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The Three Jewels

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The Three Jewels

The three main objects of trust and respect in the practice of Buddhism are known as the Three Supreme Jewels; the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

The Buddha is the one who has awoken from the sleep of ignorance and developed all the qualities of Enlightenment. He is regarded as a guide. The Dharma is the body of teachings by the Buddha showing the way to enlightenment. This is regarded as the path. The Sangha is the community of those who follow the path, our companions on the journey. According to the Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle of Tibetan Buddhism, the Three Jewels are united in the spiritual teacher. His mind is the Buddha, his word the Dharma and his body the Sangha.

The Buddha has two aspects, the 'formal' body, such as the historic Buddha Shakyamuni, and the 'absolute' body which is the ultimate nature of Enlightenment. The Dharma consists of the 'Dharma of transmission', the writings and teachings, and the 'Dharma of realization', represented by the qualities practitioners develop on the path to Enlightenment. The Sangha is the community of all who practice the Dharma and the supreme assembly of those who, without yet having achieved Buddhahood, have already gained a true understanding of the true nature of phenomena. This includes in particular the Arhats and the Bodhisattvas.

Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is regarded as the gateway into Buddhism. It is common to all forms of Buddhism, and the basis of any practice. However there are different reasons for taking refuge. It might be done out of fear of suffering, or to ensure one's own salvation. This is a lower motivation. Or it might be done from a desire to liberate all beings from the sufferings of samsara and lead them to Enlightenment. That is the noble and wide-ranging of the Greater Vehicle (Mahayana).

Confidence must be absolute if the refuge is to be genuine. The commentaries describe four levels in the evolution of faith: clear faith, aspiring faith, confident faith and unshakeable faith. When the disciple becomes aware of the qualities of the Buddha and his teachings, his mind becomes light and joyful. That is the first degree of faith. Then, when he realizes these qualities can enable him to achieve Enlightenment and help a large number of beings, he begins to want to acquire them. Clear faith has turned into aspiration. When the follower becomes sure, from his own experience, that those qualities can be developed and are as sublime as described in the writings, he acquires a deep conviction. Finally when, through spiritual accomplishment, his faith has becomes so much a part of his mind that he would not be able to renounce it, it is irreversible. The Buddha has always warned his disciples against blind faith. 'Do not believe what I say simply out of respect for me. Discover from your own lives the truth of what I am teaching you'.

Buddhahood might seem a distant goal, virtually unachievable. But the true nature of our mind is actually Buddha-nature. Not realizing that, we see it as a goal to be attained outside ourselves. Buddha-nature is fundamentally unchangeable, like gold. Ignorance might obscure it temporarily, just as mud might hide a nugget of gold but cannot penetrate it. So the spiritual path does not mean 'creating' Buddha-nature but making it a reality. If ignorance actually existed, there would be no way of eradicating it, any more than coal can be whitened by washing it. To understand this is the most profound way of taking refuge. Thus the ultimate nature of mind, emptiness, is the Buddha, his radiant aspect is the Dharma, and the compassion emanating from him is the Sangha.

Matthieu Ricard in "Buddhist Himalayas"

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Last updated: 07/11/09

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