“In wholeheartedness of presence, The Buddha is realized, the Dharma is lived and the Sangha is shared.” – Dainin Katagiri (Zen Master – 1928-1990)
In Buddhism, a very important teaching is known as the Three Gems, or Three Refuges. It states: “I take refuge in The Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, and I take refuge in the Sangha.” This teaching, however, is best not taken literally, for to do so will be to miss its deeper meaning. This is not a religious instruction about finding refuge from the pain of life in an act of faith concerning The Buddha, his teachings (Dharma) and community of followers (Sangha). It is best to approach it as a sort of koan, a riddle in which the obvious hides a deeper meaning.
As the word “Buddha” translates as “the awakened one,” this teaching points to a psychological truth concerning the very core of Buddhism – the nature of and release from unnecessary emotional suffering. The awakening that is the Buddha is a realization of the psychological mechanism of ego for what it is – a useful tool for abstracting the experience of life and engaging the world of thought, society and the materials of the world, but also, a dangerously false sense of separate self, steeped in insecurity, that if clung to will lead to much suffering. To see this truth through Buddha consciousness is to have found the refuge from suffering.
The ego in its abstracted sense of separateness, and thus vulnerability and isolation, grasps after illusions of security that always, either immediately or eventually, fail to bring real security. It rather perpetuates a world of ever more desperate and elaborate schemes of acquiring security based in illusions of what is important. In its abstracted self, the ego believes that only more abstracted acquisitions will fulfill it. It craves more wealth, importance, significance and safety for itself. It craves an insatiable abstraction called “more”, and this “more” can never be satisfied. The ego brings with it, unending cycles of suffering as it fails to deliver its own promise, bringing mountains of harm to self, others and Nature through its exploitive tactics. The awakening is also then in seeing that the only real security we have is in a deep understanding of the nature of Life as it truly is, built around the central themes of impermanence and interconnectedness.
The phrase “wholeheartedness of presence” is a way of pointing to the necessary attitude and stance of an awakened being, a Buddha. It is the prerequisite consciousness that leads to a deep experiencing of the interconnectedness of everything, and so, the seeing that impermanence is really only the flow and cycling of the forms of Life within a larger pattern of continuity and connectedness. It is realizing that impermanence exists within the flow of time, but that Life occurs eternally within the present moment.
To be “wholeheartedly present” is antithetical to experiencing Life from the unstable and skittering egoic mind that is more concerned with defining itself through its separateness and its past, while projecting itself into the future. Rather, to be wholeheartedly present is to experience Life in a state of deep alert compassionate awareness within the realization of interconnectedness. It is to be awake to, and to manifest the interconnectedness. It is to see penetratingly beyond identity in egoic separateness, not only for individuals, but also for social and cultural groupings, and even humanity as a whole. It is to transcend the hostile and anxious relationship ego has with Nature – as manifested in our self, others and the World.
Emotional suffering occurs when we experience Life’s painful circumstances and we identify ourselves as the unique and separate one or ones upon whom this pain has been inflicted. We become the one who carries the story of being afflicted and in lack. From this place, we suffer anxiety, anger and depression, our ultimate goal of peace and happiness unattainable. We also then cause suffering as we experience the world and other people as objects we must compete and contend with, manipulate, acquire and dominate if we are to alleviate our suffering through the fantasy of fulfillment in the ill-defined goal of bringing more to me. This brings the massive pain, waste and destruction that is human history.
Yes, Life contains painful circumstances – as it also contains joyful circumstances. Ultimately an awakened understanding of the nature of Life is beyond pain and joy. It is about realizing we are the one (within the all) in whose consciousness the fullness of all of Life’s circumstances arise – the painful, the fearful, the frustrating, the joyful, the loving and the satisfying. It is about realizing, living and sharing an awakened consciousness that can experience self in a macro-perspective, all the while also living the self of the personal and circumstantial, but now more compassionately and skillfully. We can experience pain without suffering. We can experience joy without greedily exulting in it and needing its conditions to be permanent. We can be said to be living in Life’s fullness and thickness, free to feel what we feel without the feelings becoming sources of suffering for ourselves or reasons to inflict suffering on others.
As the awakened consciousness of Life (Buddha), we realize that we exist in eternity – the eternity of the moment lived in presence. The Three Gems teaching is about finding refuge from the experience of emotional suffering in wrestling with our shifting time-bound story as the limit of who we are. We do this by awakening into understanding Life as it can be truly lived, an ever-shifting personal background story in time that is best lived one moment at a time, in fullness, in a “wholeheartedness”, that allows for any occurrence with an equanimity that is capable of transcending personal identity invested in any transient event. One moment at a time, in the perfect gem that is a moment, Life is experienced without the unnatural resistance and negativity that, in all of Nature, only humans and their egos are capable of. The refuge is the eternal present moment lived fully as it is, and this refuge can only be found in “wholeheartedness of presence.”
Awaken into this truth (Dharma) and you will join the Sangha of conscious Beings that includes all of Nature and those relatively few, but growing, number of humans who have, in the words of Zen, crossed to the other shore, leaving both the vast continent of human ignorance (ego identification) and the raft of the Dharmic instructions, which after all are more egoic tools, behind. We can walk with authenticity and spontaneity, free of illusion, this new land which paradoxically is the same terrain as before – our lives and their circumstances – but now neither a victim nor a perpetrator of unnecessary suffering. Now, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha is you, wholeheartedly present in a brave new world of Reality realized, lived and shared.