Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures

by John Daido Loori, Roshi

Featured in Mountain Record 24.3, Winter 2006

When I listen to the precepts, the vows, and the service dedications, when I feel my body in the bows, when I connect with the buddhas and ancestors in the daily liturgy, I am touched by an incredible sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to hear, experience, and participate in these teachings at this time. I know it is a gift that I will never be able to repay. It makes me wonder how often any of us appreciates how profound this practice is. Do we really hear it? Do we sense it? Do we feel it with our bones, right down to the marrow, with every cell in our bodies—or is it just another fling, a dharma fling? It is vitally important to appreciate this life. In one sense, that is what taking refuge in the Three Treasures really is about, appreciating our life, appreciating all life, waking up again and again to that feeling.

People ask, “How can I deepen the teacher-student relationship?” It is like asking, “How can I love you?” Is there a book of instructions on how to love? Does the baby get taught how to love its mother, the flowers, the earth, and the rain? In Zen training we say, “Really put yourself into it,” but what does that mean? It means to take refuge and to be protected by the Three Treasures. What are the Three Treasures? We chant, “Being one with the Buddha, being one with the Dharma, being one with the Sangha.” Those are the Three Treasures, but what does it mean to “be one with?” This is what we need to see, to realize clearly and personally.

The way we use the word refuge is taken from the Japanese term kie-ei. Kie-ei consists of two characters. Kie means “to unreservedly throw oneself into,” no holding back, no way out, no safety net, harness, or rope. That is the way you work with a koan—unreservedly. That is the way a parent rescues a child who is in danger. The parent does not think about himself or herself. The parent does not hesitate for a second. The second character, ei, literally means “to rely upon,” in the way that a child leaps into a parent’s arms, trusting unequivocally.




I remember when my children were young. They were able to stand by themselves but couldn’t yet walk, and I would stand them up on the dresser and say, “Jump!” They would throw themselves into space, knowing I would be there. They had a complete sense of trust and unwavering commitment. It was total doing. “Unreservedly throwing oneself into and relying upon” differs from “a shelter or protection from danger or distress”—the more common definition of the word refuge.

Before we can appreciate kie-ei we need to appreciate what it is we are relying upon and unreservedly throwing ourselves into—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Usually, we understand buddha to be the historical Buddha. From an inclusive perspective, we say that all beings are buddha. Also, buddha is the teacher. We see dharma as being the teachings of the Buddha, the medicine to heal the sickness, and sometimes it is the ten thousand things. We understand Sangha as the practitioners of the Buddha’s dharma, our companions along the way, and we also understand it as the whole phenomenal universe, all sentient beings.