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“Mindfulness” and “Happiness” are a distraction. Shouldn’t we be speaking about Refuge?


What is refuge?

Where and when do we encounter refuge?

Who or what creates space for refuge?

As professed Buddhists, we take refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha as exemplar, the Dharma as path, the Sangha as community. By taking refuge we give wisdom and compassion a chance to flower from the groundless ground of our mortality. Refuge welcomes vulnerability and entangles the self with others and the world. Hospitality towards what is not-self is necessary; otherwise how do we repair broken worlds, heal the harms we suffer and inflict on one another, or invite shared hopes and aspirations for a more promising future? The taking of refuge is hosted by an act of promising.

But even though I promise myself I will meditate more regularly, or at least remember to start every day with the reciting of the Three Refuges at the little shrine in my study, I’d repeatedly forget or tell myself “another time.” This ghost of betrayal also haunts my promises to give alms at the Buddhist monastery more frequently, and to meet with others more frequently.

Taking refuge thus rebirths itself, again and again, as a promise. Each time we recite our vows, each time we put our palms together and bow, each time we recollect the task of attending to the breath, each time we greet others and work with one another—with each moment we remake our promises and in doing so we encounter refuge by creating space for refuge.


In speaking of promise, encounter, relationality, and responsiveness, I am thus not just referring to Buddhist practice when I say “refuge.” Rather, I am speaking about the basic conditions of safety which allow every “you” and “I” and “it,” humans and nonhumans, to invite from one another — and gift to one another — mutual recognition, respect, care and concern.

I find refuge when I take photos and videos of my cat for my own amusement, but in the very act of doing so I am exposed to the fact this nonhuman life is wholly dependent on my responsiveness; that it has no choice but to let me point a camera at it and make jokes about it whilst completely trusting me for food, shelter, and affection. From the first moment I encountered it as an abandoned kitten till the last time it harassed me for nibbles five minutes ago, my cat’s vulnerability invites the gifting of refuge.

I find refuge when I stroll through the “ethnic” migrant suburb I live in and hear a multitude of tongues, many of which I do not speak. Yet, when the waitress addresses me in Cantonese and I respond in Mandarin-mixed-with-English, we have no trouble understanding one another.

I find refuge when a friend shares empathic joy and tags me in a Facebook post to tell me that refuge is when they are able to dance with whoever they like and to whatever music they like, to dress however they like, and to show affection to whoever they like.

I find refuge when I go on retreats and give myself over to an inexpressible yearning, that ungraspable tenderness accompanying solitude. This unconditional hospitality belongs to no one and thus it may be shared with anyone—like when my Muslim friends gather together with their prayer mats and lower their bodies in supplication; or when my beloved immerses herself in the soft glow of her e-reader and idles the afternoon away with me without saying a word.

So here are five promises of refuge.

Refuge welcomes us to give a promise the chance to become promising.

Refuge welcomes us to embrace the choicelessness of vulnerability.

Refuge welcomes us to foster commoning-in-difference.

Refuge welcomes us to share the joys of companionship, wonder, (ir)reverence, and awe.

Refuge welcomes us to be alone together, faithfully.

By refuge, then, I am trying to invite collective mindfulness about a certain promise that hosts a basic fact of our lives. The choicelessness of vulnerability comes to all of us. We don’t choose vulnerability, but we can decide how to respond. The co-inhabitants of this precarious world must invite from and gift to one another conditions of safety to grow and thrive as communities and habitats. Without this promise of caring responsiveness, how could we possibly encounter refuge, create space for refuge, or even understand what refuge is?

Proponents of a commercialized, individualistic and therapeutic approach to mindfulness rely on a reductive claim: that mindfulness is simply a universal quality of attention or way of being. Thus rebranded, mindfulness is sold in the spiritual marketplace as a tool for the pursuit of happiness, indivisible from the related hawking of ideas like resilience, innovation, productivity, and success. Leaving aside my disagreement with some of the ways in which mindfulness is being recontextualized, let me yet again affirm that this approach to mindfulness holds the potential to help individuals reduce stress and cultivate personal wellbeing; there is suggestive evidence for these benefits and they ought to be taken seriously.

But given the need to become responsive to the structural and systemic injustices and inequalities that may be glossed over by universalizing claims, I wonder if speaking about the promise of refuge instead might help us to pay attention more responsively and responsibly.

Take for instance Google’s popular mindfulness program. By all accounts, it has been very successful in helping employees manage stress and perform better at work. Mindfulness, we could say, is helping participants of the program find refuge and create a space of refuge for one another. But we have also seen that the systemic and structural workings of corporatism prevent Google from being responsive to the social problems it is implicated in, like gentrification. Thus, the promises it makes in the name of “mindfulness” and “happiness” remain inhospitable to the plight of those who are struggling to find refuge in affordable housing.

The promise to be responsively responsible and responsibly responsive—response-abilityasks that we repeatedly check our privilege and consider what we might have excluded or forgotten about, that we recommit our promises over and over again. Like when we witness Leslie Jones facing racist and misogynistic abuse online, but we do not witness the rest of the white cast of Ghostbusters or other professed (white) feminist commentators speaking up in solidarity. Whatever the reasons were for their silence, we can at least say that the promise of refuge made in the name of “feminism” (or any other cause) is only worth its salt if it becomes repeatedly responsive towards that which may be excluded, willfully or inadvertently, from the shared conditions of safety that none of us can do without.

The making of refuge for one another is a ceaseless task, precarious work. Refuge places a universal demand on us to take response-ability for the conditions of safety shared by humans and nonhumans in this precarious world; but this promise of refuge for whomever and whatever can only be fulfilled by giving ourselves over to the contingencies of the particular.

From moment to moment—when we encounter the urgent meowing of an abandoned kitten; when we encounter a traumatic memory co-arising with an unpleasant sensation; when we encounter online trolls harassing a woman; when we encounter a racist or homophobe abusing a passerby; when we encounter the earth and homes of human and nonhuman others being ravaged for the building of pipelines; when we encounter such digital promises as #BlackLivesMatter or #LetThemStay—there can be no refuge unless we entrust ourselves to the situational capacity for responsiveness: a promise which entangles the self with others and the world in response-ability.

The promise of response-ability attends first to grief and loss and harm, not happiness.

When we become responsive to grief and loss and harm, we begin to heal damaged lives and repair broken worlds; we hold the door open for justice.

In speaking of refuge as response-ability, I am not claiming I have figured out the answer to what refuge is. Unlike the drive to gather evidence for the question of mindfulness, I don’t think the question of refuge could ever be mastered or possessed. The search for refuge does not look for an evidence-base to ground answers in certainty but invites responsiveness towards questions that linger on as uncertainty. This means we need to learn to attune ourselves differently with new ways of learning, inquiry and activism, from which all the self-congratulatory talk of “mindfulness” and “happiness” might distract us. A larger conversation awaits on the promise of #makingrefuge.

If the search for refuge must always begin as a promise, it is also a question that must be shared for it to become a promising promise.

What is refuge?

Where and when do we encounter refuge?

Who or what creates space for refuge?

About the Author


Edwin Ng describes himself as a postcolonial “Western Buddhist” convert because, even though he was born and raised in Singapore where he was exposed to the Buddhist customs of his diasporic Chinese ancestral heritage, he only embraced Buddhism after he migrated to Australia and discovered Western translations of the teachings. His interest in the cultural translation of mindfulness is motivated by the lived tensions of straddling multiple cultural and intellectual traditions, and of attempting to cultivate mindfulness to support scholarship, pedagogy, and activism within and against an increasingly corporatized academic regime.

He has recently published a book, Buddhism and Cultural Studies: A Profession of Faith, and he is developing his next book which has been contracted with the working title, Buddhist Critical Theory: The Critique of Mindfulness and The Mindfulness of Critique, but he plans to change the title because “mindfulness” is a distraction from what he would like to say.

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Comments (3)

  • Dawn

    Thanks for this gorgeous piece, Ed!

    The vulnerability of refuge, and its focus on community rather than self, pricked some of these same concepts about the limits of “self care” I’ve been reading this week!

    Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter founder, said recently about missing pieces of the BLM movement: “I think our focus on care and caring for each other has to go beyond the way we talk about it–it’s very individual. It’s always like “take a day off.” It always involves capitalism. Those individual responses don’t do anything to interrupt the logic of capitalism. It’s very much like survival of the fittest. What we need to do to interrupt the logic of capitalism is invest in collective care, as much as self care.”

    And another article on self care has it being more messy, vulnerable, painful, contradictory: “What social workers and other people don’t often tell you is that self-care can be completely terrible. Self-care includes a lot of adult-ing, and activities you want to put off indefinitely. Self-care sometimes means making tough decisions which you fear others will judge. Self-care involves asking for help; it involves vulnerability; it involves being painfully honest with yourself and your loved ones about what you need.”

    Both self care & happiness have an individual focus, and then we as individuals are at fault if we fail. Yet community care & refuge aren’t always pleasant, and require us to show up for ourselves and each other in difficult, uncomfortable, not always happy ways.

  • Joe Bobrow

    Thanks, Ed, for your great piece. I wrote something recently which I’d like to share. Moderators, what’s the best way to do that? It’s 867 words.


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