Buddham Saranam Gacchami
Dhamman Saranam Gacchami
Sangham Saranam Gacchami
I go to the Buddha for refuge.
I go to the Dharma for refuge.
I go to the Sangha for refuge.
So many seek refuge on the planet right now. So many bodies are fleeing harm, seeking safety and finding little rest. I know how relatively lucky I am in that regard. I may be by some measures homeless, yet, most days, I am not without refuge. I believe that, while we are in these bodies, we all seek refuge; it is simply a matter of degrees.
To seek refuge implies we must go somewhere to find it. The very roots of the word mean “to flee back.” This sense of return also implies that we know what we seek: a safe home, a place of peace. Most of the spiritual traditions ultimately remind us that in the outer world, peace is ephemeral; yet, there is a home always waiting in a deeper place, where peace is eternal. The purpose of spiritual practice is to cultivate discernment as to whether, in any given moment, refuge is reached through action (outer), non-action (inner) or a combination of them.
…Fundamentally, refuge isn’t anywhere but in the mysterious here, whether buried under the noise of mass mayhem or just under ordinary mind and mundanities. And even when the journey clearly calls us inward, sometimes we must still travel to find it again. I had such a moment recently, when I knew that going inward required a going outwardly. The key was to let inward steer.
Given my particular nervous system, periodically I must leave the thought grid of a city. Finding refuge involves hearing my own native vibration and that of the Earth that speaks a language free of judgement; that of the Cosmos, which holds universal knowing and also holds my unique soul song within it; holds it for me when, amid the din, I lose the tune.
The three refuges invoked above, are, in a way, the Buddhist trinity, the aspects of a balanced human life, and we find them, time and again, in their relationship with each other, and in the relationship between inside and outside.
This weekend I went to an unfamiliar place to find the refuge most familiar. And because I knew what I needed, but not how it would show up, I found it. But what I found is not what can easily be described. So, I share instead scenes of outer magic, fed by the spring of inner refuge.
This was my first visit to Southwest Sangha, nestled here amid the voluptuous hills of the Mimbres, near Gila Wilderness and Silver City. The quiet here is deep, though nature, abhorring a vacuum, has filled the space with a playful and boisterous wind, which careens and flops and kicks and drops, rather like an exuberant mountain biker. There is something so forgivable about it, like an outsize puppy who hasn’t grown into his paws and knocks over your tea with his irrepressibly wagging tail.
The air heaves and sighs through many species of tree here, but the one I’m romanced by is the Alligator Juniper, whose bark is layered like roof-tile, giving the appearance of a mosaic, lines of gray brindle squares. And of that species, there was one tree in particular on the property, so perfect in shape and line it defies description and surely houses royalty among the devas. The trunk seemed to capture a goddess growing out of her own womb.
When I arrived in the late afternoon, I sat for tea with Michael, the founder. He showed me around and to my Kuti, a free standing monk’s cell, if you will. Most of them were little converted trailers, but mine, an adobe structure, was larger and about to be converted into a duplex. For now it was down-right luxurious: bed, windows, electricity, patio, clock, chamber pot, even a sofa…and a view.
This is a small property on a spacious rise overlooking a long-dry and flora-filled river basin. Unseen cattle low from all directions in the morning dim. And even more elusive coyotes ring in moonrise.
We ended my short tour with group meditation (just three of us today) in a chapel that had existed on the property before, stewarded by a priest. It has been renovated but still features a simple, beautiful altar fronted by rows of uniform tree branches or trunks, arranged around a central cross of the same material. It never felt appropriate to intrude with a camera. But, I recognized in that altar a soothing presence, spiritually and aesthetically.
In those first moments, though, still rattling from travel, I could take in little. I was grateful to just sit and shed the buzzing road-skin. My focus in this first meditation would be the ringing in my ears, which pulsed in synchrony with a pulsing in my crown.
After evening tea that followed, I retired to the Kuti, lay in the resounding silence and observed my nervous system gasping with relief. It wasn’t much after 7pm, but I did not, could not, get up until 5ish the next morning. I slept deep, even with the full moon beaming loudly in my windows, waking me only long enough to make her bright and benevolent presence known through various windows over the course of the hours.
Next day, as I sat on the living room floor for the community blessing of the breakfast, I noticed a striking blossom on a plant in the sunroom; its brilliant red was catching the light as a sail catches wind. I asked what it was. “Night-blooming Cereus,” said Michael. I had not known they came in red. I only knew them as cream or white flowers. I have happy memories of helping to carry my father’s camera equipment a few blocks from his Tempe, Arizona, house to help him photograph a magnificent specimen in a neighbor’s yard. It was a warm, full-moon night, breeze just calm enough to encourage a decent shot.
These are impressive blossoms, the size of a man’s fist. (But then what flower isn’t impressive when you really look?) Dad made a series of note card photos from that plant. The blossom I was appreciating here and now would have wooed him and his camera for sure. I had only my low resolution iPod camera, and this blossom, perhaps the plant’s first for the season, was a coy maiden, her face turned toward a wall under the window, to catch the light without having to meet the gaze of her admirer.
The red bloom is saturated, flashy, catching the sun; the shot is over exposed, as if it almost too much to take in for my lens as well as for me. I was tempted to look away, as if seeing a forbidden burlesque. In my father’s photo, the feathery delicacy of this serene moonlit creature draws me in, encourages my eyes to linger and open to the subtleties, encourages my heart to breathe in the miracle.
The ranchers in the land surrounding this property are still suspicious of what goes on here, so different is it from what they know. So we are discouraged from hiking the surrounding hills, alas. But we can take in the air and the views along the scantly travelled road. On my first short walk, I was doing just that, and I tramped within three feet of a long, slim bull snake stretched out across the road. He must have been as lulled by the sun as I’d been by the moon, because I made plenty of noise for him before he stirred at all, tongue long before body. I’d snapped a shot or two of him—any good shaman takes note when a snake sprawls so conspicuously across her path! But once he began to propel himself forward, his movement took my breath away. It never fails to mesmerize me: the grace and mystery, the pure, primitive brilliance and effortless power with which they propel themselves along, as if from some inner blossoming of energy; it’s the closest I can imagine to a perpetual motion machine.
I only had the iPod again, so you get no such magic from the snap shot. Go find your own serpent. And for anyone assigning significance to the direction he’s headed. I came upon him headed right to left, and as he passed, turned around and snapped this shot, where he appears to be headed left to right. It was all north-ish.
The second night, sleep did not come as easily. I sat on the unlit porch and scribbled, only sometimes legibly, in my journal:
I love it when the moon is rising,
the earth is sighing,
the light retiring,
and the sky and the eye
open wide in the quiet,
But nothing comes,
because nothing comes close.
The air and ears are full to brim
with the hum of silent Life and earthen Presence….
Nothing comes because it is all already here:
Om issuing from the intersection in my head of brain and mind and mystery.
…Then there were some lines I couldn’t read…
Silently, while I’m looking down
to write in the dark, the moon
disappears and a coyote releases curly-Qs of sound, which,
if I could see them, would move like red, orange and buttercup smoke rings in the dusk.
Not because the moon is full of pale amber, but because that is the color of the sound.
Oh, Wait! That bit was more burgundy; red violet, there, with flashes of electric blue;
and that one was white hot, yellow and fuchsia.
He’s alone. No one answers, but he keeps the night company as he trills and warbles through the whole color wheel,
expressionistic Pollack squeals
pierce twilight’s impressionist idyll.
Sharp curves of sound, spiral and sickle.
Is he trying to carve up that cloud and liberate the moon?
The third night sleep was even harder to catch. The eyes were sleepy but the body wasn’t, with the psyche stuck in the middle. The moon, the meditation and the powerful midday naps worked on me differently here, and I suspect that the way one witnesses with different vision the material that arises in meditation affects the need, the nature and the content of dreaming.
When I did sleep, I noticed as I changed positions that I felt swimmy and light-headed, as if the structure and contents of brain and psyche were under metabolization, metamorphosis. I stayed another day, to let things normalize before I slammed into urban atmosphere.
Next morning, I drove on to Silver City, to meet for tea with a friend recently transplanted there. We sat in the little sheltered courtyard of The Tranquil Buzz, surrounded by little stone Buddhas in uncommon and enchanting poses. These, and the whole, old-fashioned downtown, felt safe, sensible and friendly.
And then it was back in the car for the long drive “home,” threading through the mountain slalom of Emory Pass and then north up New Mexico’s central Rio Grande Valley corridor, passing Bosque Del Apache and Sevilleta refuges…for wildlife.
While I was in Silver City, I had received a text from an expat friend, who has taken refuge in Mexico from the estrangement of his native U.S. He was encountering the National Guard now assembled in Texas borderlands to refuse others refuge.
As I descended onto the eastern plain again, I, myself, encountered a Border Control check point— this a good ways farther north! Sigh. Back into the nonsense of the world again. Keep chanting, little bodhisattva; in the world, not of it. I stopped where required, lowered my window.
“Anyone with you in the vehicle today?”
I gave him the outer-world truth. “No.”
The inner world truth, of course, I knew to be very different. Which is why, when he said, “You have a good day,” I knew I would.
…I could hear my precious cargo laughing amongst themselves: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.