March 8, 1986 Dharma Talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

List | Previous | Next | Series: Lay Ordination


Taking refuge in the Triple Treasure – buddha, dharma, and sangha – is the foundation of the Buddhist Precepts and Buddhist practice. Buddha is the universe, dharma is the teaching from the universe, and sangha is the community that makes the universe and its teaching alive in their lives. Taking refuge is spiritual communion with Buddha, which is interactive appeal and response with the universe. We need to awaken to the depth of existence, and transmit that awakening to future generations. To do this, we must accept others’ lives as the content of our lives. The nature of prayer and the meaning of legendary Bodhisattvas is also discussed, with reference to the Lotus Sutra. Also, there is some clarification of what ritual means in Buddhism.


Listen to this talk on


Katagiri Roshi: [Today I would like to] talk about the Triple Treasure. What is the significance of the Triple Treasure: taking refuge in Buddha, dharma, sangha?

I think the Triple Treasure in Zen Buddhism is the foundation of the Precepts. The Precepts in Zen Buddhism are not a kind of moral code which we believe forces us to not do something, not by our initiative will but by something else. In Zen, the Precepts are Buddha Nature, the spirit of the universe; this is the Precepts themselves. To receive the Precepts is to realize or to awaken [to] the universe, Buddha Nature.

Bodhidharma said that to receive means to awaken or to realize. I said before, to realize is to accept and to digest. You have to totally accept the universe as it is, beyond your understanding, because you live there. So realization means to accept, and also something which you have accepted must be digested through and through, until it turns into life energy.

So this is awakening; we say awakening or awareness, or realization. To receive is to awaken to awareness of Buddha Nature, awareness of the universe.

And also Bodhidharma said that to awaken is to transmit. What you have awakened deeply from your body and mind must be transmitted from generation to generation, beyond your will. When you experience that point, you really appreciate human life, because you realize how sublime human life is. The feeling or experience of sublimity comes from something you have awakened, the depths of existence.

So to receive means to awaken, [and] to awaken means to transmit. What you have awakened is transmitted, beyond your will, beyond your control. Even though you don’t know, or you [don’t] like it, it is transmitted. That’s why from generation to generation, we all can learn the spirit of human beings: what human beings are, what the real spirit of human beings is. Whether you have education or you don’t have education, beyond your capability, it’s going, constantly, from generation to generation. That’s why whatever you are born as in this world, you have lots of opportunity to learn.

So what do we learn? That is the depth of existence. Technically we call that Buddha Nature, or plainly speaking, this is the Universe – physically, mentally, the spirit of the universe. We should awaken to this, because it is constantly going, through all [the] ages.

So we have to awaken, [and] then, if you awaken, very naturally you can transmit it to the next generation. So in every age, human beings repeat the same things. When we are born, we don’t awaken to the sublimity of human life, the depths of existence, so your ancestors, your teachers, [et cetera,] try to awaken you to it. And then you awaken, and then next, you really want to take the lead in transmitting it to the next generation.

So very naturally, this is constantly dharma transmission, from generation to generation. In the wide sense, there is constantly transmission of the exquisite image of human life, throughout all generations. That’s why finally we appreciate human life, and we try to help human beings.

So that is the Precepts in Zen Buddhism. The Precepts are Buddha Nature. And then to receive the precepts is to awaken Buddha Nature. What do I mean to awaken? That is to transmit. So then, very naturally, you can create human culture, and you can build up the human world in peace and harmony. Under all circumstances, through all the ages, this is the human effort we do, constantly, repeatedly.

That is the Precepts. So the Triple Treasure is the very foundation of the Precepts; the first step of entering into the Universe.


In Zen Master Dogen, page 60, I think Dogen Zenji talks about this Triple Treasure. He said it here like this:

… you should deeply venerate the Three Treasures. They deserve our veneration and respect no matter how much our life and body may change.

“No matter how much our life and body may change” means throughout limitless life, in immense spans of time. So we should respect and we should take refuge in the Triple Treasure throughout countless lives, in the immense expanse of time.

I think take refuge [does not mean] to escape from the human world or to escape [from one thing to another]. In Japanese, to take refuge is called namu kie. In Sanskrit, namo means full devotion or throwing away your body and mind. Namo means total devotion, full devotion to.

Full devotion means just like the relation between your thought […] and your stomach. Your stomach and your thought seem to be different; stomach is kind of different from your thought. But stomach is exactly the same as your thought, because it’s a very close relation. If [your thought becomes upset] […] you have a stomach ache, stomach upset. So they are two, but they are not two, [they are] exactly working together, without leaving any trace of the stomach, of the thought. That is the reality where your stomach and thought work together. So that is called full devotion.

And that is, in English we say take refuge in. Or another expression in English is to go to Buddha for guidance. But anyway, take refuge in means total, full devotion.


And also, Dogen Zenji says, [through] day and night, be mindful of the Triple Treasure. In your everyday life, be mindful of the Triple Treasure.

Why? What is the reason why we have to do this? Dogen Zenji says,

We take refuge in the Buddha because he is our great teacher.

Great means completely beyond the human value good or bad. Buddha is great beyond human evaluation. The spirit, the essence of the universe, merit of the universe, and functioning of the universe, is completely great, beyond your speculation. When you realize, you become the universe. You become the universe means, in other words, we say Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha – Gotama Siddhartha – realized the essence of the universe, the merit or virtue of the universe, […] and functioning of the universe. Then Gotama Siddartha [became] Buddha.

We take refuge in the Law (the Dharma) because it is good medicine.

Dharma is [the] teaching; [the] teaching is completely beyond human evaluation, beyond the moral sense or ethical sense. The dharma is something coming from the truth, so it’s really beneficial to everyone, all sentient beings – just like a rain nurtures all kind of grasses, trees, pebbles, human beings, and the air, everything. That is dharma; that’s why dharma is good medicine.

We take refuge in the Buddhist community because it is composed of excellent friends.

Sangha is a community, but it’s not the usual sense of community, because this community has lots of people who try to follow the Buddha’s way. Because they are excellent friends for you.

[This is] not the usual sense of good friends. Good friend has three meanings:

One is a good friend in the usual sense. If a friend gives you something of benefit, you say he is a good friend.

The second sense of a good friend is a person who commands respect from others, beyond a sense of give and take. Even though the person cannot give anything of benefit to you materialistically or practically, you can really respect [them] deeply. This is [the second] kind of good friend.

The third [sense of] good friend is completely beyond whether you can respect them or you can give [or get] something, et cetera. Even if you live far from him or her, he or she always influences your life in the wide sense. If you even think of [them], it really helps. So that is a good friend. Even if you think of the presence of this person just for a moment, at that time he or she really helps your life.

It’s not merely the [imagination]. Imagination is a part of your life, so imagination is also important for us. The important point is how you can put the imaginable life into practice. You have to give life to the imaginable life. You cannot stay always in imagination; you should take care of imagination, but you have to also think how you can put the imagination into practice. This is also important for us.

So that is the third meaning of the good friend. That is really excellent. That third good friend is always helping you, in many ways.

So that is community, we say sangha. This sangha is quite different from the usual sense of community. If people just gather and live together, it’s not sangha. Each of you has to be an excellent friend to others, because you must be following Buddha’s teaching. You must be following the essence of the universe, and the virtue of the universe, the functioning of the universe. And then you become excellent friends to others.

But usually, you are not. That’s why in the community in the United States, there are lots of problems. Because most people think sangha is just the usual community. No, I don’t think so! I understand [why people think that], because the people who practice in the community are not different from others; all of you are just human beings. I agree. You are human beings – but [also] you are not human beings. Don’t forget this point! You are Buddha, anyway! If you forget you are Buddha, you become a usual human being. [You ignore this because you don’t understand you are Buddha.] But Buddha means beyond whether you understand or not, you are exactly Buddha.

Buddha means total qualification of living in this world, under all circumstances. Excellent qualifications of living in this world. No excuses. So we have to respect each other and all sentient beings. But we always forget we are Buddha. The reason is we don’t understand it; that’s it. [So] we don’t have any chance to communicate the spirit of Buddha; that’s why we cut it off. But as a human being, that is really senseless.

So we are human beings, but we are not human beings. We shouldn’t forget this point. And then, if you are mindful that you are Buddha, that is really the driving force which gives life to you everyday.


And next Dogen Zenji says:

It is only by taking refuge in the Three Treasures that one can become a disciple of the Buddha and become qualified to receive all the other precepts.

So, only by taking refuge in the Triple Treasure can you become a disciple of the Buddha, in other words a child of the Buddha. (Transcriber’s Note: Katagiri says son, as from the translated passage from the Lotus Sutra which appears later. I have substituted child.) I mentioned this last Friday morning. I mentioned that the meaning of the Buddha is exactly the same as the spirit of the universe, the cosmos. So a child of the Buddha means that you have to completely accept the universe, where all sentient beings exist. There is no excuse to ignore anything in this world. If you accept yourself, you have to accept all sentient beings – not as something separate from your life, but as the contents of your life.

So in other words, each of your lives is not different from me. If I accept all of your lives [as] something separate from me, that’s the intellectual world. [In the intellectual world,] very naturally I can discriminate between I and you; so [there is] no sense of human warmness created by the human heart or spirit; so very naturally, we cannot communicate with each other.

So a disciple of the Buddha is that you have to be a child of the Buddha, that means you are a person who accepts all others’ life, all sentient beings, as the contents of your life. At that time, you are called child of the Buddha, a disciple of the Buddha.

Or, [consider] the universe. The universe is vast. What do I mean? The universe completely accepts you. How? The universe accepts your life exactly as the content of the universe. The universe never separates its own life from your life. So all of your lives – trees’ lives, birds’ lives, and your lives – winter’s life, spring’s life – are exactly accepted as the content or quality of the universe. So that’s why the universe becomes Buddha. You are child of the Buddha.

And then if you realize this, you can put this spirit into practice. How? You should accept others’ lives as the content of your life. And then others’ lives come very close to you, so the examples of others’ lives are not some other stories separate from you. The example of others in their life is exactly content of your life, my life. So very naturally, other’s life becomes a mirror for me; my life becomes a mirror for others. So always accept, and my life is reflected in others’ lives, others’ lives are reflected in my life. So [there is] always very close relation there.

That’s why whatever kind of problem you bring up, or whatever lifestyle you follow, I cannot ignore [it]. I have to be a good listener. Under all circumstances, practicing constantly the six paramitas: giving, precepts, patience, effort, meditation, total calmness and wisdom. Practicing those six paramitas, I have to continually be a good friend to you, I have to be a good listener to all of you. And then, we can really communicate. And then you become a good friend for me, I become a good friend for you.

That is called a disciple of Buddha, or we say a child of the Buddha. That’s why also in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (the Lotus Sutra), Buddha says all sentient beings are a child of the Buddha. [He called them] my child, my brother and sister.

What do I mean? You have to digest this. Because the universe completely accepts [the whole of] all sentient beings as the content of its life. So this is Buddha. And then you are the child of the Buddha, trees are the children of the Buddha.

So that’s why by taking refuge in the Three Treasures, Buddha, dharma, sangha, you can have a chance to become a child of the Buddha. And also you become qualified to receive all the other precepts. And then total devotion to the Triple Treasure turns into the motive power of giving life to everydayness. Just like energy; just like gasoline for the car. [He chuckles.] It’s not gasoline, but it’s an example, okay? So taking refuge in the Triple Treasure turns into the motive power or driving force of coming alive, constantly.


If so, what is taking refuge? What is the point? How can we realize, how can we touch that spirit of taking refuge which turns into motive power? Here it says:

The merit of having taken refuge in the Three Treasures inevitably appears when there is spiritual communion between the trainee and the Buddha.

Here it says spiritual communion between the Buddha and the practitioner, the Buddha and you. Spiritual communion means interacting communion of appeal and response. Appeal means, for instance, “I appeal for help.” I ask you to help. Not ask; [ask] is a more strong meaning. I appeal in many ways: spiritually and materialistically. Anyway, even if I don’t do something particular, [still] I appeal to you, constantly, for help.

So I appeal not to [a particular I] for help; this appeal is not open to the particular existence. I appeal [to the] whole universe for help. In this case, the whole universe means [you] don’t know what it is. You realize there is nothing to ask for help in this world, but you realize there is something you can appeal to beyond the human samsaric world, even though you don’t know what it is.

So at that time how do you do it? You pray. You pray for your life [or] others’ lives; [pray] to … what? Not [to something] particular: to the vastness of space and existence. How do you do [this] in a concrete way? You look up to the sky, and pray.

What’s in the sky? We don’t know. Sky is called akasha in Sanskrit. Akasha is characterized by no obstruction; nothing to obstruct, nothing to interact with. Akasha allows all beings to be functioning in peace and harmony.

So you don’t know what space is. When you look up to the sky and pray – “please help me,” or something like that – you don’t know what space is. But spiritually, in a deep sense, you already understand what space is, that’s why naturally you look up to the sky and pray. And also the altar in a church, and the altar in a Buddhist temple, the altar is a little higher than you, so you always look up to the upper space, and then you pray. And when you pray, you kneel down to the floor, that means you become lower; in other words, you become humble. You really become humble, and then at that time you look up to the sky and pray. Intellectually, you don’t understand it, but spiritually, everyone knows [this].

So that is appeal.

And then, response. At that time, response comes from the whole universe, space, akasha. And then this is called the whole universe … I used a different term: spirit of the universe, spirit of akasha, whatever. And then very naturally, if you completely feel that spirit of the universe, and appeal for the help, or appeal for the coming alive in your every day life, very naturally you can be one with the universe. That is the response. In other words, if you try to reach out your hand to the universe, the universe reaches out its own hands. But that is spiritually; [in the] broad sense, it’s really true. And then Buddha, the spirit of the universe, and you – the path of your life and the path of the universe – become one, interconnected, crossing each other.

That is called do ko; the do ko of kanno-doko. Kan means appeal. The no of kanno is response. Do of doko is the path. Ko of doko is to cross. So appeal and response come across, very quickly.

When can you see this? That is exactly shikan, or whole heartedness. The Saddharma Pundarika Sutra [talks about this]. If you read this just on the surface, it is kind of mysterious, but if you consider it deeply, it is very true. It says:

The Buddha answered the Bodhisattva Infinite Thought: “Good son! If there be countless hundred thousand myriad kotis (a very large number) of living beings suffering from pain and distress who hear of this Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, and with all their mind call upon his name, the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World will instantly regard their cries, and all of them will be delivered.

That is really faith, total security. The moment your mind is vibrated, you cannot believe this. But right in the middle of wholeheartedness, you can believe it, beyond your senses, because […] there is total realization of you, total presence of your life, which is exactly settling down right here, right now. That is called wholeheartedness. With wholeheartedness, you call upon Avalokiteshvara. In other words, if you really see deeply the total picture of the human world, samsara – how transient the world is, how fragile human life is – then you can hear the cries. And then if you hear the cries, very naturally the cries of the human beings are simultaneously the listener, so-called Avalokiteshvara. So immediately you can appeal for help, and simultaneously the universe reaches out to you with its hands. […] You can see the path through which you and the universe are crossing each other.

And then how can you do this? That is by manifestation of your wholeheartedness. When you chant, when you repeat the name of Buddha, when you do gassho, you do it. And then, there is exactly the total presence of your life. That total presence of your life is exactly the same as the total presence of the universe, before you poke your head into it. And then you feel peaceful, simultaneously. That is sitting zazen, exactly. You don’t know. But even though you don’t know, if you sit exactly, totally, with wholeheartedness, some part of your body feels it, anyway. You can feel peaceful. Because your presence and the presence of the universe are exactly crossing each other. That is so-called with all your mind, or with wholeheartedness. At that time, taking refuge in the Three Treasures …

[Tape change.]

… (In the intellectual world,) you cannot take refuge in the Buddha, and dharma, and sangha, because intellectually, if you try to get spiritual security or peace, you never get it. So, I think, not throwing away your intellectual sense, but please let the intellectual sense join in practicing with wholeheartedness. That’s it. And then, there is spiritual security. [It’s] exactly present. That is not something you try to know, because you cannot know [it], but that is something you can exactly touch, directly, by putting yourself right there.

[For example, I put] myself right here, and then I talk. Right here means talking, Katagiri’s life and your life, always lots of [the] intellectual world coming up. But if I want to talk [about] Buddha’s teaching beyond my cultural background and your cultural background, all I have to do is to be present right now, right here, with wholeheartedness, and then talk. And then, there is some communion. And then very naturally you can be composed, you can be calm, [and] the communion goes between.

That is called taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, sangha. So that’s why the Three Refuges are a very basic practice for us, in order to enter the Buddha’s world.

Next time I think I will explain in a little more detail about the Triple Treasure: buddha, dharma, and sangha. What does it mean, a little bit intellectually? You know, you have to understand the quality or characteristics of the Triple Treasure, [and] why we have to believe this, why we have to depend on this Triple Treasure. I will explain that next time.

Do you have questions?


In the Shin school, or Pure Land School, my family always chanted the name of Amitabha every day. And if you’re Christian, then you’re always thinking of God, you are mindful of God, in many ways. If you become a Buddhist, I think you must be mindful of the Buddha, dharma, sangha.

Buddha is the universe, and [dharma is] the teaching from the universe, and [sangha is] the person who makes the universe and its teaching alive in his or her life. So very naturally, you can respect sangha.

So [in] everyday life, we must be mindful of Buddha, dharma, sangha, as well as Christian people. Christian people are always mindful of God. They don’t understand what God is. That’s fine. But the point is that you have to mindful, from day to night, through countless lives, in the immense span of time. Then, that makes your life very stable.


Question: Hojo-san? In the Nikayas, Shakyamuni Buddha says that if a large rock is thrown [into a lake], and then a huge crowd of people goes down to the lake and circles the lake chanting a magic formula, that no matter how long you do that, the rock would still be on the bottom of the lake. So that seems different to me from that section in the Lotus Sutra that encourages people to invoke Kanzeon.

Katagiri: I’m not clear about that example the Buddha mentions. I think before Buddha told that story, I think there is some point before that story, or after the story. So I have to understand both, you know.

Same person: I think he’s talking to a certain Brahman who has been memorizing all the Hindu mantras.

Katagiri: Ah, I see. Yes, in ancient times, I think the Indian people tried to become one with the universe. In other words I mentioned the kanno do: in order to experience the interacting communion of appeal and response. They tried to [do this]; but they didn’t know how. And then they tried to experience that through ritual. That ritual is [like,] “if you do this, you can go there.” So people are really expecting some benefit through the ritual. So ritual is a unique opportunity to allow them to be one with the universe and their life. But Buddhism is a little different. It’s not ritual. Ritual is important, but [it is] the content of ritual, how you take care of ritual. But usually we expect the result of a ritual. That’s why Buddha mentions always the rock is down in the bottom of the lake.

So they are always expecting some result. But Buddhism is the quality of the ritual: how do you digest ritual, every day, instead of attaching to the result of the ritual. If you attach to the result of the ritual, you become very utilitarian.

Same person: So how can you chant Kanzeon’s name without being utilitarian, if you’re asking for help?

Katagiri: No. You have to understand what the meaning of Bodhisattvas and Avalokiteshvara [is]. This is a teaching, anyway. But intellectually, what is Avalokiteshvara? We cannot believe in it, [he laughs] because Avalokitesvara is not human beings, it’s very creative, imaginative beings. So intellectually, we cannot believe it. But still there is some meaning, because why do human beings create this image of Avalokitesvara? It’s coming from the heart of human life. It’s not the intellectual world; it’s coming from the heart of human life. [It is] coming from generation to generation; touching the depths of existence, and then human beings want to express that heart, in many ways. And then heart is manifested as compassion, or sometimes as wisdom. And then compassion is symbolized by Avalokiteshvara, or wisdom is symbolized as Manjusri; something like this.

So it’s coming from the human heart. Intellectually, it doesn’t make sense, actually. But spiritually, it has lots of meaning there.

Then we should understand this. For instance, kindness and compassion, friendliness – we don’t understand it, because it is very abstract. But we should understand what kindness is, coming from relation among human beings. What is it? We have to understand as best as we can. But understanding kindness through the intellectual sense is not good enough! So you have to put it into practice. In other words, you have to taste kindness directly, sharing your life with people. And then you really taste what kindness is. So how? You should really give kindness to others, with wholeheartedness. When you see somebody suffering, you can really give kindness, and then people feel the real sense of kindness, and appreciate your life. So that’s why wholeheartedness is important practice for us. But on the other hand, we have to understand what kindness is, in many ways.

You know pilgrimage in Japan, or India? Religious pilgrimage is very helpful for you, because it is a real practice, an actual practice of spiritual life. So very naturally, you can share your life, you can share your understanding of kindness with people directly, every day: communicating with human beings and nature, et cetera, through the practice of pilgrimage. So you can feel something deep.


Question: When there’s a ritual about taking refuge in the Three Treasures… [inaudible]

Katagiri: [Is there a] result of ritual? Oh yes, in a sense, result of ritual; but if you think of [the] result of ritual, I think you should think also of the cause of ritual. The cause of ritual is you. [He chuckles.] You have to do it. And then you can see the result of ritual. Without the cause of ritual, you cannot see the result of ritual. Do you understand?

If you really want to have a result of ritual, you have to accept the cause of ritual, and the process and conditions of ritual around the cause. So that means what? That means the actual practice of taking refuge itself. That is the cause, and the conditions around the cause. So the cause of the ritual called taking refuge in the Buddha means you have to just chant, initiatively. That is a cause of ritual. But on the other hand, you have to take care of your emotions, feelings, and circumstances, et cetera. So you have to practice the Triple Treasure as a ritual with your physical body, mental situation, and also all circumstances. And then, [there is] a result.

But it’s pretty easy to stay with the result. And then, the Buddhist way is you should give the result which you have had to the universe. That is egolessness, the practice of egolessness. It’s really the spirit of compassion: give it to somebody. Instead of arrogance and boasting of the result of the practice: “I did it.” [He laughs.] We always feel like this; it’s pretty easy for us to be cocky. Do you understand? We feel that, mentally, or in many ways. So you have to be free from that. That is so-called egolessness practice.

1:04:21 end of recording

This talk was transcribed by Kikan Michael Howard. Audio recordings of Katagiri Roshi are being used with permission of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

List | Previous | Next | Series: Lay Ordination