The Precepts: Taking refuge in…what?

shakyamuniBuddhaThis is the second in a series on receiving the Soto Zen Precepts. Here’s the first post.

Refuge-taking is a part of any Precepts ceremony in any Zen sangha, and indeed in pretty much any Buddhist sangha of any sort ever. In fact, just about every Buddhist ceremony I’ve ever experienced has included the Refuges, and the first of those is refuge in Buddha. It’s kind of important. It’s even in the title of our whole deal.

Oh, and they always go in this order in the refuge verses and in basically any other reference to them: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I committed this to memory when I realized that they naturally occur in alphabetical order. You’re welcome.

Let me tell you about my first encounter with the Refuges: I was at my first sesshin – a five-day one in January 2001 in rural Wisconsin. I was 28, had been sitting mostly daily a whole whopping 3 months, and I thought a “Zen retreat” sounded groovy, man. Like, how chill will that be? Yeah!

I can hear you laughing. Needless to say, it was not “chill”.

This is where I learned that a Zen “retreat” is anything but. In fact, they should really not call it that. There is absolutely nowhere to retreat, especially in rural Wisconsin in January, when you rode up there with two other people from your sitting group who seem really into this whole Zen business. No escape! And here are the things that – up to that point – I didn’t know Zen even had:

  1. chanting
  2. “services” (No – that’s what they do at church! This isn’t supposed to be a religion! Rats!)
  3. getting whacked with the kyosaku
  4. approximately 98.3% silence
  5. ceremonial Oryoki meals

Uhhh…. wait. I just thought we were chilling out doing some zazen. And maybe yoga or handicrafts or talking about our feelings or something. Um, no.

That particular sesshin actually deserves its own blog post. Or several. But the chanting part was, of all those things, the most distressing to me. Particularly the taking refuge bit. It felt very cultlike, especially with all the bowing. And there were just enough vestiges of Southern Baptist left in me from my childhood to be kind of creeped out by this sort of mumbo jumbo stuff. No one bothered to tell me what I was chanting or what any of it meant. Even the bits in English were confusing. But I chanted along even though it felt super-weird. “I take refuge in Buddha”… sure, whatever, y’all.

But I was, whether I realized it or not, already seeking refuge in Buddha. I suffered from very severe clinical depression at the time, and I had heard meditation was supposed to help that. So there was a Zen group, and I tried it out (in addition to therapy and meds – zazen is no substitute for that). Bottom line, I was deeply troubled in the “self” department, being dragged around by this ponderous thing that only caused continuous suffering, to the extent that I very nearly ended my own life to be released from it. Yet, I somehow knew intuitively that zazen – very intensive zazen – would help me dissolve my attachments to this heavy, dense thing… except I could still be alive afterwards. For me, my first refuge-taking was refuge in Buddha through the practice of zazen.

So what does it mean to take refuge? Well, first of all, let’s look at the word “refuge.” It’s derived from the latin refugium, and it consists of two parts: re, meaning “back again,” and fugio, which means “to flee.” In Dogen, the word kie is what we call “refuge”, and it has this same notion of returning, but there is a sense of devoting oneself to that return. To flee back again, to return in kind of a desperate situation, and to devote oneself to that returning-to. But returning to what, exactly – or where?

“Buddha” isn’t a name. It’s actually a title, meaning “awakened one,” and it doesn’t just refer to Siddartha Gautama after his enlightenment experience. It refers to the awakened, enlightened nature that is our birthright – namely, our natural state prior to all the conditioning that has created what we think we are, the I-thought, the ego. Our original mind, our Buddha-nature, our nature before any of… this collection of habits, ideas, and formations we label a “self” and spend our lives trying to bolster and defend.

We take refuge in the practice of Buddha, namely zazen. We do what the Buddha did – and if we devote ourselves to returning to this practice, day by day, minute by minute –  we can realize what the Buddha realized. So what is that realization? None other than uncovering or recovering – little by little – what we already are and ever were: a Buddha every bit as Buddha-like as Mr. Gautama himself. You, me, all of us. No one is spared from Buddhahood! It’s not an intellectual realization. It’s knowing in your bones. Experiential knowing beyond intellect, or maybe in spite of it.

But sadly, our beautiful, shining, awakened nature gets covered up in corrosion as this collection of largely unfounded crap and nonsense we call a “self” forms around our original nature. It’s nothing we can really prevent – it forms due to our conditioning, and as we know from the Buddha, all nameable phenomena are conditional. It happens out of some misguided attempt to protect something that really isn’t ours in the first place… any more than the air or the space between atoms is “ours.” But it happens all the same. The formation of the self-idea is an inevitable by-product of our human life.

By living our human life, we accumulate a big pile of C & C. No not that C & C! Causes and conditions! Aka, corrosion and calcification. Collection and categorization, if you will.

Zazen, slowly but surely, in tiny tidbits at a time, wears away that corrosion and calcification, those causes and conditions that formed who we think we are. That wearing-away process lets us rejoin reality while it liberates us from the heavy weight of self that we’re all dragging around to one degree or another.

Our original teacher is Shakyamuni Buddha. We don’t worship him. That would be useless. But by taking refuge in Buddha, we take refuge in the compassion of both Shakyamuni and the succession of all teachers who came after him. They show us the way to liberation by instructing and encouraging us to practice as they have. If you’ve invested any effort in Zen practice at all, then you’ve probably read or heard the words of a teacher and got some sense of his or her experience of Buddha nature, of at least a little release from C & C.

madgeBuddha, Bodhidharma, Dogen, and all the other teachers who have passed this practice down to us – person to person, century to century – are not trying to sell you any fake bill of goods. Anybody who has known even a little of the liberation offered by this practice naturally aspires for all beings to partake of that awakening. And all beings already are partaking of it, but they just don’t all know it. It’s all around them and inside them, but they don’t recognize it … yet.

Like that lady Madge in the old Palmolive commercial used to say, “Shut up! You’re soaking in it!”

Wait, I don’t think she actually said “shut up.” Did she?

People often read stuff like this and still manage to forget about taking Refuge. They want to talk about the “E-word.” Pssst. ::elbow elbow:: You know, “enlightenment.”

The first rule of Zen Club that you don’t talk about enlightenment, and for good reason, I think. Teachers don’t want to get people all charged up about some unrealistic, lofty-sounding goal that is “somewhere out there” like every other thing people think they want in this life. That’s why I talk about liberation instead. Liberation is a process. An activity. Soto Zen is about taking the gradual route anyway, or the scenic route if you will. It’s like Suzuki-roshi’s image of walking out into a mist. It’s not raining, so you don’t notice the mist collecting until eventually your shirt is all soaking wet, Madge. You’re soaking in it.

Have I personally had some kind of complete, perfect, unsurpassed Enlightenment Experience™ that I can be all fancy and tell you guys about? No. But is there less suffering? Is this formerly heavy, dense sense of self somehow… lighter? Yes, and yes. And for that, I am grateful to Buddha and everybody else who has encouraged me and made that possible.

When I started practicing, I sought refuge in the Latinate sense of fleeing, of desperation. But later, it slowly came to be kie, in Dogen’s sense of devotion to returning-to, returning to what is here, what is real. Every time I sit zazen, I take refuge in Buddha.

Namu kie butsu, y’all! sampai2

Sponsored by Buddha.

You bet I take refuge – in all of it!

And so can you! Right now.


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