Refuge as a Challenge to Western Systems and Paradigms

This talk by Khemasuri of Triratna UK on “Transcending Paradigms” looks at “Refuge in the Three Jewels” as challenges to western systems and paradigms. While I don’t agree with everything in her talk, I appreciate the way she was able to apply systems theory to sanghas as organizational systems that are designed to function as an alternative to western social systems. I disagree that Triratna’s sanghas necessarily always function as a counter-point to mainstream society. My sense is that Triratna, like any Buddhist community, is subject to the same dynamics and problems as any other organization in western society. The crux of the matter is: what do you do about it? How do you respond when the cultures and paradigms of the western capitalist world warp the function and activities of the sangha? Do you recognize it as such and use it as an opportunity for learning, change and growth? Do you engage with it as a path to awakening?

I could work with Refuge as a sincere challenge to western paradigms only if ‘taking refuge’ is combined with ‘going forth’ into homelessness. Refuge, in western cultural terms, is often associated with “shelter” or “protection.” But that smacks too much of “safety” and separatism. Chogyam Trungpa said that when you take refuge, you become a refugee, an outcast that belongs to no society. As a refugee, you connect in sangha with other refugees. Legal refugees are stateless persons who are granted a temporary homeland in another country, although they are still not citizens and can be deported at any time. That’s closer to how I would define ‘going for refuge.’

I would also add that I disagree with her definition of systems as containing “things.” Systems theory is taught many different ways, of course. But the way I learned it from Joanna Macy is that systems contain entities, and entities are themselves systems in a steady state. There are no “things” in systems theory, which is why it’s such a good model for pratityasamutpada.

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