Who do you put your faith in? Hillary? Bernie? Donald? Cruz?
Christians profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. That’s where they are supposed to put their faith. Jews believe in YHWY, that the Lord their God is one. But, because of the holocaust, many, while retaining Jewish identity, find it impossible to have faith in a God that would send 6 million Jews to be exterminated. This is understandable. Muslims have a firm conviction that Allah is one and Muhammad is his prophet.
For Buddhists, taking refuge in the three treasures – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – is a profession of faith. To take refuge in the Buddha means to take refuge in a teacher, someone who teaches truth. This teacher of truth could be Buddhist or it could be someone of another faith or no faith at all. The requirement is that the teacher’s words and actions resonate with the total reality of the present moment and that the student recognizes that resonation.
To take refuge in the Dharma is to take refuge in the words – written or spoken – of the teacher. Again, the criteria here is that these words resonate with total reality. If the words don’t resonate with reality, then no matter how kind and loving they may be, even if they are Buddhist, are not Dharma. To take refuge in Dharma, moreover, is to practice the truth. We need to walk our talk. It’s not enough to believe in someone’s words. We need to put them into practice. This is not easy and this is where the third treasure comes in: the Sangha.
To take refuge in the Sangha is to take refuge in the community that works together to put the Dharma into practice. It is to know that there are others out there that are working hard to wake up to the present moment – to harmonize body, speech, and thought with that of total reality – and to generate and live in harmony with the wider non-Buddhist community. Social and Ecological Justice work is certainly within the sphere of the Sangha.
Zen Buddhists see faith, especially in the Buddha, as not fixed. In other words, in order to grow spiritually and psychologically we have to understand the object of our faith more deeply. What we thought was the Buddha when we first began to take refuge may not be the same Buddha for us today. In fact, Buddha can turn into a sort of idol if we are not careful. We can believe so much in the idea of the Buddha that the real meaning of Buddha alludes us.
Zen has many expressions for preventing the student’s mind from remaining clinged to an idolized version of the Buddha. Perhaps the most famous is, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha.” Another less well known expression goes, “There is Buddha for those who don’t know what Buddha is really. There is no Buddha for those who know what Buddha is really.”
In order to grow psychologically and spiritually, it’s very necessary for us to let go of our ideas of Buddha, just as a child needs to be weened from her/his mother. Buddha needs to transition from outside to inside our heart, and then from inside our heart to neither inside nor outside. Until this happens, Buddha is used as a crutch. There is nothing wrong with using Buddha this way as long as we know it. Sometimes we just don’t have the physical strength or mental clarity – and we know it – to expel all thoughts of division from our mind, so we take refuge in an exterior Buddha. Buddha on the outside becomes perhaps an anchor rather than a crutch. The outside image of Buddha, for example, can aid in anchoring us in the present moment and in eventually letting go of Buddha.
For the Zen Buddhist it is important not to be caught by any ideologies, even Buddhist ones. Tuning into the present moment and seeing Buddha, God, Jesus, Allah in everyone and everything is enough. Seeing the dignity of all beings and treating all beings with respect is paramount. This is not an easy task. One that I find myself continually drawn to despite my own short-comings. The Buddhist path is not straight. It’s constantly winding. We need to adjust our minds to bend with the curves in the road. Being Zen Buddhist is being willing to walk the winding path of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and to be willing to be put right on this path when we veer off.