Taking refuge in the Three Treasures is a pivotal activity of Buddhism. What is taking refuge? What are the Three Treasures, and what does taking refuge in the Three Treasures imply?
We have faced many difficult situations in our lives. Some of these situations we were able to handle skillfully, and often we wish we had acted differently. All of us have wondered how these situations arise and how we can best move through them. We are fortunate to have the leisure to examine our lives, and to choose our priorities. But what convictions guide the choices we make?
We find ourselves facing this question as we move through our daily lives and relationships. The choices we make, the convictions behind them, influence every aspect of our lives.
Because this is a difficult area, many people have looked to religion, philosophy, and other disciplines for guidance. Some of us look to Buddhism; what does Buddhism offer?
Buddhist teaching begins with the Four Noble Truths: the truth of duhkha, the truth of the origin of duhkha, the truth of the cessation of duhkha, and the truth of a path leading to the cessation of duhkha.
"Suffering" is the most frequent translation for the Sanskrit term "duhkha" but this doesn't convey its full flavor. Duhkha also implies that circumstances come together, change, and disappear. Situations and feelings are transitory; they are incapable of providing enduring satisfaction. The first truth recognizes that duhkha is part of our lives.
The second truth says desire or craving - "thirst" - is the origin of suffering. The third truth says that there is an end to suffering; i.e., the condition of suffering can dissolve. The fourth truth says there is a path we can follow that will dissolve suffering. This is the Eightfold Path. The elements of this path are Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Here is another place where we need to be careful about terminology. "Right" in the Eightfold Path is not the "right" that is the opposite of "wrong." The Sanskrit term "samyak," which is usually translated as "right," has the connotation of wholeness, completeness.
To walk the path of Buddhism is to study the Four Noble Truths. From this seed Buddhism flowers into a vast body of teachings and practices to inspire our lives.
While Buddhism can be studied in many different ways, the heart of Buddhist teaching is realized by taking refuge in the Three Treasures - Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Buddha is the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Dharma is the teaching of Buddhism. Sangha is the community of practitioners. This definition of the Three Treasures is a common starting point for exploring Buddhism.
Taking refuge begins with faith. Without faith that refuge can be found, we cannot find refuge. To find refuge we must look for refuge. Looking for refuge ends when we trust the refuge we find. Taking refuge means finding guidance, nourishment, shelter, and peace in the midst of our confusion and difficulty.
All paths within the Three Treasures reveal Buddhism. Reading the teaching of the Buddha, listening to a Dharma talk, or visiting a practice center are all expressions of taking refuge. To learn more about Buddhism we investigate the areas of Buddhism that interest us. It becomes part of our daily life.
We are encouraged to test our faith by applying our understanding. We can use any of the Three Treasures to aid us; each time we are taking refuge. It is through our experience of using Buddhism as a refuge we discover its genuineness, "Does it really work?"
Trusting, testing, trusting, testing… gradually we become clear. Some sanghas offer a specific ceremony, Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures, as a public expression of our embracing Buddhism.
This ceremony demonstrates our commitment to Buddhism as our chosen path. This faith does not require extensive knowledge about Buddhism. What is essential is that we come to Buddhism and allow Buddhism to come to us. It is our doing refuge, not our knowledge of Buddhist teaching, which distinguishes a life of Buddhism from a life of scholarship or philosophy.
A ceremony is valuable declaration of our commitment. It is similar to a wedding ceremony to announce the commitment between two people. Beyond the wedding ceremony there is the ongoing daily relationship that is vital if the marriage is to thrive. It is the same with taking refuge. We take refuge over and over again.
If our refuge is to be durable, if it is to aid us in the many difficulties we encounter in life, we must return to it frequently. If we want to deepen our understanding, we must practice our understanding. Studying the life of the Buddha, reading the sutras, and practicing together with other sangha members are natural expressions of our desire to deepen our understanding.
Each time we take refuge a new understanding is born. This understanding enables us to meet the challenges of daily life. We manifest our understanding in everyday life. This is the path of Buddhist practice. In the Zen tradition there is great emphasis on manifesting exactly what we know or understand. Without this commitment to manifest our understanding, our refuge will be limited. Through repeatedly taking refuge and refining our understanding, we cultivate wisdom and compassion in our own lives.
Inevitably troubles and confusion will challenge our faith. This is a critical juncture. Buddhism can be a true refuge for us if we turn to it in our moments of deepest need.
Through repeating refuge, turning to Buddhism in our lives, our appreciation of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha ripens. We move from seeing them outside and apart from ourselves to realizing they are qualities active in our lives. Buddha's enlightenment may seem beyond us, but hints of Buddha's wisdom and compassion can be felt whenever we embrace his enlightenment. The Dharma is not just a collection of books and practices, but also the living principle of our immediate situation. The Sangha is more than a group of practitioners; it is everyone, everything we meet in full relationship.
Our understanding of the Three Treasures grows to embrace our world. The many commitments, responsibilities, and relationships of our lives can all be fulfilled through taking refuge. With this activity compassion and wisdom come alive.
Whenever we find ourselves apart from our situation, apart from our relationships, we can take refuge in the Three Treasures. Taking refuge guides us into relationship, dissolving the distance between our world and us. Space disappears and we find our home every place we go.