Happy (Lunar) New Year everyone! For this new year's Dharma talk, I would like to address the importance of the Three Treasures.
2009 is an "Ox" Year. The Ox, being a heavy and reliable type of animal, is occassionaly interpreted as a symbol of stability; I believe that as human beings we are hardwired to want to want some kind of stability in our lives, whether that can be acquired through religion, family and friends, or other customs; some forms may even be represented by personal "made-up" rituals, whatever will bring a sense of groundedness to an individual. For example, military customs and traditions can be part of this "stability" - people salute, address each other, and use values (and sometimes vices!) similar to how it was done years ago. Change is viewed as something undesirable, or possibly threatening. Of course some changes were needed and changed things for the better (desegregation of military units); other things (new uniform styles for example) maybe for better or worse depending on personal taste.
Religion, especially, is looked to as something that is "stable" - although religion, is actually always changing, as per the teachings of Buddhism that all things are in flux, even Buddhism appears as something that looks very stable, a religion that has rituals and beliefs that are practiced the same (or very close) as they were decades or centuries ago, which offers relief and hope for the future. In many ways this is very true. Over time there were new interpretations and even new rituals and practices added (or deleted, maybe some for better or worse also), but there are still many core beliefs that are the same as they were for thousands of years. This fact does provide many people with a sense of timelessness and the feeling that they are re-connecting with generations of ancestors. Lunar New Year traditions are also part of this concept. For others, it may give a feeling that they are participating in something new, that they can recreate themselves, that there is something much bigger than themselves and their own egos and which has the power to transcend and overcome temporary problems. This also offers hope and a belief that they themselves, as individuals, are part of something vast and incomprehensible - in a good way!
In chaplaincy work, I've encountered many of two types of persons searching for a type of stability in their personal lives, and are curious about Buddhism. Although this is very simplistic, I can classify this into two types:
1) Persons interested in Buddhism, out of basic curiosity or looking for a "new" religion, philosophy, peace, "answers," etc.
2) Persons (usually of ethnic Asian descent, but not always) interested in "re-connecting with Buddhism" having had some kind encounter with Buddhism as children, either through taken to temple celebrations by parents, family traditions and customs, etc.
I think it's important to note that such people are not necessarily looking for the "same" thing in Buddhism, or maybe even that the "-ism" that is Buddhism is what they are lookng for! But that there does seem to be something that is wanted. In both cases, it's best to begin with small steps, even for persons who were raised in a Buddhist family, but never acquired (or forgot!) further guidance. Flinging sunyata and prajnaparamita at someone new to Buddha-dharma would be a little much to start out with. So perhaps this would be a good moment to begin introducing the "Three Treasures." This is something both types can easily grasp, and then move from there into a deeper understanding of Buddhism, if that is what they want.
1) Buddha - The "founder" of Buddhism; although Shakyamuni did not explicitly state that he was creating a new "religion," Buddha is the central figure of Buddhism overall, and most people are familiar with some kind of Buddha image, whether they've seen his image in a temple or even as consumer clutter (Buddha in a Box!). I won't even get into the "Fat Buddha" right now, although this is a good moment to explain different types of Buddha images! Many images of Buddha were and are meant to be teaching tools, and Sakyamuni's life story is also full of examples we can follow.
2) Dharma - The vast knowledge that is associated with Buddhism, the teachings and philosophy: we may also include practices and traditions, including what is in the sutras, the dense commentaries of Abhidhamma, meditation manuals, monastic rules, and the foundational Four Noble Truth, Eightfold Path, etc.
3) Sangha - The community of Buddhists. People usually think of Buddhists as the shaven-headed and robed monks and nuns and their communities, and that's the picture most often seen. But the Sangha can also be the lay followers of Buddhism - the everyday mass of people working as teachers, clerks, nurses aides, office workers, military servicemembers, and so on.
I like the fact that these three items are known as "Treasures." Why are they called treasures? They are all needed to fully embrace Buddha-dharma. So it's no accident that taking refuge in the Three Treasures is a common way of "proclaiming" oneself a Buddhist. The first Treasure, Buddha, is obvious: our first teacher in this world. The second Treasure, Dharma, whether we embrace it as a full-fledged "religion" or maybe simply a type of philosophy, is a guideline for us to follow the path illuminated by the Buddha. "Whoever sees me sees the Dharma - whoever sees the Dharma sees Me" - these works reportedly spoken by the Buddha can show us that, for example, simply owning a Buddha image does not impart any meaning of Buddha-dharma by itself, and only by sincerely trying to understand and follow the teachings, one can also be close to the Buddha himself, even though he lived over 2,500 years ago. There is much more on this in Mahayana literature about our closeness to the Buddha, but for now we see that the first two Treasures are especially closely interrelated.
For the third Treasure, the Sangha, this may take some more discussion. Being part of a Sangha is an important part of comprehending and practicing Buddha-dharma. Sangha teaches us interdependence. Since we may identify the Sangha also as a community of laypersons, it doesn't necessarily mean having to renounce the modern world and become a monastic. Being part of a Sangha can be simply going to a Buddhist temple, center, or other community organization, and participating in the life of that organization, whether it is through the religious services, volunteer activities, food bazaars, meditation classes, and so on. But some people are, understandably, uncomfortable with this idea. Sangha, being a certain type of community of people, implies a kind of "organized religion", and this may cause people to avoid it, either because of prior negative experiences in a church (or even another Buddhist center), don't want to be pressured for donations, deal with politics (often involving money), or are just uncomfortable with meeting strangers and people outside their own family or ethnic group. There are many reasons people do have NOT to want to join any kind of group! There are Buddhists who do prefer to practice on their own, or do their own reading. Also, not everyone lives close to a temple so there often may be no choice but to just practice in one's home. Still, since the Sangha is a Treasure, I would strongly recommend becoming part of one if possible: Buddha-dharma is a way of life that is acquired not just by reading Buddhist books but through being with others. The Buddha almost always lived with others, either with his disciples or going out amongst the villagers; even the Thai Forest Tradition monks are only known to us because they have extended their knowledge through others. There is always something to be learned - I've learned alot about Budhda-dharma from people whom I assumed I wouldn't really have anything in common with, and this only came from participating in temple life. Sanghas should be diverse places where you meet people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, jobs! That was also one of the Buddha's great achievements, mingling with and teaching people of different castes and professions (a big no-go area in ancient India)! But if the atmosphere of a temple is somehow oppressive or not conducive to learning and there's no other place available, I would also recommend just practicing on own's own, or with a few other "good friends" (kalyanamitra). A Sangha doesn't have to be huge! It can also be just your family members, practicing at home.
The Three Treasures are truly named. It's very easy to take refuge, and if one wants to do so, one can simply take to heart the Ti-Sarana (Three Treasures Refuge). No elaborate ceremony is necessary. This is the traditional profession:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
Dutiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami
Dutiyampi Dhammam saranam gacchami
Dutiyampi Sangham saranam gacchami
Tatiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami
Tatiyampi Dhammam saranam gacchami
Taityampi Sangham saranam gacchami
I go to the Buddha as my refuge
I go to the Dharma as my refuge
I go to the Sangha as my refuge
For the second time I go to the Buddha as my refuge
For the second time I go to the Dharma as my refuge
For the second timeI go to the Sangha as my refuge
For the third time I go to the Buddha as my refuge
For the third time I go to the Dharma as my refuge
For the third time I go to the Sangha as my refuge
For the new year, may everyone take refuge in the Three Treasures!
Namo Amida Butsu