This is a talk I recorded. It’s inspired by the text Mirror of Zen. This talk addresses Buddhist ethics and a few other things.
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Taking refuge is central to Buddhist teachings and practice. It’s referred to as “entering the gate”.
When we come to understand that taking refuge means that we are working on ourselves, then we understand that it’s a process of changing the directions of our lives. We work on ourselves by doing the practices that the Buddha taught to help us overcome the poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion.
We call it “taking refuge” because it is an active practice. Refuge isn’t something that happens to us. It’s something we decide to do. We are actively dedicating ourselves to walk the path. We can’t have someone else walk it for us. It’s easy to study Buddhism and to debate minute aspects of Buddhist philosophy. When we take refuge we are resolving to walk the path with diligent effort. The Dharma is something we are learning about. But it’s also something we are becoming.
Central to taking refuge is seeing the direction our lives are heading in. Do we want to continue dwelling in delusion or do we want to take steps to see things as they really are, to dwell in our Buddha nature?
I have three strings around my wrist.
There are two red ones and a yellow one. One of the red ones is looking a little worn. I’ve had it for a while. It’s something people notice sometimes.
Everyone knows I prefer the Zen tradition and strings aren’t part of that, but I have spent a great deal of time practicing in the Vajrayana tradition and it has meant a lot to me too. Each one has a different meaning.
The first red one was given to me by Lama Chuck Stanford when he gave me Refuge Vows and I officially became Buddhist. The second red one was given to me by Lama Chuck when I took Bodhisattva Vows, deepening my Buddhist commitment.
The yellow one was give to me by Lama Lena Feral, and it was blessed by her teacher Wangdor Rinpoche—a famous Vajrayana Buddhist teacher from Tibet who held several lineages.
But, what do these strings mean?
They are sometimes called blessing cords and sometimes called protection cords. They are used in several lineages of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.
These cords are blessed and given by Lamas on important occasions, for example when one takes vows. Taking vows is a part of most branches of Buddhism, but taking vows doesn’t always involve receiving a string. One can also be given a string when one does an important retreat or receives teachings from a well known teacher, especially secret teachings. I was given my yellow string because I received teachings from Lama Lena.
In ancient times, people would just wear their cords until they fell apart. In the modern world they last much longer because we have synthetic material.
Legend has it that these cords can bring good luck or offer some kind of protection.
In the traditional practice the Lama ties a knot in the cord, blows a mantra into it, and makes a blessing. They say this allows you to take your teacher with you, even after they are long gone. Many religious traditions have this kind of process, where a teacher imbues an object with spiritual energy and blessings.
Now, I’ll be honest and tell you, I don’t believe these strings provide any sort of protection or good luck. I’m skeptical of such things. But I do think they serve a purpose.
They can be a reminder.
I have a string that reminds me that I took Refuge Vows. It reminds me that I am a Buddhist and I should live mindfully.
I have a string that reminds me that I took Bodhisattva Vows—that my purpose is to spread compassion and wisdom, to save as many beings and bring as many to Enlightenment as I can.
And I have a string that reminds me that I have received additional teachings. This one reminds me that there is always more to learn and there are always more steps to take.
I have three strings and I have seen people with more.
I think reminders have some value.
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(a version of this article originally appeared on The Tattooed Buddha)
At first glance, it might seem like compassion isn’t important in Zen. There’s a whole lot of emphasis on insight and concentration practices.
It’s true that in the Zen tradition there is a lot of focus on the mystical experience, cultivating insight to try to attain Enlightenment. Texts like the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra do spend a whole lot more time talking about non-duality than they do about compassion. But I’d argue this is a slight misunderstanding.
The story of the Buddha tells us that he sat under a tree and attained Enlightenment. At first he thought he couldn’t possibly teach it, because Awakening requires an intuitive understanding and he knew that any explanation would be difficult to express.
But he decided to try anyway. He was motivated by compassion.
In that story we have the two most important aspects of Buddhism, in my opinion. They are great insight and great compassion.
Attaining Enlightenment, striving to Awaken and helping others to do the same IS compassion. If I can become more mindful and aware, I am making the world a better place. When I save myself from the effects of my delusion, I am saving others from the effects of my delusion too.
Additionally, I should mention the vows.
One might have difficulty finding a lot of compassion in sutras and teachings of Zen masters.
But the vows we take in the Zen tradition are clearly motivated by compassion.
These are often recited in Zen retreats and some practitioners recite them daily:
Sentient beings are numerous. I vow to save them.
Defilements are endless. I vow to eliminate them.
Buddha’s teachings are unlimited. I vow to learn them.
The ways of enlightenment are supreme. I vow to achieve them.
We can see right there that the first one is all about helping others. I don’t think it’s an accident that that is the first of the four vows.
Additionally, we have the Bodhisattva Vows, which are all about making sure we are as harmonious as possible in our interactions with others.
And we talk about cultivating the Six Perfections as fundamental to the Buddhist path. These are:
Generosity, Virtue, Patience, Diligence, Concentration, and Wisdom.
Those first three are pretty clearly motivated by compassion, by a desire to engage the world in a way that is positive and helpful, rather than harmful.
At its core Zen is about transcending duality. It’s about tearing down the false barriers that separate us from others. If we engage duality compassion naturally results.
So, in this way, compassion is always fundamental to the path.
The Patriarch gave the following teaching:
Let’s purify our minds at all times, walk the path by our diligent effort, Awaken to our true nature, realize Enlightenment in our minds, and deliver ourselves by observing moral teachings.
There are five kinds of incense in the teachings.
The first is Sila Incense, which means that our minds are free from the taints of misdeeds: jealousy, avarice, anger, and hatred.
The second is Samadhi Incense, whiche means our minds aren’t disturbed in circumstances, whether positive or negative.
The third is Prajna Incense, which means our minds are free of impediments, that we look within for our true nature and refrain from doing evil deeds. That we treat others with respect.
The fourth is the Incense of Liberation, which means that our minds are in a free state, that we cling to nothing and don’t concern ourselves with duality.
The fifth is the Incense of Knowledge, which means we have learned about the Attainment of Liberation. When our minds don’t cling to duality then we attain this knowledge.
We should broaden our knowledge so we know our own minds, thoroughly understand the teachings of Buddhism, be kind to others, let go of the idea of ‘self’ and that of ‘being’ and realize that our true nature is oneness.
This fivefold incense burns within us.
Repeat what I say here:
‘May we, students, be always free from ignorance and delusion. We repent for all of our misdeeds committed because of ignorance and delusion. May we never commit such misdeeds again.
May we be free from the taints of arrogance and dishonesty. We repent for all of our arrogant and dishonest behavior.
May we be free from the taints of envy and jealousy. We repent for all jealous and envious behavior.
This is what we call formless repentance.
Having repented of our sins we will take the following four All-embracing Vows:
Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
Confusions are countless, I vow to cut them all.
The Buddha’s teachings are limitless, I vow to penetrate them all.
The Buddha’s way is highest, I vow to achieve it.
These are called the Four Bodhisattva Vows. They are considered the fundamental vows of the Zen Buddhist path, expressing our resolution to attain Enlightenment in order to help all beings. These are chanted daily in Zen temples and are often chanted at the closing of different kinds of ceremonies.
With the aid of Right Views and Prajna the barriers raised by delusion can be broken. Then we can deliver ourselves by our own efforts to Enlightenment.
Now that we have taken these Four All-embracing vows, let me teach you the ‘Formless Threefold Guidance’:
We take Enlightenment as our guide, because it is the culmination of virtue and wisdom. We take the Dharma as our guide because it is the best way to get rid of desire and delusion. We take Purity as our guide because it is the noblest quality of beings.
These represent the Three Jewels.
The Buddha stands for Enlightenment
The Dharma stands for Devotion to the teachings
The Sangha stands for Purity.
Taking refuge in Enlightenment is the culmination of virtue and wisdom.
Taking refuge in Devotion to the teachings helps us become free of wrong views.
Taking refuge in Purity means that in any circumstance we are not contaminated by delusion.
Practicing the Threefold Guidance in this way really leads to taking refuge in our own Buddha nature.
Taking refuge in the Buddha within yourself doesn’t entail taking refuge in something outside ourselves.
Let us each take refuge in the Three Gems within our minds.
The path is a long and selfless mystical journey that involves cultivating generosity, patience, virtue, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. Full of compassion for others, bodhisattvas make the vow to embody the path and guide anyone that seeks it.
The word “bodhisattva” literally means “a being who is seeking awakening.” A bodhisattva is one who is seeking Enlightenment, helps others seek Enlightenment, and cultivates virtue and wisdom. Bodhisattvas strive to benefit both themselves and others in the mystical journey.
When we make these vows, helping and liberating others becomes a responsibility. The mind of the Bodhisattva is said to have three elements. They are: the aspiration for awakening, great compassion, and skillful means.
The aspiration for Awakening is the mind seeking Enlightenment. Without this aspiration, we have no motivation on the path. If we have no motivation, then it will be difficult to persevere.
1 Sentient beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them.
2 Afflictions are endless, I vow to eradicate them.
3 Teachings are infinite, I vow to learn them.
4 Buddhahood is supreme, I vow to attain it.
If we lose our aspiration for Awakening, then it will be difficult to bring benefit to anyone. Aspiration for Awakening is the root of the path.
When a bodhisattva wants to help others, they must do so with a mind of great kindness and compassion. A bodhisattva can use kindness to bring others joy and compassion to remove suffering. When a bodhisattva helps others find the path the do not seek anything in return. Instead, they see helping others on the path as a responsibility. This is true compassion.
Skillful means represent the different tools we use in the path to Awakening. These include things like meditation and chanting. A teaching that I like is called the four means of embracing. These are: giving, kind words, altruism, and empathy.
These are some of the tools we can use on the path to Awakening.
Buddhism places great emphasis on the cultivation of wisdom, but it also places great emphasis on ethics in life. After he Awakened the Buddha said, “Do nothing that is harmful. Do only good, and purify the mind.” It could be said that all Buddhist teachings can really be summarized in that small sentence.
Following the path of the Bodhisattva is a way of cultivating our selves. It is a path of self improvement that benefits everyone around us, as well as ourselves. The most important teaching for walking the bodhisattva path is the six perfections. The six perfections free us from delusion and lead us to Awakening.
I’ve written about the six perfections before, but I will summarize them briefly here.
The Perfection of Generosity: to give without any attachment to form. To give with no attachment to what is being given, who is giving, or who is receiving.
The Perfection of Virtue: To respect and not harm others. Observing Buddhist precepts and acting in accordance with human values.
The Perfection of Patience: Facing life with a sense of equanimity that allows us to endure what is difficult to endure. Practice patience by being tolerant, accepting, and by spending time contemplating truths.
The Perfection of Diligence: This is our vigorous desire to practice ceaselessly, to bring joy and benefit to others even when it is difficult to do so.
The Perfection of Meditation: This is our cultivation of mindfulness. This helps settle and focus ourselves.
The Perfection of Wisdom: This is our cultivation of insight. This represents our work in understanding the non-duality of existence. When we cultivate this wisdom then we truly can inspire others on the path.
The six perfections are powerful. When we cultivate them we are spreading the teachings of the Buddha and bringing great benefit to ourselves and others. These are good things to do: cultivating the six perfections, generating compassion, aspiring to Awaken.
Going for Refuge is an initiation in which one officially becomes a Buddhist.
It’s a rite of passage ceremony that marks a formal commitment. We don’t have to make this official commitment, of course, but it serves to solidify our sense of purpose. We go for refuge because we are determined to overcome our suffering and help others overcome their suffering.
We’ve almost lost rites of passage in the modern world, but they were really important in traditional societies. The only rite of passage I can think of that’s normal in modern society is getting married, or, put another way, marriage vows.
For this reason, Going for Refuge is sometimes referred to as Taking Refuge Vows. This terminology, I think, is just to remind us that this is a big deal. Unlike marriage vows, though, when we take refuge, we aren’t making a promise to someone else. We’re really only making a promise to ourselves.
When we take refuge we acknowledge—in a formal way—that our goal is Awakening. When we take refuge we become as one with all of the Buddhist lineage that came before us, we become the Buddha’s sons and daughters.
When we go for refuge, we are taking refuge in three things, which are referred to as the Three Jewels. They’re called jewels because we are supposed to think of them as precious and valuable.
The Buddha refers to the historical being—Siddhartha Gautama—who found Awakening and who exists as our example to follow. Sometimes when people first hear about Buddhism they think the Buddha is a god. This is not correct. He is our teacher, the one who’s example we follow.
Going for refuge in the Buddha also represents the ideal of Buddhahood. We see the Buddha as our example and we committed to achieving Awakening, just as he did, for the sake of all beings. The Buddha transcended his delusion and engaged with his true nature. We seek to do the same by following his example.
The Dharma is the roadmap to Awakening that the Buddha gave us. It represents his effort, and the efforts of other great Buddhist teachers after him, to put the teachings into words.
He gave us a list of instructions that he summed up as: “Learn to do good, cease to do evil, purify your heart.” A list of simple goals, but certainly something we can spend a lifetime trying to do. Going for refuge in the Dharma means using these teachings and methods to try to increase our mindfulness and kindness as much as we can.
The Sangha is the spiritual community. The Buddha once said that spiritual friendship is the most important aspect of the path. Engaging the practice with others means something to us. This is important because Buddhism isn’t simply a philosophy or belief system. It’s something we do, like having a buddy to go work out with, and having a community on the path with us helps. It’s not that we can’t practice alone, of course we can, it’s just like an uphill battle.
In a narrow sense a Sangha is any spiritual community that we join. In a broader sense, Sangha represents all Buddhists. In a even broader sense, I like to think we can included all like minded spiritual seekers as well, so to me Sangha can easily include some Taoists, Shamans, or Pagans.
So, how do you do it?
If you want a formal ceremony, you’ll need to find a qualified person to perform it. Search for Buddhist teachers in your community. Most communities have a few.
The parable of the burning house is a teaching that is used to remind us that the precepts in Buddhism are suggestions. It is part of a long text called the Lotus Sutra. Although precepts are important, they aren’t airtight commandments that we can never break. They are a roadmap, not a set of laws.
This is how the story goes:
A man sees that his house is on fire with his children inside. The children are having so much fun playing a game that they don’t realize that the house is going to burn down.
So, the father yells, “Come out!”
And…the kids ignore him. A familiar experience to those of us that are parents.
The father thinks for a minute and comes up with an idea.
He yells, “Kids, I have three carts full of toys out here, come outside and play with them.”
And the kids come running out immediately.
So, he lied to save their lives. And because he lied they lived, although they were probably disappointed and perhaps angry at their father.
In Buddhism, honesty is valued very highly. It’s one of the five precepts. But, this goes to show that life happens and there are situations.
An example from modern times would be someone hiding Jews in their house during the World War 2. Of course if you’re trying to save lives in that way, you’re going to lie if someone comes to your door looking for the people you’re protecting.
This can be a dangerous teaching, because one could then think of all sorts of excuses to break precepts. But another important part of Buddhism is using common sense. If you use this teaching to get around the precepts, you know exactly what you’re doing and you aren’t helping anyone.
This is an important teaching because it sets Buddhism apart. The Buddha says these rules are a good idea, but he also says use your common sense.
This is a version of Buddhist vows created by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I really like this version. It’s described in a way that anyone could easily understand.
The Three Treasures
I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and love
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness
The Two Promises
I vow to develop my compassion in order to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants.
I vow to develop understanding in order to live peaceably with people, animals, and plants.
I have ceased my formal monastic training with the Five Mountain Zen Order. I have decided against becoming ordained.
I hold Lay Ordination Vows in a Rinzai Zen lineage and Bodhisattva Vows in the Vajrayana path. That will be enough for now.
This wasn’t too difficult of a decision for me given that my favorite historical Zen teachers are rebellious figures like Pang-yun and Ikkyu Sojun, who refused to be ordained as monks. There is a proud and great history of lay teachers and writers in Zen.
Buddhism is not and should not be limited to monks. Enlightenment is available to everyone because we are all enlightened already anyway.
I’m not a fan of structure and hierarchy anyway.