an asymmetric responsibility

We tend to get hyper-focused on the precepts themselves – the should’s and do not’s and the infringement of our presumed right to be whoever we are.  We pay little or no attention when committing to the Three Jewels or Three Treasures.  They are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha which are the container in which the precepts are carried.  When receiving the precepts, we also commit to being one with the Three Jewels but that seems to slide by without triggering much anxiety.

I remember standing in the center of the zendo along with four or five others getting ready to do what seemed like innumerable bows that go along with receiving the precepts or Five Mindfulness Trainings.  I had spent hours reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the precepts, For a Future to be Possible, sitting with the local sangha, and doing my best to write truly heartfelt glosses on each Mindfulness Training.  They told me what I already knew (as do precepts for anyone) but it was left to me to work out how that was going to manifest in my particular life.  So there I was percolating along in my head about the meaning of respecting life, being generous, not engaging in sexual misconduct, speaking mindfully, and attending to what I consumed when I heard the words, “We will now take refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”

All my baggage careened into my frontal lobes as my mind came to a screeching halt.  Wait.  What?  Take refuge.  I’m becoming Buddhist?  Hold on.

This is common reaction having heard it repeatedly from many retreatants who consider receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  They often ask about the necessity to take refuge if one is not interested in being Buddhist.  Can the precepts by themselves be a necessary and sufficient condition for living an ethical and moral life?  Does one have to throw oneself wholeheartedly into the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as well?  One dharma teacher pointed out that the Three Jewels are where we turn to for refuge when we have fallen short of the commitment.  In other words, without the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha how would we know the nature of our failing?  I really didn’t quite understand this and perhaps the religiosity got to me at the time.

Over time, I think I’ve begun to understand that the precepts cannot exist outside the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  More than that, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are not signs of religious fervour but ways in which the precepts direct my practice.  If I use Roshi Daido Loori’s translation of refuge as “entering wholeheartedly without reservation,” then my practice of the precepts becomes one of giving myself wholeheartedly to the capacity of all beings to realize their bodhicitta, the accessibility of eternal wisdom to transform suffering, and the unstinting inclusiveness of relationships.  In that light, respect for life, for example, only makes sense when I can perceive and respect, without reservation, the Buddha in every person.  Generosity is only possible when I commit to a Sangha that is harmonious and boundless.  The respect for boundaries embraced by the precepts of sexual conduct, mindful speech, and consumption underscore the deep wisdom of all things being interconnected.  This level of open-hearted commitment is about responsibility for all beings and is the only choice available to us.

“The tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility.  To say Here I am.”

Emmanuel Levinas

I’m still struggling through the philosopher Levinas’ view of ethics as responsibility which transcends all categories of the other person.  Ethics, in his view (and my limited one), is asymmetrical.  It pre-exists our knowledge of the Other and is independent of the actions, intents, beliefs, and identity of the Other.  Sounds suspiciously like the Bodhisattva vows… and a huge challenge to a mind given to picking-and-choosing where to deliver compassion.  But perhaps it is not as much a challenge if I take the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as the container of my practice.

Thank you for practising,


wholehearted refuge

Before receiving the precepts, we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  I’d always assumed Taking Refuge to be just as it says: shelter from the storms of dukkha.  Being one with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is like scooting under an umbrella.  What I missed in the process of flitting from precept to precept was the connotation of “wholeheartedness.”

Let me tell you about our ghost cat, Desirée.  Aptly named.  We got her along with litter mate, Slick, about 12 years ago.  Unfortunately, we left for vacation right after and, in our absence, she bonded fiercely with Slick.  Yet occasionally, she’d come to me while I sat at my desk, put a tentative paw on my leg, and allow herself to be picked up into my lap.  She’d crawl up onto the bed and, if I stayed absolutely immobile, she’d snuggle up to my back.  But if I made even a breath out of sequence, she’d evaporate.  We had a Golden Retriever, Bear, who became her Best Buddy.  I’d say they were inseparable but the relationship was totally one-sided, an intense dependency he tolerated like a saint.  Bear died and later so did Slick, leaving Desirée bereft.  She’s stopped crying now and she’s even tolerating our presence for longer and longer periods.  But she still flees to her refuge.  These tend to be in the nooks and crannies of the house.  The latest is this tunnel she dug out of the blanket that covers the zafus and mats at the altar.

For all the safety in a house filled with ample food, water and friends, Des has never really entered the family wholeheartedly, with faith in its ability to tolerate her needs.  The entire house is filled with places she can take refuge.  And this she does but with a frantic frequency that cuts her off from comfort and an experience of love.

Roshi Daido Loori described the meaning of refuge as translated from the Japanese.  It means “to unreservedly throw oneself into” the experience.  Like a child leaping with total faith into a parent’s arms, taking refuge in the Three Treasure is a leap into faith that our practice itself are the arms that will always catch us.  I like his insistence that we must put ourselves into the practice, especially into the precepts.  They aren’t some dead words recited so that we are magically protected.  Nor can we use them to hide out from the world.  Roshi Loori points out taking refuge is not a casual thing, cannot be a “dharma fling.”

I like that.  Never been one for one-vow stands or afternoon dharma delight.

Thank you for practising,