We are part of the transmission of the dharma from East to West. It goes from place to place only through people. Only a buddha can realize buddha. Only a buddha can practice buddha-dharma. Only a buddha is a vessel of the dharma. All sentient beings are buddhas. All buddhas are sentient beings. What we do, therefore, is no small thing. Our actions have far-reaching consequences. The karma of taking refuge, of making the vow to save all sentient beings, vowing to realize oneself, to practice zazen, to nurture the mountains and rivers, to work in the garden—all of it is part of the legacy that has come down to us for twenty-five hundred years and, it is hoped, will continue twenty-five hundred years into the future. If it does, it is because of how we take care of it.

We include in the abiding Buddha Treasure those buddhas made of wood, metal, stone, and paint. All of them are manifestations of the infinite boundless buddhas present in the myriad realms. Each of these buddhas is presently expounding the dharma, converting and saving all beings, healing and nourishing all beings, according to the karma of circumstances. Do we really understand the truth of that statement? The wooden buddha on the altar is expounding the dharma according to karma; how do we understand that? Common sense is not going to help us here. Scientific knowledge is not going to help us. There is another realm of human experience involved.

What does it mean to bow to the Buddha, specifically to that wooden buddha on the altar? A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is buddha?” Zhaozhou said, “He’s on the altar.” What did Zhaozhou mean? How is that piece of wood a buddha? Is that painting a buddha? Do not separate yourself from anything! Do not separate yourself from Mu. Do not separate yourself from the chanting, from your vow, from your commitment, from each other, from this whole great earth.

“Transformed into the sutras and converted into the oceanic storehouse, the Dharma of the abiding Three Treasures delivers the inanimate and animate, saving all beings.” What are the sutras? The spirit of these precepts, the spirit of the sutras, the spirit of this discourse, goes far beyond the words. We cannot reach them with our analytical minds alone. This teaching is dark to the mind; we have to sense it with our heart, our feelings.

The Sangha of the abiding Three Treasures is saving all beings from all suffering, releasing them from the abode of the three realms—the realms of desire, form, and formlessness. In order to save all beings from suffering, we need to put an end to the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance.

Having appreciated the Three Treasures from the three different perspectives, we need to appreciate the unity or the oneness of these three perspectives. Each interpenetrates the other. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha completely merge and are one reality. What is that reality? This dharma is incredibly profound and infinitely subtle. Because of its profundity and subtlety, it requires whole body and mind engagement for it to communicate.

Taking refuge is not a matter of casual encounter. This is a whole body-and-mind vow, whole body-and-mind unity, whole body-and-mind commitment. Those who give that much, realize it. Those who do not, do not realize it. Some may realize it, some may not. Either way is okay. It is up to us. Nobody can do it for us. Buddha could not do it for us, if he were here. Only we have the power to take advantage of the personal karma that has placed us in this time and place. It is a unique opportunity, and how we use it is totally in our hands.

In order to reach our full human potential, we must live completely and die completely. In order for this practice to function, it needs to be engaged. It does not happen automatically because we wrap a rakusu around our neck, put on a robe, attend a retreat, or read a book on Zen—“Okay, I’m here. Now do me, dharma.” It does not happen that way. We have to work for it. We have to put ourselves on the line. We have to practice the edge of our life in order to receive the dharma. Undeniably, it is here. We are surrounded, interpenetrated, enveloped, and swallowed by it. But most of us are blind and deaf to it. We do not see it. We do not hear it. We do not feel it. When will we wake up?


John Daido Loori, Roshi is the co-translator with Kazuaki Tanahashi of The True Dharma Eye: Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans, to which he added his own titles, commentaries, capping verses and notes.

From The Heart of Being: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen Buddhism, by John Daido Loori, Roshi. Copyright © 1996 by Dharma Communications.