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 word we translate as “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 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. 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. 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.

Renunciation, Jounghee Goo. © Jounghee Goo, goosang[ at  ]gmail [ •  ] com
Renunciation, © Jounghee Goo

Then, there is a much deeper way to appreciate those Three Treasures. Perhaps if we appreciate them deeply enough, we will realize what it means to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha; to vow to save all sentient beings, to put an end to desires, to master the dharmas, and to accomplish the Way. Perhaps we will understand what it means to be one with this unwavering lineage of ancestors who have handed down this dharma from generation to generation, without holding anything back. They gave their lives to it; not three months, six months, a year, five or ten years, but their whole lives. They turned themselves inside out. They renounced everything else to make the Way clear. Why? So we can have it, here and now, served to us on a platter. It is ours for the taking. All we have to do is reach out.

What does it mean to reach out? It means to have exhaustively asked the questions: What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? What does it mean to take refuge? What does it mean to vow? What does it mean to be one with? What does it mean to commit? What does it mean to have a relationship with a teacher? The answers are all available. Nothing is hidden.

We can find it in books. We can find it in the sutras. We can find it by asking. And, most important, we can find it simply by looking into ourselves. Why do we practice? What is it that we seek? What is it that we want? What is it that we are prepared to do to get what we want? Are we willing to practice the edge, take a risk, unreservedly throw ourselves into practice? Or are we just being opportunistic and calculating, ready only to skim a little cream off the top to take care of the immediate problems, but not ready to go to the depths? 

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