Beginning Mind: Taking Refuge in the Buddha

Contribution by Tom

A cornerstone of Buddhist practice, including Zen, is the vow to ‘take refuge’ in the Three Treasures (or Three Jewels), which are the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha. To some of us the language of this standard translation may seem a bit archaic and hard to relate to, suggesting that we may be trying to escape from or flee something.

Checking the Sino-Japanese characters may help to broaden and make more contemporary the meaning of this phrase. ‘Take refuge in’ is a translation of two characters that read separately can mean something like ‘to return to/ to come home to’ and to ‘rely on’. The act of returning clearly implies coming back to a known place or state of mind, somewhere with which we are already familiar but for some reason departed from. The act of relying suggests depending on, having faith in. These seem to entail two different – but related – acts.

‘Returning to’ or ‘relying on’ the Buddha can have both external and internal dimensions. We may think of the historical Buddha, for example, as a role model. By tradition we learn, among much else, that after much searching and experimentation he chose a Middle Way between indulgence and asceticism. We gather also that he normalised suffering as part of our lives, analysed its causes and suggested a way work with it. The are many stories and anecdotes about the manner in which the Buddha put into practice these understandings. So, by relying on the historical role model of the Buddha, we may find guidance on how to conduct our own lives.

In addition, we may understand the reference to the ‘Buddha within’ or the Buddha-nature shared by all beings. This concept, Tathagata-garba in Sanskrit, is central to Mahayana Buddhism and suggests that we all are born with an innate capacity to be Buddhas. Most of us lose touch with this birthright as we grow up and are socialised into a world of selfcentredness and suffering and, like gazing at the clouds obscuring the moon, we lose sight of this gift. But we still possess the means by which to return to or come home to our Buddha nature.

Thich Nhat Hahn indicates that one way we can realise our own Buddha nature is through the exercise of a strong meditation practice. By being present with our breathing and in our sitting position, he suggests, we are not only emulating the historical Buddha but are actually becoming one with him. This view also echoes Dōgen’s detailed instructions for doing zazen. As we practice the discipline, there is no longer an ‘I’ separate from the Buddha. We have returned to our Buddha Nature, which is also our original nature.

Tom Fisher


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