Taking Refuge in the Dharma a talk by Leland Shields – October 10, 2021

Posted by on Oct 15, 2021 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Taking Refuge in the Dharma a talk by Leland Shields – October 10, 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.

In June I spoke of taking refuge in the Buddha – taken from the chant in our sutra book titled, “Ti-Sarana,” Pali for “three refuges.” As I said in June, the refuges or jewels are used in the initiation ceremonies of the various Buddhist traditions. Thus, they are an expression of participation in, and application of the way that we have come to call Buddhism.

Today I’d like to talk about taking refuge in the Dharma.

The chanting of taking refuge in the Dharma is ancient. We act on our vow of refuge as we chant.

As I was writing this, it seemed natural to start with a definition of “dharma.” For the years I’ve chanted the Three Refuges, I’ve had my own perception as to what it meant to me, but it seemed due diligence was called for if I was going to speak out loud about it. I found I stepped into a deep rabbit hole of varied definitions that could have been its own talk – but a dull one separate from any purpose of mine.

I’ll offer a couple usages of “dharma” I find fitting to the topic today. The word “dharma” was translated from Sanskrit to Chinese with the character for “law.” Dharma, law, simultaneously speaks of the forms or our practice, and Tao.

In June I made a distinction between refuge in the Buddha – just this – and refuge in the dharma –the teaching, and the way. These are separate lines in the Three Refuges and represent a distinction. But distinctions are lost when the way is also just this. There is no need to resolve inconsistencies when you recognize and lose distinction between these two. It is enough to see the morning star in the sound of the falling rain, and to take refuge in the way by returning to the sound again.

After Buddha woke to the morning star, the story goes that he sat for a while longer, then rose to share his experience with fellow travelers on the way in Deer Park. We are told that Buddha spoke to them of the Four Noble Truths: Suffering is inherent in life. Suffering arises from cravings and inverted views. There is a state beyond suffering. The eight-fold path is the way to recognize the state beyond suffering.

I suspect most of us are doing Zazen today having felt the fire of suffering. Whether suffering or not, I don’t see craving and inverted views as faults to be eliminated, so much as a fact of the human condition. As I write I’ve just learned that in a family I care about, a baby was born after a disastrous birthing process. The baby has brain damage and will never lead a normal life. He cries all the time, carried in the arms of family members taking shifts day and night. None of us would fault those involved for their tears, whether born of craving and inverted views or not. Please be as compassionate to yourself and those in your life, though the circumstances may be less stark.

So how do you and I live in this world of suffering? The third and fourth of the noble truths: (there is a state beyond suffering, and the eight-fold path is the way to recognize the state beyond suffering) can be seen as the first teachings of the way. It is not a path out of the fire. The path is nowhere else but here.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And we will worship something – have no doubt of that either. We may think that our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of the heart – but it will out. That which dominates our imagination and our thoughts will determine our life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we are worshipping, for what we are worshipping we are becoming…

Author: Reconstructionist Press, Prayers for a House of Mourning, 2001, p. 27

Another way we can describe taking refuge in the Dharma is to use the path, the Tao, to influence what dominates our imagination and thoughts. Taking refuge in the dharma includes sitting still to the extent I’m able until the bell rings to end the period. Taking refuge in the dharma includes nothing but body on cushion, no matter the state of mind. Releasing struggle against what is – I sit as Tao.

Speaking personally, I take refuge in the dharma, the teaching, when taking shelter in sitting down, hearing, counting breaths, Mu. Affirmatively turning toward the form, the activities of practice, I trust the simplicity of just this. I could not understate what I mean by this “simplicity.” We all know how to breathe, and to count. There are no secrets in hearing. Mu is not grandiose; it is engagement in what is most unremarkable.

What does it mean to take refuge in the dharma – to relinquish yourself now during a pause in my words? It will only be a few moments, so you can heedlessly relinquish yourself. Give everything away and Mu. It is only possible to release to what’s true. We can’t relinquish to who we wish we were – that’s striving. Relinquish, like giving yourself over to gravity when sitting or lying down. Give yourself over – as if you’ve just jumped off the high board. Or as if you’ve been told to begin the college entrance exam, or a licensing exam — or to push to deliver a baby. Just begin and join that which is before you.


I recall a time when two dear friends invited me to be present for the home birth of their first child. There were hours of pushing; more than 30 hours. The mom was bearing down, sweat on her face, coached by the midwife and held in the love of those present. At some point the midwife asked us all to take a break. She gently turned to the mom and asked why she was holding back – not something I’d seen. The mother wept her fears about the baby, about the world the baby would enter. She wept. And then she bore down over the next hours, and delivered her baby.

When far from the experience of clarity, when doubting myself and anything I know, taking refuge in the teaching is trust that I have not been deceived by Buddha when they and the morning star were together at dawn of that day. And trust with Thich Nhat Hanh that the Buddha and I take refuge in each other when lonely. And taking refuge in the teaching is trust that I can bow at the sound of three bells to start the period, sit here under the Bodhi tree, and whether I recognize it or not, find the morning star everywhere I look.

Taking refuge in the dharma is most difficult when doubting the value of practice in general, or our own capacity in particular. In such times it seems utterly useless to ring a bell and sit with our buzzing thoughts and agitation. There are times when some discernment in this is necessary. Sometimes it can be helpful to consult someone to see if there is a shift possible to get around the stone in front of us. But there are also times to sit anyway. Through my life I’ve been surprised even after a couple months of dessert-dry periods of sitting, during which I was only aware of my distraction. In retrospect, I could finally see that all that time the practice was not in the clarity, it was in repeatedly returning my attention to breath, or to mu. Rumi describes his path in the poem, “In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad.”

…I will search for the Friend with all my passion
and all my energy, until I learn
that I don’t need to search.

The real truth of existence is sealed,
until after many twists and turns of the road.

As in the algebraical method of “the two errors,”
the correct answer comes only after two substitutions,
after two mistakes. Then the seeker says,

“If I had known the real way it was,
I would have stopped all the looking around.”

But that knowing depends
on the time spent looking!

Rumi, Jalal Al-Din; Barks, Coleman. The Essential Rumi, (p. 207), 1995.

Rumi beautifully weaves together taking refuge in Buddha, and Dharma. Refuge in the Buddha is full embrace of there being no need to search beyond the saliva in my mouth. Refuge in the Dharma is to embrace this time spent looking, each stirring of my morning yogurt and fruit, and each moment during this day of meditation. Even as we may know “the real way it is,” we Iose it, and look again right here. Even as we look again, there is no other activity but looking. At once there is Buddha, Dharma, and Buddha-Dharma.

I have a New Yorker cartoon of a chicken sitting on a psychanalysts couch, and the psychoanalyst asks, “Why do you think you cross the road?” A good question for all of us, as we vow to take refuge in Dharma and Tao. Do you sit today under the Bodhi tree where you are, to get to the other side? What might it be like on that other side – will our bodies still signal pain when burned by fire? If so, it sounds a lot like right here. Buzzing thoughts are right here, inseparable from what occurs after the ringing of the bell that marks my path. What if the other side is something about no longer looking, so that we can see? Where would a path lead if everything we seek is already intrinsically complete?

Our ancestors were clear in their encouragements. In “Coincidence of Opposites,” Shitou Xiqian wrote:

If you overlook the Way right before your eyes,

how will you know the path beneath your feet?

Advancing has nothing to do with near and far,

yet delusion creates obstacles high and wide.

Students of the mystery, I humbly urge you,

don’t waste a moment, night or day!

“…don’t waste a moment night or day,” can sound austere, demanding, and daunting. But it points to the power of persistence.

Let’s also include the first lines in the verse of Shitou – don’t miss the path before your feet as you walk kinhin. Not wasting a moment is doing none other than breathing this breath. We are certainly encouraged to apply ourselves to practice, while also doing so with a different mind than might arise from a knit brow, and ambition to advance.

Our many ancestors sought to encourage us to approach the way using our minds differently. Dogen, dedicated to the way through his life, called us to different mindedness in these words:

That which we call zazen is not a way of developing concentration. It is simply the comfortable way. It is practice that measures your satori to the fullest, and is in fact satori itself. It is the manifestation of the ultimate reality, and in it you will no longer be trapped as in a basket or a cage…Know that the true Dharma itself is present [in zazen], and that confusion and distraction are eradicated right from the beginning.

Dogen, Eihei; Cook, Francis Dojun. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (pp. 66-67). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

For me, Dharma includes the persistence of a kind of discipline, and softness of acting as if confusion is already eradicated. Discipline is the comfortable way when tediously sanding the siding of a house or cleaning a bed pan, responding with wordless clarity to the benefit of all.

I find using mind differently to be both simple and subtle. There are times in my practice when I’ve sat down with determination to relinquish, when all I could muster was forcefully focusing on mu, giving myself a headache when gathering myself, muscles tight in face and shoulders.

I don’t know if this is true for me, let alone anyone else, but it has seemed all that painful, forceful effort was necessary. It’s like sometimes when I think I’ve lost a trail hiking, but keep going until finding a landmark so I can be sure where I am. Only then can I have the clarity I need to shift. I’m not saying you or I need to stubbornly wait until we have headaches to change our approach to effort, but I do say regret is unnecessary.

Eventually facing the landmark of my own discomfort, I embrace evidence that somehow I was off track. Where I erred is not so important. I’d then remember the many instructions about how we are each already there. Then, can I look differently?

When I breathe this breath to foster attention to this moment night and day, I am focused on fostering attention rather than the breath.

Relinquishing to this breath is practice of refuge in the dharma. It does not require that we improve. Practice is just bow to the altar, bow to the cushion, bow to each other. It is just sit down, place hands in the lap with left hand over right. Then give up all form. “I” don’t need to count my breaths. I relinquish myself to breath count of foooouur… riding the air that inspires and expires. Relinquishing myself to the sound of the song sparrow is taking refuge. Relinquishing need not be a passive act – it is an active effort that is no effort.

Each one of us already knows how to turn towards. Each of us recognizes the quality when we make the turn and the quality when we wander off. Our vow taking refuge in the Dharma is no more or less than the turning towards here, now.