It's been said that one becomes a Buddhist by taking refuge in the Triple Treasure of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, but what is meant by taking refuge? Each person must answer this question for themselves, but it can be helpful to put one's personal experience in a larger context. Generally, a refuge is understood to be a place of safety, a place of relief or escape. However, in this context, refuge means a place of sanity, a place where the true nature of things can be encountered, where the study of the true self can be conducted. Certainly taking refuge is an important aspect of Zen practice, one that is repeated regularly in Zen ceremonial forms and one that can become the context of our life.
However, before going on to discuss the practice of taking refuge, it might also be useful to say a word about "practice." It doesn't mean something like,"practice makes perfect." Though we may hold very lofty or exacting ideals and very detailed procedures for ritual performance, practice is not a tool for arriving at some perfected state or some pure state. A more skillful view would be to think of Zen practice as similar to the way Yo-Yo Ma practices the cello.
That is, it is a lifetime activity. It is simply what you do, and it is so much of what you do that it becomes an expression of who you are. There was a first time, when it probably felt awkward and foreign, and there may be a time when it is completely familiar, integrated and comfortable. However, this moment is not the same as the previous moment. So we continue to practice. In fact, the ceremony of initiating our formal, public commitment to taking refuge, called jukai, asks us whether we are prepared to commit to practice "even after achieving enlightenment." The Buddha and the Ancestors are our exemplars in this regard, continuing to sit even after they became profoundly accomplished teachers.
So, how might one understand the practice of taking refuge in Buddha?
To take refuge in Buddha means to rest in the inherent awareness of stillness and activity. If, for example, you did nothing on your cushion - a very fine thing to be doing - then you might notice that awareness is always already there. It doesn't require your effort, your approval, or your control. Zazen is to rest in that awareness, whether you are sitting zazen or practicing zazen off the cushion, whether you are concentrated or not, whether you like or don't like what is going on in the moment. Zazen is to realize that there is activity even in the stillness of sitting, and that there is stillness even in the activity of life. Commenting on this in the Book of Serenity, Wansong Xingxui wrote this lovely poem:
Continuously creation runs her loom and shuttle,
Weaving the ancient brocade,
Incorporating the forms of spring.
The metaphor is of a woman weaving on an old fashioned loom. The shuttle is a piece that looks like a very large needle, and it is used to weave one thread among the others. (Be careful though. Buddhism does not allow for a being, female or male, that guides creation. This poem is just a way of relating to the activity itself.)
You might understand each thread to be a lifetime, or a thought, or a galaxy. The meaning is that the great, luminous, perfect activity of creation is happening all the time, and that is what we mean by "Buddha." It reveals itself to us in the attributes of our world. In spring it looks like plum blossoms and nourishing rain and fresh green leaves on trees. And each of us is completely interwoven with this great Buddha activity, completely incorporated because we ourselves are the attributes of the moment too.
And how might one understand taking refuge in Dharma?
To take refuge in Dharma is to respond to the guidance that reveals itself. It is to allow yourself to be touched by the teaching that shows up in your life, willing to accept the Dharma which is the activity of Buddha. Perhaps it also means accepting when the teaching arrives unwillingly too. Yet to be touched by the Buddha is not enough; we must also find an appropriate response.
The particular teaching story that illustrates this for me is one of Eihei Dogen's anecdotes in the Instructions to the Head Cook. He tells of two encounters that he had with a Head Cook he met on a trip to China. In the first encounter, he feels a bit sheepish when the Head Cook tells him that he does not understand the meaning of the sutras or of practice. Later in the story, Dogen makes the effort to visit the temple and ask the Cook, "What is the practice of the Way?" The Cook responds, "In the entire world it is never hidden." The Way, the practice, the Dharma - it is never hidden from us. It is always already right here in this moment - the past fully resolved, the present fully expressed, the future fully potent. It cannot be hidden from you by anyone, and you cannot even hide it from yourself, though you can refuse to accept it. Still think it's hiding? Have a look in the mirror. Even so, you must ask the questions, hear the answers, and practice with them.
And how might one understand taking refuge in the sangha?
To take refuge in sangha is to reveal the deep intimacy of being as the Way. Since we are beings that are dependent on causes and conditions for our momentary existence, we also depend on the people around us as conditions for practice. This is the profound intimacy inherent in the human life. You co-arise with everyone you contact and, for that reason, you benefit from contact with others who take refuge, the sangha.
Demonstrating this principle in Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Dogen states that Zen students should be "like milk and water." Once they come together they are inseparable and harmonious. This is the way of truly expressing our inter-dependent nature, and putting it to work in our practice of the Way.
Thus by taking refuge in the Triple Treasure of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, you find the place of sanity. You become both the weaver and the woven. You find the peace of rest, the power of response, and the potency of revealing. You practice with the instrument of your life and make beautiful music.