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Taking refuge

May 6, 2012

by Stephen Damon

As Buddhists we take refuge in the Three treasures: The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha as an essential part of our practice. The sixteen bodhisattva precepts, which we take over and over again really are expressions of the precept: I take refuge in the Buddha. In a sense, everything we do as Buddhists is an expression of this simple vow. Taking refuge is more than a thought or a belief; it is expressing the Buddha’s Way with the whole of ourselves: body, speech, and mind.

Dogen, the founder of our lineage who repeatedly stressed the physical practice of zazen, didn’t sit continuously at the end of his life. Instead he took three pieces of paper on which he wrote a character for each of the treasures and posted them on the pillars of his room. He continuously circumambulated his room and chanted the three characters: “Buddha, Dharma, Sangham”.  In a sense, taking refuge must become our center of gravity, around which our external lives circumambulate.

In the original Pali, the word “sarana” means refuge, protection, or shelter. The English, “refuge” comes from the Latin re fugere, which means “fly back.”So, taking refuge in the three jewels means to fly back or return to—what? To our original nature, which is emptiness.  In the Surangama sutra, the word “return” is used as a technical term to mean the mind seeing through its projections, and resting in emptiness.

The Buddha refers not only to Shakyamnuni Buddha but also to our deepest self, which is beyond Buddha.  The historical Buddha also took refuge in the Buddha that went beyond Shakyamuni. But in actual practice this “self” that is beyond itself often remains elusive, so taking refuge is a never-ending process.  As Dogen said, “Buddhas keep on becoming Buddhas.”

A sitting Buddha on an altar represents not only a historical being but our ongoing practice of stepping back and looking inward. It represents our return to our original home, our original nature. As Weng Wei puts it in his poem, My cottage at South Mountain:

In my middle years I have grown fond of The Way

…When happy I go alone into the mountains.

Seeing only the sights that I can see.

I walk until the water ends, and sit…

No matter how old we are, we are each in the middle of our lives. Like Weng Wei we need to leave the place that we mistakenly called home and become refugees in search of our original home, where the water ends.



From → Zen Buddhism

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