Dear Still Water Friends,
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and then focus our discussion on taking refuge in the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
When one formally receives the Five Mindfulness Trainings, as part of the ceremony, one also takes refuge in the Three Jewels. We need the Three Jewels, as a complement. Going for refuge means to find a place where one is sheltered, where one is safe. When we feel sheltered and safe, it is much easier to make mindful choices. When we feel needy, weak, or put upon, it is easy to rationalize unmindful behavior.
Often in the tradition of mindfulness, the idea of going for refuge is though of as taking refuge in something outside of ourselves. Taking refuge in the Buddha means being supported, sustained by the idea of enlightenment. The Buddha, a human just like us, was able to transform his suffering and anxiety into joy and peace. Taking refuge in the Dharma means to be sustained, supported by the mindfulness practices the Buddha taught and others have elaborated. Taking refuge in the Sangha meant to be sustained, supported, by a community of fellow practitioners — we walk the path with them. We are helped when we are weak or lost, and we help others when they are weak or lost.
In East Asia, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains in the excerpt below, another meaning of taking refuge was added. I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha in myself. I take refuge in the Buddha in myself—my capacity for awareness and concentration. I take refuge in the Dharma in myself—my capacity to practice mindfulness, to engage in actions which develop my mindfulness, concentration, and awareness. I take refuge in the Sangha in myself—my capacity to create community, to feel a connection with my friends, and also with children in distress, the periwinkles, and the stars.
As I pondered this notion of taking refuge in myself, I realized it implies a very different notion of self than I grew up with. Implicitly, I thought of myself as something like an apple on a tree. In spring, after fertilization occurred, the fruit appears and begins its life cycle. The little apple gets larger and riper. By late summer or fall, the apple is mature; then more than mature. Then the apple as we know it is no more. It is eaten, or it falls and decomposes. The apple can get bruised or diseased, but it is always an apple. We know what an apple taste like.
Another notion of self, for me more consistent with the tradition of mindfulness and the notion of Buddha in myself, is to think of myself as a rich stew. Countless different ingredients have gone into it. Some are barely represented, just a hint, and other ingredients dominate the taste, color, and texture of the stew. Each day, my actions—what I pay attention to, how I talk and act—energize certain ingredients. They grow a little in strength; the stew changes accordingly. When it is bland, I can pay attention to spicy ingredients, and the stew becomes tastier. All the ingredients I could ever want are there—and there are countless varieties of wonderful stews.
In our discussion we will explore our notions of self. Are they able to contain a Buddha, a Dharma, and a Sangha?
You are invited to ponder these questions with us on Thursday evening, or by yourself at home.
The Three Jewels
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings
When we take refuge in the Buddha, we express trust in our capacity to walk in the direction of beauty, truth, and deep understanding, based on our experience of the efficacy of the practice. When we take refuge in the Dharma, we enter the path of transformation, the path to end suffering. When we take refuge in the Sangha, we focus our energies on building a community that dwells in mindfulness, harmony, and peace. When we touch these Three jewels directly and experience their capacity to bring about transformation and peace, our faith is strengthened even further. The Three jewels are not notions. They are our life.
In Chinese and Vietnamese, practitioners always say, “I go back and rely on the Buddha in myself.” Adding “in myself” makes it clear that we ourselves are the Buddha. When we take refuge in Buddha, we must also understand, “The Buddha takes refuge in me.” Without the second part, the first is not complete. There is a verse we can recite when planting trees and other plants:
I entrust myself to Earth,
Earth entrusts herself to me.
I entrust myself to Buddha,
Buddha entrusts herself to me.
To plant a seed or a seedling is to entrust it to the earth. The plant will live or die because of the earth. But the earth also entrusts herself to the plant. Each leaf that falls down and decomposes will help the soil be alive. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we entrust ourselves to the soil of understanding. And the Buddha entrusts himself or herself to us for understanding, love, and compassion to be alive in the world. Whenever I hear someone recite, “I take refuge in theBuddha,” I also hear, “The Buddha takes refuge in me.”