Dharma Talk – Beyond Mindfulness: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

Dharma Talk – Beyond Mindfulness: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

Here I present an alternative to mindfulness practice. I do this because I believe the concept of mindfulness – at least the way it is typically understood – may limit our spiritual development. It can become a dualistic trap that causes us to reject much of what we are as human beings.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

Teachings Are Fingers Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon Itself
What Mindfulness Is
Potential Pitfalls When Trying to Practice Mindfulness
Confessions of a Buddhist with a Very Busy Mind
Another Approach: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence
Aiming for a Buddha’s Way of Being (And What That’s Like)
The Practice of Undivided Presence in This Moment
Trusting Ourselves Without Getting Caught in Arrogance or Complacency
How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?
Some Closing Words from the Zen Tradition

Teachings Are Fingers Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon Itself

Before I describe the potential pitfalls of mindfulness practice and offer a different approach that has worked for me, I want to discuss the metaphor of fingers pointing at the moon. “The moon” stands for the truth, Dharma, Reality, or the essence of the matter. Teachings and practices are fingers pointing to the moon, and are therefore valuable only inasmuch as they manage to help sentient beings spot the moon. They are not the point in and of themselves.

Inherent in this metaphor is the suggestion that sometimes we can become too obsessed with a finger and forget about what it’s pointing to. It also invites us to consider that there are many different ways to point to the same moon. One finger may work for us, while someone in different position needs a finger that may appear, from our view, to be pointing in a completely different direction!

I think the teaching and practice of mindfulness is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself – but first, a little more about the teaching and practice of mindfulness.

What Mindfulness Is

Mindfulness was taught and strongly emphasized by Shakyamuni Buddha himself, over 2500 years ago. The ancient Pali word translated as “mindfulness” is sati, and it can also be translated as “remembering” or “presence of mind.” We are practicing mindfulness when we remember to pay attention to our present experience and try to keep ourselves from forgetting again.

Mindfulness has also been described as our “non-discursive faculty of awareness” or as “bare attention.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, who over the last few decades has popularized the use of mindfulness techniques in secular settings, defines mindfulness as “continuous non-judgmental awareness.” More specifically, he explains, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally… It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”[i]

For most Buddhist practitioners, our initial efforts at mindfulness are challenging but also powerfully transformative. We become more and more aware of what’s happening in our minds. We notice our reactions. It can feel like someone has suddenly shined a light on our lives and there’s all kinds of things we can see for the first time. This allows us to make many changes, and facilitates greater understanding of how we function as human beings.

Potential Pitfalls When Trying to Practice Mindfulness

Isn’t the whole point of Buddhist practice just to be mindful – that is, “present in our lives?” How is mindfulness just a finger pointing at the moon?

Before I explain, I want to state that I think it is essential that we start our practice with mindfulness. We also benefit from returning to that practice again and again over the course of our days and lives. What I’m going to talk about here is how we move beyond mindfulness and avoid (or drag ourselves out of) the potential pitfalls of the practice. I discovered these pitfalls by falling into them, so, in part, this is a confession of my own struggles with mindfulness.

The first pitfall is that we conceive of pure mindfulness as a state without thoughts. When we’re “mindful” we’re just peeling the orange, just tasting the coffee, just walking. Rather than wandering off into the dream-world of thoughts, we are present for “reality” – which means only what is happening in this moment, in our immediate vicinity, perceptible through the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

We encounter the second pitfall when we try to sustain a state of mindfulness through the inevitable thoughts, feelings, and impulses that arise in the course of our lives. We admit to ourselves that our state of mindfulness is rarely pure – that is, free of thoughts – but we work hard to maintain a second-best state of mindfulness by staying identified with an internal “observer” who is aware of, but not involved with, the thoughts, feelings, and impulses. We think we need to maintain a detached self-consciousness at all times, allowing us to make internal comments like, “Oh, look, I am experiencing some sensations of anger.”

In the third pitfall, we divide our lives into two parts: one, where we are consciously aware of what’s going on in the present moment and are therefore “awake” and present for our lives, and two, the rest of the time when we’re caught up in the dream of thought and missing our lives as surely as if we were sleeping through them.

In the fourth pitfall, because the dreamy/sleepy/caught-up-in-thoughts parts of lives comprise over 90% of the time for most of us, we become burdened with a sense of sadness and inadequacy. We try harder but wonder why we still keep forgetting to be present. We suspect we misunderstand the teachings and practices. We figure we must be doing something wrong, because mindfulness teachers tell us that eventually we’re going to get better at this! And while it’s true that we got better at first, we’ve hit a plateau in our development of mindfulness that seems endless. Most of us resign ourselves to being half-assed practitioners in some respect and just lament how much of our lives we aren’t “present for.”

Confessions of a Buddhist with a Very Busy Mind

Okay, I confess: I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness for over 20 years and throughout most of my day I’m not “mindful” – at least not in the sense I’ve been discussing. Maybe – on a good day – I manage to be mindful 20% of my waking hours instead of the essentially 0% before I started practice, but it still feels like most of the time I’m mindful for a moment – “Oh, here I am! I’m being mindful!” – and then off I go again. The second I think of something, plan something, engage in a conversation or a project, or get absorbed in work, reading, music, beauty, or entertainment, the apparently fragile state of mindfulness is lost.

Fortunately, mindfulness is a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. Please note: If you “find the moon” through mindfulness, super! If mindfulness has relieved suffering for you, if it’s a profound practice you rely on every day, keep practicing mindfulness and let what I’m going to say go in one ear and out the other. Try not to let it bother you at all.

Another Approach: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

What I’m offering is a different way of pointing at the moon, one that may help you like it’s helped me. I call it, at least at this point in time, the “Radical Practice of Undivided Presence.” I call this practice “radical” not because it is revolutionary, but because it is (or can be) complete in and of itself and gets straight to the heart of the matter. Of course, it may very well be I have misunderstood “mindfulness” and what I describe here is exactly what the Buddha meant by “mindfulness.” If that’s the case, then it just proves my point: Both the Buddha and I are looking for the moon, and different words and practices are simply different ways of pointing at it. But let me tell you, encountering the right kind of pointing (for you) makes all the difference in the world.

Ironically, the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence begins with a moment of mindfulness.

I don’t have any problem with that first instant of mindfulness, which is basically when we wake up from the dream of thought and notice what’s going on. That’s the aspect of mindfulness reflected in the translation of sati, the Pali term for mindfulness, as “remembering.” That moment of remembering is so sweet! It is so precious! It’s what makes practice possible!

It’s also not something you can will yourself to do. It just happens. You are asleep one moment and then you wake up.

That’s not to say you can’t do anything to make it more likely you’ll wake up more often. That’s why we meditate and study. That’s why we cultivate aspiration and intention.

To make sure we wake up more often, we also need to treasure and celebrate the moments we wake up. Instead of beating ourselves up for all our previous forgetfulness the instant we become mindful, instead of seizing the moment of mindfulness with the determination to make it last, we can greet a moment of wakefulness with pure gratitude. This will help it last a little longer, and it will make mindfulness pleasant instead of associating it with striving and frustration.

Then we come to the next moment, when we seek to sustain – what? Mindfulness? Remembering to be present itself isn’t hard – it’s sustaining a state of mindfulness for more than a moment that’s hard, especially if you’ve fallen into one of the pitfalls I described earlier.

This is where I recommend a different approach. Instead of trying to sustain a state of mind in which you are consciously aware, and either thoughtless or taking the role of detached observer, you unify yourself. You take the opportunity to show up wholeheartedly for your life. You settle into your body and your direct experience, and refuse to be tricked into looking anywhere else (as if you could). You stop the internal struggles and own your body, mind, and heart.

Aiming for a Buddha’s Way of Being (And What That’s Like)

This is all just more finger pointing, but this approach to practice may become clearer if I try to describe the moon itself. One way of seeing and understanding the ultimate point of Buddhism is as a Way of Being. It’s a liberated, authentic, joyful, centered, beneficial way of being a being. It’s not a point of view, a kind of understanding, a transcendent experience, or a code of ethics. It’s something you experience with your whole body, mind, and heart. It’s how you are as you meditate, speak, drive, eat, brush your teeth, and watch movies. It’s not limited to being thoughtless or self-consciously aware of being mindful. This Way of Being is how Buddhas are.

To further illustrate what this Way of Being is like, I’m going to ask you to imagine your whole body-mind-heart experience of a bunch of different scenarios. Each scenario is mean to evoke something in you – some aspect of a Buddhas’ Way of Being. A Buddha’s Way of Being isn’t limited to any one of these aspects, and it’s not dependent on external circumstances. However, because it’s so difficult for us to conceive of a Buddhas’ Way of Being, it helps to imagine situations we can conceive of.

Imagine you are in the embrace of your mother and she is offering you unlimited, unconditional love. (If your mother didn’t or doesn’t actually offer that, imagine a mother who could.) As you rest in her arms, probably sobbing gently as her love helps heal your inevitable wounds, you feel more confidence that you are acceptable just the way you are. With all your warts, foibles, tantrums, and limitations, someone sees you as precious, loveable, and worthy. Someone sees you as special without having to compare you with anyone else in the world. That ease, acceptance, and inner healing you feel? That’s part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine you are facing incredible difficult and painful circumstances, but you are determined not to run away from them because you need to protect and take care of that which is most important to you – your children, loved ones, or deeply held values. Nothing has even been clearer to you than what you need to do right now. You feel no doubt whatsoever, but not because you’re right in some absolute sense. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it. The clarity, settledness, strength, determination, and willingness you feel? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine someone has you taste a new kind of food and then asks how you like it. You describe your experience and feelings – whether you liked the food and how much, whether you found it salty or sweet, crunchy or creamy. The person really wants to know what you think, so you speak freely. As you describe your experience, no part of you wonders if what you’re saying is true in some absolute sense, or whether you are really in touch with your “real” experience or not. That centeredness in your own direct experience, without it even being a big deal to be centered in your own direct experience? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine you have reached the end of your life, and you lay there on your deathbed surrounded by loved ones. You know this is it. The story of your life is complete. No more can be done. You’re not without some sadness and regret, but you’re reconciled to things being as they are, and for the most part you’re happy and grateful. The long to-do list can be torn up and thrown away. The sense of peace and completeness you feel? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

The Practice of Undivided Presence in This Moment

Fortunately, the practice of Undivided Presence does not involve imagining all of those scenarios and trying to create a certain kind of feeling or mind-state. It is more direct than that.

When you have a moment of wakefulness, come home to yourself. Notice the many ways you are resisting the way things are and let go of the resistance. Notice the ways you are rejecting certain things about yourself (such as your lack of mindfulness!) and hold yourself in that mother’s embrace of unconditional acceptance. Show up for your direct experience without questioning its validity in any way. Let go of the agenda of both the ego and the super-ego and ask yourself what you really want. Cast aside all effort to be anyone other than who you are, when you are, where you are, because your life needs you and you can’t actually be anyone other than who you are, when you are, where you are.

Essentially, this Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is bringing all of parts of yourself together. Your aspiration and your selfishness, your love and your lust, your inner lazy glutton and your inner ascetic. Your body, your thoughts, your hopes, fears, passions, and shame. Your projects, habits, opinions, perceptions, blood, bones, and mucus.

This is what it means to be wholehearted. To be half-hearted means to hold something back, or to do something without enthusiasm because you don’t really want to do it. In order to be half-hearted you have to be divided – part of you wants one thing, while part wants another. Of course, this kind of inner division is part of being human, and the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is not about picking a winning side or pretending no inner conflict exists. Instead, to be wholehearted, we choose how to be in this very moment. We may be in the midst of huge inner turmoil or a prolonged decision-making process, but in this very moment we can be wholehearted with exactly that. No apologies.

In the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence we just say internally, “Now is the time.” Now is the time to show up completely. Now is the time to enjoy yourself. Now is the time to appreciate things fully. Now is the time to give yourself a break. Now is the time to say what you mean. Now is the time to open your heart. Now is the time to embrace your life wholeheartedly. We stop waiting to become someone else. We stop waiting to become enlightened, or to perfect mindfulness, or to finally gain access to the secret of complete happiness.

The most important aspect of my “Radical Practice of Undivided Self” is that I’ve found it much easier to sustain than “mindfulness,” at least in the sense mindfulness is a consciously aware state that’s either free from thought or involves taking the role of detached observer. Instead of trying concentrate on “only what is here and now” and avoid getting sucked back into the dream of thought, I try to inhabit this moment more wholeheartedly. After all, it’s just the bullshit in my mind about how “I’m not enough” and “this isn’t enough” that keeps me separated from my life instead of letting me be intimate with it. Basically, instead of making a practice of thinking about what I shouldn’t do (get lost in the dream of thought), I channel my passion into being as fully alive as possible.

Trusting Ourselves Without Getting Caught in Arrogance or Complacency

At this point it’s very important to point out that the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is not the Radical Practice of Deciding I’m Super Cool and Can Do Anything I Want. The latter practice involves stories about yourself. It’s like getting egotistical because your mother thinks you’re great, or imagining yourself as a self-righteous martyr because you’re enduring some difficulty while simply doing your duty. It’s like describing what you think of a particular food and presenting it as Truth-with-a-capital-T because your sense of taste is so superior to that of others, or reaching the end of your life and congratulating yourself that so many people love you. The Radical Practice of Deciding I’m Super Cool and Can Do Anything I Want is getting a taste of a Buddha’s Way of Being and then trying to bottle and sell it.

The moment you start drawing conclusions and telling stories, you’re no longer mindful (to use the term we’re all more familiar with). Your self is no longer unified, because no matter what the part of you that thinks “I’m great and can do no wrong” is saying, part of you knows you are terribly limited and intransigently self-interested. The Radical Practice of Undivided Self, on the other hand, denies nothing and assumes nothing. It happens in this very moment.

When, in the practice of Undivided Self, you ask yourself what you really want, you’ll find that you basically want happiness and not suffering. You’ll notice that how other people feel affects you, so you’ll know their fate is not independent of yours. You’ll find you want to be awake for your life. You want to be authentic and loved. Basically, you’ll find out you’re a good person who can trust yourself.

Sure, sometimes our habit energy makes us want to flirt with someone who’s not our partner, or to elbow in front of someone in line, or to eat too much chocolate cake. But if you do the practice of Undivided Presence you’re much more likely to connect with the part of you who treasures your intimate partnership, values the opportunity to be generous, and enjoys feeling healthy. As part of the process of unification, you make your self-righteous super-ego and your mischievous id sit down together like two petulant, squabbling kids required to put aside their argument in order for the family to have a peaceful dinner. There’s a chance the adult in the house will be able to make a wise and compassionate decision in the meantime.

How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?

When you’re practicing Undivided Self, you aren’t necessarily consciously aware of practicing Undivided Self. Sometimes you will be more aware of it than other times. It’s possible to be wholeheartedly engaged in something and have it take up all of your mental and emotional bandwidth so there’s nothing left for observing yourself being wholehearted.

So how do you know if you’re practicing Undivided Presence if you won’t necessarily be consciously aware of doing so? Upon reflection, you’ll know. Recollect a period time spent absorbed in thought or in some activity, and notice whether you were divided during that time. Chances are, you were, even if subtly. You were having dinner with friends but looking forward to it being over because you found it kind of boring, and then you felt a little guilty for being bored. You were wrapped up in project you love but periodically found yourself getting irritable when things didn’t work the way you wanted them to, revealing how part of you was more interested in the outcome of the project than in wholeheartedly doing it.

By the way, when you realize you haven’t been Undivided for a time, forget about it and simply Unify yourself right away! If you beat yourself up for not being unified, you may end up undermining the effectiveness of the practice to get you to the moon, a.k.a. a Buddha’s Way of Being, by making the whole process stressful and unpleasant.

When you’re doing the Radical Practice of Undivided Self, there is a certain kind of awareness present that otherwise isn’t. However, it’s kind of subtle, and it’s incredibly difficult to describe without inviting our minds to separate out “me” from “my awareness” from “what is going on,” and this Buddha-awareness is not divided. The words that most accurately evoke this awareness for me are “aliveness,” “sentience,” “wholehearted being,” or Uchiyama Roshi’s “the self doing self.”[ii] The awareness that is part of a Buddha’s Way of Being is basic, natural, and ordinary. It isn’t removed, thoughtless, rarefied, or limited to things in your immediate surroundings that you perceive through the five senses. In some situations it coolly observes, while in others it participates in leaping, laughing, crying, analyzing, and creating. This awareness will be present, but it won’t constrain activity.

Some Closing Words from the Zen Tradition

I beg Shakyamuni Buddha’s forgiveness, and the patience of all the great Buddhist teachers of subsequent generations, for my arrogance in implying I have found something new, or managed to improve on their teaching techniques. Still, I love my spiritual tradition for the fact that it invites all of us to point at the moon in our own way, using our own words, images, and approaches. When I turn to the ancestors to corroborate what I have discovered in the course of my own practice, I am pleased to read the words of Zen master Lin-Chi:

“Followers of the Way, the outstanding teachers from times past have all had ways of drawing people out. What I myself want to impress on you is that you mustn’t be led astray by others. If you want to use this thing, then use it and have no doubts or hesitations!

“When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!”[iii]

When Lin-Chi talks about the “mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something,” I don’t think he’s not talking about our tendency to think about stuff. That’s how I used to understand his words, but thinking is just part of being human (and frankly, it’s a great part of being human). I think Lin-Chi is referring to something deeper and subtler: the part of us that is looking for something else, to be someone else, to exist in a different world than we live in right now. That part drives the mind to go rushing about – sometimes even in the pursuit of some state called mindfulness. Can you go ahead and think, speak, and act without rushing about?

[i] http://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
[ii] Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama. Wisdom Publications, 2004.
[iii] The Zen Teachings of Zen Master Lin-Chi, translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press, 1993.



The Three Treasures of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

The Three Treasures of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

For over 2,500 years, in every form of Buddhism, you formally become a Buddhist by stating, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.” Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are therefore known collectively as the Three Refuges, Three Treasures, Three Jewels, or the Triple Gem.

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:

The Three Treasures in the Time of the Buddha [1:26]
The Meaning of “Refuge” [3:45]
Refuge Does Not Mean Blind Faith [6:28]
Why We Need Refuge [11:00]
Refuge in the Buddha [13:08]
Refuge in the Dharma [17:57]
Refuge in the Sangha [20:57]
Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha at Different Levels of Meaning [26.02]

The Three Treasures in the Time of the Buddha

Throughout the Pali Canon, a source of the oldest extant Buddhist teachings first written down over 2,000 years ago, students of Shakyamuni Buddha proclaim their intention to follow his teachings by saying out loud that they take refuge in the Three Treasures. Here’s one example from the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65):

[This is after Shakyamuni Buddha, who is referred to here as “lord” and as “Blessed One,” gives a teaching to the Kalama clan. They respond:] “Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. We go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May the Blessed One remember us as lay followers who have gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.” “Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

In a way, “taking refuge” for these first Buddhists was simpler than it was for subsequent generations. They were stating that they were intending to follow a particular person – Shakyamuni Buddha, who discovered a path to awakening, liberation, and peace of mind. They were impressed by what he said and how he acted, so they were going to listen to him and ask him questions. They were going to try following his guidance to see if it allowed them to realize and manifest what he had realized and manifested.

By extension, then, they were also going to trust the teachings he gave, which in Pali are known as the “Dhamma” (in Sanskrit and other languages, this is “Dharma”).

The people who were seen as the most learned and practiced in the Dhamma were the Buddha’s monastic disciples, who were (ideally) leading exemplary lives and were qualified to teach the Buddha’s path of practice to others. Buddha’s community of monks and nuns was called the “Sangha.” Thus, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha were pretty specific when Shakyamuni Buddha was alive.

The Meaning of “Refuge”

What did it mean when people said they were going to the three treasures “for refuge?”

Here’s a passage from the Dhammapada, one of the most ancient collections of teachings attributed toShakyamuni Buddha. (These are verses 188-192):

“They go to many a refuge,
to mountains and forests,
to park and tree shrines:
people threatened with danger.
That’s not the secure refuge,
not the supreme refuge,
that’s not the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.

But when, having gone
to the Buddha, Dhamma,
& Sangha for refuge,
you see with right discernment
the four noble truths —
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
& the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
that’s the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.”

“Buddhavagga: Awakened” (Dhp XIV), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

The idea behind refuge is that the world can be a tough place, particularly if you’re working on spiritual practice. If you want to awaken, face delusion, let go of attachments, get past your obstructions, become more wise and compassionate, etc. There are a lot of temptations, distractions, practical worries, and, generally speaking, not a lot of understanding or peer support for your efforts.

But – this isn’t just about your external circumstances. The main point of the Buddha’s teaching is that your experience of life – whether it is relatively peaceful and unselfish, or whether it is miserable and destructive – depends largely on the state of your own mind and heart.

The real dangers – the things that threaten your happiness no matter what your external circumstances – are greed, hate, and delusion (a.k.a. craving, aversion, hatred) and all the problems that flow from them (pride, envy, anger, hypocrisy, dishonesty, stinginess, complacency, etc.). The Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha can help protect you from these internal dangers, which are seen by Buddhists as being even more significant than external ones, at least most of the time.


Refuge Does Not Mean Blind Faith

When you hear “take refuge” in the three treasures, you may be inclined to think it means a Buddhist places blind faith in Buddhist teachers, or that we hold Buddhist teachings in a dogmatic way, but Shakyamuni Buddha himself actually counseled against that kind of blind faith, and against dogmatism.

An often-cited example of this aspect of Buddha’s teaching comes from the same scripture I cited earlier, the Kalama Sutta (forgive me as a read this passage – it’s little long because it was passed down through oral tradition, but it gives you a good sense of the flavor of the original Buddhist teachings… remember “the Blessed One” refers to Shakyamuni Buddha):

As they sat there, the Kalamas of Kesaputta said to the Blessed One, “Lord, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other brahmans & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

 [The Blessed One replied] “…Kalamas: ‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them…’

 “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”

 So the Buddha tells the Kalamas to verify things for themselves, and to believe only when they know for themselves the results of a particular teaching or practice. He even tells them not to believe just because their teacher says it! The Kalamas know the difference between harm and suffering on the one hand, and welfare and happiness on the other. The Buddha encourages them to trust their own experience in deciding whether someone is a legitimate spiritual teacher, or whether a particular teaching is beneficial.

The Buddha also emphasized that after his death, his followers should take refuge in his teachings, and that they no longer needed him. According to the Pali Canon’s “Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), when the Buddha was 80 years old and dying, one of his foremost disciples, Ananda, was upset and wondering what the Buddha’s followers were going to do once he was gone. The Buddha replied:

 “…Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

“Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

The Dhamma is the teachings of the Buddha, which clearly include verifying things through your own direct experience. So taking refuge is not about blind faith or dogmatism, and it’s not about surrendering our will to, or seeking something from, a guru or a revered figure in the past. It’s not about surrendering our intelligence or personal responsibility.

Why We Need Refuge

And yet… we still need refuge, according to Buddhism. I’ll say more about the value of taking refuge in the Sangha later, when I talk specifically about that refuge, but this passage from Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, touches on the importance of refuge: He says,

 “Sangha is the fourfold community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, as well as the other elements that support our practice… In my country, we say that when a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowlands, he will be caught by humans and killed. When a practitioner leaves her Sangha, she may abandon her practice and ‘die’ as a practitioner. Practicing with a Sangha is essential.”

The basic idea behind taking refuge in the Three Treasures is that it can be hard to practice. Let’s say your aspiration is something along the lines of developing greater awareness, wisdom, compassion, selflessness, appreciation for your life, and freedom from afflictive emotions. To work on this aspiration is going to take time, diligence, and effort. You’re going to have to be willing to face your delusions and give things up, and to try new ways of being and perceiving. In the midst of such practice, it’s hard not to get waylaid by doubt, discouragement, distractions, laziness, confusion, and misunderstanding of the teachings. You can also be foiled by your own internal fears and agendas of which you may not even be aware.

Going it on our own may be much better than not practicing and studying at all, but according to Buddhism we’re unlikely to achieve our full spiritual potential without taking refuge in the Three Treasures.

Refuge in the Buddha

Now to unpack the concepts of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha a little, which might make “taking refuge” make more sense. You’ll notice that the Three Treasures have many different levels of meaning, from the concrete to the profound.

Starting with the Buddha: Obviously, once the historical Shakyamuni Buddha is dead – what do we do? Is refuge about faith that he lived? For some people, this may indeed be the case. Many Buddhists find it very inspiring to think that someone, at least one person, was completely and totally enlightened. However, refuge does not necessarily have anything to do with the historical existence of Shakyamuni Buddha, or about believing that he – or anyone else – achieved a rarefied state of perfect Enlightenment that’s beyond the imagining of most of us. After all, the existence and level of insight of Shakyamuni is not something we can verify for ourselves (as the Dharma instructs!).

Refuge is about faith that Buddhahood – or at least some significant level of awakening – is possible. That there have been Buddhas – or people at least approaching the liberated, awakened state of Buddhahood – in the past, or there might be some alive even now.

What does it mean to be “enlightened” or “awakened?” These terms may sound rather grand or esoteric, but the Buddhist concept of enlightenment is very similar to the ideal of the saint or sage in many other spiritual traditions:

  • Free from self-centeredness; self-transcendence; awareness of – and living in harmony with – the truth that all beings are interconnected; free from what Buddhism calls obsession with “I, me and mine”
  • Moral – taking responsibility for one’s own behavior, recognizing the fact that actions have consequences and seeking to bring about benefit instead of harm
  • Generous, compassionate, patient
  • Possessed of equanimity – having a larger perspective, insight into the nature of life that allows one to be less at the whim of afflictive emotions like anger, fear, envy, etc.

In Buddhism, the idea is that these ideals are not just describing special people who by nature were especially wise or saintly. Through spiritual practice any of us can approach – and eventually attain – a way of being that’s much more “enlightened.” (Even if we don’t know if we’ll ever attain perfection, in a way it doesn’t matter, because we know we can improve, at least a little.)

When we take refuge in “Buddha” we’re really taking refuge in – relying on – this potentiality within ourselves. Ideally refuge goes beyond simply cultivating faith in it, although faith helps (and interacting with people we feel embody this ideal better than we do can help inspire faith). Zen and many other forms of Buddhism encourage you to work toward a direct experience of your own buddha-like nature, and your own natural interest in being selfless, responsible, compassionate, and at peace.

Typically, in Buddhism, refuge in Buddha also means taking refuge in teachers – that is, people who seem wiser and more compassionate than you happen to be at the moment. Sometimes such teachers communicate with us through writing… so we may be able to take refuge in a teacher we’ve never even met. Also, someone doesn’t have to be a perfectly realized, enlightened “Buddha” in order to teach us something. If we turn toward wisdom wherever we find it, we may end up learning from a neighbor, or child, or from nature.

Refuge in the Dharma

Moving on to the refuge of Dharma: Note that there are different uses and meanings of the word “dharma” before/outside of/and within Buddhism, including “right way of living” (in Hinduism) and “phenomena” in Buddhism (generally spelled with a small “d”). In Buddhism, Dharma with a capital D, in the most literal sense, refers to Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings, and to the teachings of his disciples. Over the centuries, Dharma came to refer to all kinds of Buddhist teachings, judged on whether they relieve suffering and bring welfare and happiness, as the Buddha said to the Kalamas, and to some extent also whether they were consistent with certain foundational Buddhist teachings like impermanence, no-self, and karma (more about these concepts in future episodes).

At a deeper level, though, Dharma is about is about a deeper truth – an underlying Truth or pattern in the universe, kind of like the Tao. This is the kind of truth that’s not dependent on a particular religion or set of teachings. The Dharma is the truth of interdependence; the benefit of compassion and the fact that selfishness leads to suffering even for the one being selfish; that our action have consequences, visible and invisible; that there are forces at play in the universe much larger than our own individual wills and concern; that phenomena tend to fall into certain patterns, and we are far from a random collection of elements spewed out of the Big Bang.

The premise of Buddhism is that we don’t need an external authority to tell us what is True. We instinctively, intuitively know the different between suffering and happiness, just like a seed knows the difference between up and down when it sprouts. In general, actions out of accord with the deeper Truths of existence cause suffering, while actions in accord bring peace and happiness. Of course, this is over the long term. We can fool ourselves in the short term, when we let greed, hate, and delusion control us (this is what practice is for).

Taking refuge in the Dharma, then, is relying on the Buddhist teachings to guide you, but even more importantly it is relying on your own ability to recognize Truth. We have to be willing to look carefully, and question ourselves – so in a way this isn’t about taking refuge in a bunch of teachings outside yourself, it’s a vow search for the truth within your own experience.

Refuge in the Sangha

That brings us to the treasure of Sangha. As the Thich Nhat Hanh quote I read earlier suggests, Buddhists think Sangha is essential.

Originally, in the Pali Canon, the term Sangha was used in two ways, according to Thanisaaro Bhikku (“Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013). The “conventional” use of the term referred to Shakyamuni Buddha’s ordained disciples (monks and nuns). The “ideal” use of the term referred to any of the Buddha’s students, lay or ordained, who had attained a certain level of awakening. This meant the two definitions overlapped but were different; there might be ordained disciples who weren’t yet awakened, and non-ordained disciples who were.

In the Pali Canon the Buddha also referred, however, to the “four-fold assembly,” of ordained men, ordained women, lay men, and lay women. Over time, particularly in Mahayana traditions, the term “Sangha” came to be applied to the four-fold assembly.

At the most literal level for us, in Zen – especially for modern practitioners – the term “Sangha” refers to the community of people, lay and ordained, who study and practice Buddhism together. The Sangha is the people with whom we share spiritual aspirations, and with whom we work to understand and manifest the teachings and practices of Buddhism.

When I first encountered Zen Buddhism, Buddha and Dharma made sense, but I wondered why Sangha was necessary. Did I really need other people in order to meditate and study the Dharma? In time I came to appreciate Sangha deeply, although no group of people is ever perfect! With Sangha you don’t have to explain why you spend your vacations in silent meditation retreats staring at walls. You don’t have to convince fellow Sangha members that lying and cheating is a bad idea. You generally don’t have to ask them to value silence. At least you don’t have to ask twice. For the most part you can count on Sangha members to take responsibility for their own actions and reactions.

Such community creates an environment in which we can relax – in which we see practice modeled, get inspired and challenged to greater aspirations, feel safe enough to explore vulnerability as we engage the practice deeply. Ideally anyway. When Sangha doesn’t work this way, then we get to learn from our efforts to heal and take care of Sangha, because a harmonious Sangha doesn’t stay that way without some care and attention.

I like to think the treasure of Sangha is an acknowledgement of the fact that we are social animals. In part, we come to know who we are through our relationships with others. People serve as support, teachers, friends, and mirrors (helping us see our own behaviors and tendencies). Buddhists also fully admit people are also training opportunities – which means, essentially, that people tend to bug one another. A famous Zen analogy compares a bunch of people training together in a Sangha as sharp rocks bring thrown against one another in a rock tumbler: Eventually, all the rocks get polished by smashing into one another!

Even if we feel we don’t need other people in order to awaken, we definitely need other people to test our realization. In Buddhism it is said, “It’s easy to be enlightened in a remote cave.” You can realize all kinds of profound things about the nature of self and the universe in your meditation and study, but how does that realization hold up when you’re back in traffic? How does it hold up when you’re with your family of origin, or with your siblings, or at work? If your “spiritual awakening” doesn’t manifest as greater compassion, generosity, patience, etc. in real life, it isn’t much good. We test ourselves within our relationships – and some of the easiest relationships to start practicing with are our Sangha relationships, where at least in theory we share common aspirations and a language to describe our practice.

At an even deeper level, however, all living beings are part of our Sangha. Taking refuge in Sangha in this way is about waking up to and taking refuge in your interdependence with all life.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha at Different Levels of Meaning

To return to the Three Treasures taken together: There’s a beautiful description of how the Three Treasures have many different levels of meaning in the version of the Soto Zen scripture the “Kyojukaimon” that is transmitted in my Zen lineage. (The Kyojukaimon includes the Zen moral precepts, which someone promises to follow when they formally become a Buddhist). Anyway, here it is:

“We take refuge in the buddha as our true teacher; we take refuge in the dharma as the medicine for all suffering; we take refuge in the sangha as its members are wise and compassionate.

In the three treasures there are three merits.  The first is the true source of the three treasures; the second is their presence in the past, the foundation of our tradition; the third is their presence at the present time.

At the source: the highest truth is called the buddha treasure; immaculacy is called the dharma treasure; harmony is called the sangha treasure.

In the past: those who realized the truth completely are called the buddha treasure; the truth realized is called the dharma treasure; those who have transmitted this dharma are called the sangha treasure.

In the present: those who teach devas and humans in the sky and in the world are called the buddha treasure; that which appears in the world and in the scriptures, becoming good for others, is called the dharma treasure; they who release their suffering and embrace all beings are called the sangha treasure.”

To wrap things up, I’ll summarize the reasons modern Buddhists take refuge in the three treasures, interpreting each treasure at two different levels:


You need teachers – real human beings who are further along the path of practice than you are, who share their wisdom with you through their writings and teachings, or in person;

You need, ultimately, to take refuge in your own internal teacher – your own intuitive wisdom – and have faith in your ability to change, and to become more selfless and compassionate;


You need teachings – most of us wouldn’t have been able to forge an effective spiritual path all by ourselves; the teachings of Buddhism and other great spiritual traditions are from the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of generations, thousands of people;

You need to learn how to recognize Truth, trust yourself, and take refuge in Truth – that is, be willing to face the Truth and then act in accordance with it as best you can;


You need other people – social support, the context of community, insight into your blind spots, challenge;

You need to transcend self and realize your interdependence with all beings – or even, all Being.