Upholding the Spirit of Refuge

National Headquarters  |  March 15, 2019
Photo Credit: Peter Lin

Formally becoming a Buddhist by “taking refuge” is only the first step. It’s then up to each practitioner to uphold a heartfelt commitment to spiritual cultivation. This guidance from Master Cheng Yen can help one continuously touch the spirit of refuge.

Often, when we read spiritual texts such as the sutras or listen to a talk on the teachings, we feel a profound sense of peace and understanding. It’s as if we’ve been led to the mountaintop, and the view is breathtaking. Yet this transcendent state of mind vanishes very quickly after we return to our mundane everyday life. All it takes is for someone to do something that displeases us and our temper arises. Why is that inner state of transcendence and peace so fleeting? 

When reading or hearing the teachings, we see the mountaintop so clearly, but when we bring our vision back to where we are, our feet are still planted at the bottom and we need to climb the mountain by walking the spiritual path. As Buddhists, we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The spirit that lies at the heart of the Three Refuges can only be touched if we develop sincerity of heart, purity of heart, and great vows.

Sincerity of Heart

The Buddha is our teacher. We take him as our teacher because he is someone who awoke to the truths and universal laws that govern life. This being so, we need to develop a very genuine and sincere desire to understand the truths he shared with us. This comes from first believing the Buddha to be enlightened, and then believing in the truth of what he said.

To start, we need to truly believe what he said about all of us having, deep within us, an enlightened nature – and that this is our true nature, so we too are capable of attaining the same great awakening that he did. We also need to truly believe what he tells us about the law of karma that governs this world, and the reality of collective karma. We need to understand that in our ignorance and wrong notions, we’ve acted in greed, anger, delusion, arrogance, and doubt, creating negative karma which accumulates into collective karma. 

Still, we always think that we’re right, never aware of how our actions may be wrong. That’s why we need to turn inward and reflect, and cleanse our hearts. Only then can we be open to learning the Buddha’s teachings. With that sincerity of heart and earnestness to learn, we’ll be able to come closer to understanding the truths that the Buddha shared with us. We can draw closer to that kind of enlightened understanding, touching it so that the Buddha’s heart becomes our own heart – our heart becoming the heart of a Buddha. 

It all begins with faith in the Buddha’s awakening, from which a sincere desire to learn from him is born. Without such faith, how can we begin? Without such sincerity and earnestness to learn, how can we learn?

Purity of Heart

While the universal truths that the Buddha tried to share with us are in fact very simple, because our hearts aren’t pure, we can’t access them. We can’t take them to heart and we continue in our habitual patterns, still blind to many of life’s principles. That’s why purifying our hearts is important. 

How can we purify our hearts? By taming our afflictions and working on overcoming our unwholesome tendencies in daily living. Our personal habits and idiosyncrasies are based on these unwholesome tendencies, and when we exhibit them outwardly, they reflect the inner state of our mind. When our habits are very entrenched, it shows that our heart and mind are not very clean. The way to begin cleansing our hearts and minds is by repenting and undertaking the practice of zhai jie [abstaining from eating meat].

We need a cleansed heart and mind in order to learn the Buddha’s teachings. When we try to learn the teachings without this preparation, it’s like pouring pure water into a dirty bucket: The water will get contaminated. When our heart and mind are clean, we can touch the essence of the teaching; our inner wisdom can then be brought forth and we can gain deep insight. So, let’s clean our heart and mind by eliminating our unwholesome habits, and with a pure heart strive to understand the essence of the teachings, enter deeply into the Dharma, and gain insight.

Great Vows

On the spiritual path, we must also harbor a deep desire and great vow to guide more people to join us on this path to awakening. In the world today, many people have lost sight of what life is about. Without a true sense of purpose, they go about life caught up in superficiality. If more people can come to understand the Buddha’s authentic teaching, they will gain wisdom and comprehend life’s true value. We need to give rise to a sincere desire to help people come to understand and live out life’s true meaning. In our hearts, there needs to be such a great, selfless vow. 

These three, sincerity of heart, purity of heart, and great vows are essential in our spiritual practice. Sincerity of heart means a sincere wish to understand the Buddha’s heart and the truths he awakened to. Purity of heart means a genuine effort to cleanse our hearts so that we can touch the simple truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Making great vows means harboring a deep aspiration to inspire others to join us in walking the path. It’s with such a heart that we should practice as Buddhists.

This blog contains minimally edited material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks.

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