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Refusing the Refuge Vows

by Jerry Kolber

Though I've been circling around Buddhism for nearly two decades, and committed to a daily practice and actively participating at IDP for more than three years, I've yet to take the Buddhist refuge vows. These vows, which are a public declaration of one's trust in the teachings (dharma), community (sangha), and Buddha's example to light the pathway of practice have not sat well with me.  The easy explanation is that I have a fear of committment, but that doesn't hold up when examined against my long-lasting friendships, well-grooved career path, and boyfriend of ten years (and no "aha moment" there, I'm not marriage-phobic, just gay - so me and my man gettin' hitched is a federal offense).

It also can't be attributed to my well-documnted and totally reasonable distrust of patriarchal authority, because if nothing else the refuge vows demand that you explore the path of real world present moment existence on your own, loneliness be damned, to see if this shit really works.  The sangha - the community of fellow truth-seekers - is there to say "yeah man this sometimes sucks, but it's worth it", but ultimately you have to test-drive the Buddha's teachings on your own, if you're ever to fully unfold their potential in real life.  The teachings of Buddha are adamanatly anti-authority, so what is it that I resist so much about the refuge vows?

Now that I am embarking on a path to be an IDP meditation faciliatator, I thought it might be time to really think about this a bit, and I think I know what the answer is.  Quite simply, I don't trust the sangha.


And it's nothing personal.  Not for you, anyways.  It's all me. See, I grew up in a home that was both very supportive and loving but also incredibly demanding. Though both of my parents are deeply loving people, at that time in their lives (and from my young eyes perspective) love and affection was given if you performed well and got great grades and behaved perfectly. 

Anything less, and the solid emotional ground of childhood stability would reveal itself to be full of hidden potholes of dissatisfacton and landmines of anger, with little more to protect me than my teddybear (aka Bear) and my growing ability to distance myself with a bit of humor and preternatural self-sufficiency.  Both of which are enormously helpful in my life and career today, but at age five or six it amounted to not trusting the context of support and love that I was swimming in.

Fast forward to the IDP sangha / Jerry relationship / refuge vows.  I've never met anyone at IDP that I haven't had a great conversation with, everyone here is creative, intelligent, caring, open about their own path - and yet, this past week when I've really thought about it,  some subconscious part of me is clearly saying: don't trust being too open here, you could be hurt, what if they aren't practicing as much you, what if you aren't practicing as much as them, what if you're not perfect, just do your own thing, stay involved and committed but with a escape hatch - because this might not work out in the end. 

This involved/not-involved aspect of my karmic imprint isn't so joyful for my boyfriend either, but it's something I work with. And the fact that it's coming up around the refuge vows could, on its own, be taken as proof-positive that the refuge vows are so deeply affecting to my psyche that I MUST take them.  

So there you have it, sangha.  I haven't taken the refuge vows because I don't trust you to love me regardless of whether I'm the perfect Buddhist or not, and I don't want to be hurt if I don't get from you what I think I need. I'd rather straddle the fence, do my daily sitting practice, study the teachings, learn to faciltate meditation gatherings, actively participate in the community, think about the example of the Buddha, and tell people how great the IDP and Buddhist practice are for the world every chance I get. But not the refuge vows. Anything but THAT.

Basically, I'm the Buddhist version of living in sin.  All the goodies without the marriage license.  And the more I think about it, since being a gay Buddhist is NOT a federal offense, and since ya'll have never let me down not even once, the more I think it might be time to get hitched.  Don't get all crazy excited, I haven't bought the little wooden bracelet with the extra bead just yet.  But I've started looking at them.  The only question left is, do they make any with diamonds?

And now a word from Thich Nhat Hanh:

When we are in a Sangha,
we are like a drop of water in a river.
We allow the Sangha to hold us and transport us.
Don’t be like a drop of oil in the river,
not mixing with the other drops of water --
that way you arrive nowhere.
Allow yourself to be transported by the Sangha
so that your pain, sorrow, and suffering
are recognized and embraced.

You have to trust the Sangha.
Imagine you are a drop of water
that would like to go to the ocean.
If you go alone, you might evaporate,
but if you allow yourself to be
embraced and transported by the Sangha,
then you will get there.
You suffer only when you are a separate drop of water

Please remember this.

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I can’t imagine focusing long

I can’t imagine focusing long enough to research; much less write this kind of article. You’ve outdone yourself with this material. This is great content.
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Hi Jerry, You'll be ready

Hi Jerry,

You'll be ready when you're ready... I remember hearing you should take the refuge vows when you already feel like you're a Buddhist.



Lovely post!

Thank you for sharing! I think a lot of practitioners experience similar anxieties at some point in their paths. Despite your reported sense of aversion, your article is warm and open and lovely. With Metta.

all of those "yous"

were generic and really meant me. or "me." my sangha's mostly virtual except for weekend retreats, partly due to location and partly by choice. and your post reminds me that I should investigate that attitude again.
I like rituals, as long as they're short. I like making a formal, semipublic commitment -- there's no visible mark of refuge that people on the street will see. you don't even get one of those nifty red cords that you wear until it falls apart. I love my refuge name.
I didn't feel any hesitation about the refuge vow. the bodhisattva vow was another story -- I knew I had the intention, but I wasn't so sure about the skills. then a teacher told me that's exactly when you should take it.
sometimes you just gotta make the leap.


Thanks Nancy - that's exactly what I understand - and I think that's why these issues come up for me around this idea of comittment to a particular group of people labelled as being on their own version of the path I am walking.  I've never thought of the sangha as a crutch, but more as a what you described in your first paragraph.  Part of it is that I am absolutely certain that what the Buddha taught was pure and correct and useful, and sometimes have a bit of knee-jerk to anything added to it.

"the three jewels don't promise to do a thing except be there" - love that.

it's not group therapy

or AA or NA or OA or any addiction A. trusting the sangha doesn't mean you have to trust everyone there with your deepest darkest secrets in order to progress along the path. you look at your relationship to your secrets and your reactions to the person on the cushion next to you. the support comes in knowing they're going through it too, in their own ways.

it's not about trusting the sangha, it's about trusting yourself to be able to work through your reactions to the sangha -- what happens there, the people, the roles you perceive, the old patterns that surface. I see sangha as supportive, or encouraging, but not a support, like a crutch. maybe that's a result of my own experience.

you're already taking refuge in buddhist practice. whether you take a vow is up to you. but it's not a marriage. it's not mutual -- the commitment's all on your part. the three jewels don't promise to do a thing except be there.



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