Huineng’s Three Refuges



Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion this week on Huineng and the  Platform Sutra.  


Roshi opened the Taisho (dharma talk) this week by noting that the Platform Sutra is really all about the Jukai ceremony.  This ceremony, which some of the Sangha just went through, centers on the process of becoming a Bodhisattva.  We should understand this transformation as something very profound.  The Bodhisattva way is the “platform” or foundation of our practice.  


The sutra focuses on Huineng’s version of the Jukai ceremony.  Unlike today, back in Huineng’s time it would have been exclusively monks and nuns going through this process.  These individuals would have been inundated with Buddhist teachings, stories, and sutras from a young age.  As such, the students already had the necessary background “information” and were ready.  Modern lay practitioners, on the other hand, need to go through a multi-month preparatory phase to be ready to appreciate the ceremony.


Roshi next mentioned that in the Sutra Huineng starts the Jukai ceremony with a Taisho which focuses on the distinctions between different states of mind.  What is pure concentration?  What is pure wisdom? What is delusion?  In the talk, Huineng is clear that the concept of each of those things is actually the thing that defiles it. That the mind is already in the state of purity that concentration.  Again, the thinking mind gets in the way of its own clarity!


Roshi next stated that he wanted to focus on the first part of Huineng’s ceremony.  His version of his ceremony is considered somewhat radical and isn’t practiced today – although it is respected to this day.  The first section of the ceremony, not surprisingly, is the three refuges in which the participant takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  What does this mean?  If you do an internet search for it, there’s endless dharma talks, lectures, and books trying to explain the concept of refuge.  Roshi asked everyone what they think in their mind when we take refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Shangha?  What connection do you have with these words?


Roshi stopped here and stated that words are not the answer!  He then struck his chest and said THIS is the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha!  In essence, there is no difference between the mind and body.  It is all one thing.  This is Huineng’s message in the Jukai ceremony.  Roshi then proceeded to break this down a bit for us.  The first refuge in the Buddha is understood to be taking refuge in the “Buddha Body.”  When taking refuge in the Dharma, we are taking refuge in “Reward Body.”  Lastly, when we take refuge in the Sangha, we’re taking refuge in the “Inevitable Eternal Body.” 


Roshi next proceeded to explain what Huineng meant by these Dharma bodies.  Roshi used the metaphor of a tree.  He pointed to a tree out in the yard which had a branch extending a great distance from the trunk at a right angle.  When that tree was initially born from a seed it grew each year by a number of feet.  However, at each point the tree was perfect.  It was not like the tree would only be perfect once it gained its full height.  In a very basic way, it is perfect as it is in every moment.  So seed, sapling, and tall tree are all perfect.  This is Huineng’s first refuge in the perfect Buddha Body.  Like the tree, it is the same with us.  Why would Huineng use the body as the first refuge?  Roshi noted that the reason was rather simple – our body is our vehicle through life.  If our life is already perfect, it stands to reason that the vehicle carrying it must also be perfect.  So Huineng is telling us to take refuge is our very physicality.  


Roshi again pointed at the tree with the large perpendicular branch.  He noted that the branch is pretty much naked until the very end where it captures the sunlight with a cluster of leaves.  Why does it look that way?  Obviously, it is because that is where the sunlight is and the tree needs it.  If the main trunk is in the shade, the tree adapted by sending out a long branch to where the sun is available.  Roshi noted that this is the “Reward Body.”  We all go throughout life following our needs and desires.  As we follow these things our mind and body adapt and change as needed.  All of our needs and desires, and all the conditioning from them have led us to this very moment where we are now.  So, we take refuge in our state as it is right now – which is perfect – how could it not be?


Roshi next stated that you may look at a tree with a long horizontal limb and worry that it will come crashing down in a storm.  Does that branch fall today?  Is it going to fall tomorrow?  Maybe it never falls.  We just do not know what will happen, but we do know something will happen due to all events leading up to a moment in time.  This karmic causality is the third refuge Huineng speaks to.  


Roshi stopped and reminded us that ultimately these three bodies, the Dharma Body, the Reward Body, and the Transformational Body are one of the same body.  Again, Roshi pointed to the tree in the yard and stated that the tree is the tree.  Isn’t it obvious?  We are what we are. So, it is with the Three Refuges. They are distinct and can be explained individually, but they are one and the same.   Roshi noted that Huineng is exhorting us all to practice with that level of immediacy.    


Roshi wrapped up by noting that the Three Refuges was just the first part of Huineng Jukai ceremony.  Next week we will delve into the Repentances.