How We Practice Zazen At The Temple - On Taking Refuge
by Juliet Lau

Each Sunday, at our Zazen Practice, we recite the verse of the Three Refuges.

We take refuge in the Buddha
And pray that together with all living beings
We understand the substance of the Great Way
And the supreme awakened mind.

We take refuge in the Dharma
And pray that together with all living beings
We enter deeply the treasury of sutras
With wisdom like the ocean.

We take refuge in the Sangha
And pray that together with all living beings
Together in truth
The people will be without obstruction.

The Original Teacher Shakyamuni Buddha looking into the sky and seeing the morning star attained Enlightenment over 2,500 years ago. After attaining Enlightenment, he widely helped all people suffering in delusion and explained the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way and preached the Dharma for the sake of all people.

When the novices of the Buddhist Way asked how to practice in the Way, he taught that we should observe the Buddhist precepts, to guard against doing wrong and clear any doubts concerning habits of our lives.

The precepts, which originated from Shakyamuni Buddha, have been transmitted by the Buddhas and Patriarchs and have been handed down to us in the present day.

What does it mean when we recite the verse of the Three Refuges and take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha?

A refuge is defined as a place of shelter, of protection and safety from danger and troubles; a place where we can have recourse for aid, relief and escape: a sanctuary, a haven. It is like an enlightened, clear and pure dwelling place, where we can weather various storms in our lives.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught the truths of suffering in order that we can recognize the limitations of our present situation. His teachings pointed to the mind of awakening to our difficult circumstances in our daily lives. When we know the nature of this living truth, we have to see the inherent limitations of our situations. By realizing this, we aspire to begin to consider finding a place of refuge, a place of liberation from suffering.

Shakyamuni Buddha and the successive Ancestors of Buddhism widely helped people, and encouraged people to seek liberation from the sufferings of existence. They repeatedly taught about this refuge, this dwelling space that we can practice the Way and attain liberation from suffering, right at this moment, in our daily lives.

This Path that helps people find relief from suffering and attain liberation is known as the Middle Way.

In the Sutra of Hui-Neng that we studied with the Roshi every Sunday, the Sixth Ancestor taught that we should always bear in mind that we are already walking on the Path, for thereby, strength will be added to our Practice of the Way.

He taught us that to take refuge in the Buddha is not something special or something that we have to go outside of our daily lives to seek. To take refuge is to study the Self, in our own Essence of Mind, our own heart or mind within ourselves. We practice seeing our own nature as our condition in the present. Sitting in meditation and practice in activity, we become familiar with ourselves and familiar with our own nature. This is the Way to take refuge within ourselves.

The Sixth Ancestor Hui-Neng taught us to take "Enlightenment" as our guide, because it is the culmination of both Punya (merit) and Prajna (wisdom).

He taught us to take "Orthodoxy" (Dharma) as our guide, because it is the best way to get rid of desire.

He taught us to take "Purity" (Sangha) as our guide, because it is the noblest quality of mankind.

The Buddha, is Enlightenment,
The Dharma, stands for Orthodoxy, right or proper,
The Sangha, stands for Purity or Clarity, peace of mind and peaceful existence.

The Sixth Ancestor taught that we should learn the Enlightened Way of the Buddhas and Ancestors. When we learn the Way and positively practice, this will benefit our lives. The practice of the Enlightened Way will become the foundation of our lives, so that we can learn from all things in life and our lives can improve. Once earnestly practicing the Way; we may be liberated from evil and delusive notions arising in the mind. While in this state of clarity, our desire decreases, discontent is unknown and lust and greed will no longer bind our thoughts. This is the culmination of Punya and Prajna.

The Sixth Ancestor taught us to let our mind take refuge in "Orthodoxy" or Dharma so that we are always free from wrong views.

He taught us to let our mind take refuge in "Purity", so that no matter in what circumstances we may be in, our mind will not be contaminated by wearisome sense-objects, cravings, and desires. This is the noblest quality of mankind.

The Sixth Ancestor taught that by our self- nature, the three treasures will always be self-proving or certifying. These words mean that we learn from ourselves and learn from our own daily condition. We learn from the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and seeing clearly our Self and seeing clearly the Way, we prove or certify the Way and the Dharma for ourselves.

Shakyamuni Buddha gave the same teaching regarding 'the Practice of the Way':

"Do not go by hearsay,
Nor by what is handed down by others,
Nor by what is stated on the authority of your traditional teachings,
Self-study, self-efficacy, self-sufficiency,
Be your lamps unto yourselves,
Take your Self as your refuge,
Take your Self to no external refuge,
The roots of our afflictions, lie nowhere but in ourselves."

The Roshi taught that taking refuge is not a matter of saying or repeating words. He refers to the true study of the Way in the reality of our daily life. "Daily life is the Way". With quiet study, we practice to be familiar with ourselves, and to be familiar with our conditions in life, and we strive to live, benefiting oneself and benefiting society equally.

This practice is not a matter of seeking the Buddha existing outside of oneself. We should earnestly consider our hardships in life as seeds of solution. We practice using hardships and adversities in life as stimulus to prosper in life.

The Roshi taught us to earnestly practice in our daily life, and to become familiar with ourselves. When we continue to practice, we will know well-being in our own hearts and in our minds. We practice being careful with our actions, our speech and our thoughts. Outwardly, we are respectful of others, practicing the teaching of Identification (true equality). We know that we are not separate from every other person in different circumstances. We can practice treating other people and things like our own eyes, therefore taking care of things and treating things just as we treat our own eyes. The Roshi taught that "oneself taking refuge" means that we should not be arrogant. It is possible for us to say, "Excuse me" in our daily life. Some courtesy or politeness is the "Practice of the Way".

When we continue with our "Practice of the Way", dwelling in the refuge of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, we arrive at a formless space; a peaceful, illuminated refuge where we can really live firmly, we can really live peacefully, with some quiet, in this busy world of ours.

Once we follow the Way, we can, little by little, learn to put the good teachings into practice. Positively putting these teachings into practice, evil or wrong, and delusions do not arise. We are careful not to be carried away by wrong views that will cause ourselves unnecessary troubles. We will not be easily influenced by worldly desires or be carried away by cravings and unreasonable greed. Each moment, we live with good cause that will bring its positive effects and our lives therefore will improve.

We learn to be one with our existence; earnestly working, really studying, and wisely using our free time to take care of ourselves. Each day, entering the flow of life, we know this truly with our body and mind for ourselves, we strive to make the teaching our own; and we live with some quiet and some peace of mind.

Practicing like this, the Roshi taught that we would be in accord with the Dharma and in accord with the Way. Like this, we can live peacefully, with well being in life, with peace of mind in our own heart and in our own mind.

The Sixth Ancestor further explained that our own mind and our own heart are our own words, our own deeds or acts, and our own thoughts.

This is an important point for our study. It means that moment by moment, what we say, what we do and how we think; every thought, every word and every action in our daily life, is the "Practice of the Way".

We therefore come to this understanding that to be mindful of our thoughts, our words and our actions is the meaning of "Daily Life is the Practice of the Way". This practice will give merit that will benefit our daily lives.

We studied a famous koan in the "Blue Cliff Records" when Master Yuan-Wu said:

"When you have not yet penetrated it,
It is like silver mountain and iron cliffs,
When you have penetrated it,
You find that you yourself are the silver mountains and iron cliffs."


May we be filled with lovingkindness,
May we be well,
May we be peaceful and at ease,
May we be beyond pramana,
And dwell in this Refuge of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.