’ it. Hopefully, we may stroll through such a Gate together and bask on the other Shore, in the Everlasting contentment of enlightenment.
· The Island (Dipa) If we live on an island, we have a natural barrier against invasion and enslavement. Just ask the Japanese about the attempted invasions of their islands by the Mongols who had already conquered the great Chinese Empire. Ditto the British Isles, which have been free of outside invasion for nearly a thousand years. These are physical islands, of course, but when the Buddha uses the term as a synonym for enlightenment he is not referring to a lump of land surrounded by water. He is referring to the Island that separates us from invasion from the Kingdom of Death.
Despite what most of us might think, we cannot die. There’s nobody home to die! The Island of the Buddha cannot be invaded because it has no physical form to be invaded. We are forever free when we discover that we already live on this Island for not only is it unconquerable but it is out of the reach of time itself. It is neither subject to time nor space, and as such is beyond the imagination of even a great mind like that of Albert Einstein. For, whilst he was a genius when we consider the world of things and processes, he appeared to be trapped by his own grand intellect. Indeed, the simpler the mind, the easily it may recognize the Island upon it which resides. To locate this Island, let’s examine another of its titles: the Refuge.
· The Refuge (Sarana) It might surprise some people that the Buddha called enlightenment the Refuge, considering that he also taught that the Three Refuges are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. There’s no contradiction here, however, because the latter Three Refuges exist to assist us in awakening, and are therefore refuges in which we can awaken, whereas awakening itself is the final Refuge of enlightenment. That the Three Refuges are not abandoned after enlightenment is for the benefit of other suffering beings, so that they may be lead to awakening also.
So, what is the nature of the Refuge? To know this, let’s review the general idea of a refuge and see extrapolate from this what a supramundane refuge would actually be. If we know what we’re looking for, perhaps we’ll have a chance of recognizing it when we see it. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word refuge as “a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble,” and, “something providing such shelter.” In addition, the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus has the following words listed after refuge: shelter, protection, safety, security, asylum, and sanctuary. Quite a list and it’s difficult to imagine anything that might fulfill all the above requirements to be considered the Refuge. But, there’s a clue in that last sentence: thing. According to the Buddha, no thing could ever be a true and lasting refuge from the unsatisfactory aspects of this life; but this doesn’t mean that we should give up on our search, for what if there is a ‘no-thing’ that is the true Refuge?
Things are limited by their very nature, and can therefore never be 100% refuges, and this includes the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, for whilst they are refuges on the way to awakening, they are still imperfect and impermanent like all other things. Only enlightenment itself is out of reach of suffering, and is therefore the Refuge that we need to discover if we wish to let go of our delusions and sufferings. You see, enlightenment is not a thing, and is therefore not limited; it is the No-thing that protects from the world’s terrors and tribulations. But, where is it?
Now we’re getting down to the crux of the matter, so we’d better pay good attention, hadn’t we? It’s already been written that the Refuge is not found in things, so we cannot look for it in the world around us; it’s made up of things, some big, some small, some to our liking, some not, but all things. Turning our attention around to ourselves, we might consider the body, but this too is made up of things, some beautiful, some best forgotten. Neither the world nor the body is the Refuge, both composed of imperfect things that are cause of suffering. The physical world is no real, true refuge; not as the Buddha used the word, anyhow.
What of the mind? If the Refuge is not to be located in the physical world, perhaps it is in the mental one? Looking at emotions, are they things that are incapable of being the Refuge? For sure; we are pulled all over the place by our emotions, experiencing highs and lows, and much suffering to boot. They are no true Refuge. Thoughts, too, are not free of disturbances and problems. Memories can be very vexing indeed, and dreams can leave us screaming in the night. No, the mental as well as the physical is not the Refuge – it looks as if we’ve failed in our search for enlightenment; it doesn’t exist!
But wait; consider abandoning our quest just yet, for we need to return to that very important word once again: thing. According to the Buddha, the Refuge is the No-thing beyond all things and processes, so of course it isn’t going to be part of the world, the body, or the mind. It can’t be seen, heard, touched or thought. It’s invisible, intangible, unthinkable, and beyond logic. Moreover, it is right here! Point a finger back at where you are looking from and note what you see - a face, a head, a body, a world? Or, do you see a great No-thing that is host to all that you see, hear, touch, and think? And, is this No-thing limited by any kind of features, or is it a spaciousness that’s untouchable by the sufferings of the world and the apparent self?
Going back to the dictionary definitions of a refuge, can we say that this No-thing lives up to those descriptions or not? Is it a shelter from the influence of the three poisons, greed, hatred, and delusion? Is it a protection and place of safety, in which we find true sanctuary from the pain of the world and the mind? Well, to find out the answer to that, we need to recognize this No-thing and then live from it, cultivate it, die into it. Only after many years of living from ‘it’ can we decide if the Refuge has been found: so we’d better get started!
The Beyond (Parayana) The Beyond that the Buddha wants us to discover is that which is beyond suffering. It is beyond the desires and attachments that cause suffering. It is beyond any identification with anything being a self that I might call mine. It is beyond time and space and the limitations of all processes and things. But, as well all these characteristics, the Beyond has one more to be recognized: it is beyond any description whatsoever. Every word that the Buddha used to point it out was merely a pointer; nothing more, nothing less. There are no doctrines or dogmas that can trap it and define it; it is beyond all limitations, including any that might come from over-dependence on the Buddha and his teachings. Hence, the Zen declaration, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!” But then, the Beyond is even beyond any ideas of killing or not killing the Buddha…
So, the Beyond that leaves behind desire and suffering is the final Refuge which nothing can harm, for it is itself ‘No-thing.’ This Island that cannot be invaded by the miseries of an unenlightened life turns out to be timeless, too; there isn’t a clock to be seen. It is, as written of previously in this series of reflections, the Deathless, and as such not only cannot age but cannot die either. It is the Unconditioned Everlasting that the Buddha also named Nirvana, and it isn’t as far away as we usually think it is. In fact, with the help of the exercises that have appeared in these reflections on Awakening, it is immediately knowable and liveable in the here and now for anyone to discover.
Looking is one thing, however, and seeing another. I might look at you but not see you because of dim light or camouflage. Moreover, even if I do see you, I might not recognise you, and then walk right past you – much to your relief! The Subtle, as the Buddha called it, isn’t much to look at, and yet, if recognised and given sustained attention, it will transform our perceptions and understandings of who, what, and why we are. We need resolve to keep at it, however, for unless we achieve full enlightenment very swiftly, the mind’s old habits born of delusion and fed by greed and hatred will kick in with a vengeance. All manner of doubts and difficulties will arise, but if we stay focused on the Truth that lies at the heart of every sentient being, we will see every noisy piece of suffering fade into this Wonderful Peace.