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July 19, 2014

by Stephen Damon

Occasionally, one hears a story—true or made up—that seems to evade the continuous discriminations of the mind and sinks to a deeper part of oneself.  Perhaps the best examples of these are the countless Zen stories depicting Masters challenging their students or questioning the insights of their colleagues, often recorded in koans.  While some of these stories may be based on things that really happened, most are legends designed to have a specific impact on a listener.  But every now and then you will read an actual account of a well-known historical figure. 

Just the other day I came across just such a story about Eihei Dogen, the found of Japanese Soto Zen that I’d like to share with you.  Dogen was a brilliant, gifted Zen Master who thoroughly and carefully studied Buddha’s teachings.  He was one of the most innovative and influential of all Buddhist thinkers, who wrote many incomparable fascicles that have been translated into many languages.  Perhaps his greatest work was the multivolume Shobogenzo, or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. 

As Dogen approached his death, instead of entering a deep state of meditation or giving one last teaching to his students, he took out a long sheet of white paper and wrote the Japanese characters for Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, which he hung on a pillar in his sickroom.  Weak from his illness he got out of bed and circumambulated the pillar, chanting, “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”  The Triple Treasure had become his center of gravity around which his life revolved.  Everything else—all his fascicles, koans, poems, and monastic teachings—were only commentary.


I find this story so compelling because taking refuge has long been a central part of my Buddhist practice.  I start each day by lighting incense on my altar and reciting the refuge prayer three times as I make full prostrations.  And I end each day by reciting a Tibetan version of the refuge prayer as I fall asleep: I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  By practicing generosity and other far reaching attitudes may I achieve full Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. Sometimes, as I drift off to sleep I can “hear” the prayer in the background of my consciousness. 

Both the Pali and the Latin for “refuge” implies a return to a safe place or sanctuary. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha all have many levels of meaning from the most immediate and obvious to something that is “beyond” anything that can be named.  

I have sometimes found it very helpful to sit with the idea of taking refuge,  or just returning.  It’s not really a matter of returning somewhere as it is to reverse the usual momentum of one’s life. So, taking refuge is returning not only to something that can be named like “Buddha,” it also can refer to that which cannot be named—the original source of being.  It is returning to one’s self—to one’s sense of “I am.” While I try to start each day by returning to this “place,” I invariably go into exile during the day.  Seeing this inner exile, seeing how I let external influences pull me out of myself, I try to make a “return” before I let go of my day.





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