Monday, December 19, 2005

What are the refuges & precepts and why take them?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and I was asked the following question(s). I thought they were very good questions, and while I already answered them in private the answers are appropriate to the record of my practice being kept here on this blog.

Would you mind explaining more about the process of taking refuge and the lay precepts? What made you decide to take that step, or do you feel it is just a natural progression for you? What does it entail? If you don't mind sharing.

The process varies from tradition to tradition, school to school, and at times even lineage to lineage, so what you read elsewhere might sound the same or different. First, for the Ch'an lineage my teacher is connected with, there would be three basic vows that are a part of any other set of vows, which are sometimes called the Three Pure Precepts:

  • Cease to Do Evil
  • Do Only Good
  • Do Good for Others

I personally think these can also be understood as "Do not cause unnecessary suffering or act out of greed/anger/ignorance", "Do that which promotes well-being", "Promote the well-being of others."

Anyway, I got that from the website of one of the abbot's root teachers, and when I asked the abbot about taking vows he mentioned them as well. The Refuges are very common in Buddhism. Basically,

  • I take refuge in the Buddha
  • I take refuge in the Dharma
  • I take refuge in the Sangha

Again, my own understanding of what they means follows. The first vow honors the Buddha as the root teacher of all the traditions, schools, lineages, etc. and is a show of appreciation for the lessons he provided. But also if refers to our own Buddha-nature, taking comfort in recalling that we are all unrealized Buddhas and we all have access to our Buddha-nature of limitless wisdom and compassion. Dharma can refer to dozens of things from "law", "phenomena", to the teachings of the Buddha. I think most see the latter as the primary referant in the vows. As with the Buddha, we honor those teachings and their use in the vow. Of course, the Sangha refers to the Buddhists we practice with but also in another sense all sentient beings, the "big sangha" as it were, as everyone is just a Buddha waiting to happen.

I think that the refuges are the most common basic practice of "becoming" a lay Buddhist. It is basically just a public announcement, as it isn't an oath to a God and there is no baptism or anything. Of course, anyone can do it anywhere and any time, teacher or no teacher, sangha or no sangha. I think that doing it with a particular teacher signifies perhaps an appreciation for and a non-binding committment to that teacher, a ceremony that provides instruction as well as a sense of belonging or joining. In some traditions it's only "official" under a variety of circumstances, especially for example some of the forms of Buddhism practiced in Tibet.

Now, beyond both the Three Pure Precepts and the Three Refuges are what are normally called "the" Precepts (the three pure ones are kind of considered the basis or genesis for all the others, which just spell the pure precepts out in more specific circumstance). They are sort of progressive, again, and vary a little from group to group. The first five are the so-called lay precepts. You don't have to take them when you do the Refuges, but if you haven't take then Refuges you generally take them when doing the lay precepts. You will often see them written as something like:

  1. I will refrain from lying.
  2. I will refrain from intoxicants.
  3. I will refrain from stealing.
  4. I will refrain from sexual misconduct.
  5. I will refrain from killing.

I have also seen these discussed with more depth. In particular, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buddhism does an excellent job of this (and I usually don't care much for those books). For one thing, note that you are choosing to do this--it isn't a "thou shalt" or "shalt not". Also, at depth, it's more like:

  1. I will refrain from unskillful (read harmful/deceptive) speech--I will think before I open my fat mouth.
  2. I will be skillful in consumption--I will consider what I put into my body and its effect on my health and how I behave.
  3. I will be skillful in how I give and receive--I won't take what isn't freely given and I will be gracious and appreciative of what is freely given.
  4. I will appreciate the power of sexuality and use it in a physically, emotionally, and mentally beneficial way in a loving relationship.
  5. I will consider all the acts I perform and how they affect the life and death of other beings--I will conduct myself in a way that maximizes respect for the life of all creatures.

Now, a shramenera, or novice monk (also called a lay monk because he still owns a home, has a regular job, doesn't live in a monastery, etc.) would take another five vows for a total of ten. A fully ordained monk may take over 40 vows. I was there last summer when my sangha's local leader took his vows as a novice monk. The abott told him (and the rest of us) that the vows cannot be broken. We may drop them or lay them down, but we can also choose to pick them up again.

It's interesting to note that the abbot doesn't overtly advertise or suggest taking Refuge or Lay Precepts, so I was the one who approached him about the issue. I knew a little about vows from my investigation of Buddhism and I've asked him a bit about it, but I don't actually know what will happen or when.

As far as why I would ask him about undergoing such a ceremony, that is a good question. I think part of it is the fact that I really find the practice to be a rewarding challenge. It is very hard work and as the abbot says, "We make no guarantees". It reminds me of Morpheus from The Matrix--"All I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more." In fact, being open to the possibilities is a part of what being mindful is all about, so there is no "final" conclusion in Buddhism anymore than there is only one person in the world or only one moment in a lifetime. Which keeps it interesting. Another part is that I really respect the underlying philosophy--the ethics and metaphysics are very much in tune with my sensibilities, unlike when I was in Christian churches (and again, unlike there, in my sangha there is an open Q&A afer every dharma talk to challenge or question what has been said). And along with that, as a social creature we are more effective when we practice and work with others rather than solo. Yet another part is that I think it is good for my ego and general contrarian/skeptical nature to participate in an ancient and beautiful ceremony, bowing to the ten direction, doing prostrations, etc. And again, unlike my days in Christianity, where I managed to avoid baptism even when I was an avid believer because I didn't appreciate the gesture and felt almost compelled to "be" Christian, I am actually *choosing* to be a part of this group and through it learn to more fully connect to humanity as a whole. Or something like that.

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