I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sanga
I could write a whole article about the refuges, but here's the important thing: since coming back from Green Gulch for the week I've gotten up every morning and done at least three full prostrations while reciting them, usually nine. Even if I don't have time or won't make time to sit I do the bows every morning before leaving the house, religiously, if you will.
Serious meditation practice is difficult, facing the wall you are left to face yourself, and that's hard practice on it's own. Sidhartha achieved enlightenment after sitting under a tree by himself for eight days, this after years of studying with various gurus and attempting different practices. But it's what he did afterwards that makes Buddhism what it is: he created a community of monks and dedicated the rest of his life to transmitting what he discovered and forming the sanga which carries on to this day, now diversified into myriad schools which vary in the details of their methods but all with a singular goal: to free humanity from suffering.
The first two refuges speak to the achievement and the compassion of the Buddha, the attainment of enlightenment and the desire to share it with the world. But the third is maybe the most important. Enlightenment is all well and good but the real challenge of human existence is maintaing that feeling of connectedness in the face of all the suffering that exists in the world and in relating to other people. You can't really learn about who you are without other people around to bump into, to come into conflict with, to challenge your equanimity and composure, to trigger your desires and obsessions, to get under your skin in ways you didn't know someone else could do.
At the same time, the practice is so challenging and at times difficult that it takes a singular person to achieve the goal on their own, which is why having the support of a community around you is critical. I practiced meditation for years on my own and have read all kinds of dharma but without the encouragement of a community that's also engaged n the same practice it's hard to make real progress, especially if you can't remove yourself from the world to sit and contemplate your life.
How is your meditation today?
So, Saturday when I said there was no Zazen for me I wasn't being quite accurate: there wasn't any Zazen until I went and sat in the hall. I had been floating all day at the surface of that ocean of suffering, bobbing about, uncomfortable, maybe a little seasick. As much as it stung in the moment to be asked to go sit outside it was a great gift to be thrown off the raft, to jump into the first noble truth and be immersed in it.
I couldn't do that in the Zendo, my concern for maintaing the form and my own composure wouldn't allow me to really be there with the suffering under the surface, my attachment to the forms had become a fetter and were holding me back from seeing the reality of myself: the insecurity, the loneliness, the feelings of inadequacy, the seemingly endless failures of everyday life, struggling with being a single parent, my obsessive attachments, feelings of rejection, worthlessness, embarrassment and remorse. All that's in there, and ignoring it doesn't make it go away, only facing it and learning to abide with it will bring it to an end, and to do that you need the compassion and kindness of your fellow travelers.
Most descriptions I've seen of the use of the Keisaku involve a sort of disclaimer: it doesn't really hurt and the administration of the stick is really an act of compassion for the meditator who's having trouble centering themselves. Sure it stings, but it releases the shoulder muscles and focuses the attention in a way that is hard to replicate with words. As much as it hurt me in the moment to be asked to leave it was in fact an act of great compassion, I was given permission to go out and really be with myself for a few minutes, a chance to cut through my own defenses and spend some time with feelings that I almost never allow myself to admit to, because it's uncomfortable to sit and face that kind of suffering.
After having a couple of days to think it over, to feel it out, I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn something critically important about myself: that I can sit in the midst of my pain and come out the other side in one piece. It's gifts like these that make the Sanga such a critical component of awakening, they are there to guide you, to support you and to push you forward even when it's not immediately apparent thats what's really going on.