Refuge In the Buddha – a Talk by Leland Shields, June 13, 2021

Posted by on Jun 14, 2021 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Refuge In the Buddha – a Talk by Leland Shields, June 13, 2021

In our sutra service, we chant:

I take refuge in the Buddha;
I take refuge in the Dharma;
I take refuge in the Sangha.

And in Pali as:

Buddham saranam gacchami;
dhammam saranam gacchami;
sangham saranam gacchami.

In our sutra book this chant is titled, “Ti-Sarana,” Pali for “three refuges.” The same chant can be found with the title, “Ratanattaya,” Pali for the three jewels, or three treasures.[1] The refuges or jewels are used in the initiation ceremonies of the various Buddhist traditions. In that context, I take them to be an expression of participation in, and application of the way that we have come to call Buddhism.

Those of us joining to sit Wednesday evenings for discussion and Zazen have recently brought our attention to the precepts, starting with the Three Refuges we’ve just chanted this morning, and that I’ve just read. We began with  the first, “I take refuge in the Buddha.” Immediately there was a rich response from the group of the various ways that simple statement was perceived. Among us, refuge was taken in the many Buddhas, past present and future, with gratitude to the historical Buddha for showing us a path, refuge in Tathagata -one thus come, and others. For some, this statement of refuge evoked members’ early encounters with this ancient path, which is now a comfort. Each of us finding our response in particular to the key words, “refuge,” and “Buddha.”

In speaking today I would hope only to foster your own way of taking refuge by saying something of what it means to me. Making it your own is always the core of Zen; please let nothing I say constrain you.

The First Noble Truth is implied in this precept, and in our lives we need no reminder of it. But including the First Noble Truth, I can expand this statement to be: “In this world of suffering, I take shelter from trouble and danger in the Buddha.” If not for the inescapable danger in our lives, the Buddha would not have left home, and perhaps you and I would be using our day today in some way other than sitting together over Zoom. If our lives were sufficiently described by only the first phrase, “inescapable trouble and danger,” there would be no point in seeking relief and we again might have chosen other activities today.

Soen Roshi said that many people in their first retreat have an experience of samadhi that offers a taste of quiet within, that awakes in us the possibility of seeing this same world in another way. I can’t speak for Soen’s generalization, but I can say my first retreat was an emotionally and physically excruciating experience, yet something occurred to give me enough trust to try again.

The Buddha pointed to a way I thought I could trust, even if it were not a way out, or a way forward, it offered a different experience outside my understanding. I could not and would not have described it at that time, I’m sure, though I now believe that first painful week included an inkling that there was something right here, and that I might be able to see it by counting this one breath, eyes softly gazing downward.

In the myth we know, the Buddha awakened once he saw the morning star, and said, “…all beings in the universe are Tathagata (- one thus come)!”[2] In this I hear the echo of the statement, “all beings are Buddha,” still ringing in my ears from my first days in Zen. If so, softly gazing downward, what else might one see? Looking up at the sound of a movement in the room, there it is. In the sound of my own swallow and action of my throat…just thus.

Always awareness slips away from the moment . . ., with wondering whether it’s time yet to eat again, or to take away that vase, with the orchids too old, petals falling to the table and looking discolored and wrinkled. There is nothing wrong with wandering mind either – and it is not the same as Zazen with intention. My idle mind is compelling in its own way, and refuge is forgotten.

Looking again at the vase, I take refuge in the Buddha, seeing it just as another whole flower falls and lands with the quietest, “tock”-sound on the table. Vase, flower, sound, are thus come. As lay practitioners, our renunciation is immediate, and available each moment. It is affirmative, leaving the home of thoughts that circle like gnats, to what you can simply see, simply touch. I take refuge in this, that, and who has thus come.

Writing in the Tricycle magazine, Thich Nhat Hanh had a lovely way of expressing this.

The first of the Three Gems is the Buddha. When we say, “I take refuge in the Buddha” we should also understand that “The Buddha takes refuge in me,” because without the second part the first part is not complete. The Buddha needs us for awakening, understanding, and love to be real things and not just concepts. They must be real things that have real effects on life. Whenever I say, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” I hear “Buddha takes refuge in me.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Tricycle,

Turning the jewel around as Thich Nhat Hanh does, I wonder what did the historical Buddha took refuge in, as he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, which is to say sat beneath and on the Buddha? From what did Buddha awaken, and to what? Without an extra thought, the Buddha looked up and happened to see the morning star. That makes for a much more poetic story than if his eyes had first lighted on a squashed bug. (Squashed Bug would not have been as nice a name for a book by Robert Aitken.) But not separate from the historical nor the mythical Buddhas, what do you and I take refuge in, and awaken from and to?

So many of the words I just used are place holders, waiting for us to fill them with the undeniable life we are living. As I sit under the only light fixture I’ve ever liked for my dining room ceiling, the sound of the running dishwasher is to my right, and tangle of headset wires on the table to my left. Taking refuge is active; abandoning thoughts of being erudite, I take refuge in tangle of wires. Active again, abandoning thoughts of recipes for dinner Sunday, the sound of the dishwasher churning softly fills the room. Again, and again, softening my gaze on the screen as I type.

The mythic Buddha sat 7 days and nights: 7 days and nights of refuge, refuge, refuge. We can welcome our own constancy of the release of ideas, and recognize this. No need for concern if gnats and wasps pull our attention, taking refuge is the return to see and to hear now. Just now.

Taking a moment to notice the glinting light off Lake Washington, in front of mountains which are touching the afternoon clouds, awe is accessible. We can perceive a place of our own, within the unfathomable world in which we stand. Without need for much parsing, we often can take refuge in just this – without questioning the enormity that is beyond conception. Taking shelter in the vastness, I put down any design I have on exerting my will on mountains and lakes. Just this wind blowing me across the sky, brushing the mountain snow as I pass.

Within the mundane course of our days, it can be harder to tell when we need not exert our will. There are so many ways it seems we should be able to be effective, balancing a check book, cleaning a bathroom, protecting an ill family member. Each can be a valuable activity. And yet we can do all those things and never finish the tasks we see, never protect ourselves, our loved ones, or satisfy the valid unmet needs of so many worthy beings. The activities can still be valid, though requiring our discernment as to which are called for now. In seeking refuge, we can also act without exerting will. We can give ourselves over to each task without taking on the burden of any final resolution of the fruits of our labor. Refuge in the Buddha can still be a wonderful practice in the middle of this gritty reality of our lives.

In addressing the Three Refuges, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote this, as published in Lion’s Roar:

So becoming a refugee is acknowledging that we are homeless and groundless, and it is acknowledging that there is really no need for home, or ground. Taking refuge is an expression of freedom, because as refugees we are no longer bounded by the need for security. . .

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “The Decision to Become a Buddhist,” Lion’s Roar May 16, 2017

Freedom does not mean passive or disengaged, though. I can take refuge as a singer in a chorus by offering my voice when my time to sing. I carry burden instead when taking responsibility for the part of the soloist or choir director. As director, I can expend everything in signaling for the singers and choral parts, making eye contact, and bringing encouragement, without adding my voice.

I actively take refuge lying awake at night, when turning attention away from either asleep or awake, and releasing to the support of the bed and warmth of blankets. This is taking shelter IN blankets, which is to say in Buddha, rather than taking shelter FROM anything. I actively take refuge when waking by brushing my teeth when brushing my teeth. I take refuge as a client is speaking by dropping thoughts of what I will say next, and letting the voice of the client fill the world.

Invitations for refuge come in the sublime dropping of an orchid to the table, and the mundane taste of toothpaste.

The question is not what it means to take refuge in any of the three treasures; but how do you, how do I live it? Even now, living it is vital, applied here.

Taking refuge in the Buddha is complementary to the 4th Infinite Vow: “Buddha ways without end, I vow to embody.” In this translation of the fourth vow, it brings our attention to Buddha ways, and not the mythical or historical person of the Buddha. What stands out most for me though is the difference of the words, “vow” and “refuge.”

In the sutra, “Boddhisatva’s Vow,” Torei Zenji offers, “Each particle of matter, each moment, is no other than the Tathagata’s inexpressible radiance.” (From the TTS sutra book). This too is an invitation, reminding us that not only are all beings Buddha, but all things are Buddha!

The 1st Jewel and 4th Infinite Vow each has a place in my world of Zen, sometimes with a vow, bringing firm commitment and intention to recognize Tathagata everywhere I look. And sometimes in refuge, with warm humanity, seeking recognition of inexpressible radiance from the depth of my own tenderness.

Either way, we must encourage ourselves and each other to remember our own motivations. During Rohatsu sesshin, Hakuin Ekaku Zenji encouraged his students each night to engage with more than an idle mind, not relying upon past decisions that put them in their seats in the dojo. On the seventh night he said:

The renouncer of home must be a true renouncer of home. To become a true renouncer of home means to uphold the great vow with a daring spirit, thus cutting through the root of life. Then Dharma-nature reveals itself.

(Translation by Eido Shimano and Sherry Chayat, Rohatsu Exhortations, p. 12)

Renunciation as lay practitioners is to release the habits behind which we can hide from ourselves, from others, or from the world. I have deep respect for the reasons we each hold for our hiding; through so many real and difficult experiences we’ve learned to fear exposure, rejection, hunger, pain,. . .

Renunciation in the affirmative is to vow, to seek refuge within these same experiences of fear and doubt, in misery and loss. When difficult to bear, we are driven to sit, seeking relief by sinking into that which is thus come, as it is. At such times, we may perceive thoughts not as gnats but as wasps of fear and heartbreak that sting. Yet they appear so tender in their innocence when they lie there squashed.

The greater our perception of the danger in which we find ourselves, the more compelling it is to figure it out, do something. Our lives are full of times when it is imperative to figure it out and do something. When cooking, we may perceive a lower level of concern to get it right faced with the uncertainty of the recipe calling for a quarter cup of fresh tarragon – without advising whether packed or loose. When talking to a weeping loved one, or a loved one we’ve just offended, we may experience a greater need to figure out what’s going on and to fix it. The more we care, the harder it is to recognize the limit of what we can do, and to take refuge, as it is.

In refuge we can’t count on bliss. We find home within the stories and sutras of our ancestors that reflect the ease of a clear mind. In the quote above, Thich Nhat Hanh brings together you, Buddha, and me. He also wrote this poem, title, “For Warmth”:

I hold my face between my hands

no   I am not crying

I hold my face between my hands

to keep my loneliness warm

two hands protecting

two hands nourishing

two hands to prevent

my soul from leaving me

in anger

(Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Poems, no page numbers)

Perhaps we will not have refuge from loneliness or anger. But perhaps it is enough to take refuge IN loneliness and anger.

When alone after the slammed door, or doubting what we’ve already done and said, we all reach a point when there is nothing new to think about, yet the wasps of our thoughts have not stopped circling and stinging. Taking refuge in the Buddha is appealing at such time, warmly remembering there is no separation in suffering – all beings do suffer, each in our own time. When it is your time to suffer, you too can take heart in the millennia of beings who found refuge within this very world. The form of refuge is likely to be not as we would wish or imagine, but apparently it is enough, such that Buddhas persist still in sitting on cushions, gazing downward, and almost audibly whispering, “Mu…”

In 8th century China, Li Po apparently took his time, actively taking refuge again and again, and expressed it this way:

The birds have vanished down the sky.

Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.


Translated by Sam Hamill, Poetry Foundation article 178390

[1] Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (p. 2667). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Aitken, Robert, Taking the Path of Zen, p. 6.