The Refuge Tree, Bodhichitta and ‘Other Power’


An extract from work in progress on a book on the Refuge Tree of the Western Buddhist Order

Sangharakshita writes in his memoirs about how, when he was staying with his friend Dr. Mehta in Pune and meditating more intensively, he found himself entering into dialogue with the Buddha in the course of deep meditation, asking pertinent questions and getting direct replies. From a slightly later period, we read that after receiving the Green Tara initiation from Chetrul Rimpoche he felt that his whole spiritual life was now guided from a higher dimension and that he had at last found the inner guidance he had so long desired, beyond the level of his own ego.

How are we to make sense of all of this? What is this thing, beyond the level of our ego, that people speak of, and how can it work in our lives?

The Japanese Pure Land Buddhist traditions are deeply concerned with such issues. They distinguish between ‘self power’ and ‘other power’. Self power is the effort we each make to grow and develop. Other power is the Buddha’s response to that effort. But to many of us in the West today, this idea carries awkward overtones of theism. The Buddha, we know, is not a god. He is not the creator of the world, not its ruler and judge, and Buddhists are not required to believe in his omnipresent divine existence. Yet there is this talk of ‘other power’.

And what about all the other figures on the Refuge Tree? What are we doing when we throw ourselves down before them? Can they really do anything for us? What is the ultimate status of ‘other power’?

Ultimately, like everything else, it has no status at all. The mind of a Buddha, we are told, is freed from all claims of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Buddhas do not, as we do, automatically and unconsciously erect barriers between themselves and the flow of conditions about them. In the mind of a Buddha there is no rigid boundary between self and other, no fixed ego-identity separating itself off from the flow of impressions, no unyielding barrier between the image and the imagination in which the image occurs. Ultimately, therefore, from the point of view of Enlightenment, there is no ‘self’ and no ’other’. No subject, no object, and no existential status. There is just the flux of changing conditions in which nothing lasts for long enough to claim the status of separate, independent existence.

Think about this. The image of a Buddha that I conjure in my mind in visualisation has no less an ultimate claim to objective existential status than the computer on which I am typing this. You may not be able to see the Buddha I am imagining, but then you cannot see the computer either. So far as you are concerned, both are just images. But what if you were here, with me in my room, watching me type. Wouldn’t you see my computer then? Would it not be more real than the Buddha I imagine? No, it wouldn’t be. All we ever apprehend are images. Memories, thoughts, sights, tactile impressions, sounds, smells, tastes — all are images, and we can never get behind them, to the ‘real’ world. Try as we might, all we ever encounter is another image, we never get to the supposed ‘thing itself’. There are no fixed, enduring, essences underlying the images that we apprehend, or if there are we can never know anything whatever about them, which amounts, to all intents and purposes, to the same thing.

Now that is all well and good in theory. All phenomena lack inherent existence. All good Buddhists know that — conceptually, at least. But in practice we still live and move in a world of apparently fixed and more or less stable entities. Chairs and tables, laptop computers, and — above all — our own apparently unyielding ego-identities. We are not yet Buddhas. For us the ideas of self and other seem to have real meaning, and it is because the notions of self and other have such a hold on us that the allied ideas of self-power and other-power also have meaning. Acknowledging that we actually see the world in dualistic terms, we can begin to use that dualism to overcome dualism.

At the start, our spiritual lives depend on self-power. For much of the time our attempts to go for Refuge to the Three Jewels involves us making some degree or other of willed effort. We have to make the effort to meditate every morning, even though we may prefer to lie in bed. We have to curb our anger and our appetites. We do not lead spontaneously ethical lives, we have to make something of an effort to be unselfish.

At this level we experience ourselves as having an ego — a more or less fixed sense of self. But as we progress along the path, our sense of the world is less and less firmly delineated by our ego. As we become kinder, more generous, more flexible, more sensitive and more aware of the world about us in all its many dimensions, our ego begins to yield and to soften and we begin to experience moments of genuine self-transcendence.

As we progressively open ourselves up to the process of self-transcendence, that process can increasingly manifest as a kind of ’other-power’ working through our lives. We begin to see that the notion of ‘me’ which we have constructed and spent so much time feeding and defending is not the final boundary of existence: reality is far greater than we are.

When, from the point of view of the ego, we contemplate with the eye of the imagination, that reality can sometimes manifest as an ‘other-power’. This is what begins to happen for some people when they are given a visualisation practice and are introduced to one or another of the archetypal bodhisattvas. After contemplating the figure for many years they may begin to experience it as an active force in their lives, working through them and imbuing their thoughts and acts with greater significance and greater effectiveness. This sense of a source of value external to the ego which draws one onwards and upwards is something which one may come increasingly to depend upon.

As we make spiritual progress we depend more and more upon the Three Jewels, less and less upon petty, mundane things. There is the beginning of a deep shift in your identity. You stop deriving your security and sense of self-worth from your possessions, your appearance and your social status and you start to be more naturally concerned to help others and to see clearly how things really are. In other words, your going for Refuge to the Three Jewels has become deeper and stronger.

But the Refuges are not something that we have generated from within. They are not a part of the self, not a part of our own ego-identity. Not being Buddhas ourselves, the very fact that we have heard of the Dharma depends upon its having been given to us from outside of us.

So, in one of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, the Ratnaguna Samchayagatha, we read

The rivers all in this Roseapple Island
Which cause the flowers to grow, the fruits the herbs and the trees,
They all derive from the might of the King of the Nagas,
From the Dragon residing in Lake Anopatapta, his magical power.
Just so, whatever Dharmas the Jinas disciples establish,
Whatever they teach, whatever adroitly explain —
Concerning the work of the holy which leads to the fullness of bliss,
And also the fruit of this work — it is the Tathagata’s doing.
For whatever the Jina has taught, the guide to the Dharma,
His pupils, if genuine, have well been trained in it
From direct experience, derived from their training, they teach it.
Their teaching stems from the might of the Buddhas, and not their own power.

Just as the King of the Nagas, residing at the bottom of Lake Mansarover at the foot of Mount Kailas, sends forth his rivers into India to water all the plants there, so too there is a great river, a stream of spiritual beneficence, which has its origins in the Enlightened Mind, entirely beyond time and space, but which streams forth into our world by way of the activity of all the Arya Sangha — all those beings who have, through their spiritual endeavours, achieved some degree of transcendental insight.

It is this that we come increasingly to depend upon and, from the point of view of the ego, it something other than ourselves. It is ‘other-power’. When we primarily rely only upon the Three Jewels, and not upon mundane things, then that amounts to a real dependence upon other-power.

This idea of a stream of spiritual influence reaching towards us and even working through us finds expression in the image of the Refuge Tree which depicts in some detail how this process can actually work in our lives.

Above the Refuge Tree, beyond space and outside of time, is the image of Vajrasattva, who stands for the Dharmakaya, Ultimate Reality, Buddhahood. The final truth of things, which is the beginningless source and timeless origin of this vast river.

At the centre of the tree is the image of the Buddha Shakyamuni, who represents the eruption of that mighty river into the context of the current human, historical time-frame. On his left and right, the Buddhas Dipankara and Maitreya, respectively the Buddhas of the past and future, show that the river will always intersect with history.

To the right of Shakyamuni are the archetypal bodhisattvas. These are idealisations of consummate skilfulness. They manifest at the interface between ultimate reality and the human imagination, urging us onward and upward, constantly present sources of spiritual nourishment, glowing images of bodhichitta, of the altruistic dimension of going for Refuge. Wherever the imagination strives to apprehend Enlightenment, in whatever way, there, in whatever form, a bodhisattva will appear.

To the left of Shakyamuni are his own Enlightened disciples. They are bearers of his teaching and exemplars of spiritual progress. He sent his Enlightened disciples out into the world to wander — ‘for the sake of the many, for the welfare of the many’. Through their activity the Dharma spread far and wide.

Behind Shakyamuni rests the great treasure of the Dharma, texts which have preserved his teachings for the benefit of all.

Above him, sit the great teachers of our lineage who have made that Dharma their own and proclaimed it to the world.

Above them, the Five Buddha Mandala represents Supreme Enlightenment as it is made manifest in the imagination.

Below Shakyamuni appears Sangharakshita and his eight teachers, who have introduced the Dharma to so many.

Now, the fact that I am sitting here writing this book is a direct consequence of the great compassion of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Shakyamuni gained Enlightenment. Buddhahood erupted into the framework of human, historical time, and from his boundless compassion, out of concern for a suffering world, Shakyamuni taught. At that moment, for the first time in this history, Buddhahood found expression in this world. At that moment, from the great ocean of Shakyamuni’s Enlightened mind vast streams of spiritual endeavour were set flowing down the great course of human, historical time.

For the last two and a half thousand years those streams have passed down the generations. From teacher to disciple they have flowed through many lands and civilisations, they have watered magnificent cultures and brought flowers where previously there were deserts. And now, through the kindness of my own teacher, the great river of the going for Refuge has come, even to me. Shakyamuni taught and so my life has meaning. What can I do but open myself up to that stream of going for Refuge and try to allow it to flow on?

Shakyamuni taught. His disciples taught. The great teachers of the past taught. Sangharakshita’s teachers taught. Sangharakshita taught. And when members of the Western Buddhist Order found Buddhist centres, teach meditation and Dharma, work in Right Livelihood businesses and welcome people into residential communities, it all comes from that. It is the same river of the Dharma, the same stream of going for Refuge, at whatever level, reaching out to a suffering world.

The figures on the Refuge Tree, out of the fullness of their compassion, constantly reach out towards un-Enlightened beings. All of them dedicated their lives to helping the un-Enlightened move towards Enlightenment. That was all that they cared for, and the spiritual efficacy of their work ripples ever onwards and outwards. It continues even today, it is present, to some degree at least, even here and now, as you read this.

We reach up to the figures on the Refuge Tree. In doing so, we allow that same stream of spiritual influence to work upon us and to work through us. But true going for Refuge always has an altruistic dimension. Having derived so much benefit from the work of all the figures on the Refuge Tree, what can we do but reach out in turn to others?

If we can bear this perspective in mind it puts all one’s work for the Dharma into its true context. In a sense, by helping to spread the Dharma, one is really helping to carry out the Buddha’s work. One is helping to work out the great purpose of the beings on the Refuge Tree.

The great goal of the spiritual life is to achieve spiritual irreversibility — that stage of spiritual development, brought about by the arising of transcendental insight, from which it is no longer possible to fall back. Short of this point, all committed Buddhists are trying, in different ways, to grapple with the problem of the self. How do we overcome our fixed sense of ourselves? How do we move from being primarily self-regarding to being primarily other-regarding? How do we get beyond the constricting limitations of self-preoccupation? How do we overcome the ego?

However many times, it seems, I return to the realisation that my ego-identity is something truly insignificant — that it is the merest tiny speck of delusion spinning out its little stories in the infinitely vast space of the cosmos — again and again, when I’m not looking, my ego re-asserts itself and swells to occupy all the boundaries of space and time. Suddenly, I turn around, and there I am again: the single most important entity in all this vast universe; all of which must be arranged to serve my own interests. My needs, my comfort, my enjoyment. My achievements, my writing, even my Dharma teaching. All of these so easily and suddenly become paramount.

Whether our ego-centricity manifests temperamentally as self-conceit or as self-contempt, or even whether it is just an undue attachment to a fixed point of view, is neither here nor there. The main point is that all of us who have not yet manifested the Real level of bodhichitta are liable, at some time or another, to bouts of significantly delusive ego-centricity.

This is the central problem of the spiritual life. Our ego is so slippery, so cunning. It can so easily turn all our good works and good intentions, all our spiritual practice, to its own end. In no time at all our ego can appropriate everything we do and turn our merit into ornaments to adorn itself with.

So how do we overcome the ego? There is an old Zen saying: ‘If you want to control a wild bull, give it a big field to roam in’.

Some people take this as meaning ‘Do what you want, don’t be too disciplined.’ It can be taken as a sort of easy rationalisation for just giving in to your passing appetites. But its meaning is more profound than that. The ’big field’ is much more than just the field of our casual desires and impulses. It is really the field of the bodhichitta.

Through the kindness of our teachers and through the work of our spiritual ancestors, all Buddhists have some degree of access to the vast field of the bodhichitta which radiates outward from the Refuges. As Buddhists, that is our true context. We continue to have an ego-identity, but that ego-identity occurs within a context which extends well beyond it. We have an ego, but, as men and women who are going for Refuge to the Three Jewels that ego-identity is not the final boundary of our being.

In going for Refuge to the Three Jewels, to whatever degree we do it, we place our ego-identity within the field of the bodhichitta, the field of spiritual influence which radiates outwards from the great Refuge Tree, and the more we go for Refuge, the more fully and deeply do we locate ourselves within it.

In going for Refuge more and more effectively we come in time to value the field within which our ego operates as much, and in due course more, than the ego itself. That tipping of the balance, from predominantly valuing the ego to predominantly valuing the field of spiritual influence that surrounds the ego is the Real going for Refuge.

We reach upwards to the Refuges, through visualisation, through puja, through Dharma study and practice, and we also reach outwards to others. When we prostrate in front of the Refuge Tree we do it with our father and all men at our right shoulder, our mother and all women at our left. No-one is excluded. We go for Refuge for the sake of all.

We reach upwards and we reach outwards, and in this way the boundaries of our ego-identity grow more and more extended, more and more diffuse, more and more permeable. Through this practice of reaching upwards and outwards, in time the great river of the bodhichitta comes to flow ever more strongly through us and around us, for the sake of all.

For my own part, I can say this. When I reflect upon it more deeply, I see that everything that is of lasting value in my life comes from the Refuge Tree, and any significant good that I do comes from there too. If I can bear this in mind, that the true purpose of my life is not to serve my own ends, my true purpose is to carry on the work of all the figures on the Refuge Tree. If I can only put myself at their disposal, if I can surrender myself to the stream of spiritual influence which radiates outwards from the Buddha Shakyamuni, then I am living out of my own true place in the universe and my life has real meaning.

This perspective is shared by many members of the Western Buddhist Order. It motivates us in our work for the FWBO. When we run our Buddhist Centres, start residential communities and Right Livelihood teams. What we are trying to do is to effectively open ourselves up to the great river of bodhichitta which flows out from the Refuge Tree. Every altruistic act that we do in the context of our going for Refuge is a continuation of that great stream. Reaching out to a suffering world, we become, in our turn, tributaries of that great river. If we can only bear this perspective in mind, and come back to it again and again when we slip, then our ego identities find their proper place in the universal scheme of things and, in time, they will just fade away.

When I experience myself in this way, when I experience myself as simply doing what is needed, not just doing what I want, then I also experience the enormous relief of laying down the obsessive burden of ego-identity. I experience the sheer joy and relief of not having to bother, for a while at least about my needs, how I sound, how I look, my preferences. It is an enormous relief to be free, even for a little time, from the burden of self-conceit or self-contempt and from my own fixed points of view.

This is the practice of responding to the objective needs of the situation. It is not some dry, abstract, protestant wilfulness that is being evoked here. We try to respond to the objective needs of any situation partly, at least, because in doing so we free ourselves from our carping, obsessive self-orientation. In freely responding to the objective needs of the situation we begin, oddly enough, to experience real freedom — freedom from the unceasing demands of ego-centricity.

This is the great work we all have to do this side of transcendental insight. We reach upwards to the Refuges and we reach out to a suffering world, allowing that great stream of spiritual influence to flow on through us.

We can all, increasingly, come to depend on the ‘other power’ which the Refuges represent. The more we depend on the refuges the more skilful and effective our lives will be until one day we may find that we have come to depend fully upon them and that we no longer depend upon anything else. Then we will find that we have laid down the burden of ego-centricity and that we have, in effect, begun to embody the Refuges themselves.

The great river of the bodhichitta is not something we can possess. It is not something which we could ever claim as a personal attribute. It is far too big, it is far beyond us. It goes beyond the bounds of ego-identity altogether. If ever we think we’ve really grasped it and encompassed it, then we’re mistaken, for this river is vast beyond our comprehension. And yet, somehow, through the endless beneficence of the Buddha and through the kindness of our teachers, we can locate ourselves within it. Just going for refuge and handing it on, going for refuge and handing it on — again and again and again. Out of gratitude to our friends and teachers. For the sake of all living beings.

This work in progress was eventuy published as Teachers of Enlightenment and is available from Windhorse Publications

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Autumn Issue Two (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).