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The Three Refuges: Part II, The Dharma

by Ruben Habito

Editor’s Note: This is the second out of three articles on The Three Refuges. Read the Buddha Refuge (part one) and Sangha Refuge (part three).

Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami

Part II—The Dharma Refuge

wheel-clWe are in the process of elucidating the three refuges which we just chanted. Our intent is not just to give an intellectual explanation, but to allow an unfolding of what actually happens as we chant those verses with our whole body, with our whole mind, with our whole being. As we chant, we are manifesting the fullness of reality in that moment. Ti-sarana, refuge in the three treasures, is a way of explicating or unpacking the content of every moment that we are invited to come home to, especially during the time of sesshin.

Sesshin is a special time. We are invited to come home to the present moment. But this invitation is not just for the special period we can take out of our ordinary lives, but applies to every day of our whole life as well.

To make one brief summary remark, the Buddha is not some being out there that we worship when we make our refuge. The act of taking refuge is simply an acknowledgment of the most profound reality that I am, and that I am now hoping to awaken in me. Buddha, literally means “awakened one.” The very act of reciting “I take refuge in the Buddha” draws out this reality of awaken-ing, out of the state of slumber, as it were, that my ordinary consciousness is in.

To round up what was explained in the teisho on taking refuge in the Buddha, the signs, or the marks of the awakened life, can be described with the threefold marks of peace, humility and compassion. A traditional way of describing awakening is in terms of wisdom and compassion. When we say wisdom, we might think it is some kind of intellectual knowledge but it is not that kind of knowledge at all. Wisdom is to know reality as it really is.

A term in early Buddhism which is translated as “equanimity,” or “inner peace,” is Upekkha, which literally means “seeing things as they are.”   When the eye sees things as they truly are, there is no longer a separation between the seer and the seeing. Reality is seen “as it is” without illusion, and that is no other than true wisdom. The word upekkha thereby refers to a way of living based on wisdom that is characterized by equanimity. Inner peace that is grounded on that vision of things as they are. This is what gives peace to our-selves, peace with one another, peace with the whole universe: the realization of things as they really are. That also opens us to a life whereby we no longer need to be swayed by the ego and its delusive directions. This is what ushers in a life of genuine humility, as we see through the ego and its machinations and are no longer deluded by these. So peace and humility are two ways of unpack-ing what is contained by that traditional term, wisdom.

Now, let us look at the second point of refuge. Dhammam saranam gacchami, I go to the Dharma of refuge. Dharma is Sanskrit, Dhamma is Pali, pointing to the same reality, the Truth of who or what we are. Dhamma is again a word that has had a very rich history not only in Buddhism but also in Hinduism. We won’t go into detail on this, but allow me to offer first a general summary of the marks of dharma in the Buddhist tradition.

In the early Buddhist scriptures they talk of the three marks of Dharma as expounded by the awakened one. The three marks of Dharma are anicca, a word in Pali meaning impermanence; anatta, translated variously as no-self, non-self or selflessness, and, thirdly, dukkha. Now dukkha is a richly nuanced word, usually translated as “suffering” or “pain,” but it is misleading to identify it with what we know in English as suffering or pain. The word Dukkha is a compound from “kha”which means wheel and the prefix ìdushî (which becomes duk in Pali), which refers to something being “mal-” or “mis-”placed or “mis-”taken. It functions like the Latin prefix “mal-” as in “mal-”practice. The Italian word for head is “testa,” so “malatesta” is a headache. Going back to dukkha, the word literally means that the wheel is misplaced or is not functioning properly, because it is off center. This refers to the wheel of our ordinary life, characterized by unsatisfactoriness, misplacement, alienation, “angst,” and all those other words the existentialists use to describe our ordinary mode of being. A scholar has come up with the clever translation “dis-ease.”

So those are the three basic marks of Dharma, the three insights of the awakened one as he expounded what he awakened to, to others. Impermanence. Selflessness. Dis-ease.

When we chant “Dhammam saranam gacchami, I go to the dharma for refuge,” we are accepting the invitation to embody that dharma in our lives. At the first level, we are accepting our human condition, characterized by those three marks, impermanence, selflessness and dis-ease.

Let us take these three elements one by one. Every evening at sesshin, we hear the chant solemnly proclaim to us:  “Everything is marked by impermanence.” There are two ways we can take this. The first way is this: Everything is impermanent, so we lament, “Alas, it’s not going to last!” Everything changes. Even that tree which can live hundreds of years will eventually dry up and die. So, what more with human beings? And so, what more with the everyday reality?

Everything moves swiftly like a fleeting arrow, and we can hold on to nothing and say, “I’ve got it forever!” So we may lament this fact. But there is a second way of taking this mark of the dharma. Precisely because of that, namely, that everything is impermanent, the invitation of the Awakened One is live the fullness of this fleeting moment, just as it is. Truly, all that is given, is this moment. The next moment will be entirely different. So every moment is precious precisely because everything is impermanent. Every single moment is precious just as it is.

So we are invited not just to look for the “sweets” of the moment. There are also the sours and the bitters and the different kinds of tastes there, and so they’re all treasures that we are invited to taste in our life. So let us taste the treasure of our life, in each moment, with each moment. If we just look for that which we prefer, and try to expel out what don’t like, our whole life will be a struggle, grasping for one side of reality and trying to avoid the other side. So we will never be at peace.

The secret of peace is take what is and live that fully. This is the invitation of the mark of impermanence. The Japanese have a good way of expressing this in their love for nature. As you know, cherry trees have this very beautiful habit of showing their blossoms for a few days once a year in the spring. In Japan, this usually falls in the first week of April. It is a Japanese custom since time immemorial for people to go to a nearby park or place where there would be cherry trees in full bloom, and celebrate this auspicious time. People bring their jugs of sake and some munchies, and so families or office mates or groups of friends gather together, drinking, singing, dancing. This is the moment to celebrate, as cherry trees are in full bloom, because everybody knows that tomorrow they will just fall and fade away. This sense of celebration of the fleeting moment is ingrained in Japanese culture.

There is a poet who wrote a poem precisely about this, which I can only paraphrase roughly in English: “The cherry blossom falls within a day. Oh, how precious, how holy!” In other words, each moment that we are given in every day of this life is fleeting. So, how precious! How holy! We are invited to celebrate our lives, precisely in its fleetingness. Oh, how precious!

That’s what the mark of impermanence is inviting us to taste. The preciousness of each moment of our life and each moment really is an eternity that we are invited to truly live and realize. This makes us recall William Blake’s poem. “To see the world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour!” That hour is not 60 minutes of an hour but an hour, moment of time, eternity in this moment.

The second mark of the dharma is related to this, and it is translated in different ways to no-self, non-self, selflessness. The Pali word anatta comes from the Sanskrit an-atman. Atman in Sanskrit is the word which can denote the true self but it also has become simply the term for referring to the ordinary self, the I, Me, Mine. So, an-atman, anatta, simply invites us to realize that which we call “I, Me, Mine” is a delusion.

What does that imply? Again, this has been the topic of many commentaries and dissertations in Buddhist Philosophy through the ages. We cannot go into the complexity of argumentation that this issue has brought out, but what we can do is simply point out a basic insight in all this. When we look at something, or listen to something, for example, and really lose ourselves in that moment of seeing or hearing, really wrapped in the experience of beholding something or hearing some-thing, there is no room for the “I” to come in and say, “Look Ma, I see this!” If we are truly able to encounter beauty at one moment then the I simply dissolves, and we are simply There, wrapped in the glory of that moment.

It is that kind of moment that enables the awakened one to know in ordinary life that what we refer to as the I Me Mine is simply an idea that comes to mind upon second reflection, and therefore, in reality, a delusion. In those most real moments of our lives, when we truly see, hear, taste, touch something, there is no such thing as an “I,” period. It is a gift of the universe simply “to be,” to experience each thing just as it is.

This is just one way of circumventing the philosophical discussions about anatta, pointing out that in the most precious moments of our lives, we find that there is no such thing as an I. We are simply there beholding reality as it is.

I still recall the moment of birth of my first son, Florian, and a year and a half later, of my second son, Benjamin. After Maria struggled through a whole night, pushing and breathing, his head popped out, then his whole body popped out. I can never forget that feeling of indescribable joy and ecstasy, just seeing this new life coming forth. Just that!

And so I can only invite each one to look into your own life. There are those moments that stand out in our lives, in our own journeys, that make us realize that what we call the “I” is really a block to true seeing. When we are truly face to face with reality, there’s no room for anything else. And we can only celebrate, right at that moment. The next moment, when I say, “This is my child,” then the separation begins.  We begin to be possessive, and compare “my” child with those of “others.” This separation brings about conflict, mars true peace. It brings out pride, which blocks humility. It brings out selfishness, which blocks compassion.

So, we see a lot in our lives that militate against awakening to reality. All this is brought by this delusive notion called I Me Mine, with its machinations that get hold of me, and spoil my life. When Shakyamuni awakened to the Dharma, he realized that such a notion is precisely a delusive one. There is no such thing as “I,” at the innermost level of reality. What he then offered to those who wish to follow him in this life of awakening is to see through that I Me Mine, and live in a way that one is not deluded by it. When the I Me Mine idea is set aside, what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, stands out, and can be celebrated for what it is. It can happen in a most ordinary moment like, looking at a flower or perhaps just sitting watching the cars go by. As we lose that sense of “I am watching the people go by” but are simply There. Thomas Merton experienced something like this, as he was standing at the corner of some street, was it Louisville and Knox, and gives an account of it in his “Confessions of a Guilty Bystander.” As I recall in this account, he realizes, “I am they.” Or, “they are me.” In other words, no I Me Mine.

Each one of us may experience intimations of that reality of selfless-ness, at some auspicious or unexpected moment in our lives. If we are in a park, and see a child fall down and burst out crying, for example, the first impulse would be to run and help that child. That is an indication or intimation of that world of selfless-ness, most real reality in us where there is no boundary between this being that I call I, with its proper name, and that other being with another proper name. There is that natural connectedness that calls me to jump out and do what I can for the child. But then, second and third reflection gets the better of us. “But it’s not my child.” Or worse, “what if people think I was molesting the child?” And we are frozen in our tracks, unable to act. Unable to live.

The third mark of Dharma is dukkha. This points out that if we live in our ordinary life under the sway of that idea that butts in with the second and third reflection machination, that idea we call the I Me Mine, then our lives would be in a state of malfunction, dysfunction, disease. So our life will always be unsatisfactory, because we live in a realm separate from reality. We are always separate from those that we are intimately connected with—our fellow sentient beings.

The healing of Dukkha then is the healing of that separation. This healing is called Nirvana. Nirvana is a keyword in Buddhism which has been interpreted to mean, etymologically, “extinguishing of the fire,” that is, extinguishing the fires of delusive passion. Another etymological way of taking nirvana is the un-covering (nir-vrt) of what is. The delusive I Me Mine that covers reality, hides it. The uncovering of reality, then, is Nirvana. What is Nirvana?

The passage that we read from the Metta Sutta gives us a hint. “One who has attained the peaceful state (that is, the state of nirvana) lives thus” so we are referred back to the features of an awakened life. To realize that this life as lived influenced by the I Me Mine places me more deeply into Dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, separation, malfunction, dysfunction, violence, conflict, goads me into turning my life around, to uncover the reality that is hidden by the I Me Mine. In doing so, I am able to live a life in Nirvana, as the truth comes to be uncovered. That uncovering of “what is” enables me to be at peace, humble, compassionate, and consequently, grateful.

The three marks of dharma thus call us back to the basic components of the awakened life. The reality of impermanence invites us to taste each moment as precious. The reality of selflessness invites us to see reality without the machinations of the I Me Mine. Disease, dukkha, invites us turn this I Me Mine around, and see things for what they are, and thereby arrive at peace, humility and compassion.

The term dukkha is also at the heading of another formulation of Dharma, namely, the four noble truths. This is the content of the first sermon of the Awakened One right after his experience of enlightenment.

The first noble truth is the realization that life as we know it in our ordinary consciousness, influenced by I Me Mine, is a way of being that is unsatisfactory. We are always pursuing something that is still “out there,” not yet belonging to “me.” This delusive idea leads us to want more, more, and more. And precisely in all that struggle for more, we are never satisfied. Unless we realize this situation of disease, we will never have the incentive to seek healing. If we simply think that that ís the way it is and we just go like that, which unfortunately is characteristic of the lives of so many of those around us, then we are stuck in our state of unhappiness, unsatisfactoriness. We are not blaming anyone here, but are simply offering a description of what ís going on in our society in general. Our world is run on this principle of this pursuit more and more by the delusive and deluded I Me Mine, taking different forms. But the outcome is to lead people to more and more unhappiness. Those who have, don’t seem to have enough, and want more. Those who don’t have get the little that they have taken away from them by those who do have, in this world of ours where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

We see that more blatantly perhaps in places like Latin America or Asia or Africa. But people’s lives throughout the world are inter-twined, and we all are affected by those structures of injustice and violence that deprive so many children of their right to live a decent life as human beings. In short, we live in a structure of violence wrought by the I Me Mine in that reigns in our individual lives and in our society. So the I Me Mine of each individual becomes a corporate, an ethnic, a national I Me Mine, and we are in conflict with one another in all these levels.

The invitation to all of us is to first of all, see through that and then realize that we can turn our lives around. This is the prescription of the Buddha. Once we see that this life based on the I Me Mine is unsatisfactory, not just for myself individually, but for everyone concerned, then we begin to seek healing from that situation.

The next step in healing then is the search for the causes of this disease. The second noble truth is the expression of that cause. It is summed up in one word: craving. Craving again is based on that delusive I Me Mine that wants to aggrandize itself.

The third noble truth is good news for all of us, as it affirms that there is a way to that healing. This is the way of Nirvana, the uncovering of truth that is blocked by this delusive idea of I Me Mine.

And the way to this uncovering is laid out in the fourth noble truth, namely the eightfold path. The eightfold path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration and right mindfulness.

We will not go into detail explaining every one of these, but only note that the eighth is what we are about in our practice of Zen. What Right Mindfulness invites us to is simply attention in each present moment. It is a mode of being that pre-supposes the other seven, and conversely, enables them.

With our practice of Zen, we are already geared towards that change of life experienced by the Awakened one. So hopefully, as we continue this practice in our daily life, we will be able to see through that I Me Mine that makes our lives unsatisfactory, and in so doing, be able to taste some level of that peace, humility and compassion, that are the marks of the awakened life. That is the fruit of living the dharma.

What I have offered here is just a summary of the presentation of the dharma in early Buddhism. Later developments gave another very important expression of this Dharma. In Mahayana, or Buddhism of the Greater Vehicle, which came about around five hundred years after Shakyamuni, there came about new vitality in the Buddhist tradition. To make a long story short, Buddhist followers came up with a new term to express their experience of enlightenment. The keyword here is Shunyata, translated, unfortunately, as Emptiness. I say unfortunately, because the word emptiness has a negative ring in English, as in “empty feeling” or “my life is empty,” and so on. This is the exact opposite of what the original Sanskrit term conveys.

The term shunya comes from the same word that the Indians use for zero. So perhaps a more direct way of translating shunyata would be zeroness. What is zeroness in this context? The Indians are said to have been the discoverers of the ciphers, the zero that enabled their mathematics to develop in leaps and bounds. The function of zero in the world of integers becomes crucial, as the matrix of all integers. In other words, the mother of all numbers is zero. To describe reality as shunyata, zeroness, gives us a clue as to what the Buddhists are experience about reality.

We can look at zero in the mathematical context for a hint.  Again I have offered it in previous teishos, but I would just like to repeat it because it brings an important message home. That zero is the underlying reality of our lives. To discover, and experience that zeroness is to discover the infinite possibilities of our being. How can we say that? Let’s take integers as examples. One divided by the same number one would result in one. Let us say that this describes a normal human being with a healthy sense of self, with an acceptable way of relating to others grounded in self confidence, yet also with a sense of boundaries with others. Now If we divide that same one with two, the whole becomes just one half. As we increase the denominator, one over ten (1/10), the value of the figure decreases. The denominator becomes a crucial point to look at in looking at the whole.

The bigger the denominator, let us say, analogously, the bigger the ego, the less the person there is. We call someone with a big ego a “puny person,” who gets caught up in small things, and misses what is really important. Someone with a Size Ten ego is only 1/10 of a healthy human being, in this reckoning. Like a little child wanting this toy, and getting sulky if it doesn’t get what it wants, or worse, hitting others in wanting to grab theirs. And unfortunately in our world there are so many such individuals, in government, in business, in institutions of power, that are in positions that determine the way the world is run, affecting the lives of thousands and hundreds of thousands of others. So we have the structure of violence and conflict and injustice, as the world is run by so many people with big egos, puny little beings with 1/10 quotients.

Now let us turn the process around. If the denominator becomes one half, the figure becomes one over 1/2, and the value becomes 2. That ís what we can describe as a generous person, somebody who is “bigger than oneself.” The less the ego, the greater the person. As we diminish the denominator, the person becomes more and more “magnanimous.” Our practice of Zen is what can pave the way for this diminishment of the ego, the I Me Mine, and enable us to become bigger, that is, beings with a greater and greater embrace of reality.

Such is a being who has a big embrace. Let us just try something out of the ordinary here. Let us say that the ego, the denominator, is decreased, to the point of nothing, zero. What becomes of the figure? This would break the rules of mathematics. In other words, we touch that realm we can only call—infinite.

This is the wondrous world that the Awakened One glimpsed on that auspicious morning as he saw the morning star. This is the world we are invited to enter into, right at this very moment, as we chant, Dhammam saranam gacchami.