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.

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