By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
In all Buddhist traditions taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) is the first step in becoming a Buddhist. But what does “taking refuge” really mean? The Webster’s University Dictionary defines ‘refuge’ to mean: something to which one may turn for help, relief, or escape. OK, I can understand this when I consider the Dharma, and even the Sangha, but how am I to consider taking refuge in someone that is dead? After all, the Buddha was Siddhartha Gotama, a man that lived, taught, awakened to Universal reality, and flourished 2500 years ago. Just what am I taking refuge in? Is the Buddha still alive somehow?
The challenge for any Buddhist teacher when presenting Buddhism to new students is to avoid unconsciously creating an insurmountable barrier between the Buddha as reflected in Siddhartha’s legacy teachings that point to the dharma, and an abstract metaphysical persona of an idealized Buddha as reflected in the iconography created from the mind of man. When we look at the various Buddhist traditional schools practices today, it sometimes is hard to see the man that lived in India with a large following of both lay and monastic disciples, growing up a Hindu with a life of privilege with a young wife and child, giving practical lesson on how to live a life full of meaning and wonder for the world around them, begging for food and shelter as he did, that died after a long life in his 80’s leaving behind a foundational philosophy and worldview that is as relevant today as it was 25 centuries ago. In his place we often find in legacy as well as contemporary language a semi-divine being who is visualized as bearing numerous extraordinary physical characteristics, and whose life is described in fantastic mythical imagery. The essentially human element of the Buddha is dissolved in an impressive, but humanely unobtainable, idealized state of being. Considering this abstract image, the man slowly fades away and dies. And something altogether different emerges.
Most people who study Buddhism are familiar with the awakened teachings of Siddhartha; the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of not-self, the principles of interdependence and Dependent Origination for example. Fewer people are also aware that Siddhartha spoke often and with a compelling argument on a wide range of social and economic issues of his day that impacted governments, politics, and the difficulties involved in seeking social justice, as well as on personal relationships. That his teachings extends so dynamically into “right action” indicates that the Buddha’s wisdom can be appreciated not just in monasteries but also on the streets and in our homes in the 21st century. As we navigate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life, the Buddha’s teaching can provide a way to see our way home. Stepping onto the Buddhist path can transform that navigation into something wondrous. For you see, we are given a change to see the life of the Buddha, as our own. Continue reading