The Three Jewels of Buddhism

What it means to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

BY: Robert Thurman


Continued from page 1

Virtues and ethics and practices are also Dharma. Even the qualities that we develop, the positive qualities that lead us toward freedom and reality, those are dharma. That is how dharma came to mean a religion in some contexts, and also "duty" and other kinds of routines in Vedic Brahmanism, before Buddha used it in the liberating way. In later Hinduism, in the Bhagavad-Gita, dharma was used by God to say, "Do your dharma," meaning, "Do your duty." "Follow your role as a warrior, Arjuna!" said God, "Krishna, you warrior, follow your dharma!" But in Buddhist terms, Dharma means more like Joseph Campbell's great statement, "Follow your bliss!" Bliss is your freedom. So it means, "Follow your freedom!" And it came more to mean that in India, after Buddha's time, also in another strand in the Gita, in Hinduism and Jainism, as well as Buddhism.

Ultimately, we take refuge in reality itself, because that is the only secure refuge. If we took refuge in any unrealistic thing, it could be blown down by this-and-that howling wind-but when we take refuge in reality, that is what endures. It is uncreated. It is not made by anyone. It lasts. It is there, and therefore it can give refuge. The final taking of refuge is embodying reality in our being, realizing that reality is our body and breath and thought and mind. Therefore, the final refuge is only being Buddha ourselves. But meanwhile, to whatever extent we can open to reality, we take refuge in reality, the second jewel.

The third jewel is the Sangha, the community of those who enjoy the jewels of refuge, who learn that teaching, seek that understanding, and work to embody that Dharma. They are consciously evolving toward being buddhas, sharing their understanding and bliss with others, as teachers of freedom to other beings, helping them discover these jewels. This includes all Buddhists everywhere and through time, in Sri Lanka, in Thailand, in Burma, in Tibet, in China, Korea, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam, in ancient time and still now in India.

Namo buddham sharanam gacchami. Namo dharmam sharanam gacchami. Namo sangham sharanam gacchami.

All Buddhists say this, each in his own language. Namo means "I bow," meaning by bowing to express trust and faith and respect, to throw yourself on the mercy of another. Buddham is "to the Buddha." Sharanam means "refuge," a safe place of renewal, a resort. Gacchami means "I go." So, "I bow to Buddha and resort to him as refuge." Resort has a good double meaning, both "refuge" and "vacation resort," not just some pious act of going someplace and bowing to someone and then entering some sort of prison cell. It's like going for a rest, to relax, restore your energy, enjoy, to get some peace. A shramana is "one who goes to refuge" from suffering. We sometimes translate it as "ascetic." But I like to translate it as "vacationer," one who goes away and takes a break. Dharmam sharanam gacchami, "I take refuge in reality." I go there for a refuge. Sangham sharanam gacchami, "I take refuge in the community." I go there to join those friends who are taking a break.

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