I appreciated Bob’s talk last week about the spirit of taking refuge. He spoke so beautifully to the feeling of coming home to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. That sense of the spiritual journey where in the end the destination is home. This is so true for us somehow. If you haven’t seen it Norman has a book riffing on Homer’s Odyssey and Zen Practice along that theme too, it’s called “Sailing Home”.
The Buddha spoke about this in an early collection of verses called the Dhammapadda
They go to many a refuge,
to mountains and forests,
to park and tree shrines:
people threatened with danger.
But when, having gone
to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha for refuge,
you see with right discernment
the four noble truths —
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
& the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
that’s the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release from all suffering & stress.
When we chant the “ti sarana” the three refuges in Pali that Bob was speaking about it has this feeling of seeking a true refuge.
The Pali words are pretty straight forward as far as I can tell:
Buddham saranam gacchami Buddha, going for refuge – I guess the indirect object is implied so the literal English would be “In Buddha I go for refuge”. Interesting to note there is word “going” here, a sense of a journey. Dhammam saranam gacchami Dharma, going for refuge – and please not there is no “R” in Dhammam, this is the Pali form of the word, it’s the Sanskrit form – Dharma – that has the “R”. A little pet peeve of mine. Sangham saranam gacchami Sangha, going for refuge
And then the second and third repeats add a word. Again really simple: Dutiyampi means a second time – “Second time, Buddha, going for refuge” so “A second time, I go for refuge in Buddha”. And Tatiyampi means a third time.
Three is a magic number here, probably from pre-modern Indian society, if you ask something three times or say something three times you really really mean it. In the early stories there are many occasions where someone asks the Buddha something and he doesn’t answer so they ask again, and again and then having asked three times he sees their sincerity and answers. And maybe you noticed in our jukai ceremony there were times when I repeated a statement three times.
In our Boddhisattva precepts ceremony – now moving into the middle of page 2 of the sutra book – we add some poetic explanation to what it might mean to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
I take refuge in buddha
Before all beings, immersing body and mind
Deeply in the way, awakening true mind
I take refuge in dharma
Before all beings, entering deeply
The merciful ocean of buddha’s way
I take refuge in sangha
Before all beings, bringing harmony
To everyone, free from hindrance
Notice the repeated phrase “before all beings.” There is a strong sense here of community and transcendence of our individual view or opinion. We take these vows and enter this refuge not for ourself and by ourself, but with others and for others and supported by others. Supporting others.
But what is this refuge? What does it feel like? How can it be a refuge where we gain release from suffering and stress like the Buddha’s poem suggests? Could there be some place we can really rely on like that?
Often when the three refuges are talked about we talk about what doesn’t seem to work as a refuge. We contemplate our previous attempts and we study our own suffering. Sense pleasures and distractions doesn’t seem to be a reliable refuge right? Exercising our desires doesn’t seem to be a reliable refuge. Getting what we want or avoiding what we don’t want isn’t a reliable refuge. Putting someone else in their place so we feel better, not a good refuge. It’s seen as important to reflect on the oppositive of what we’re trying to understand as a way of clarifying.
And what’s notable about these false refuges is they are self-centered, right? This is only natural, nothing to beat ourselves up over. Of course we’re self centered. Our self is wired up to treasure and protect itself. And also it’s wired up to loathe ourself funnily enough.
In taking refuge in the three treasures we open to a bigger vision than the self and we do this in community with all beings. This is a very vulnerable and open kind of intention. It can be uncomfortable but ultimately so peaceful.
Before all beings, immersing body and mind deeply in the way, awakening true mind. Body and mind. We breathe into the body, we feel the body, we are the body. Integration of body and mind is essential. Our mind has this incredibly useful and also dangerous ability to travel through space and time. Our mind tries to take refuge in alternate realities, in visions and stories. Stories are wonderful. But they aren’t a place we can take refuge. More of a place we can visit to explore and learn and enjoy. But they are not real. A refuge that isn’t real won’t protect us. Can’t be our true home.
And yet the body can’t travel through time and space like that which is its great gift to us. Even when the body is painful, even when the body is failing, it’s teaching us to be present. To be here. To feel the refuge of the deep way that all beings walk from birth into death. Our embodiment brings us fully into the community of all beings and from there true mind can awaken. Buddha’s mind. Awakened mind. The mind that can feel a bigger reality than the self. “Big mind,” Suzuki Roshi called this.
Then Dharma. Before all beings, entering deeply the merciful ocean of Buddha’s way. The Buddha said what he realized through his practice and awakening was incredibly rich and diverse, as many realizations and teachings as there are leaves in the forest. And that what he chose to teach and leave for us is the handful of leaves that help us to understand suffering and healing. So it’s a teaching of mercy for all beings. A way of leaning how to be with our full experience with grace and joy, even when our self-centered mind is screaming at us about how horrible we are or how horrible it is or how horrible they are. Our true mind-body that are swimming in the merciful ocean of Buddha’s way can feel a bigger reality – as boundless as the great ocean – a bigger reality than the self-centered mind and there is a great relief there.
The Sangha. Back to community. Before all beings, bringing harmony to everyone, free from hindrance. This is a litmus test for our practice. Is there on the whole more harmony in our communities as we study this way. More harmony here in the zendo community, more harmony in our family life, more harmony in our friendships? If there isn’t, if there is some kind of increase in separation or divisiveness form our understanding of Dharma we are missing something. So look and see. Wonder about interpersonal harmony. Sometimes it takes unusual forms. Some kinds of harmony may indeed include clear boundaries and even barriers. There is a place for protection and there needs to be safety. So we have study and be curious about what real harmony might be, and again be aware if we’re looking for harmony for everyone or just a little relief for our self.
The word hindrance is a technical term in Buddhism. The hindrances are habits of mind that prevent us from practicing. Again these lists and terms are only useful if we really look for them in our own life with some curiosity. And what’s tricky about hindrances is that when they are active is the time we least want to look at them! The usual list is of 5 hindrances: do you remember what they are? [ask]
They are organized into two pairs of connected qualities and on over arching own. desire & anger, laziness & agitation, and doubt.
Doubt is the subtlest of the three. The obvious level of meaning is doubt in practice, doubt that we are worthy, doubt that this will all bring benefit. A kind of justified resistance to practice. And then in Zen we understand a positive quality of doubt too – Great Doubt. That’s the doubt in ordinary conditioned existence and this should be cultivated. We should doubt that this crazy self-centered mind is it. We should doubt that our usual point of view and our opinions are useful or correct. We should doubt what other’s tell us to do also. Great Doubt could also be seen as a kind of Great Curiousity – I wonder what’s really going on and I’m gong to keep wondered and not be content with simple answers. So Great Doubt is a kind of antitode to ordinary doubt. We can doubt our doubt in other words.
And again we do this with support. We see the teacher. We talk with our peers and elders. It would be great if there were a lot more traffic into the practice discussion room and the dokusan room in the zendo actually. Something happens in conversations around our hindrances – in bringing this “before all beings” piece more fully into our lives experience. And in practicing opening our mouth about what really matters. For sure you’ll say the wrong stuff half the time when you try to express something about the deeper meaning of your life. Maybe you’ll say the wrong stuff all the time. But just practicing saying something is so important. And it works best when you spend plenty of time not saying anything too. Less jabbering, more silence, and also more quiet conversations in the context of zazen about what they call the “Great Matter” in Zen.
So a little more explanation of taking refuge in the Three Treasures. Let’s chant the ti-sarana together after we bow.