by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Buddhist philosophy and practice is packed with high ideals. Generosity of spirit and ‘cease to do harm’; compassion is non-negotiable, mindfulness, serenity arising from meditation, Nirvana, bodhisattvas, co-dependent arising, selflessness and . . . it is a long list of noble ideals. Contemporary living provides moment-to-moment opportunities to put those ideals into practice. At each of those moments the ideal meets the real.
There are a host of reasons for recognizing a need for something more. For some they need to fill what they experience as an empty place in their being, emptiness that they want to give form. Others need to find a way to come to terms with the prospect of death that they may fear or welcome, and to contemplate what might be before or beyond life from birth to death. Illness, chronic or unexpected is known to precipitate the need for drastic changes in psychoemotional health. There are the curious; some who come for the novelty of exotic cultures and stay for the ideals, other who come out of curiosity, don’t connect and go in search of a different path. This recognized need is given form in the first three verses of the Three Refuges Vow: I go for refuge to the Buddha, the teacher; I go for refuge to the Dhamma, the teaching; I go for refuge to the Sangha, the taught. One ‘goes’ in order to experience if the ideals offer what they are searching for.
There are a host of reasons for choosing to continue a Buddhist practice. For some it is the goal of Nirvana or Enlightenment for themselves, others pursue the Noble Path for purely selfless reasons. Someone with psychological issues might see a way out of depression, guilt or grief through meditation; those with physical issues a way to control pain and suffering through mindfulness meditation. There are the curious who seek purely knowledge, and the seeker who is curious what Buddhism has to offer. Some are attracted to what they see as a simpler existence, others to what they see as a strict spiritual discipline. Each of them see the ideals of Buddhist philosophy and practice as a path to their destination, choosin to put in the effort necessary on the Noble Path. Among these reasons some discover the value of choosing to commit to Buddhist philosophy and practice which are given form in the second set of verses: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dhamma; I take refuge in the Sangha. They choose to ‘take’ the guidance and support offered by the Refuges and make it part of HOW they are.
There are a host of reasons that people doubt or question the path they have chosen. It is when the ideals of philosophy and practice meet the realities of moment-to-moment life; it is when the rubber meets the road of contemporary existence that doubt arises. The plan is for the new tires to last 50,000 miles but the rough road, tight turns and a really big nail require creative re-description, an alternation of the plan when the tires are bald at 30,000. Doubt arises, questions arise. For some it is the excuse they were looking for to quit, to leave the path; others experience doubt and questions as emptiness that can be filled with forms of knowledge and experience. It is those that openly question their doubt that begin to experience how the ideal can be applied to the real. In the final verses the ideal truly meets the real: I have taken refuge in the Buddha; I have taken refuge in the Dhamma; I have taken refuge in the Sangha. A practitioner goes to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha for refuge out of a need. A practitioner takes refuge in the human being Siddhartha, the guidance of the Dhamma, and the collective path of the Sangha, committing to the ideals of all three. Now what? Having taken the Three Refuges means realizing the humanity of Siddhartha, the value of a dynamic dharma, and the support of the spiritual friends one encounters in the sangha as the external forces that are critical components of walking the Noble Path. The third stanza of verses has another intent. It is a reminder that like Siddhartha we are each human and his journey on the Noble Path can be anyones, that the dharma is empty (only potential) until it is engaged as part of HOW we are (given form), and that the support of the sangha brings strength to a Buddhist practice and that each practitioner offers their support to others. This realization is the ideal meeting the real.