My room at the monastery was disarmingly small: about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide, and on that first afternoon I stood in the middle of it and exhaled with contentment. A few wool blankets were folded neatly atop a thin pillow on the twin bed, upon which I unrolled my mummy-style sleeping bag. One metal gray folding chair sat next to an unsturdy wooden table right underneath the window, which was shaded by horizontal blinds and looked out directly onto the black asphalt walking path and a dry golden hill beyond it.
The room had been cleverly designed (by an IKEA employee? by an aesthetically inclined monk?) to provide enough storage as well as enough simplicity. A few wall hooks behind the door served as my hat / coat / flashlight rack; the “closet” and built-in wood cubbies neatly housed all my personal items; there was even a tiny wall-mounted sink! Except for the blue bedspread and blankets, everything was white. Everything was clean. I sat in the chair and contemplated the room’s total perfection, missing home and adoring my little sanctuary.
When the giant bell gonged and called everyone to the community meditation hall, I told the room that I’d be back soon and closed the unlocked door behind me.
Inside the hall, the five teachers appeared and sat themselves down on a low wooden platform, facing the room. What I remember most clearly from that first evening - apart from the teachers’ many jokes, like “Welcome to the cult!” and “We DO intend to brainwash you!” - was the teachers leading everyone through something called taking the refuges and the precepts.
The teachers instructed everyone to repeat after them. Starting with the refuges, we began:
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
I privately wondered, Am I officially a Buddhist now? Before I could answer my question, we moved on to the precepts:
I undertake the training to do no harm.
I undertake the training to take only what is offered.
I undertake the training to be celibate.
I undertake the training of noble silence.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from mind-altering substances.
What this looked like was cultish chanting. Skepticism arrived, but I quickly realized that what it felt like was...relief, surprisingly. I felt warm and happy and settled in my new quasi-Buddhist state. So I set aside the judgment. It struck me that I was letting go of something (many things?), and I was gaining something new.
As the retreat opening continued, the teachers shared that the ancient phrases of the refuges and the precepts served to connect our minds with the intention of spiritual awakening. There was zero compulsion. Each of us was choosing to take on these “trainings” in order to cultivate our minds: to be more compassionate, more aware, more loving, and more kind.
I relished the idea of training my mind. I felt liberated by everyone’s vow to not harm any beings. Gratitude washed over me. I relaxed into the austerity, and suddenly I understood my hip colleagues’ message tees - The 5 Precepts Club! I nodded and smiled approvingly in their direction from the back of the hall.
Once the first “sit” ended that evening, I retired to my room and gleefully contemplated all the full, rich silence in front of me. So many thoughts about my new circumstances jumped in my mind and obstructed sleep, but all was well...because I had taken refuge.