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The Three Refuges: Part III, The Sangha

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

Buddham saranam gacchami Dhammam saranam gacchami Sangham saranam gacchami

Part III—The Sangha as Refuge

We continue unpacking the three refuges, called the three treasures in the Buddhist tradition. In the last two talks, we looked at the Buddha, the first treasure, and the Dharma, the second, and noted how these two point us to the basic components of the awakened life.

Gautama Shakyamuni offers for us the archetype of the awakened life. Having attained the wisdom of enlightenment, he lived a life characterized by deep inner peace, humility and compassion. This peace, humility and compassion is grounded in the experiential realization of the three marks of Dharma, namely, impermanence (anicca), nonself (anatta) and the unsatisfactoriness of phenomenal existence (dukkha). The term nirvana (nibbana) refers to the overcoming of this unsatisfactoriness. This involves a direct insight into things as they truly are, which is an uncovering of the real. This uncovering of the real, enabling one to see things as they are in a way that is freed from clinging and delusion and expectation, leads to that wisdom that ushers in inner peace, humility and compassion.

Several hundred years after Shakyamuni, the movement known as that of the Great Vehicle, or Mahayana, recaptured the basic thrust of this life of wisdom, and summarized it in the keynote term, shunyata, translated as Emptiness in English. This Sanskrit term shunyata can be better rendered by the translation “zero-ness.” It relates to the Indian mathematical notion of Shunya or Zero, the matrix of all integers. That zero-ness that underlies the very being of all of us is what enables us to touch the realm of the infinite. For example, each one of us can be likened to an integer, say, one, two, or three, or 72 or 153 or 49. We know that each particular integer is unique and different from all the others, and plays a role that no other can play within the realm of integers. This conveys the fact of the uniqueness that each one of us is as an individual personality or entity. If we stop here, we will be led to the deluded notion that we are all separate entities and that we’re all different and thus have nothing to do with one another. However, if see that underlying each integer, there is a hidden denominator, that is, zero, then our understanding of how all integers relate to one another is radically transformed. In short, as each integer is divided by zero, the outcome is a realization of the infinite horizon in each one of us. And this is the same for any given integer, as it is placed over the denominator zero. Thus, realizing that we are all grounded in that infinite horizon is also realizing our interconnectedness with one another.

This is a mathematical analogy that can give us a glimpse of what the discovery of that Shunyata at the heart of our very being can open us to. In other words, this discovery enables us to realize who we are. The awakening to that Shunyata is the awakening to our true self. And that true self really is no self. That experience of no-self is what enables us to realize the whole universe as manifested in each and everyone of us.

This is the Dharma that Shakyamuni awakened to. What can happen, as we breathe in and breathe out in silence in our practice of zazen, is that our eyes may be opened to see that zero-ness that is the very ground of our being. This involves cutting through the debris of our delusive ego and its machinations, the clutter that blocks our view of things as they are. This debris is the result of our social conditioning, of the things that bombard our consciousness through the media, received tradition, and so on. But as we seep ourselves in silence, we may see through this debris, and get glimpses of that infinite horizon of our being. A poet called it “intimations of immortality.” Intimations of Immortality, intimations of infinity may come to us in certain moments of our life. For example, we may just be looking at a flower, or we may be looking at a painting in a museum or at a sunset, or not doing anything in particular at all, and then all of a sudden, something hits us that it is beyond what meets the eye. Indeed, the reality that we truly are is much more than meets the eye.

We can give ourselves the opportunity to see that infinite horizon, as we come to a zen retreat and sit in silence. We can open ourselves to the same horizon in our daily lives, as we give ourselves the gift of silence and sit in zazen on a regular basis. Or, within the busy schedules of our daily lives, in the middle of whatever activity we may be engaged in, as we pause for a moment and simply take that opportunity to breathe in and breathe out and pause in stillness for just a moment, such moments can enable us to touch again that infinite horizon, and enable us to cut through the debris that blocks our view.

This is an invitation to keep grounding ourselves in that infinite horizon, that is, the reality of who we truly are, in the midst of our daily lives.

I recall a lecture in Japan that I attended by a world famous physicist with a doctorate from Princeton, who was teaching at Sophia University where I was also teaching at the time. He began by taking a sip of water from a glass in front of him, saying: “What I will try to convey to you in this lecture is that this glass which you see here, which I drank from, is not really just this glass that you see here as opposed to this table, or this microphone. You may think that this glass is a particular object present before your eyes and distinct from all other objects in the universe. But it is not.” The point of the lecture, in short, as I recall, though I was not able to follow all his mathematical explanation, elucidated basic principles of nuclear physics, to help the audience understand that “this glass is not (what we think) is this glass,” that is, if it were not for everything else in the universe being what it is. In other words, each component of the universe is only what it is precisely because everything else is what it is, as related to one another. In short, the lecturer wanted to show how each particular thing in the universe is interconnected with everything else that is. This is now recognized as a basic discovery in physics, namely, the understanding of the universe as an interconnnected web of relations. There is no part of it that is separable or independent from any other.

I have referred to the feeling that some of us may have at some low point in our lives, namely, the sense that “the world can go on without me,” or that “I don’t have anything to give to the world, and so I can just disappear and it will make no difference to anybody,” or thoughts to that effect. It can happen to any of us as we go along the way and fall into the dumps.

This kind of thought is really only a delusion, wherein we are beclouded and we are prevented from seeing the true nature of who we are. Each of us is a unique gift of this universe to everyone else. In the Flower Garland Sutra, the universe is likened to a vast and infinite web where each eye of that web is like a net, and each eye has a jewel in it. Lo and behold, if you look at each jewel, each jewel reflects all the other jewels contained in that net. Each one of us is a jewel in that net. Each component in this universe is one such jewel reflecting every other jewel. That’s the way we are constituted.

Sages have known this since the ancient path, through meditation. And now this reality is being rediscovered in contemporary mathematics and physics. So, these two directions in search for ultimate reality are converging. The intuitive path, which the sages have traversed for thousands of years, is now converging with the scientific path, which tries to figure out reality in terms of equations and in terms of relations. Both paths are pointing to a common dimension of reality, namely, that the universe is interconnected, and there is no such thing as independent or autonomous entity.

We have been asking the question, “Who am I?” What is this life all about? How can I live my life in a way that can be truly realized what is meant to be ultimately? Answers to these fundamental questions are opened in the realization of the Dharma, the realization of zeroness, the realization that everything is interconnected. To realize that we are all interconnected with one another is the content of what we say when we recite: Dhammam, saranam gacchami, I go to the Dharma for refuge. I place my whole being in the Dharma in a way that that Dharma may be realized in my being.

With that then, the significance of the Sangha also becomes manifest. Sangham saranam gacchami. I go to the sangha for refuge. What is the sangha in this context? The first level would point to the community of beings on the way to awakening, namely, to the realization of Dharma, as described above. So, as each one of us begins to understand ourselves as a seeker of the truth, we come to realize that we are sangha. Put in simple terms, “Sangha are (‘R) us.” So, whatever we consider “us” to be as we are with everyone else, that is sangha. What are the levels of the “us” that we can understand? Well, the first level would be again, the community that we identify with in our search for ultimate truth. Historically, the community that grew around Shakyamuni as he expounded the Dharma, that is, the people who followed him seeking to be awakened as he was, is the first level of sangha. The sangha in its primary sense is that community that we find ourselves belonging to in this endeavor to live the awakened life, the community of fellow seekers of truth. So the people that practice zen meditation together would be the immediate group that comes to mind in that regard.

Something that Florence said last night was very significant. It is really so good to meet and be with people who are on the path, seeking the most important things in life, together. It is such a joy to discover like-minded people who are also in the search for the most important things in life as we are. And it is such a blessing really be with and hang out with such persons. That is a source of deep gratitude on the part of each and all of us, to have found one another. Each of us is a treasure in ourselves, and to have found one another in this way is really something that is so precious. This something that goes beyond words. There is another level of “us” if we consider who we are. We are who we are because of our parents, our siblings, our immediate family and relatives. So, our familial relations would be another level which we can consider our sangha.

Those individuals right here around us sitting on these cushions are our sangha of fellow seekers of tha Dharma, but there’s the wider circle of the families of each one of us, those that each of us is connected with: our parents, siblings, their children, their children’s children and so forth. This is an invitation to consider our families, immediate and wider family, and look at them with gratitude, for enabling us to be who we are. We may still have struggles with some of them, we may still be fighting with some of them, or we may have issues we need to settle with family members. But we are invited to look at each of them, and realize that we are who we are precisely because of what our families have allowed us to be who we are. So, that natural gratitude that comes from that realization. Maybe, we have taken some of them for granted or perhaps, have not appreciated them for who they are to us. These moments of silence in sitting can also be an occasion for us to look within us and enable us to appreciate the people close to us in a new way. We are invited to look at those who have been supportive of us, and those who have been really a part of our lives, which we have not been able to fully recognize for who they are to us. Widening the circle further, all the people we have met in our lives, such as the people who may have taken care of us when we were children, or whoever friends of our parents may have been who came and hugged us a even once, and so on, are also part of our lives. Kindergarten, gradeschool, high school teachers and classmates, and so on, and all our friends and acquaintances through the years, all have made us who we are. All of those persons that we have met in our lives who in some way or the other have been part of that which formed us into who we are, are included in our sangha. In Japan, there is a saying, “Even the touching of the sleeves in meeting another on the road is a wondrous karmic connection.” That’s rough translation of a very nice succinct Japanese proverb which says that even if we do not know the person we pass by walking in a corridor, that encounter already determines who we are, and that person becomes a part of that circle that makes me who I am. This is simply is an indication that every other person is someone who I am connected with in this life.

In taking a meal for example, if we consider how that meal got there, or how that bread got there and how the fruits got there, we will see the hands of so many people behind this morsel of food. We may see the truck driver who brought the bread from the bakery to the retailer, the farmers who grew the wheat in their fields. If we consider all those connected to us in eating this piece of bread, we realize we are naturally connected with so many living beings, and owe a debt of gratitude to each one, for helping us become who we are. So as we look at this circle of interconnectedness, we will see that it excludes no one in this universe. In some way or other, everything, every sentient being is part of that sangha that makes me who I am. So, this is another dimension of the understanding of dharma, by looking at sangha. Who is my sangha? Who is “us?” As we widen that circle we realize that there is no one excluded from this circle. So we can only sit in awe and feel a deep sense of gratitude for all members of this sangha that enables me to be who I am.

I recall a Japanese medieval poem written by a monk named, Saigyo, who was sitting on top of a hill one early evening, just after the sun had set. He was looking a village nearby, and saw the rooftops, and saw the smoke coming out of the chimneys. He describes what he felt in a short poem that goes like this: “I do not know the reason why, tears of gratitude moisten my eyes.” In his mind’s eye, he was contemplating the families preparing their evening meal, the mothers taking care of their children, the fathers returning from their farm and washing their feet before entering the house. This scene brought to him an overwhelming sense of gratitude. That sense can come to us, as we are wrapped in silence, and simply become aware and able to realize the wondrous reality that makes me who I am right here.

Tears of gratitude can really come and overwhelm us. The sangha is what we are invited to really consider, as we ask ourselves, “Who am I?” As I am led to see who my sangha is, I realize that I am not alone, that I’m never alone, in this life. It was St. Augustine who said, “I am least lonely where I am by myself. In other words, I feel least alone when I am by myself. That sense of being-with can come to us more profoundly when we are by ourselves, just sitting in silence, and able to appreciate things for what they are.

The whole earth community then is our sangha, and each member of this earth community is our sangha. Each child who goes to bed hungry at night is “us.” We cannot hold back the tears, this time not of gratitude, but of pain and sorrow, that there is such a fact that children have to be hungry or die of malnutrition and poverty. They are “us.” Each person treated unjustly, discriminated upon, harassed, assaulted, murdered, is us. Yet also each one who treats others unjustly, who discriminates, who harasses, assaults, murders, a fellow sentient being, is us.

As we chant Sangham Saranam gacchami, I go to the sangha for refuge, we open our eyes to the reality that sangha is, which is no other than the reality that we are. We are thus empowered to live in a way that cherishes and treasures one another, the whole community of sentient beings on this Earth, as our true self. And we are likewise enabled to take a straight look at the pain and woundedness that this Earth sangha bears, realizing that as our very own pain, and thus be able to offer all that we are and all that we have, toward the healing of this pain and woundedness that we carry together.


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