Buddha realized enlightenment when he was 40 years old and spent the next 40 years teaching what he had learned. His teachings have been compiled into a vast number of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras, that are directions for practice. They teach us to realize enlightenment for ourselves. Taking refuge in the dharma is more than just believing in these sutras; it is practicing what the texts are teaching. On his deathbed, Buddha said, “Don’t believe a word I have said; do these practices and find out for yourselves.” When we take refuge in the dharma, we acknowledge the wisdom and compassion in these teachings, and through meditation and training, express them in our daily lives.
But taking refuge in the dharma is bigger than studying and practicing what the Buddha taught. As we progress in Zen training, we find that everything in our life is dharma since we are in a constant process of learning and discovery. We do not regard some things as secular and some things as sacred, but see everything as truth, which is one translation of the word “dharma”. We don’t get emotional about the dharma so we avoid grasping or trying to possess any aspect of it. This results in non-aggression.
Usually, the basic thread that runs through our experience is our desire to make and meet goals. Ideally, everything we do should relate to these goals. This tendency drives us to become greater farmers, greater carpenters, greater poets. When we take refuge in the dharma, we cut through this goal-oriented vision, so that everything becomes a learning process. We relate fully with everything in our lives. So, taking refuge in the dharma develops the sense that it is worthwhile to walk on this Earth. We see nothing as a waste of time; we see nothing as a punishment or as a cause of complaint. We appreciate everything.
This aspect of taking refuge is particularly applicable in western society, where we judge many elements in our relationships or surroundings as unhealthy. But once we do that we divide the world and everything in it into two categories: sacred and profane, or good and evil. Taking refuge in the dharma means seeing that all of life is a learning situation. Whatever occurs — pain or pleasure, good or bad, justice or injustice — is part of our learning process. There is nothing to blame. Everything is the path. Everything is dharma.
When we take refuge in the dharma we face life directly and personally. We do not try to explain our problems away by blaming them on something or someone outside ourselves. We experience life as it is. Pain is pain, pleasure is pleasure, and confusion is confusion. It’s all dharma, and we take refuge in it all.
Suggested practice: For the next two weeks, each time something difficult enters your path, notice how you react. Do you feel hard done by? Do you look for something or someone outside yourself to blame?
Kuya Minogue is resident teacher at the Creston Zen Centre and will be offering classes on the 16 precepts of Soto Zen Buddhism at 7 p.m. on Thursday evenings through April 17. For more information, visit www.zenwords.net or call 250-428-6500.