The Three Jewels are the heart of Buddhism. The three are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. They are the foundation and core of the Buddhist religion. When one becomes a Buddhist one takes refuge in the Three Jewels. So what are they and what does it mean to take refuge in them and how is it that this is a religion and so more than just a practical philosophy?
To understand what is the Buddha we can start from the fact that Siddhartha Gotama, a man who lived in India two thousand five hundred years ago, became a Buddha and, as far as this epoch of history is concerned, is the Buddha. His lived life is an inspiration, the Dharma that he taught is a wonderful way of life and the Sangha that he established has become a channel that has conveyed the Dharma to our own time all these years later.
According to Buddhist belief there have been such Buddhas in many epochs in many worlds and there will be more in the future here and elsewhere. In the Buddhist conception, there are innumerable worlds of sentient beings and in some of these realms Buddhas appear and declare the Dharma. We, therefore, live in a fortunate domain where this has happened, albeit a long time ago. However, once the Dharma is in the world, it can be transmitted and so can continue until it is once again lost. As long as some few remain faithful to it, millions may benefit. After it is lost, the world falls into a dark age in which greed, hate and delusion rule unchecked.The Buddha brings something very special into the world and this is an influence for peace and enlightenment.
However, having thought about the matter in semi-historical terms, we can go a step further. History is full of beginnings and endings. It is all about impermanence. Yet the Dharma that Buddha brings did not suddenly become real and true because of a historical event. The Dharma is true in all ages in all realms. Therefore, we can say that the spirit of Buddha is available in all realms always and everywhere. It is just that it is very difficult to find it without inspiration from another being. The Buddha was important not just for his access of the Dharma, but also for his ability to transmit it and so make it available to a lot of people who then went on transmitting it. Those who transmit the Dharma are the Sangha.
I think you can probably see by now that we can distinguish several levels of meaning of these terms. Firstly there is the very important yet most superficial level, which is the socio-historical manifestation. At this level there are institutions. There are monks wearing yellow, red or orange robes. There are temples and statues, rituals and gatherings. This is all very fine and useful.
However, there is a second, less immediately apparent level, which is the spirit in people. Some people wearing robes may be worthy, they may have truly received the Dharma and be living it. Some may be corrupt and just putting on a show. Some temples may be genuine places of peace and refuge, where wise compassion is practised, whereas others may just be pretending, or may even be merely money-making tourist traps. Even in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha himself, the sangha had to tackle the problem of people who put on the robe simply in order to get a free meal.
Once we have understood that it is the spirit that really matters, we can understand two more points. The first is that some people who have really got the Dharma might not be wearing a robe at all and might not be living in a temple. In other words, there are some sages in the world who are incognito. There have been times in history when it has been prudent to transmit the Dharma secretly. There is also sometimes something to be said for not making a show. This brings us to the matter of skilful means (upaya). The manner in which the Dharma is transmitted has to be tailored to the circumstances of the times and different saints go about things in different ways.
Thus, the Sangha does not exactly correspond with the social institution and the Dharma is not always found where you expect to find it. If one considers our present times, there are plenty of reasons to be careful. We live in a world where there is a strong tendency to commercialise everything and to turn people of note into worldly celebrities. In this circumstance, what should a genuine saint do? It is not easy to make a generalisation. One might appear as a public figure, attract big crowds and by that means give the teachings to many people. This, however, might be like spreading the butter very thin. How many of those who come to such events really get the message? Another might adopt the opposite approach, live humbly and inconspicuously, thereby give an excellent example, but probably be easily passed by and so transmit the Dharma only to one or two people who were already highly discerning. There is no easy answer when the world is already awash with the pursuit of fame and gain.
Having got this far in our discussion, we can go a step further to the second point. The spirit might take very different forms in society according to conditions, but it is still, essentially, the same spirit. The essence of what it is to be Buddha is eternal. The same is true of the Dharma. It gets packaged and repackaged, but the core is unchanging. In fact, the Dharma is a special relationship to what is beyond conditions. We live in the world of conditions, but in relationship to what is beyond conditions. There is thus an aspect of the Three Jewels that is not really of this world at all, but is of the Beyond. Insofar as we can experience this, it comes to us in dreams and visions and in magic moments of true encounter. This is sometimes called the mystical aspect of spirituality. Through dreams and visions we encounter a world that is otherwise unseen and not something that we can pin down by empirical science.
The enlightenment of Buddha opened his mind to this unseen world and throughout his ministry he is in frequent communication with gods and Buddhas. Sometimes he is able to open the minds of others and they are granted visions of other realms or of other Buddhas. As modern people we often overlook these aspects, but Buddha Shakyamuni was a lot more than simply a morality teacher: he was a seer who often enabled others to access visionary experiences that transformed their lives.
Putting all this together we can distinguish three levels: the overt institutional level, the covert level of lived spirit - the Dharma underground, as it were - and the mystical level that directly accesses manifestations of the eternal.
So, having distinguished three levels of the Three Jewels, let us look at the sense in which these are called refuge. We will find that the three levels reappear here too.
At the formal level, refuge is the ceremony by which one becomes a Buddhist. It is the affirmation in public that one will turn to the Buddha for guidance and grace. This is the first step, but it is also the deep meaning. It is the alpha, yet also the omega. One’s whole career in Buddhism can be thought of as an investigation into the true meaning of refuge.
Thus, one takes refuge in the Sangha as one’s faith community and one’s companions on the path. We can all be a great support to one another. This, however, goes well beyond anything practical, important as practical help is in our material world. The thing that really brings people into the sangha is the sense of welcome, of being easily received, accepted and soon known. People say, “I felt at home here very quickly.” The spirit of the sangha is mutual care and acceptance. Yet, the sangha is not just something local and it is more even than just international. It is a sense of community that transcends circumstance. The love that one receives in a most personal way is a splinter of a great love that has no boundary.
One takes refuge in the Dharma as practical advice and intellectual knowledge, then one takes refuge in it at a heart level feeling received and accepted, and then, occasionally, one gets glimpses of something altogether beyond personal knowledge, a little spark of eternity or shunyata. This gives one an altogether changed sense of the nature of this life.
One takes refuge in the Buddha as a great saint and exemplar. One admires the teaching and the example and despairs of ever being anything similar oneself, but enjoys the stories. But then it goes deeper. One feels the love and the life. On the one hand, one feels safe, yet on the other hand, it is a liberation. One feels accepted just as one is and so feels free, released. What one had initially taken to be restriction comes to be felt as liberation and the smile of Buddha becomes meaningful in a new way. Eventually one realises that that smile transcends space and time and has nothing to do with transitory circumstances, nor history, except in a very derivative way. One feels in touch with all the Buddhas throughout space and time, always and everywhere, and this is the same grace that lifted the spirit of Shakyamuni himself.