Surrendering and Refuge

Emotional Responses to Change

Buddham saranam gacchāmi
Dhammam saranam gacchāmi
Sangham saranam gacchāmi

Ti Sarana

The Ti Sarana, or Three Refuges, is a chant in Buddhism. It’s something I’ve chanted many times in different communities.

The chant is in sanskrit, and I want to focus on the word saranam. Translated as “refuge” in the chant, it also has the meaning, or implication, of “surrender”. Thus the taking refuge can be seen as giving over some part of yourself to the care of another, as when you are sick and put yourself in a doctor’s care until you are well again.

Things Change

During the pandemic we’ve had much need for refuge, but what about surrender? During difficult times, things change and events occur in ways we wish they would not. They stay difficult when we wish they would change to become easier. As Dōgen wrote, “flowers fall, weeds spring up”. We have come hard against the fact that our attempts to control things and make them as we wish are illusory.

Emotions and the Illusion of Control

When we feel we are in control, we don’t worry so much, but when we find our attempts to control things aren’t working, we feel powerless. We become fearful, unsure. There is discomfort and anxiety. Our uncertainty can lead to anger and resentment, and finally despair, what Shozan Jack Haubner calls “the howling banshees of the inner life”.

All our attempts to regain control, to stop changes we don’t want, lead to negative consequences. Our efforts don’t just fail, they can make things worse for us.

Continuing to try to control things using the systems that no longer work can increase our general stress and anxiety. We exhaust ourselves with fruitless attempts to shore up the failing systems. We may get angry and lash out at others because we feel they are interfering, or upsetting things we wish to control.

The longer our views remain at odds with reality, the longer we refuse to accept reality as it is, more the conflict we feel. We fall ever deeper into dukkha, suffering.

The Bardo

I only have a passing familiarity with the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the Bardo, but it’s a useful concept for us here. The term is Tibetan (བར་དོ), literally, “between two.” An interval between two states, a liminal (transitional) space. The word liminal is from the Latin for threshold. In Buddhism, the intermediate phase between states of being, and specifically in Tibetan Buddhism, the state between death and the next reincarnation. It’s also an idea that can apply to situations of transition in our lives.

The bardo state is said to have stages. We’ve already discussed the first stage of bardo, the feeling of loss of control. We may even feel a loss of self, of who we are. The sociologist Emile Durkheim conceived of the loss of a sense of communal self and seeking only self-satisfaction, or control as anomie.

The next stage of bardo is known as shunyata, or emptying. This is when we start to let go of our contrived self-image that we are or can be in control. This letting go, or surrender, harks back to the surrender of saranam. In chanting the Three Refuges we are giving form to our surrender and our letting go.

Letting go, or surrendering, is when the whirlwinds of feeling begin to spin themselves out. We need a safety net, a refuge, to let this happen. We need to feel that, within our confusion and dismay, we can safely give up our attempts to control, and overcome the fear that we will lose “who we are”, to recognize that who we think we are is an illusion of the small self.

Resistance to letting go comes from our ego self. There may be feelings of shame for not living up to the expectations we have allowed ourselves to build up. We may fear that it will hurt us in the ways we most fear being hurt.

It takes a lot of effort to surrender, paradoxically. We must be able to notice how and when our thoughts don’t reflect reality. Awareness of our delusions requires calming and quieting the monkey mind. We must trust ourselves and others.

We must cultivate humility towards ourselves as well as others. However hard it is, we must place trust in things as they are, noticing how and when our thoughts don’t reflect reality. Even when everything is crazy and you don’t know what to do, keep practicing.

In chanting, “saranam gacchami”, from the Ti Sarana, we are declaring our intention to put our trust in something other than our small ego-centric self. We are submitting our small self to the structures, care, wisdom, and rhythms of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha


Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.

In this letting go, we don’t become passive and abandon living our daily lives. Just the opposite, in my experience: we stop trying to “do something” and just do the laundry, wash the dishes, scoop the cat’s litter box. Engaging our attention on what amounts to the minimal allows us to let go of our attempts to create control before it is even clear what it is we are seeking to control.

What’s called samu practice in Buddhism, just doing ordinary work, sharpens our receptiveness by unplugging the control system and not employing the strategies for control and happiness. We aren’t just letting go of control, but of whole systems of control that we’ve built up.

Giving up is not transactional: We aren’t surrendering in exchange for something, the surrender is itself the refuge.

For my limited understanding of the meaning of the term bardo I am indebted to Pema Khandro Rinpoche for her discussion in Breaking Open in the Bardo. I was unable to find a citation for origin of the quote on renunciation, but a version appears in Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen: Love and Work.

Keeping My Place

I’m the sort of person who keeps bookmarks. I don’t mean collects them, I mean I keep them handy. Whenever I’ve picked up a book to read and I come to stopping point and need a bookmark, I just open a drawer or look on a shelf nearby, and there will be bookmarks.

I don’t understand people who say they can never find a bookmark. Many of the bookmarks I have came with a book, from a bookstore. Smaller, indie bookstores love to have bookmarks printed up with their design and logo. When you buy a book, the person who checks you out will slide a store-brand bookmark into the book. I’ve even been to bookstores were every book on the shelves already has a bookmark slipped into it, inside the front cover. Whoever does the stocking and shelving is very diligent.

The store brand bookmarks are usually just a plain piece of heavy paper. With the name of the store they usually have an address and phone number. Today it may also include a website and email address. Some will have a quote or the shop motto. “Resources for Growth and Inspiration” says one. “Keeping Ideas in Circulation™️” says another, from a used book store.

Libraries will sometimes have stacks of bookmarks for free, too. I am the sort of person who will grab two, one for the book I’m checking out and one just to put in a drawer, in case I need one.

I have a few bookmarks that fit the definition of a proper bookmark, in that they aren’t slips of heavy paper that you’re expected to lose or discard. These are the ones made of sturdier material, and some have tassels. Bookmarks with tassels are handy for larger books, because a slip of heavy paper might get jostled and slip down between the pages. The tassel prevents that. The problem I have with tasseled bookmarks is that the bits of string or whatever dangling out can catch on things. Back in the day they would often get tangled in the wires of spiral-bound notebooks. The bad thing about that is how I could be taking the book out, or looking for something in my backpack, the tassel would catch, and the bookmark would be yanked clean out of the book. I hate when that happens, because it means I have to guess where I was, and then flip back and forth until I found a place I remembered reading. Most of the proper bookmarks I have were gifts from people who know I loved to read books. I don’t think I’ve actually purchased more than a half-dozen bookmarks. Why would I buy one, when I get all I need and more, free for the asking.

Some of my bookmarks are from stores that don’t exist any more. I miss those bookstores when I find one of their bookmarks.

A good portion of the books on my shelves have bookmarks in them. That’s usually an indicator that I got to that point in the book and put it aside with little intent of coming back to it. When I put it on a shelf I leave the bookmark in. Maybe I’ll finish it, someday.

Some of my books have two bookmarks. These are typically the books with endnotes, or glossaries. My system, when reading a book that requires me to flip to the back to check a note, is to keep a bookmark corresponding to where I last checked, which roughly moves in step with my “main” bookmark, the one keeping my place in the book itself. I also have a few cookbooks, and they tend to have multiple bookmarks. Recipes I want to find again easily.

Sometimes I’ll take a book off one of my bookshelves and find a bookmark tucked into pages where it slid into invisibility. Sometimes there will be one just in the inside cover. Of course sometimes I find other things in my books. Notes from whenever back then, slips of paper or something.

I tell you all this about bookmarks not because I think you’ll be fascinated by it, or to reveal a secret about me. I love to read books, and I own hundreds. That’s not a secret. I’m writing this because I it’s been almost two months since I blogged here, and maybe you’re wondering if I gave up. I stepped away for a bit, but I kept my place.


Allow me to tell a bit of a story.

Back in the late 90s/early 2000s I was a regular visitor and sometime contributor to a website where XP and Agile were first being brought to the attention of the wider community outside the original team that developed the practices. At the time I was steeped in Structured, Top-Down Programming and Getting the Design Right before starting on coding. The practices of XP looked to me, in my inexperience, like cowboy coding. I believed that good programming required a capital-M Methodology and lots of UML with Rational Unified Process. I had previously worked in academia where there was no programming process and everything was slapdash. XP and agile seemed to be a similar “we don’t need no rules here” way of writing code.

By today’s standards of 3-5 years of experience, I was Senior, so I really thought I knew what I was doing. I couldn’t conceive of how software could get done if it wasn’t planned out in advance. Software development was supposed to look like this diagram:

From Winston Walker Royce’s 1970 paper Managing the Development of Large Software Systems

I called XP a “pseudo-methodology”. It looked like chaos.

James Gleick wrote a book titled Chaos, published in 1987. I don’t recall when I read it but certainly by the the late 90s, before or alongside reading about XP.

Let’s stop here and talk a bit about that word, “chaos”, because it’s important, and I think a lot of where I’m going hinges on it. If you look in the dictionary you’ll see definitions of chaos like “complete disorder and confusion”, or “a state of utter confusion“. Gleick definitely did not write an entire book about utter confusion. The meaning of chaos in his book is an alternate definition at the dictionary citation previously linked: “the inherent unpredictability in the behavior of a complex natural system”. A very small change in conditions at one point in time could result in very large and unpredictable changes in behavior later.

You could not remove a single gram of sand from its place, without thereby, although perhaps imperceptibly to you, altering something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole

The Vocation of Man, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, W. Smith tr.

A related concept is: emergence. Emergence, or more fully, emergent behavior, is like a flock of birds. Watching birds move in a flock might lead to the idea that there is a leader, but there is not. Because each individual acts according to the same rules, in the same environmental conditions, we see flocking. Schools of fish are similar. This is decentralized behavior.

I’ll have to go into chaos, emergent behavior, and complex systems in another post, later.

But sometime before March of 2001 I had an epiphany. I won’t go into the whole story but my realization was the when the work gets to the coding and testing phases all but the most trivial projects will discover things that hadn’t been accounted for in the requirements and analysis phases. It also became clear to me that in anything but the smallest projects, in the time between requirements and coding, something will change, invalidating at least some of the decisions made in the requirements phase. What I didn’t know before then was that Royce, in his paper that laid out what would be called the waterfall model of software development, including the graphic previously shown, rejected the concept. He wrote, “I believe in this concept, but the implementation described above is risky and invites failure.”

required design changes are likely to be so disruptive that the software requirements upon which the design is based and which provides the rationale for everything are violated. … In effect the development process has returned to the origin and one can expect up to a 100-percent overrun in schedule and/or costs.

Winston W. Royce, 1970

What I think was happening when XP came along was that programmers realized that the systems they were working on had become too complex to reason about. The systems were, in Gleick’s terms, chaotic. The concepts of chaos, emergence, and decentralized control informed XP: The practices of XP are simple, and out of the simple practices arise complex behaviors. Simplicity, coupled with communications and feedback, make XP a programming discipline expressly, and perhaps uniquely, developed and suited for writing complex software of the sort that came about at the turn of the 21st century, in the kinds of organizations that became dominant in the software profession.

You might say I became an XP convert. I did have a tendency to get personally invested in my world view, and at my next job I became the Change Agent that was going to bring XP/agile to my employer. And you know what? I made a lot of mistakes and misunderstood a lot of things, but it sort of worked. My co-workers started thinking about things differently. They stopped being quite so annoyed when, halfway through the project, the businesspeople decided they wanted something kind of different from what they had said up front. Programmers and non-programmers started to look at the work-in-progress together and decide if things were on track, if the requirements were right, if everyone had come to a shared understanding of what the requirements really meant.

Mostly, I started to accept that users and stakeholders only sort of know what they want, that communicating complex ideas between people is hard, and that realizing ideas in software is harder still. The only way to get software that works as desired is to build incrementally, share progress, and iterate.

It’s been 20 years since the Agile Manifesto, and I have met two or three of the original signatories. In the interim, I’ve come to agree with observers who say agile, as done today, feels like chaos. Agile, done poorly, is chaos. And by that I mean “a state of utter confusion”.