When I first began to practice Buddhism, I knew very little about it from an intellectual, academic standpoint. The only thing I did know was that the sound of chanting the Odaimoku [sacred title] of the Lotus Sutra, as well as various portions of the sutra itself, captured my heart and my spirit. I was immediately drawn to the chanting and the ritualistic aspects of practicing—the smell of incense, the greenery, the flickering candlelight, and the rhythmic sounds all provided an avenue to explore myself from the inside.
After a half century of practice, I’m still chanting. But I also learned quickly that faith, practice, and study were prescriptive for a deeper experience and understanding of my life through the lens of the teachings. In addition to the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Shonin’s writings, I consulted texts from modern teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. I read a ton of books. As my knowledge expanded, I gained a deeper appreciation for all that I had already learned through my actual lived experience of faith.
I had no problem thinking of myself as a Buddhist until I encountered others who sought from Buddhism either an intellectual debate or a meditation technique. I have been confronted by blunt accusations that I was not an authentic Buddhist because I did not revere the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. I have been laughed at by those who thought the practice of chanting the title of a sutra was ridiculous. I have been questioned about the legitimacy of that chanting because all real Buddhists practiced silent meditation just like the eternal Buddha Shakyamuni. I knew this to be incorrect; historically the transmission of the dharma has been carried out by reciting the Buddha’s teachings. But I heard so many different things from so many different Buddhist practitioners that I began to see my relationship to other Western Buddhists as a waste of time.
My subsequent encounters with Buddhists from Asia opened my eyes to the essential foundation for all Buddhist practitioners: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. With them, there was never a question of whether I was a real Buddhist, only acceptance of me as a fellow practitioner on the same path. While the Buddha identified in each of our traditions was not the same, we all honored Shakyamuni Buddha for bringing the teachings to light. In short, our commonality was expressed in our devotion to the three treasures—not in meditation.
I actually didn’t take formal refuge in the three treasures until nearly 20 years after beginning my practice. Even then, I did not fully understand the importance of the act. I only knew that I had always been welcomed as a valued member of a sangha; that the teachings of the Buddha were to be studied, absorbed, and lived; and that the Buddha was like my dad, my teacher, and my president (I was a military brat). This way of thinking assured me of the depth of the protection to be found within my community and my faith.
Only in hindsight did I come to understand that I had learned the significance of the three treasures primarily through the examples shown to me in my faith community. I could not have articulated the importance of the three treasures, because it was never expressed in words. Rather, it was vividly expressed in the experience of day-to-day encounters in the life of a well-developed sangha.
At every meeting I attended, the sense of welcome was so total that most of us did not leave once service was over. We spent hours in conversation, often sharing food. There was no topic that could not be discussed; no problem that could not be shared. When someone passed away, the sangha would immediately go to the member’s home and one by one personally greet the family and then kneel beside them to chant the Odaimoku throughout the night. Our teachers were also present, showing us at every opportunity how to support each other through difficulties, no matter what the hour or the need was.
No matter what school of Buddhism one belongs to, we all share the concept of the three treasures. We all take refuge in them, even if we don’t really understand what that means. And within our respective communities, each of us began the journey of a lived Buddhist experience based upon them.
The Buddha is the one to whom we connect, because he modeled the development of an ordinary human being into an awakened one. He expressed the eternity of that awakening inherent in our lives as buddhanature, which we all possess.
The dharma is the embodiment of that awakening: our guidebook, if you will, despite the varied nature of the paths followed. The dharma allows all of us to develop into fully formed beings supported by a foundation of wisdom, morality, and ethics.
The sangha is the treasure of our greatest yearning, for it provides all of us with a sense of belonging as well as a safe haven; a foundation from which to grow and develop; a way to commit to excellence in practice; and above all, a connection to the heart of compassion.
We might consider one additional commonality: the three dharma seals, which are considered to be both the characteristics of the dharma and the proof of its authenticity. These seals are impermanence; the lack of a persisting self; and nirvana, which is tranquillity. I was always taught that the dharma seals were the key to knowing whether the teachings we follow are consistent with the Buddha’s intention. The seals are relevant to all schools of Buddhism because they provide a way to ensure that we embrace the actual and optimum nature of existence, as expressed by Shakyamuni the Eternal Buddha.
When I encounter other Buddhists today, from Eastern or Western schools, I know without a doubt that we are kin not because we meditate—either in silence or in sound—but because we have taken refuge in the three treasures and can evaluate the teachings based on the three seals. Through this relationship, we can greet each other with deep respect and accept each other as companions on the Buddha’s path.
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