The Three Refuges and
The Threefold Training

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This was the opening talk given at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple's first open house. I am not sure of the date, but it was probably late 1999. This talk was given for people who knew nothing about Buddhism -- so I generally sketched out the core of all schools of Buddhism -- the Three Refuges and the Threefold Training. I did not get into the specifics of the Three Great Hidden Dharmas (Sandai Hiho) which I saved for another talk. However, I believe that for Nichiren Buddhists, the Three Great Hidden Dharmas are a reaffirmation of the Three Refuges and the Threefold Training but from the perspective of the Essential Teaching of the Lotus Sutra. In other words, the Three Great Hidden Dharmas redefine the Three Refuges and Threefold Training and all of them are fulfilled through the practice of Odaimoku. So this talk was intended from the beginning to be followed closely by the talk about the Three Great Hidden Dharmas.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei

The Three Refuges and The Threefold Training

All of us want to be happy, but real happiness is very difficult to find and even harder to keep. Too often our efforts to find complete and lasting fulfillment are frustrated, and we often wonder why we are unable to be the kind of people that we want to be and to realize our dreams. Of course, even if we succeed in finding happiness and keeping it, the day will inevitably come when we will have to relinquish everything due to old age, sickness and death. 2,500 years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama reflected upon these things. He realized that the luxurious life he had been living and the promise of even greater worldly power would not be able to help him find the answer to the problem of finding a real and lasting happiness, and breaking through the barrier of mortality. In order to find the answer to this problem, he left the palace and lived as an ascetic for six years, leading a life of self-denial in order to discover the eternal bliss that his previous life of self-indulgence was unable to reveal to him. In the end he found that self-denial was not the answer, just as self-indulgence was not the answer. He discovered the Middle Way that transcended both, the Middle Way of setting aside the self and seeing life clearly just as it is.

Once Siddhartha Gautama realized the futility of self-indulgence and self-denial, he sat beneath a wild fig tree (a tree that would later be known as the Bodhi Tree - the Tree of Awakening) determined not to get up until he had seen for himself the truth about life and death. So there he sat and through the night he reviewed his life, and with a mind refined and strengthened through the past six years of ascetic discipline and yogic concentration he was even able to review all of his past lives and the past lives of others. He traced the web of cause and effect that led people to unknowingly create their own destinies. Probing even deeper, he further realized the selfless nature of all things. He saw that all beings, all phenomena, arise in accordance with causes and conditions. All things are links in a vast universal network of causes and effects. All that exists, exists as a brief expression of a dynamic and interdependent process that is the true reality of all things. This vast network of causation was like a huge net that covered the universe, and every person, every animal, fish, insect, plant, rock, cloud or anything else one could think of were all gems hanging in the knots of the net - each reflecting the whole and each reflected by the whole. Upon attaining this insight, Siddhartha Gautama woke up from the dream of being a separate self with all of its suffering, vulnerability and inevitable demise. Now he was liberated, awake, enlightened. From that moment on he was the Buddha, which means “the one who is awake.” He would also be called Shakyamuni, which means “Sage of the Shakya Clan.”

At first, Shakyamuni Buddha was not sure that he would ever be able to share with others the vision of life’s true nature that he had awakened to. He knew that words could never do it justice. Fortunately for us, the Buddha has the compassion and the ability to try anyway, to use words to lead people beyond words. At first he would have to explain what he had realized in very practical terms. So he explained it in terms of Dependent Origination. This is the idea that all things originate in dependence upon causes. At its simplest and most abstract, this means that if you have one thing, it will give rise to another; and without the one, you will not have the other. This law of cause and effect essentially means that we all reap what we sow. If you have apple seeds you will get apples, if you plant weeds, you will get weeds. If you do not have apple seeds, then you can not grow apples, and if you uproot the weeds, they will not choke your garden. In the same way, our lives are like fields and if we sow seeds of greed, anger and ignorance - then we will reap all manner of loss, violence and confusion. On the other hand, if we sow loving-kindness, compassion, joy and peace - then we will reap good fortune and kindness. Of course, life is not this simple, and the law of cause and effect works itself out over the course of lifetimes according to Shakyamuni Buddha. Still, the underlying truth is that life is made up of causes and their corresponding effects, so we need to recognize this and work with it instead of ignoring it and bringing about our own suffering.

Now this was a new way of thinking to many people. Even today, people tend to think that life is either random and meaningless; controlled by impersonal forces of fate or destiny; or by an inscrutable but personal God. In opposition to these ideas, the Buddha taught that we ourselves create our own happiness or misery through the causes we have set in motion. The Buddha taught, “If you want to know what you did in the past, observe the conditions of your present life; and if you want to know how you will end up in the future, observe what you are doing in the present.” The Buddha's Four Noble Truths were a specific application of this law that he taught in order to help people understand what they needed to do to free themselves from the chains of cause and effect forged in ignorance of this law. The first noble truth is that life is full of suffering - because we rarely get what we desire and inevitably lose what we can attain. The second noble truth is that suffering is the effect of craving for what we can not have and the ignorance that prevents us from seeing this. The third noble truth is that suffering can cease. This is the liberation known in Buddhism as nirvana, which is a word that means “to blow out.” Specifically, it is the flames of greed, anger, and ignorance and the suffering that they cause which are blown out or extinguished. The fourth noble truth is the eightfold path which the cause that leads to the liberation from suffering.

The eightfold path consists of right views, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. I will not go into each of the eight here. To simplify things, I will explain them in terms of the threefold training of discipline, meditation, and wisdom. Discipline means that we refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, abusive language, divisive speech, or gossiping, and those forms of livelihood which depend on such things. Instead, we should try to assist others and treat them with love and kindness. Meditation means that we should control not just our actions but our minds as well. Instead of a wandering and distracted mind, or a rigid and narrow mind, we should cultivate a mind that is strong, open and generous, and which is able to concentrates on what is going on around us and within us in order to discern truth from falsehood. Finally, through cultivating self-discipline and meditation we are able to see the truth about life. We are able to see that the impermanent self and those things outside itself which are equally impermanent are incapable of bringing us lasting satisfaction. Through wisdom we are able to gain the perspective we need to let go of our false dependence upon the self and the world. In doing this, there is liberation, freedom, and joy. In doing this we are able to enter into a new relationship with ourselves, with others, and with the world. A new relationship that is not spoiled by false expectations but is instead characterized by creativity, compassion, and a selfless giving of oneself to all of life. This threefold training, which is the eightfold path, is the way whereby we can live in accord with the law of cause and effect by refraining from bad causes, by making good causes and by purifying our minds.

Since the time that Shakyamuni Buddha taught dependent origination and the four noble truths, those who have been inspired by the insight and practicality of these teachings have shown their confidence and willingness to follow the threefold training by taking the threefold refuge. The threefold refuge consists in affirming the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha as the three treasures which can enable us to free ourselves from suffering and to find real happiness for ourselves and others. In taking refuge in the Buddha, we are affirming that it is indeed possible for a human being to awaken to the truth about life and to find real happiness, and that if Shakyamuni Buddha was able to do it, then so can we. In taking refuge in the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching) we are affirming that what the Buddha taught is indeed based upon his direct insight into the truth and that it will enable us to see the truth for ourselves as well. In taking refuge in the Sangha (the community that upholds the Buddha’s teaching) we are affirming that these teachings have been passed down as part of a living tradition which has upheld and lived these teachings and that now we can become a part of that living tradition ourselves.

Here at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple, we have also taken refuge in the three treasures and we strive to uphold the threefold training. It is our intention to share the three treasures with others and to help all who wish to follow the threefold training. What I have spoken of so far is true for all Buddhists, but Nichiren Buddhism specifically trusts in the final and ultimate teaching of the Buddha as taught in the Lotus Sutra and as passed on to us and exemplified by Nichiren Shonin, a monk and religious reformer in the 13th century in Japan. The Lotus Sutra taught two very important teachings, which we can take confidence in as we try to follow the Buddha’s teachings. The first is that all people (actually all beings - but that is another topic), whatever their capabilities or background, have the Buddha-nature within them. In other words, all people have the ability to wake up to the truth and attain liberation just as the Buddha did. The second is that the Buddha’s enlightened life is not confined to the past, but is an integral part of reality itself regardless of time and place. The Buddha’s enlightenment is also our own enlightenment, and when the barriers of self-consciousness and doubt are dropped, we will realize that Buddhahood transcends birth and death, self and other. It is the non-dual reality of the dynamic and interdependent nature of all things that Shakyamuni Buddha awakened to as he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree. In Nichiren Buddhism, we realize that this insight is not the product of intellectual speculation, or moral perfection, or any act of self-sacrifice. It arises simply through faith. Not faith as blind belief, but faith as confidence and trust in the true nature of reality - confidence and trust that what the Buddha taught in the Lotus Sutra was true and that his awakening is also our own awakening - our own true nature. That is why we chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo - “I take refuge in the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching.” This simple but profound phrase is an expression of the awakening in our lives which allows us to truly realize the greatness of the three treasures and fulfill the threefold training - not in order to attain awakening, but to express an awakening which is already the deepest but until now unrecognized truth of our lives.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999, 2002.

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