Taking Refuge: Nowhere to Hide


This post is based upon a Dharma Talk (my first) that I gave on October 25, 2011.

I take refuge in Buddha

I take refuge in Dharma

I take refuge in Sangha

The Three Refuges we chant during our Zen liturgy seem to me to be the closest thing we have to a creed in this non-creedal religion. Creeds are statements of belief. In some religions they are the litmus test for “true believers.” They often require one to submit to improbable metaphysical claims and rigid authority structures.

I was a questioning Catholic 20 years ago when I first encountered Buddhism and the refuges.  Elements of the Nicene Creed, which Catholics recite, always have been hard for me to swallow; certainly in any literal sense. Creeds of any kind – even the UU Covenant – tend to press my buttons to some degree.

I know from talking to other members of our sangha that I’m not the only person who has been agitated by one of the traditional Zen forms. Bowing. Chanting. The Four Vows. Whatever. For me, it was the Three Refuges.

But, here they are. We chant them every week. And, though we don’t make much of “being Buddhist” the way some religions do – there’s no salvation, spiritual or otherwise, in simply self-identifying as a Zen practitioner – “taking refuge” by reciting and embracing the Three Refuges is the traditional way Buddhists the world over signal their commitment to this path.

I had little choice but to sit with my agitation and get to know it. Why this discomfort?

I ultimately concluded that my agitation stemmed from two sources.

First, the very idea of “taking refuge” offended me. I’ve tended to think of myself as autonomous and self-reliant. Taking refuge seemed like submission. I’ve tended to think of myself as strong. Taking refuge seemed like an admission of vulnerability, of weakness. I’ve tended to think of myself as engaged and action-oriented. Taking refuge seemed like hiding.

Second, my early ideas about what Buddhists must be taking refuge in troubled me.

What’s Buddha? Another messiah? Hmm.

What’s Dharma? Did I hear doctrine? Dogma? Forget it.

What’s Sangha? Another exclusive community? Only true believers are saved? Can’t go there.

These reactions were conditioned, of course. I’m a product of western culture, in which values like autonomy, self-reliance, strength, action and the like tend to be privileged over values like interdependence, connection, community, vulnerability, and introspection. Then there’s that Roman Catholic upbringing. There’s so much that’s rich and beautiful about Catholicism, and also much I can only relate to in a mytho-poetic way. Perhaps my reactions also were gendered to some degree.

My early encounters with Buddhism actually helped me discover the Christian contemplative tradition. D.T. Suzuki sings the praises of various Christian mystics in one of his books – names that were unfamiliar to me when I encountered them there 20 years ago. I soon learned that a form of sitting practice that’s often called centering prayer today was developed and preserved in Christian monastic communities through the ages, and that there was a budding lay movement (catalyzed by monks) that embraced it.

I sat in that tradition for many years, and I think my sitting practice ultimately contributed to the disintegration of my Christian religious worldview. (This doesn’t happen for most who sit in that context, and I’m not saying it should, but this was my experience then.) I continued to sit alone for 10 years before making my way to Zen.  And, Zen ultimately helped me appreciate the contemplative strain of my birth tradition in new ways.

I decided to take refuge on this Zen path, in part, because I began to feel that what I was looking for wasn’t to be found in solitude, at least not in my case. I wanted a supportive context, open and devoid of dogma, and I sensed I would find kindred spirits along the Zen path.

I’ve ultimately come to think of the refuges much differently since the time I first encountered them. Those old notions have been turned on their head.

These days, I take refuge from the illusion of complete separateness that seems to be the lens through which so many of us see things – our default mode, if you will. It’s the source of endless personal and collective suffering. I take refuge from my narratives and mental constructions that indulge this illusion.

I now think of this taking refuge from as more of an opting in, than as an opting out. I’m choosing to opt into life as it really is. It includes this illusion of complete separateness and all of my narratives and habits that indulge it, but the whole of life isn’t defined by that illusion, even if my subjective experience sometimes seems to be.

We are distinct, but there really is no sense in which we are separate. We’re immersed in it all. We’re of it all.

What do I choose to opt into?

Buddha signifies a couple of things for me.

It’s our potential to awaken to the reality that we’re not separate from the rest of this universe and everything else in it – we’re not a sort of two-dimensional, Flat Stanley sort of sticker of a human being laid over a flat, background universe. Buddha is oneness, and our capacity to experience this oneness – not just to intellectualize about it, but for this background reality to become our new foreground. Our new ground and no-ground.

But we’re also reminded time and again that we’re Buddha just as we are now, however we are. That each of us embodies and reflects this oneness at this very moment. So Buddha – or Buddha nature – must be me, with all of my foibles and failings, my doubts and insecurities.

Buddha when I snapped at my wife about something senseless the other day. Buddha when I apologized after 15 tense minutes had passed.

Buddha as my mind wanders on or off the cushion, brooding about some perceived indignity, anxious about the demands of work and family life, plotting to better my lot, or whatever.

Dharma includes Buddhist texts and teachings, of course, but, more broadly, I see it as the 10,000 things: ants and sticks and grizzly bears, the steam rising from my teacup, that noxious pile of trash, my kid’s tantrum, you and me as distinct beings, and all the rest. It’s the diversity that exists within the oneness. It’s what each being and thing has to reveal to us.

One of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had was several hours spent sitting alone in the branch of an old tree on a moonlit night. The learning didn’t result from that experience; it didn’t consist of thoughts I thought while I was up there, or after I climbed down. The experience was the learning.

That experience and others like it help prod me beyond belief, beyond the false certainty of our creeds and fixed views, which come in so many forms in religion, in politics, in families, in one’s conception of oneself.

What could it possibly mean to believe in a tree? To believe in moonlight?

I’m reminded once again of Dogen’s lovely verse:

Entreat trees and rocks to preach,

and ask rice fields and gardens for the Truth;

ask pillars for the Dharma,

and learn from hedges and walls.

We engage texts and ideas with our whole being, holding them lightly even as we revere the better ones, but, just as importantly, we engage fully and openly with this universe and all that arises.

Sangha, for me, is our little sitting group and our broader Zen family, and it’s also the broadest community that’s the unity of Buddha and Dharma. The community of the 10,000 things, all of them Buddha, all of them Truth, all intermingling and utterly interdependent.

The tragedy of the human condition, in my view, is that too many of us believe and feel we are utterly separate, and so think and act in ways that reinforce those beliefs and feelings in ourselves and others.

There’s also blessing in this; there’s no doubt some evolutionary necessity to this illusion of separateness. But, we also have the capacity to experience not one, not two, and to make that the orientation from which we think and act, from which we express our distinctiveness.

The term spirituality is problematic even for theists, I think, and it’s doubly so for anyone who considers him- or herself non-theistic. I’ve come to think of it as a sense of connectedness to oneself, others, and the universe – and the felt quality of those connections. Sangha.

So, for me, the refuges have come to serve as a reminder that there’s nowhere to hide. We’re in the stew, and there’s no way out of the pot.

These days I try to take my refuge in:

  • The special mess that I am, including my fears, my insecurities, my shame, my greed, anger and ignorance
  • The 10,000 things, especially the 5,001 to which I’m particularly attracted or averse, and which therefore have much to teach me
  • My utter inseparability from, and therefore complete vulnerability to and dependence upon, all of this

This may all sound a bit free-form, and in an important sense it truly is. But these free-form thoughts can be stood on their head, as well. I also want to stress that I do experience Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in the more formal ways those terms are used – the historical Buddha’s teachings and example (and the example of our many other teachers), our Zen practices and texts, and our community – as a refuge. They form a context in which I try to summon forth and present “the better angels of my nature” with the support and companionship of others who are trying to do the same.

The question that agitated Dogen and animated his practice for years was, “If we’re already Buddhas, why must we practice?” There are many possible answers to this question. For my part, I take refuge on this path and in this community because I need to in order to do my best to show up to life in the way I truly want to show up.

I suspect the illusion of complete separateness never loses its attractive force. The trick, I think, is to see it as the doorway of compassion – compassion for ourselves, as well as for others. Buddha, Dharma, Sangha – they prod me toward that doorway, and help me find it again when I’ve lost sight of it.

I’ll conclude with a thought and an image.

The thought is about this word “creed,” which is from the Latin root for belief. “Credo” often is translated “I believe.” But, it’s apparently a modern definition. I’m told the ancient meaning of “credo” was something more along the lines of “I give my heart to this.”

I like that.

The image is this: A revered, ancient Zen teacher is said to have spent his final, dying days walking around a pole in his room, on which he had inscribed the words Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

He clearly found his refuge there, all the way to the end. What a powerful image. What a powerful, final teisho for his community, and for all of us.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

I can, and do, give my heart to that.