The Three Jewels and Refuge (Confidence In the Teachings III)

Drikung Kagyü Refuge TreeNow that things are a bit more “in order” we can go back into a series of reflections that I have been working on based on a verse from Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosha :

“Faith is full confidence in cause and effect (Karma), the Four Noble Truths, and the Three Jewels”

This particular reflecting will focus on the last part of the teachings that Vasubandhu commends to practitioners as being the ones that we must have full confidence in.

It may be helpful (but not necessary) to review the previous reflections in this series, which can be done by going to the blog’s homepage. The concept of Karma is especially important to have at least a brief flavor of when thinking about the Three Jewels. It is in a lot of ways, the Buddhist “creation story”.

Refuge: The Context for The Three Jewels

In thinking about the Three Jewels, it is useful to think of them in the context of Refuge. Refuge is an important complementary teaching to the notion of the Three Jewels, because, for a Buddhist, the Three Jewels are the only source of refuge from the suffering of samsara. What then is Refuge? Some might liken it to a “Buddhist Baptism”, this is true in the sense that Refuge is the foundational act of accepting Buddhism as one’s own spiritual path. But, the sense and flavor of this act is much different than Baptism in the Christian sense. It is an act of choicelessness, but also in the same breath an act of complete freedom and openness.

Chögyam Trunpga’s teachings on Refuge are very profound, and the teachings that guide me in my own act and practice of taking refuge. He writes in the book Heart of the Buddha:

“By taking [the Refuge] vow, we end our shopping in the spiritual supermarket … we no longer have to compare our lifestyle with anybody else’s … Perhaps this approach may seem repressive, but it is really based on a sympathetic attitude toward our situation. To work on ourselves is really only possible when there are no sidetracks, no exits.” (Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa v. 3 p. 376)

By taking refuge, we take the first step into Buddhism, and we step out on our own. We, in a true and real sense become refugees. Refugees are homeless travelers, and in becoming a permanent refugee, we understand that the basis of our existence is groundlessness, and that there is no need for a home or “solidity”. Easier said than done, of course, but this is the first invitation that Buddhism extends to its committed followers.

Trungpa Rinpoche was reputed to say at refuge vow ceremonies that “by taking these vows, you are giving up on God” or something to that effect. In the Heart of the Buddha, Trungpa Rinpoche says: “So the refuge ceremony is a landmark of becoming a Buddhist, a non-theist”. In a sense, this is very true. Refuge does not mean that someone else takes responsibility for our path, or for our eventual “enlightenment”. In turn, we also have no obligations to anyone else, and no need to make the bearded man in the sky smile. Instead, it is an act whereby, we as the individual take on the full responsibility for our own progress, our own growth, and indeed our own lives. There is guidance and help along the way, but this is only advice. We have to hew out our own path. Another teacher taught that the path is really a big forest and that in the refuge vow, we are given our machete to hack through the vegetation and pointed in the general direction we should go. How we get there, is entirely up to us.

As Buddhists, we take refuge in three things: The Buddha as the example, the Dharma as the path, and the Sangha as traveling companions. These are the three things that Vasubandhu commends to our full confidence as practitioners. As Buddhists who have taken refuge vows, these are the only three things that we may take refuge in.

The Buddha: Our Example

Buddhism has a long tradition of non-theistic thought. Taking refuge in the Buddha could easily be seen as an act of taking refuge in a “god” or “supreme being”, or, perhaps, even more subtly, establishing ground, security and safety. Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, in the sense that we acknowledge him as our example, as one who has gone beyond and one whose example we are able to emulate. We must remember that Buddha was exactly like us: confused, deluded, and suffering. In taking refuge in the Buddha, we emulate the example of the Buddha in renouncing our reliance on any kind of divine principle to solve our problems. We acknowledge in so doing that we are not helpless beings in need of salvation from the outside. Instead, we recognize in so doing that the ultimate refuge and the ultimate salvation lies within us and that it is our responsibility and ours alone to discover it and to let it flourish.

The Dharma: Our Path

We know now that in taking refuge, we need to strike out on our own, to work out the path to our enlightenment. The Dharma is like a general overview of what direction we should go. Taking up our previous analogy, taking refuge in the Buddha is akin to us being given our machete to hack through the vegetation of the forest, and the Dharma points us in the direction we should go. Dharma is a big, open concept. It’s not like if I was a Christian, taking refuge in the Bible. It’s much broader, bigger than that.

Dharma means truth – the reality of what is. Through his own experience, and the experience of his disciples, we have the Buddha’s teaching codified in the sutra and tantric scriptures. It is all discourses of the Buddha or his disciples based on the experience of this very moment. This is a teaching in and of itself. Dharma, truth, comes to us out of every moment of our life. Every moment of our life is one that we should regard as a sacred teaching, an opportunity to encounter the verity, the reality of what is. It is a commitment to open ourselves up to the experience of reality as it is.

This next thing is something very important thing to mention because this is so contrary to our Western paradigm of religion and scripture. The Buddhist Scriptures are not revelations to be taken as gospel, or in fact the Dharma itself. Although we encounter much Dharma (truth) in the scriptures, the words are not the moon, but rather a finger that points us to the moon. In the Kalamma Sutra, the Buddha commands us not to take words at face value and to challenge, to work with the words, and discover the reality for ourselves.

So then, taking refuge in the Dharma, on its deepest, and most absolute level, is a commitment to, if not actually, to work towards experiencing reality in a very naked and open way. On a more relative level, this means respecting the Dharma teachings as codified in the Buddha’s words and the teachings of the great masters, and working with them with an open mind. Through doing this, we have an opportunity then to encounter our reality nakedly and openly.

The Sangha: Our Companions

Sangha means community. As we hack our way to the forest of the path to enlightenment, we know that there will be others traveling in the same general direction … fellow homeless, groundless refugees. Our companions motivate us, they provide feedback, and help us on our continual journey. They are constant reminders of the reason and motivation for our journey. We work together, and journey together. But the key difference is, we still remain individuals, we still remain responsible for our own individual path. As Trungpa Rinpoche puts it, we don’t become addicted to each others’ help. We don’t lean on each other, we work with each other, we are interdependent, but also still very independent.

As sangha, we build a lot of trust in each other. We are a community of people, journeying on towards the goal (if there is one to begin with). Sangha, as with any community, is risky business. We commit to openly and frankly communicate with each other, and remind each other of our commitments and promises. As traveling companions, we can learn from each others’ practice, though not projecting our own practice on to anyone else’s. It is, in fact, a beloved community, as the UUs would put it. We are not all alike, we have different masters, different schools, different cultures, and so on, but we learn to live together, and to be present for each other.

Sarva Mangalam.



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