Receiving the Precepts
Part 2

by Josho Pat Phelan

Last time, I began talking about the Ceremony for Giving and Receiving the Precepts [Jukai] as a lay person, and the process or preparation for receiving the precepts. I stopped with repentance and today I would like to begin by reviewing repentance.

The repentance verse is, "All my ancient, twisted karma, from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion, born through body, speech, and mind, I now fully avow." Repentance is a kind of purification which is done before receiving precepts. In repentance, we acknowledge our endless and beginningless, our inexhaustible delusion which propels us into birth and death. In the Indian, or Indian Buddhist, world view, there is no beginning or first cause the way we think of it in the West, where time, or the origination of the universe, is considered to have a definite beginning and end, with a long middle in between, which progresses from the past to present to future. The early Buddhist world view considered existence or reality to be more like a spiral without any beginning or end.

In zen we have both formal repentance, in which we repent the concrete activities we have done, as well as formless repentance, which refers to the absolute or non-dual realm. Shohaku Okumura described formless repentance as awakening "to the total interpenetrating reality which is beyond separation of subject and object, self and others. This is our zazen....formless repentance is actually sitting in zazen and letting go of thoughts." In formless repentance, we repent activity that has a self-centered focus or egocentric motivation in it, whether the activity itself is good or bad. Whether we are engaged in wholesome or unwholesome activity, in harming or helping, if we have the idea that we are doing something, it solidifies our sense of self and our sense of separation. In zen, what is emphasized, whether we are working with the precepts, sitting zazen, practicing mindfulness, or working, is returning to original nature before separation.

In Returning to Silence, Katagiri Roshi said that repentance in Buddhism means perfect openness of heart. If we open ourselves completely, we are ready to listen to the voiceless voice of the universe. He explained that, "The ritual of repentance is not to ask forgiveness from someone for what one has done. Repentance is not a preliminary stage to enter Buddha’s world or to become a good person." He said, " If repentance is understood in this way, we fall...into the trap of dualism, a big gap is created between us and whatever object we try to make repentance to.... Real repentance cannot be found in dualism....[Repentance in Buddhism] is the perfect openness of our hearts that allows us to hear the voice of the universe beyond the irritation of our consciousness."

When he said, "The ritual of repentance is not to ask forgiveness from someone..." and so on, sometimes I think he was referring to formless repentance and other times I think he meant formal repentance. In either case, in Zen we don’t come together as a community to confess and repent as was done on the full moon and new moon in early Buddhist monastic communities. But this doesn’t mean that when you do something hurtful, you don’t need to apologize. Since the realm of our human relationships is the realm of the conventional world of duality, I recommend apologizing to the person involved in whatever happened. But in Zen we don’t have a ritual of apologizing in front of a third party. In Buddhism, feeling regret or remorse is considered an important dharma, or factor of mind, but this shouldn’t be confused with the added burden of guilt. When you cause harm, knowingly or unknowingly, as we all do, and when you realize it, I think it is healthy to feel regret and to express that by apologizing.

In the Precepts Ceremony, after repentance, the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts are given, which are described as the Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Clear Mind Precepts. One aspect of the precepts ceremony is public acknowledgment or confirmation that we are Buddhists. But what is a Buddhist? What does it mean to be a Buddhist, or what is the mark or characteristic of a Buddhist? Is a Buddhist someone who views life as impermanent, or is it someone who views existence as being marked with dissatisfaction or suffering? Is it someone who chants the name of Amida Buddha or the name of the Lotus Sutra? Or is it someone who practices bowing or mindfulness or zazen? I have a much clearer idea of what it means for someone to be a Christian. It has to do with a belief in God, Jesus, and the teachings of the Bible. But in Buddhism, there is no God, there is no Savior, and there isn't even a single text that all Buddhists refer to. I’ve heard that only about 5-10% of all Buddhist sutras have been translated into English. I think asking or examining this question can be helpful, "What does it mean to be a Buddhist?" or "What is the fundamental characteristic of a Buddhist?" but not so much from the point of view of giving a definition or label to what you are or what you are doing, but as a way to look at less conscious assumptions.

Although the precepts themselves vary from culture to culture and between different schools of Buddhism, taking refuge is one of the few practices that is common to all the different schools and sects of Buddhism. We take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

People have been taking the refuges since Shakyamuni Buddha’s time, and it is one of the oldest Buddhist practices, and it may be the only practice that is common to all the different schools and sects of Buddhism in all the different countries that Buddhism has taken root in over the last 2,500 years. The refuges are also called the Three Treasures, or the Triple Treasure, the Three Jewels, and the Three Gems, which all refer to the refuges as something precious. Because the Refuges have been practiced in so many different cultures and languages over such a long period, they are rich in connotation and meaning.

In early Indian Buddhism, the meaning of "refuge" was similar to the way we use it in English. It meant to shelter or to protect, or a sanctuary or an asylum. Taking refuge in the Buddha meant either the historical Buddha or the enlightened one. Dharma meant the teachings of Buddha, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. Sangha originally meant the order of nuns and monks who practiced with Shakyamuni Buddha, but later it came to mean any group of Buddhist practitioners. In this context the Refuges could be said this way: "I go to the fully enlightened one for refuge. I go to Buddha’s teachings for refuge. I go to the Buddhist community for refuge."

In Tibetan Buddhism, refuge has two aspects, inner refuge and outer refuge. In outer refuge, "Buddha" refers to the enlightened state itself and to those who have attained enlightenment. Outer dharma refers to the realizations from our actual experience on the path to enlightenment. "Sangha" refers to the spiritual community, to those who have wisdom and who give us inspiration and support.

"Inner refuge is refuge in ourselves." According to Tibetan Buddhism, the inner buddha is the seed of enlightenment that exists in the minds of all sentient beings. Actually, I’ve read that in the Tibetan language, "there is no word that means a Buddhist. The word that refers to a Buddhist actually means inner being....inner dharma is our own natural wisdom that can distinguish real from false; the inner sangha is the guidance and inspiration that we can give others." (K. McDonald, How to Meditate, p. 144)

In Tibetan Buddhism, "Refuge [has been described as] the attitude of relying on, or turning to something for guidance and help" (McDonald, p. 145) and it is considered that "When we do this sincerely and consistently from the depths of our heart, this is the actual taking of refuge." (Meaningful to Behold, p. 58) I think of taking refuge as turning away from my own point of view which is naturally limited by my experience and conditioning, preferences and desires, and turning toward the unconditioned, or that which is sometimes described as space or spaciousness.

The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a Tibetan Buddhist text, asks, "What is taking refuge with a mind free from the hustle and bustle of the world?" and it answers, "By knowing all entities to be non-existent, to see them as incapable of being given form,...of being taken as entities in themselves, but to see them as being perfect Buddhahood, is taking refuge in the Buddha. To see all entities follow the way of the Dharmadhatu [the Dharma realm], is taking refuge in the Dharma. To see the conditioned and unconditioned as not...split into a duality, is taking refuge in Sangha."

In Japanese Buddhism, the meaning of "refuge" goes in a different direction. The word for refuge, kie, is made up of two characters. According to Dogen, the first means "to unreservedly throw oneself into." The second is "to rely upon." Together they mean having enough faith in what we rely upon to be able to unreservedly throw ourselves into it. Dogen taught that "the way that a child leaps into its father’s arms, we should leap into the Three Treasures. ["Kie Buppo So Bo"] In Japan this attitude is used in bowing–leaping into the bow, abandoning reservations and self-clinging. I think of bowing, or doing prostrations, as a way of physically taking refuge. When we do a floor bow, we physically drop or let go. We stop holding our position. In one of his talks, Ch’an Master Sheng-yen referred to doing formless prostrations, but he didn’t explain what he meant by this. I wonder if a formless prostration would be mentally letting go of our position or point of view. Pema Chodron talks about the activity of taking refuge as becoming a refugee, one who is homeless and without any position.

American zen teachers give "refuge" the additional meanings of "going out and returning," or "constantly returning." So we could say, "I return to Buddha or unconditioned nature." Another meaning of refuge is recalling, in the sense of remembering, the way we use it in mindfulness as remembering to stay in the present. A third meaning is "to find one’s source or origin in." We could say: "I find my source in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha."

In zen, the word "Buddha" has the meaning of our true self, our unconditioned nature, original nature, our enlightened nature, and the enlightened nature of all beings. Dharma is the teaching of how to come back to our true self, or the methods and practices we use for coming back. Aitken Roshi said, "Sangha is the kinship of all things, every entity of this universe and of all universes, past, present, and future....It is to the enlightenment of this total Sangha that we are dedicated in our vows." (Taking the Path of Zen, p. 72) I’ve heard that Maezumi Roshi gave the Refuges in this form: "Be one with the Buddha. Be one with the Dharma. Be one with the Sangha." And then he simplified this to "Be Buddha."

The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts begin with the Three Refuges, which act as an aspiration for receiving the Three Pure Precepts, and together they prepare us for receiving the Ten Clear Mind Precepts. Maezumi Roshi said "all sixteen precepts boil down to the first. Be one with Buddha....In a way the [rest of the precepts] are just different ways of talking about the first."

One way to practice taking refuge is to look at what we actually take refuge in. We might find that we take refuge in eating, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, watching television, or in our inner dialog or storyline, in our anger or self-justification. By looking at where we turn for relief, we can get a sense for how we distract ourselves and how we can come back.

Another way to practice with the refuges is by taking refuge, by turning away from small mind, from our preferences, our fears and expectations, and instead turning toward enlightened mind or the unconditioned. One way I began practicing with the refuges was by saying the refuges before going to bed at night and when waking up in the morning, and sometimes when I began work and at other transitions. I also find it helpful to say the refuges when I walk. This may sound like some kind of mind control of self hypnotism, but my attention has such a strong habit of dispersing that doing this simple practice helps keep my consciousness with my walking and breathing.

Katagiri Roshi said, " devotion to the Triple Treasure turns into the motive power or energy of everyday life." By fostering our intention or "motive power," we strengthen our intention, mature our intention, into a vow.

"Only by taking refuge in the Triple Treasure can we become disciples of Buddha....Being a child of 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 separate from our life, but as the contents of our life....To be a disciple...of Buddha means we are people who accept the lives of all sentient beings as the contents of our life...." He said, "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 are all accepted as the content or quality of the universe." He added, "This is why the universe is Buddha." This is why there is nothing we can do that doesn’t matter, or that we can do carelessly. This is why there is no place where we can spit, no place that we can just disregard. Everything is within this universe that is Buddha.

© Taitaku Patricia Phelan, 1999

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