The Fascinating Story of Cindy Bird
Cindy Bird went through hardship and confusion in her spiritual journey, just like many of us have and perhaps are experiencing right now. However, in her story she tells us how she searched beyond the “normal” options that life presented her and in her active pursuit of spiritual progress, eventually found the Buddhist faith.
What I would like everyone to focus on when reading her story is the importance of the very basic Refuge Vows, and how her appreciation of these vows and her participation in the Refuge Ceremony with a complete understanding of these vows has made a positive impact in her spiritual practice.
As she says, the Refuge Vows are not explicitly required in order for us to take refuge because we can choose to behave in a spiritual manner, with compassion and kindness, even if we have not taken these vows, similar to how we can choose to be vegetarian without taking a vegetarian vow in front of the Three Jewels.
However, the Refuge Vows are very important. All spiritual vows are extremely beneficial because we are making a promise to an enlightened being that from today onwards, we will not and will refrain completely from committing these downfalls. You see, the Refuge Vows don’t just apply from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. They are lifetime commitments that we choose to live by 24/7. Taking the Refuge Vows cannot be pressured or forced; they must be taken out of free choice, free will, and most importantly with utmost sincerity and commitment.
Taking and holding the Refuge Vows daily is to be blessed by the Three Jewels and to accumulate great merits. The difference between merely acting in accordance with the Refuge Vows, and having taken the Vows themselves is that from our side, we have promised to maintain a certain lifestyle in front of the Three Jewels. Following through with such a promise will yield much more benefit than if we merely act in accordance with them, without having made such a promise.
Of course, there are benefits arising from behaving in a manner that is spiritually good, even in the absence of the vows, but vowing to uphold these precepts for the rest of our lives is like saying we will do it no matter what happens in the future, not just out of convenience.
Take the example of stealing, for instance. It is unlikely that we would knowingly and intentionally steal in our lifetime. So, if we do not engage in this negative action but we do not take the vow of abstaining from stealing, then we are not collecting non-virtue but at the same time, we are not collecting merits… However, if we take the vow of not stealing as part of the Refuge Ceremony, then every moment we don’t steal, we collect great merits… just from upholding this vow! This is the benefit of taking vows.
Therefore, I have always encouraged people to take the Refuge Vows because it helps us to lead a more virtuous life, and on top of that, the vows entail abstaining from deeds that most of us do not engage in anyway. So, isn’t it a smart thing to derive spiritual benefit without much effort through taking these vows?
So, I was happy to read that although Cindy Bird was initially not ready, she studied, read up, gained knowledge and understanding and eventually took her Refuge Vows at a later date. When we take our Refuge Vows is not so important (although it would be good to take it sooner rather than later, because later may never come) but instead, it is much more important that after we take the vows, we follow through, apply and do not break them. Quality over quantity definitely applies here.
There are practices through which we can repair our broken vows, but we should not go out and break our vows with a nonchalant attitude, and just rely on these purification practices. We must always be aware of the actions of our body, speech and mind. We will gain the most spiritual benefit if we are true to our vows at the very first instance, and not the second time, third time, fourth time, etc. This situation can quickly deteriorate because each time we break our vows and commitments, we are creating negative habituations. Remember, we can break and then repair beautiful statues, delicate china and even bones but it is not a very pleasant process. The repairing can be painful, difficult, time-consuming, and in the end, it is never quite the same as the original.
I hope that sharing this inspiring story will encourage all of you who already hold the Refuge Vows to continue holding them well… and for those of you who are still contemplating taking on the Vows, to quickly understand the meaning, significance and benefits of these vows and eventually take them on. I am very happy for Cindy Bird and for everyone and anyone who has also followed this path.
Fascinating Story of Cindy Bird – How I Became A Buddhist
As I walked through the doors of Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center and took my place on a cushion in the Shrine Room, I thought about what I was about to do. I had decided to take the Refuge Vows in today’s ceremony. The Refuge Vows are the vows someone takes to become a “Buddhist”. They aren’t required, but I had decided this was a step I wanted to take. It had taken me a long time to get here.
I was 14 years old when I got involved with Transcendental Meditation or TM. I practiced it all the way through High School. I went on to become an EMT and the TM just fell by the wayside.
I met my husband while working as an EMT. He was brought up Catholic and had become a Methodist. When we got married, I agreed to try going to church.
I had a lot of questions about the Christian faith. Questions about Original Sin, the Free Will Doctrine, and beliefs about the Rapture and the Book of Revelation. But the church didn’t seem to encourage questions. When I would ask questions of the Preacher, he seemed to try to give me just enough of an answer so that I would go away.
My final break with both the church and an attempt at following Christianity came when I got sick after the birth of my youngest son. There is a fungus that grows under the skin of tomatoes grown in the West. It causes something called desert fever, which causes multiple pneumonias. It turned out that I had the bad luck to get the one tomato that was infected in the box.
My husband had me, a three-year-old and an eight-month-old to take care of. On top of that, his mom had just had a stroke. He called the church to ask them to send a couple of ladies to sit with me so he could get a few errands done. The church refused to send anyone. It made me feel as if they didn’t care about us. Combined with the questions I had that were still unanswered, and the feeling of being an outsider, I decided that I was done. I do know that not all churches are that way, but I was too hurt to try again.
I told my husband that I was going back to the TM. I went to the local bookstore and discovered a book by the Dalai Lama called, How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life. I bought it and as I began to read, discovered that many of the things I believed in my heart were also core tenets of Buddhism. Things like love being the basis of the human experience, compassion and empathy are strengths (not weaknesses). I found out that there was a Tibetan Buddhist Center in Birmingham. I called and spoke to the woman who runs the center. She invited me to the center and explained what to expect when I came.
A few days later, I visited the center. When I walked in the door, it was like coming home. I was welcomed, not as a stranger, but as a long-lost sister. Everyone welcomed me and seemed to be genuinely glad that I was there. People explained what to do during the service and helped me to find a place in the Shrine Room. Afterwards, it seemed as if each person there tried to shake my hand, hug me and tell me how glad they were that I had come.
I began to attend weekly prayer and meditation services. About four months after I joined, the teacher, Lama De Shek offered the Refuge Ceremony. At that time I chose not to take the Vows. I didn’t feel I was ready.
I was lucky enough to find a great online study group and began to learn more about Buddha’s Teachings. I felt more and more that this was where my heart belonged.
A year later, I found myself sitting on a cushion, waiting for the Refuge Ceremony to begin. I knew that the vows I was about to take were lifetime vows. I also knew that ever since I had begun Buddhist practice, I was happier and more settled. I felt more at home in my own head and I knew that I was a better mother and wife as a result.
Lama De Shek began by having us each repeat the Refuge Prayer three times:
I go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for Refuge to the Dharma. I go for Refuge to the Sangha.
We then knelt on one knee and took the vows, called
Taking the Five Precepts:
I undertake the Precept not to harm living beings. I undertake the Precept not to take that which is not freely given. I undertake the Precept not to engage in sexual misconduct. I undertake the Percept not to engage in harsh speech, lying or gossip. I undertake the Precept not to indulge in intoxicants which dull mindfulness.
As I took these Percepts, I knew I was committing myself to live a specific kind of life. I was committing myself to learning to build love, compassion and joy for all beings. I was committing myself to following a Path where thousands before me had walked.
After the ceremony, we were given small pictures of the Dalai Lama, with the words: “June 15, 2004. On this date I took Refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha)”. On the back, it lists the Five Precepts that I vowed to live by. I carry it in my wallet to this day, as a reminder of my own vows and as a reminder of the Path I took to get where I am today.
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