Growing up, I volunteered at my small local temple, and in every Sunday’s Dharma talk, our abbot would start by greeting us by saying “各位護法信徒” which I quickly translated as “dear Dharma protectors.” At the time, it didn’t mean anything special to me. Chinese Buddhism has its peculiarities, especially in its use of language, so perhaps this was just another example of that. We have obscure terms for things like restroom, kitchen, and dormitory, perhaps the congregation gets a funky word too.
It wasn’t long before I noticed the layers of meaning here. Just how the Buddha in so many texts addresses his audience as “virtuous men” or “virtuous women,” our abbot addressing us every week as “Dharma protectors” made me reflect on my own conduct: what had I ever done to be a Dharma protector? Is this a title I’m worthy of?
This reminded me of my eighth grade language arts teacher who insisted on addressing us as “fine citizens” rather than “class” or “students” like so many other teachers chose to call us. When questioned about it, he merely said, “I call you ‘fine citizens’ because I know you will all become fine citizens one day.” It was heartwarming to hear that he had such wholesome expectations of us, a class of impoverished teens in one of Portland’s rougher neighborhoods.
Similarly, one of my first journeys in Buddhism—and one I am still on—is trying to become a Dharma protector. The vagueness of such a title is what gives it immense depth. Anybody who showed up to Sunday service was in one sense a Dharma protector, because showing up to events and engaging with the community is one form of support. But it went far beyond weekly attendance. Volunteering and taking an active role in maintaining the temple as a sacred space is protecting the Dharma, staffing in retreats to facilitate the sangha’s practice is protecting the Dharma, and being diligent with personal study and practice very directly keeps the Dharma alive, and is thus protecting the Dharma.
In Buddhism, I think it’s emphasized over and over again that we’re fortunate to be in a position to learn the Dharma, and part of the implication is that we need to protect and preserve it so that others can have this opportunity as well. However, the full value of the Dharma is something I did not appreciate at first. But over the years, it has undeniably alleviated many of my sufferings and prevented me from entangling myself in webs of enmity. It has brought so much value into my life, and it has become something I truly wish to protect.
Certainly, the first few prostrations we do at the temple are done with hesitance and confusion. But as we develop a deeper understanding of the teachings and realize just how precious they are, the prostrations become increasingly sincere. They become permeated with gratitude, appreciation, and reverence. There’s no expression equivalent to “thank God!” in Buddhism, but I believe a similar feeling exists. I am eternally grateful to the Three Jewels for being an ever-present guide in my life, and I am extremely glad to have been able to encounter them. May their radiance illuminate all sentient beings, and may I do all that I can to protect them from the ills of the world.