Part 1: Year of the Dragon

Each Of the twelve animals in the Chinese astrological cycle the dragon is the only mythological beast. This creature is featured both as a symbol of state power and one of the primordial animals that is responsible for the creation of the earth. It is found in China as early as Neolithic times.

The dragon is immaterial and heavenly. It overrides all other animals in its divinity, just as the emperor overrides all people. Some emperors were even said to bear a birthmark like this to signify imperial destiny.

This year is not associated with just any dragon, it is the Wood Dragon. In Chinese astrology, each zodiac sign is not only associated with an animal but also with one of the five elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. The Wood element stands for growth, flexibility, and caring for things in nature. Let us hope this is a good portend for greater concern and positive actions toward the earth this coming year.

“Simultaneously, the Wood Dragon could bring a positive influence on the management of existing geopolitical conflicts. World leaders should use empathy and creative solutions to seek diplomatic resolutions for global conflicts, such as the Israel-Hamas war, the Syrian crisis, the Yemen conflict, and tensions between Russia and Ukraine. This approach could be more effective in achieving peace and stability in regions affected by these conflicts.

Looking ahead to 2024, the Year of the Wood Dragon, we see a year full of possibilities. While it won’t determine everything, it encourages people to be creative, caring, and flexible when dealing with challenges.” (Chinese

This is good news every year, especially in 2024.

Part 2:

On New Year’s Day three people will be taking Refuge. This is a formal process by which these people are making a formal declaration of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. It is a statement of one’s intent to follow the Buddhist teachings, and also a recognition of the importance of sangha, the Buddhist community.

In Nikaya Buddhism as well as Theravada today taking refuge in the sangha was intended for those who were monastics. With the development of Mahayana, Sangha was expanded to include the lay community as well as the ordained.

As many people are aware when Shumon and I returned from Japan thirty years ago, in 1994, we established what is now Tendai Buddhist Institute. Our intention at that time was to do so with an emphasis on sangha. The American Buddhist organizations in which we had participated before living in Japan did a fine job of propagating the Buddha and the Dharma. From our experience the sangha seemed secondary in importance. So it was that we set out to create what we referred to as a ‘simple village temple’. That commitment has not waned.

Though through a complex combination of factors our simple village temple model has become something we did not envisage. But sangha is still a centerpiece of the enterprise.

Buddhism takes on many different guises depending on the time, place and conditions in which it is practiced. But in all of these scenarios it endeavors to provide insight in the nature of reality so as to improve the lives of not only the practitioner, but all sentient beings.

This starts with bodhicitta, the mind that is aimed at awakening, with wisdom and compassion, and in Mahayana Buddhism, for the benefit of all sentient beings. And in order to do that effectively sangha becomes essential.

If a person practices Buddhism, meditating and studying it can have a very positive influence. Without a genuine sangha it can also lead to a self-centered delusion. This is especially true for people who are committed ‘individualists, or those who see themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’.

An influence on my thinking is Robert Bellah. who wrote;

“The way spirituality is often used suggests that we exist solely as a collection of individuals, not as members of a religious community, and the religious life is merely a private journey. It is the religious expression of the ideology of free-market economics and of the radical dis-encumbered individualism that idealizes the choice making individual as a prime reality of the world.” (Tricycle, Fall 2004)

Sangha places the practitioner in the center of community, from which one’s thoughts can become actions. Working with others, through one’s own difficulties and assisting others with theirs is part of the marvelous magic. Sharing with others, learning from others, suffering with others, being joyful with others, joining together to journey on the path toward awakening, is the way Śakyamuni Buddha intended when he made refuge, the ‘Buddha, Dharma and Sangha’.

As the three people take refuge on January 1st recognize that the ritual is not a mere formality. It is an integral component of what it truly means to be a Buddhist. Join us in person or on the internet stream to be a part of the sangha which is critical to the Triple Gem.

In the New Year, the Year of the Dragon, we wish you peace and serenity.

With Love and Gassho . . . Monshin