Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures – Daido Loori Roshi
People ask, “How can I deepen the teacher-student relationship?” It is like asking, “How can I love you?” Is there a book of instructions on how to love? Does the baby get taught how to love its mother, the flowers, the earth, and the rain? In Zen training we say, “Really put yourself into it,” but what does that mean? It means to take refuge and to be protected by the Three Treasures. What are the Three Treasures? We chant, “Being one with the Buddha, being one with the Dharma, being one with the Sangha.” Those are the Three Treasures, but what does it mean to “be one with?” This is what we need to see, to realize clearly and personally.
The way we use the word refuge is taken from the Japanese term kie-ei. Kie-ei consists of two characters. Kie means “to unreservedly throw oneself into,” no holding back, no way out, no safety net, harness, or rope. That is the way you work with a koan—unreservedly. That is the way a parent rescues a child who is in danger. The parent does not think about himself or herself. The parent does not hesitate for a second. The second character, ei, literally means “to rely upon,” in the way that a child leaps into a parent’s arms, trusting unequivocally.
I remember when my children were young. They were able to stand by themselves but couldn’t yet walk, and I would stand them up on the dresser and say, “Jump!” They would throw themselves into space, knowing I would be there. They had a complete sense of trust and unwavering commitment. It was total doing. “Unreservedly throwing oneself into and relying upon” differs from “a shelter or protection from danger or distress”—the more common definition of the word refuge.
Before we can appreciate kie-ei we need to appreciate what it is we are relying upon and unreservedly throwing ourselves into—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Usually, we understand buddha to be the historical Buddha. From an inclusive perspective, we say that all beings are buddha. Also, buddha is the teacher. We see dharma as being the teachings of the Buddha, the medicine to heal the sickness, and sometimes it is the ten thousand things. We understand Sangha as the practitioners of the Buddha’s dharma, our companions along the way, and we also understand it as the whole phenomenal universe, all sentient beings.
Then, there is a much deeper way to appreciate these Three Treasures. Perhaps if we appreciate them deeply enough, we will realize what it means to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha; to vow to save all sentient beings, to put an end to desires, to master the dharmas, and to accomplish the Way. Perhaps we will understand what it means to be one with this unwavering lineage of ancestors who have handed down this dharma from generation to generation, without holding anything back. They gave their lives to it; not three months, six months, a year, five or ten years, but their whole lives. They turned themselves inside out. They renounced everything else to make the Way clear. Why? So we can have it, here and now, served to us on a platter. It is ours for the taking. All we have to do is reach out.
What does it mean to reach out? It means to have exhaustively asked the questions: What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? What does it mean to take refuge? What does it mean to vow? What does it mean to be one with? What does it mean to commit? What does it mean to have a relationship with a teacher? The answers are all available. Nothing is hidden.
We can find it in books. We can find it in the sutras. We can find it by asking. And, most important, we can find it simply by looking into ourselves. Why do we practice? What is it that we seek? What is it that we want? What is it that we are prepared to do to get what we want? Are we willing to practice the edge, take a risk, unreservedly throw ourselves into practice? Or are we just being opportunistic and calculating, ready only to skim a little cream off the top to take care of the immediate problems, but not ready to go to the depths?
The Three Treasures can be seen in many different ways. One way of understanding them is as the unified Three Treasures. The Buddha Treasure, from the perspective of the unified Three Treasures, is anuttara-samyaksambodhi, perfect enlightenment. No one is without it. It does not increase one bit in buddhas, nor is it reduced one bit in “ordinary” beings. It is our fundamental nature, the fundamental nature of each and every one of us. It is the essential reality of this great earth and of the universe. It is vast. It is empty. It is without self-nature. The virtues of the dharma of wisdom and liberation emerge from anuttara-samyaksambodhi. It is from here that we realize the three bodies of the Buddha—Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya.
From the perspective of the unified Three Treasures, the Dharma Treasure is undefiled purity. There is neither a speck of defilement nor a single particle of ego in the Dharma Treasure. The Dharma reaches everywhere. There is nothing outside it. Where could the defilement possibly come from? Dharma embraces everything. It is for that reason it is pure and undefiled.
From the perspective of the unified Three Treasures, the Sangha Treasure is virtue and merit of harmony. What we call harmony is really the fusion of the Buddha Treasure and the Dharma Treasure. Buddha, or fundamental nature, is empty of all characteristics, yet there is an arising of karma, cause and effect, which is dharma nature. There is this arising of causation, or dharma, yet fundamental nature is empty. This vital matter is the life of each one of us.
Another way of looking at the Three Treasures is as the manifested Three Treasures. Direct realization of bodhi is called the Buddha Treasure. Buddha was the first person to realize bodhi. Each generation thereafter has rekindled that realization as personal experience. Enlightened masters opened their eyes and transmitted it from generation to generation, from country to country. That is the manifested Buddha Treasure.
The Dharma of the manifested Three Treasures is the Buddha’s realization. That realization of the Buddha is at once the realization of all sentient beings, past, present, and future; your life and my life.
The Sangha of the manifested Three Treasures is the practice of the Buddha’s dharma. The moment two people get together and practice—not just to go through the gestures, take the form, use the vernacular, or dress in the clothing—but to practice with the heart, mind, and body; with commitment, vow, and dedication; with great faith, great doubt, and great determination—then you have the manifested Sangha Treasure. Everything else is a cheap imitation. It just looks like the real thing.
Finally we come to the abiding Three Treasures. “Converting devas and liberating people, appearing in vast space or in a speck of dust, is the Buddha Treasure of the abiding Three Treasures.” To abide means to preserve and protect. We need to appreciate that our practice is not only about our own realization, about relieving our own pain and suffering; it is also about relieving the pain and suffering of all beings. We should never lose sight of that. We remind ourselves every night of that fact at the monastery by reciting the bodhisattva vows.
We are the vessel of the dharma at this time and this place. What we do each sitting, each moment, with our work, with our zazen and services, with our vows, not only affirms and verifies the enlightenment of the Buddha and all the past buddhas but also preserves and protects the dharma so it will be available for future generations.
We are part of the transmission of the dharma from East to West. It goes from place to place only through people. Only a buddha can realize buddha. Only a buddha can practice buddha-dharma. Only a buddha is a vessel of the dharma. All sentient beings are buddhas. All buddhas are sentient beings. What we do, therefore, is no small thing. Our actions have far-reaching consequences. The karma of taking refuge, of making the vow to save all sentient beings, vowing to realize oneself, to practice zazen, to nurture the mountains and rivers, to work in the garden—all of it is part of the legacy that has come down to us for twenty-five hundred years and, it is hoped, will continue twenty-five hundred years into the future. If it does, it is because of how we take care of it.
We include in the abiding Buddha Treasure those buddhas made of wood, metal, stone, and paint. All of them are manifestations of the infinite boundless buddhas present in the myriad realms. Each of these buddhas is presently expounding the dharma, converting and saving all beings, healing and nourishing all beings, according to the karma of circumstances. Do we really understand the truth of that statement? The wooden buddha on the altar is expounding the dharma according to karma; how do we understand that? Common sense is not going to help us here. Scientific knowledge is not going to help us. There is another realm of human experience involved.
What does it mean to bow to the Buddha, specifically to that wooden buddha on the altar? A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is buddha?” Zhaozhou said, “He’s on the altar.” What did Zhaozhou mean? How is that piece of wood a buddha? Is that painting a buddha? Do not separate yourself from anything! Do not separate yourself from Mu. Do not separate yourself from the chanting, from your vow, from your commitment, from each other, from this whole great earth.
“Transformed into the sutras and converted into the oceanic storehouse, the Dharma of the abiding Three Treasures delivers the inanimate and animate, saving all beings.” What are the sutras? The spirit of these precepts, the spirit of the sutras, the spirit of this discourse, goes far beyond the words. We cannot reach them with our analytical minds alone. This teaching is dark to the mind; we have to sense it with our heart, our feelings.
The Sangha of the abiding Three Treasures is saving all beings from all suffering, releasing them from the abode of the three realms—the realms of desire, form, and formlessness. In order to save all beings from suffering, we need to put an end to the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance.
Having appreciated the Three Treasures from the three different perspectives, we need to appreciate the unity or the oneness of these three perspectives. Each interpenetrates the other. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha completely merge and are one reality. What is that reality? This dharma is incredibly profound and infinitely subtle. Because of its profundity and subtlety, it requires whole body and mind engagement for it to communicate.
Taking refuge is not a matter of casual encounter. This is a whole body-and-mind vow, whole body-and-mind unity, whole body-and-mind commitment. Those who give that much, realize it. Those who do not, do not realize it. Some may realize it, some may not. Either way is okay. It is up to us. Nobody can do it for us. Buddha could not do it for us, if he were here. Only we have the power to take advantage of the personal karma that has placed us in this time and place. It is a unique opportunity, and how we use it is totally in our hands.
In order to reach our full human potential, we must live completely and die completely. In order for this practice to function, it needs to be engaged. It does not happen automatically because we wrap a rakusu around our neck, put on a robe, attend a retreat, or read a book on Zen—“Okay, I’m here. Now do me, dharma.” It does not happen that way. We have to work for it. We have to put ourselves on the line. We have to practice the edge of our life in order to receive the dharma. Undeniably, it is here. We are surrounded, interpenetrated, enveloped, and swallowed by it. But most of us are blind and deaf to it. We do not see it. We do not hear it. We do not feel it. When will we wake up?