The day I actually tasted my refuge vows.
“Since the first days of the Buddha’s teaching, if a person wanted to become a follower of the path, all they had to do was recite, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma (the teachings), I take refuge in the Sangha (the community of practitioners).” There is nothing to join, nothing to become — simply this turning of the heart. . .Like setting an intention or dedicating ourself to a goal, taking refuge reorients our life.” Jack Kornfield, from The Wise Heart
After years of practice, I’ve learned something about taking refuge. It’s a process I’ve nicknamed “tangerine dharma,” to remind myself that we can observe, paint, study, and talk about it till the cows come home. But no real growth takes root until we eat it. Nothing happens until we chew, swallow, and digest these words.
Noticing the tangerine.
In the early days of my practice, I burned with enthusiasm for the teachings. During a meditation retreat with Anam Thubten, (my teacher for twenty-three years now), a smile opened in my face, and I felt the sweetness of the path, the way you might notice a bright little tangerine on your kitchen table.
He taught me to begin every meditation with the three sentences mentioned in the quotation above. This created a container for my time on the cushion. As a beginner, I understood them in the following way.
I take refuge in the Buddha. I pay homage to the man who woke up thousands of years ago, and decided to teach others how.
I take refuge in the dharma. I pay homage to those very teachings and use them as guardrails for my life.
I take refuge in the sangha. I show up to the meditation center, make friends with fellow Buddhists there, help when I can, lean on them when I’m struggling.
This version of the refuge vows worked for me in the beginning, but as my practice evolved, I felt the vows in a deeper way.
Peeling the tangerine.
I take refuge in the Buddha. The Buddha wasn’t a god, a saint, or some freak of nature. He was a human being. When pressed by his contemporaries who clearly saw they were dealing with someone extraordinary (What are you?), he simply replied, “I’m awake.”
So when I take refuge in the Buddha, I’m not saying, “Help me, Buddha! Save me from the storms!” I’m saying that I have the same capacity to wake up as the Buddha did — in the heart of any storm. That’s my thumbnail just under the nub of the tangerine stem, pressing in, pulling up the peel, smelling that sweet first hit of citrus.
I take refuge in the dharma. The teachings are not just guardrails to keep me from driving off the road. They’re How to Drive the Car. They are its engine, its fuel, its batteries, its tires. And they are a detailed map to my destination, they are the destination itself. Full awakening for the benefit of all living beings.
When I take refuge in the dharma, I’m reading the instruction manual, learning how it works. As I read, learn, attend meditation retreats, I am peeling more tangerines.
I take refuge in the sangha. As I grow, my sangha expands to include not only fellow Buddhists, but anyone who, like me, wants to work for a better world. People who enrich life through their families, their creativity, or their spiritual practices. Through their social activism or their work. Showing up every day and doing their best.
Eating the tangerine.
There came a day when I saw that I’d been accumulating a mountain of tangerine peels — meditating, meditating, trying to keep the precepts, listening to dharma talks, doing retreats — without ever popping a section of the actual fruit into my mouth.
And though it rarely happens this way, clarity shot through me like lightning. Only for a second, but it was enough. I bit down and oh, the sweetness, that fresh citrus squirt that wakes up all your tastebuds!
So here’s what the Tangerine Dharma nourishes me now:
I take refuge in the Buddha. There is a vast awakened consciousness that watches my life from within me. We are all awake in this way, but we don’t all know it. We are all Buddhas. My little self, my little life is an impermanent illusion.
When I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the fully awakened presence that already lives within me, without me, everywhere, always.
I take refuge in the dharma. Guess what. Everything is the dharma. Not just Buddhist teachings. Everything. The way my sleeve caught on a corner of the car door and I muttered an expletive. The cardinals singing outside yesterday because finally, maybe, maybe…spring. The burnt toast, a product of my answering a text and taking too long. Everything happens not to me but for me. Teaching me all day long about kindness, mindfulness, joy.
When I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sanctuary of absolutely everything that happens to me. It's all a chance to practice unconditional presence.
I take refuge in the sangha. And here’s the kicker. Everyone is my sangha. Not just like-minded world-bettering friends. But everyone. My Trump-loving sister, the guy who gaslit me when I was eighteen, my fifth grade teacher that I hated. My ninety-six-year-old mother-in-law whom I love, at home with us in her last days, incontinent and bedridden, barely able to eat, bent in half with her suffering and dementia, yelling without end, “Come on, let’s go, let’s go, come on! Come on! Come on! Comeonlet’sgo. Comeonlet’sgo. COME ON!” All. Night. Long.
When I take refuge in the sangha, I know everyone in the world as my sangha. The hardest ones, and the sweetest are all my teachers— to awaken me from the dream of ego.
Because of them, I let myself taste, eat, and digest the delicious tangerine of my refuge vows. Because of them, my practice has lifted off my cushion and flown straight into the heart of my daily life. Everyone is a Buddha. Everything is for my benefit. And all people, animals, insects, etc. are my teachers.