by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Seeking the Key to Life Together

There are no two lawful gateways to the world of the Wheel of the Law.
For a true master there is a natural feeling of respect and reverence.

A True Vessel

The Third of the Three Refuges is the Sangha Refuge. In its most literal (and limited) meaning, the word "Sangha" refers to the community of renunciate followers of the Buddha--the bikkhus, or monks. Some Buddhist teachers and organizations adhere to this literal meaning; some widen the meaning, at least in some contexts, to include all those who follow in the Buddha's footsteps, either as renunciates or as "householders"--lay trainees.

In Parts XXI and XXII of these Reflections, I explained that Rev. Master sometimes expressed the taking of refuge in Buddha and Dharma as "I take refuge in the Eternal" and "I take refuge in That which the Eternal teaches," respectively. In line with this deeper understanding of the First and Second of the Three Refuges, she expressed the Third Refuge as, "I take refuge in those who know the Eternal."

At first glance, this view of the Sangha Refuge might seem to limit the Sangha to a small, exclusive membership. In fact, the reverse is true.

Rev. Master sometimes said that, at any one moment, the newest trainee might be the most genuinely senior person in the monastery, that is, the most truly in alignment with the Eternal. Everyone has the Buddha Nature; everyone has the capacity to listen to, and follow, the Eternal. Therefore, at any given moment, any person might be the one who most truly "knows the Eternal."

In the Platform Sutra, the Sixth Chinese Ancestor (Hui-neng; Japanese: Daikan Eno) says, "A passing foolish thought makes one an ordinary man, while an enlightened thought makes one a Buddha. A passing thought that clings to sense-objects is klesa [fetter], while a second thought that frees one from attachment is Bodhi [enlightenment]."

When the deepest level of taking refuge in the Sangha happens, it is clear that help comes from the Eternal through a willing human being to someone's spiritual need. I have been fortunate to be on the receiving end of such help many times--sometimes via my master, sometimes via a fellow disciple, sometimes via my own monastic or lay disciple, sometimes via another lay trainee. Truly, the Eternal makes no distinction of senior or junior, monk or lay trainee, male or female, old or young: all vessels are equally of Itself.

"Knowing the Eternal" does not refer to intellectual knowledge. If any being serves as the vessel of the Eternal's Help for even one moment, in that moment that being is the Sangha Refuge, whether he, she or it is aware of the fact or not.


The Eternal brings us to our true Sangha Refuge when all conditions are right for this to happen. There is a saying, "When the disciple is ready, the master appears." (It is also true that when the master is ready, the disciple appears.) While the master is alive, the master is the main (not the only!) refuge of the Sangha for the disciple.

Members of the Sangha die; masters die; disciples die: the Sangha Refuge does not die. The vessels that the Eternal uses for conveying Its Help are of Itself; therefore It never lacks for vessels.

Since the Eternal provides the Sangha Refuge for all who walk the Path of re-harmonizing with Itself, we never have to worry about who is not the Sangha Refuge. There is an is, and that is sufficient; whether or not there is an is not is not our problem, and must be left in the hands of the Eternal.

A Clear Sky

When we study and cherish the teachings of the Buddhas and Ancestors, we are taking refuge in the Sangha. When it is good that we meditate with others and we do so, we are taking refuge in the Sangha. When it is good that we seek advice (or some other form of help) from Sangha members and we do so, we are taking refuge in the Sangha; when it is good that we walk a lonely path, and we train for self and other, we are taking refuge in the Sangha. When we seek the Key to Life by walking in the Way of Ancient Buddhas together with all who follow the Eternal--past, present and future--we are taking refuge in the Sangha.

Here, again, are the Three Refuges as Rev. Master expressed them when she wished to emphasize their deep meaning:

I take refuge in the Eternal.
I take refuge in That which the Eternal teaches.
I take refuge in those who know the Eternal.


Click here to go to Part XXIV, "Kensho and Death"


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