Another post continuing the previous stream about Buddhist Refuge vows and commitments
Again, I want to stress for the record that it is highly beneficial to take refuge and to attempt to live up to a few of these commitments than to shy away from them because of feeling intimidated or overwhelmed. Start where you are. Be gentle. It is my intention to inform, not to cause anxiety.
Also, most of these actual commitments are from Alexander Berzin, PhD and the berzinarchives.com. The commentaries are my own, plus I have received teachings from numerous lamas on this same subject.
Believe it or not, there are other commitments we make when we take refuge. First we take seriously our devotion to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and we don’t worship any other totems, spirits or gods of another religion. The Triple Gem provides ample protection and refuge, hence the name. We also agree not to accumulate (greedily) as much material wealth as possible – what is more important than worldly possessions is good qualities. So we commit to attempt to improve ourselves and develop compassion, loving-kindness, discernment, persistence, etc.
Personally, as someone who feels I must eat meat for my health, I believe I constantly break or weaken this next commitment. In fact, in Buddhism this might be one of the stickiest of topics: eating meat vs being a vegetarian. The commitment is to cause as little harm as possible – to all beings, including humans and animals. A Buddhist should never directly take a life, whether animal or human, and a Buddhist should not have or partake of anything killed specifically for them. Of course, considering I do not hunt, I don’t have a slaughter house and I don’t believe someone is killing for me, I have not transgressed this commitment directly. But I eat a lot of meat (my doctors say this is best in order to stay grounded). Therefore I am extra aware of this when I eat meat around other practitioners or vegetarians. The suggestion though is to be mindful that a being was killed for this meat – therefore don’t rejoice in killing anything – and better yet, say some prayers for the animal that was slaughtered. Maybe it can have a positive rebirth.
To honor the Sangha Jewel, and especially when we are first starting out (meaning we are more impressionable or weak in our knowledge and confidences), we should avoid spending time around negative people. Of course there are caveats to this commitment. We need to work – right livelihood. And for the most part, there are negative people in the world and we probably have to work with several of them. So we do the best we can in certain situations. Therefore I think this commitment has to do with our leisure time – who do we hang out with for fun? Who do we date or have romantic relations with? If we are serious in our practice of improving ourselves, then Buddhism is certainly an appropriate path to be on, and we then must consider who has a positive influence on us and who has the reverse influence.
As a sign of respect, we commit to honoring any Buddhist image, statue or even a scrap of robes from a monastic practitioner. This also includes tsa tsas – plaster images or statues of Buddhist beings. There is also a story about someone protecting Buddhist items and generating merit from doing so. This includes all Dharma books (and some people go on to include any positive book or letters, because learning to read and write allows one to study, practice and teach the Dharma with more ease) and we commit to respect anyone who has taken and upheld their monastic vows. To conclude this section about respecting Buddhist images etc, if we need to dispose of Dharma texts or other items, it is best to respectfully burn them.
Due to this post creeping up in length, I will briefly mention the final commitments, even though they are no less important than what I have discussed previously. First, we want to consider how fortunate we are for having met with the Three Jewels – or at least one of them – on a daily basis. Second, we offer the first portion of our (Berzin mentions hot food or drink) food and beverages to the Triple Gem – he mentions that we don’t have to say the food blessing prayer in Tibetan or even in English – we can simply say, “Please Buddhas enjoy this.” Third, we commit to sharing our knowledge of the Triple Gem with interested parties – I stress the word “interested.” There is no such thing as a Buddhist missionary, and if you meet one, then that person is committing a non-virtue (using idle speech). So we lead by example, and then if someone asks us about our path, we tell them. But we also are aware of what they can take in – to speak of emptiness to someone who is not ready to hear about it is another problem (violation of Bodhicitta vows).
Fourth, we commit to saying a refuge prayer and / or remembering the benefits of taking refuge six times a day – three during the day and three at night. Berzin mentions that it can be done three times in the morning and three times before going to bed. Fifth – we commit ourselves to taking refuge especially in times of crisis. By studying the Buddha’s wisdom, we discover that we can eliminate the causes of problems, and therefore taking refuge during a crisis is actually the most appropriate thing to do to resolve it (or at least gain greater understanding of our situation). Sixth, and finally, we commit ourselves to never give up our refuge vows. Even if we are being threatened with death, we do what we can, but we never give up our vows in our heart. This way, each lifetimes builds on the previous one – we continue to improve ourselves and to benefit others, which also benefits us in the long run.
There are five vows (complete upasaka precepts) that are occasionally mentioned during the refuge ceremony – these are to avoid killing, avoid stealing, avoid committing sexual misconduct, to avoid lying and to avoid taking any intoxicants of any kind. Technically, we choose at least one of these vows to keep during our refuge ceremony. But the suggestion is to be realistic – if we know we have a few glasses a wine each week, then we don’t take that vow! But we can take one, two, three or four of the others instead.
Thanks for reading.