repentance and refuges
At the end of our morning zazen, we have been chanting the robe verse:
Vast is the robe of liberation,
a formless field of benefaction;
wearing the universal teaching
I realize the one true nature,
thus harmonizing all being.
We have added these verses, before our three bows:
All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
born through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.
(this is repeated three times, and followed by these verses:)
I take refuge in Buddha;
I take refuge in dharma;
I take refuge in sangha.
I take refuge in Buddha as the perfect teacher;
I take refuge in dharma as the perfect teaching;
I take refuge in sangha as the perfect life.
Now I have completely taken refuge in Buddha;
Now I have completely taken refuge in dharma;
Now I have completely taken refuge in sangha.
Traditionally, this form follows the lineage tradition of Shunryu Suzuki, the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Buddhists all over the world say some form of these verses every morning. Conventionally, they are called the repentance and refuges. I believe the term “repentance” is a Christian overlay on the original meaning, suggesting sin, confession, and penance. And it does not really suit the Zen meaning well. I would call the first verse an acknowledgment of things as it is (as Suzuki famously said).
There are translations that speak of “all evil karma ever committed by me” but once again, I think this is a dualistic overlay, rather than a true Zen understanding. We are tangled up in karma that stretches back through time: our conditioning from our parents, families and teachers is itself a product of the conditioning they received. If you try to trace the beginning of it you will lose yourself in the mists of time. So it is ancient beyond our ability to comprehend. It is twisted, not evil. I think this term conveys the sense of entanglement in karma the way one might be entangled in barbed wire, but also a certain intentionality that gives it its twists. That intentionality is the piece of it we generate and can control. We don't condone or condemn this ancient twisted karma; we simply avow it. It is where we are, and what we practice in the midst of, the muddy water out of which the lotus blooms.
The three toxic energies identified by the Buddha, greed, hate, and delusion, also stretch far back in time. They show up in our actions, our talk or silence, and our thoughts and emotions. Our practice is waking up to the destructive effects of these poisonous energies so that we can use our intention, our vow, to express our life energy in ways that are more wholesome, that contribute to understanding, well-being, kindness, and peace for ourselves and for others. Because these karmic entanglements are so pervasive, automatic, and convincing, we cannot do this work alone. That leads us naturally to the next set of verses.
We take refuge in the Buddha, who offers us the example of his life and the dharma, the profound teaching of the four noble truths, and the path that leads us out of the creation of suffering for ourselves and for others. And we take refuge in the sangha, those who, in the midst of the same struggles we face, entangled in their own twisted karma, share this aspiration and this path. These “three jewels” of the Buddhist life give us the strength, the resources, and the tools for the radical transformation that waking up makes in our lives. It is not an easy path, nor a quick one.
And why do we take refuge in the Buddha as “the perfect teacher?” Many people bridle at this expression. You may interpret this in any way you wish, but I am reminded of the Tibetan teachings on “the great natural perfection.” This is not the Buddha as exalted above all beings, or as some perfect ideal never to be achieved. We recognize, of course the historical Buddha as a profound and liberated being: but Buddha nature is in all existence. The perfect teacher is the Buddha within you and expressed as all existence. What better teacher or teaching can possibly be found than the very life you are immersed in right now? This is the great natural perfection. Furthermore, what life could possibly be more supportive of our own awakening than the life of the sangha? A life lived in relationships that foster our awakening is a perfect life. So we can completely take refuge in these manifest expressions of the great natural perfection.
This complete expression of our present condition, our search, and our practice home is a beautiful way to start the day. I am happy, in this way, to also honor my training and experience with Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, and to enfold it in our Ordinary Mind Practice.
I hope you will let me know your thoughts on this addition!