The Three Jewels of Buddhism
What it means to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
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The Three Jewels are the foundation of all forms of Buddhism, and the first jewel is the Buddha. The word buddha means "the Awakened One." And it doesn't mean only Shakyamuni Buddha, formerly the prince Siddhartha, who became a perfect buddha in the sixth century before the Common Era in India, whom we sometimes call the "historical buddha." Buddha means all those who have awakened from the sleep of ignorance and blossomed into their full potential.
Awakened and blossomed, they are teachers of others. That role is just as important as the fact that they're awakened themselves. Remember that awakening, freedom from suffering, salvation, if you will, liberation, omniscience, buddhahood, all come from your own understanding, your insight into your own reality. It cannot come just from the blessing of another, from some magical empowerment, from some sort of secret gimmick, or from membership in a group. It can't even come only through your faith, although some good faith may help. It can't come through meditation, either, at least not by meditation alone.
So, the most important element of Buddha to us, until we become buddhas ourselves, is that Buddha is a teacher, and he gives us a teaching. Now, teaching is not an indoctrination; it's not imposing a dogma. A teaching gives us a set of methods that we can use to develop ourselves, to learn, to think over, to meditate upon, and finally, to gain deep, profound, transforming insight, wisdom, and understanding.
So, we take refuge in the Buddha: Namo buddham sharanam gacchami. We turn to the teaching of the reality of bliss, the teaching of the method of achieving happiness in whatever form it comes to us, whether it comes as Christianity, whether it comes as humanism, whether it comes as Hinduism, Sufism, or Buddhism. The form doesn't matter. The teacher is Buddha to us, one who can point the way to our own reality for us. He could be a scientist; she could be a religious teacher.
The second jewel of refuge is Dharma-we take refuge in the Dharma: Namo dharmam sharanan gacchami. Dharma means "to be held." Dharma in its highest meaning means reality itself. Beneath that, it has a wide range of other meanings.