The Triple Treasure in Buddhism, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha,” is the foundation of the precepts. The precepts in Buddhism are not a moral code that someone or something outside ourselves demands that we follow. The precepts are the buddha-nature, the spirit of the universe. To receive the precepts is to transmit something significant beyond the understanding of our senses, such as the spirit of the universe or what we call buddha-nature. What we have awakened to, deeply, through our body and mind, is transmitted from generation to generation, beyond our control. Having experienced this awakening, we can appreciate how sublime human life is. Whether we know it or not, or whether we like it or not, the spirit of the universe is transmitted. So we all can learn what the real spirit of a human being is.
Wherever we are born in this world, we have many opportunities to learn about the depth of existence. We should awaken to this spirit of the universe because it is constantly present through all the ages. In a broad sense, there is constant transmission of the exquisite image of human life throughout all generations. This is why, finally, we appreciate human life and we try to help human beings. And then, very naturally, we can create human culture and we can build the human world in peace and harmony under all circumstances through all the ages. This is the human effort we make repeatedly.
The Triple Treasure is the very foundation of the precepts, the first step to enter into the universe or the Buddha Way. No matter how much our life and body may change, we should respect and we should take refuge in the Triple Treasure through- out countless lives over an immense span of time. My family were Shin Buddhists and chanted the name of Amitabha Buddha every day, and Christians are mindful of God in many ways. If you become a Buddhist, then you must be mindful of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Buddha is the universe and Dharma is the teaching from the universe, and Sangha is the group of people who make the universe and its teaching alive in their lives. In our everyday life we must be mindful of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha whether we understand this or not. We have to be mindful from day to night, through countless lives, over an immense span of time. Then our life will be very stable.
To “take refuge” does not mean to escape from the human world or from one another. In Japanese, to “take refuge” is namu or namu kie; in Sanskrit it is namo. Namo means full devotion or throwing away the body and mind. Full devotion is just like the relationship between your mind and your body. The body seems to be different from the mind, but actually the relationship between them is very close. For instance, if your thoughts make you nervous, your stomach becomes upset. They are separate, but they are not separate; they work together without leaving any trace of the stomach or of the thought. This is the meaning of full devotion. In English we also say to “take refuge in” or sometimes to “go to Buddha for guidance.”
We Take Refuge In the Buddha because Buddha is our great teacher. “Great” in this sense is completely beyond the human evaluation of good or bad. The spirit, the essence of the universe, the merit of the universe, and the functioning of the universe are great beyond our speculation. When we realize this, we become the universe and we are called buddha. So Siddhartha Gautama realized the essence of the universe, the merit or virtue of the universe, the attributes and functioning of the universe. Then Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha. We take refuge in the Buddha because he is our great teacher.
We take refuge in the law, in the Dharma, because it is good medicine. Dharma is teaching; this teaching is completely beyond human evaluation, beyond moral sense or ethical sense. Dharma is the Truth, something coming from the Truth. It really benefits everyone, all beings, just as rain nurtures grass, trees, pebbles, human beings, air, everything. Dharma is good medicine.
We take refuge in Buddha’s community, or Sangha, because it is composed of excellent friends. Sangha is a community, but it’s not the usual sense of community, because this community has many people who try to follow the Buddha’s way, so they are excellent friends for you. They are not good friends in the usual sense of friendship. “Good friend” has three meanings. One is good friend in the usual sense. If a friend benefits us in some way, we say he is a good friend. The second meaning is the person who commands respect from others beyond a sense of give and take. Even though this person cannot give material things or anything of practical benefit to others, one can deeply respect this person. The third sense of good friend is completely beyond either a sense of respect or of give and take. Even though this person lives far away he or she always influences our life in a broad sense. Even if we think of this person for just a moment, the presence of this person really helps our life. It’s not merely our imagination. This third good friend is always helping us in many ways. So, you see, the community we call Sangha is quite different from the usual sense of community. In the usual sense, people just gather and live together. But in the Sangha, each person has to be an excellent friend to all the others. Because we must be following Buddha’s teaching, we must be following the essence, the virtue, the functioning of the universe, and therefore we become an excellent friend to others. Usually it is difficult to act in this way. This is why, in communities in the United States, there are lots of problems. Most people think Sangha is just a usual community. This is understandable because the people who practice in the community are no different from other people; all of us are just human beings. This is true, we are human beings, but, at the same time, we are not human beings, we are buddha. Don’t forget this point. If we forget our Buddha-nature, we become just an ordinary human being. The reason we forget is simple—we don’t understand that we are buddha. But the meaning of “we are buddha” goes beyond whether we understand or not; we are exactly buddha. Being buddha means the total qualification for living in this world under all circumstances. There are no excuses. We have to respect each other and all sentient beings. But when we forget our Buddha-nature, we do not have a chance to communicate the spirit of the universe. This is really a senseless way to be a human being. If we are mindful that we are buddha, it is really the driving force that gives life to our everyday activity.
Only By Taking Refuge in the Triple Treasure can we become disciples of the Buddha. In other words, we can become a child of the Buddha. Being a child of the Buddha means that we have to accept completely the universe where all sentient beings exist. There is no excuse for ignoring anything in this world. If we accept ourselves, we have to accept all sentient beings, not as something separate from our life, but as the contents of our life. So in other words your life, each of your lives, is not different from me. But if I consider all of your lives to be something separate from me, that viewpoint comes from the intellectual world. Then, very naturally, I can discriminate between you and me. There is no sense of human warmness created by the human heart or spirit and, very naturally, we cannot communicate with each other. To be a disciple or a son or daughter of the Buddha means we are people who accept the lives of all sentient beings as the contents of our life. The universe is vast. The universe completely accepts us, accepts our lives as the contents of the universe. The universe never separates its life from our lives. The tree’s life, the bird’s life, our life, winter’s life, spring’s life, all are accepted as the content or qual- ity of the universe. This is why the universe is buddha. We are children of the Buddha. If we realize this, then we can put this spirit into practice. When we accept others’ lives as the contents of our life, then others’ lives become very close to us. Examples of how others lived their lives are not just stories of others’ lives separate from ours. Their stories are exactly the contents of our life. So, very naturally, others’ lives become a mirror for me and my life becomes a mirror for others. My life is reflected in others’ lives, and theirs in mine. There is always a very close relationship. This is why, whatever kind of problem you bring up, or whatever lifestyle you follow, I cannot ignore it. I have to be a good listener under all circumstances, constantly practicing the six paramitas, that is, giving, practicing the precepts, being patient, giving my best effort, meditating, practicing total calmness and practicing wisdom. Practicing those six paramitas, I have to be a good friend continually, I have to be a good listener to all of you. Then, we can really communicate. You become a good friend for me, I become a good friend for you. This is called being a disciple of the Buddha or a child of the Buddha. We have to digest this teaching because the universe completely accepts all sentient beings as the contents of its life. By taking refuge in the Triple Treasure, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we have a chance to become children or disciples of the Buddha and we become qualified to receive all the other precepts. And then, total devotion to the Triple Treasure turns into the motive power or energy of everyday life.
How Can We Touch This Spirit of taking refuge that then turns into energy for our daily life? The spiritual communion between the Buddha and the practicer, the Buddha and you is the interacting communion of appeal and response. The usual meaning of “appeal” is to ask for help. But in this case “to ask” is too strong a term. I appeal in many ways, spiritually, materially, but I don’t ask for something in particular. I appeal to you constantly for help, but this appeal is not to you in particular, it is to the whole universe. There is nothing to ask for help from in this world, but there is something we can appeal to beyond the human world, even though we don’t know exactly what it is. To do that we pray, for our lives, for others’ lives, to the vastness of space and existence. How do you do this in a concrete way? You look up into space and pray. Why look up? We don’t know. The sky or space is called akasha in Sanskrit. Akasha is characterized by no obstruction, no interruption, allowing all beings to function in peace and harmony. When we look up to the sky and pray, we don’t know what space is, but spiritually, in a deep sense, we under- stand what space is. So, naturally, we look up to the sky and pray. The altar in the church and the altar in the Buddhist temple are a little higher than we are, so always we look up when we pray. And when you pray you kneel down to the floor, you become lower; in other words, you become humble. Intellectually, we don’t understand it, but spiritually everyone knows. This is the meaning of appeal.
Then, the response comes from the whole universe; from space, from akasha, it comes. If we feel this spirit of the universe completely and appeal for help, or appeal that we may come alive in our everyday life, very naturally, we can be one with the universe. This is response. In other words, if we reach out our hands to the universe, the universe sticks out its own hand to us. Then, the path of your life and the path of the universe cross each other, become one, interconnected. In Japanese, this is kanno doko. Kan means appeal, no is response, do is path, ko is to cross. Appeal and response cross very quickly. This is whole-heartedness, exactly. If we see deeply the total picture of the human world, how transient the world is, how fragile human life is, then we can hear the cries of the world. The cries of human beings are simultaneously the one who listens. So we can appeal for help and simultaneously the universe reaches out its hand. That is, simultaneously we can see the path through which we and the universe are crossing. This is the manifestation of our wholeheartedness. When we chant, when we repeat the name of Buddha, when we do gassho, wholeheartedly, this is exactly the total presence of our life, which is exactly the same as the total presence of the universe before we poke our heads into it, trying to analyze it. Then, simultaneously, we feel peaceful. This is sitting zazen. We don’t know this, but even though we don’t know it, if we sit with wholeheartedness, some part of our body feels it directly. We can feel peaceful because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place. This is what we call wholeheartedness or “with all your mind.”
It Is Not Possible to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha intellectually. We cannot attain spiritual security or peace in this way. It is not necessary to throw away our intellect, but please, let the intellectual sense just join in, and practice with whole-heartedness. Then, spiritual security is present. This is not something we can know, but it is something we can touch. We can touch it directly by putting ourselves right there. I have to put myself right here and then talk. In Katagiri’s life, the intellectual world is always coming up, but if I want to give you Buddha’s teaching beyond our cultural back-grounds, all I have to do is be present right now, right here, with wholeheartedness and then talk. Then there is some communion. I can be very calm, I can be composed, and then very naturally you can be composed, you can be calm, and then communion goes between. This is called “taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” This is why the three refuges are very basic practice for us in order to enter the Buddha’s world.
Dainin Katagiri (1928 – 1990) was founding abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center and was important in bringing Zen Buddhism from Japan to the United States.