Sunday, October 23, 2011


Buddhism is essentially an education – some have called it an 'educational system' – as well as a praxis consisting of various ideasteachingspractices, activities and ways of understanding ... as opposed to ‘beliefs’ ... for Buddhism is not a 'belief-system.'  Shakyamuni Buddha said, 'Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don't believe.'

A Buddhist is said to ‘take refuge’ in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, but what does it mean to ‘take refuge’? Well, let me start by telling you what the words do not mean.

What follows is very important. Taking the Three Refuges is not about faith or belief ... nor ‘salvation’ as that word is usually understood in Christianity.  No, ‘taking refuge’ involves not faith or belief but a healthy, empirically-based confidence and affirmation based on both personal experience and objective knowledge.

‘Taking refuge’ is not some act or posture of weakness or cowardice whereby one seeks to retreat or withdraw from the pressures of life and seek 'shelter' elsewhere. On the contrary, ‘taking refuge’ is an act of direct, mindful engagement with life itself ... in all of its fullness.

The threefold affirmation of ‘taking refuge’ involves various undertakings and commitments, as well as notions, of:

·    returning [to one's 'true nature'], ‘coming home,’ ‘finding one’s home,’ 'dwelling in,' and ‘being at home with,’
·    reliance, adherence, and ‘holding on to,’
·    spiritual discipline in the forms of ‘giving up’ and ‘letting go’ of certain things ... as well as establishing or laying foundations for future growth and development, and
·    ‘finding,’ 'learning,' 'abiding,' 'being at one with,' and understanding.

The original Pali words of the ‘Triple Gem’ (or ‘Three Jewels’ or 'Three Refuges') – that is, the three ‘I take refuge’ lines – when translated literally, read, ‘I will undertake to find my home in ... .’ Expanding on that idea, in the Infinite Life Sutra the Buddha taught us to 'dwell in the wisdom of true reality.' And what is that? Well, we all share a common life 'entity' – life itself, that is, the very livingness of life. Each one of us is part of life's self-expression. (The word 'self,' here, means self-actualizing.) Now, Buddhists refer to that common life 'entity' as the Dharma-body.

Insofar as the Buddha is concerned, ‘taking refuge’ involves turning one’s back on one’s attachments - which include such things as fixed or inflexible ideas and opinions - and delusions in order to return to, and rely upon, a state of awareness and understanding. As I have said many times before, there is no need to believe when there is understanding. (The very word 'Buddha' – a Sanskrit word – means both awareness and understanding.) Further, it is not a matter of blindly following Shakyamuni Buddha. On the contrary, it is written in the Kalama Sutra that Buddha asked his ‘disciples’ not to believe certain things simply because he said them, or because they were commanded by so-called holy books. No, we are to ‘prove’ all things, and, as I have said many times before, there is nothing to ‘believe.’ What a relief! What a blessing!

Insofar as the Dharma is concerned, ‘taking refuge’ involves giving up various erroneous views about ‘self’ ... including the very notion of ‘self’ itself ... and relying upon a right view of things, that is, seeing things with choiceless awareness ... as they really are. (The word 'Dharma' refers not only to the teachings of the Buddha but also to things, events and phenomena – in fact, everything in the universe, hence the connection with mindfulness in the form of both awareness and understanding.)

Insofar as the Sangha is concerned, ‘taking refuge’ involves turning one’s back on the methods and weaponry of worldly conflict, discord and disharmony, and relying upon and drawing strength from the community of learning, that is, the fellowship of likeminded people. Metaphorically speaking, and more importantly, 'taking refuge' in the Sangha refers to purity of mind and harmony in life.

Taking the Three Refuges means committing oneself to a certain praxis and lifestyle. It is not a matter of being ‘saved’ by the Buddha. We must ‘save’ ourselves, that is, the persons we are, by moving from a ‘sense of self’ to a ‘sense of Being [or "Be-ness"].’ Yes, Buddhism is based upon the principle that we can change our lives by changing the way we see our ‘selves’ and others. It is a means of ‘self-deliverance.’ (No, not in that other sense!) There is no need for any outside saviour.

Taking the Three Refuges means experiencing ‘a feeling of being at home in the universe,' which was Professor William James' definition of 'religion.' Wonderful words – a feeling of being at home in the universe. Taking the Three Refuges is not something you do just once, although in order to become a Buddhist it must be done – that is, affirmed – with deliberate intent and with some formality (even if it be done privately by you alone) on the very first occasion. (Undertaking the Five Precepts is also part of Buddhist 'initiation' and practice.) No, taking the Three Refuges is something you do on a daily basis and from one moment to the next ... mindfully.

In certain sects or denominations of Buddhism – for example, Shinnyo-en – the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are conflated. (In all traditions of Buddhism, it is acknowledged that, although there are three 'jewels,' they are all set in a 'single crown.') Thus, the Buddha is said to be ever-present in his teachings (the Dharma) and in the community of learning and practice (the Sangha). I like that idea. It is a bit similar to the Christian teaching that Jesus is ever-present in both the Word of God (the Bible) and his Church (the 'Mystical Body of Christ'). Jesus is reported to have said, 'The person who has seen me has seen the Father' (Jn 14:9). Buddha is reported to have said, 'The person who sees the Dharma sees me.' Fascinating.

Then there is what is known in Buddhism as 'Buddha nature,' that is, the 'Buddha within.' Now, not all Buddhists assert that there is such a 'thing' as ‘Buddha nature,’ but for the most part I find the idea quite attractive. As I see it, ‘Buddha nature’ is not a ‘soul’ or ‘self’ but simply the inbuilt potentiality we all have as human beings to ‘awaken’ to our true being ... as fully awakened or enlightened human beings. In that regard, the Sixth and Last Patriarch of Chán (Zen) Buddhism, Master Dajian Huineng, made it clear that 'taking the Triple Gem' simply meant returning to one's true, innate 'Self-Nature.' (In Esoteric Christianity there is the idea of the indwelling 'Christ in you, the hope of glory' [Col 1:27 (NKJV)], which some see as the Christian 'equivalent' to what is called 'Buddha nature' in Buddhism.)

Thus, ‘taking refuge’ in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha means resorting to the practices by which Shakyamuni and others since have achieved ‘enlightenment’, that is, total freedom from the ‘bondage of self.’ It means finding within those three things, and within the person each one of us is, the teacher, the teaching, and the community of learning and practice that will enable us to ‘wake up’ and ‘stay awake.’ Mindfulness was the form of meditation that the Buddha Shakyamuni successfully used to achieve enlightenment. Yes, there are other forms of meditation – even within Buddhism – but mindfulness is the only one which has the ‘imprimatur,’ so to speak, of the historical Buddha (who otherwise taught us innumerable 'ways of practice'). That’s good enough for me. Anyway, I find it works ... and that is the way Buddhism is supposed to ‘work’ as well. It’s entirely a matter of direct experience and empirical proof.

In this short YouTube video the Rev. Koyo S Kubose of Bright Dawn Institute for American Buddhism demonstrates how to ‘apply’ the Three Jewels in one’s meditation practice:

Now, as Richard Nixon used to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear. You do not need to become a Buddhist to ‘wake up.’ Any person who is prepared to ‘come home’ in the sense described in this blog is, for all intents and purposes, a 'student of the Triple Jewels,' and is able to find within their own personhood all they need to become free from the bondage of self. So, come alive, wake up ... and stay awake ... mindfully.


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