Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem: The Buddha, The Dharma & The Sangha


"The Triple Gem is our guiding Light in the dark world of suffering."

- D.F. Micallef

The Three Jewels or “Triple Gem” are the foundation points of all the various forms of Buddhism. These three Jewels are commonly known in the Buddhist world as the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Buddhists take refuge in these three precious Gems through the acknowledgement of their importance in their life. Let me be clear, taking refuge in the Triple Gem is not about hiding from the world within them, but by finding our courage to face the world within them. Discovering our wisdom, our integrity and our compassion within their refuge. For the Buddhist, the Triple Gem becomes a guiding light in the dark world of samara (Suffering).

The first of these three precious jewels is the Buddha. The word “Buddha” means "Awakened One." And it doesn't mean only the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, who was once the prince Siddhartha. Prince Siddhartha became a Shakyamuni Buddha in the sixth century before the Common Era in India. He is the Buddha we sometimes refer to as the "historical buddha.” A Buddha, in this sense, means all those individuals who have awakened from the sleep of ignorance and blossomed into their full spiritual potential.

These are individuals who have awakened and blossomed and gone on to be teachers of others. The role of teacher is just as important as the fact that they are enlightened themselves. Once enlightened and with the purest intention, they have voluntarily gone on to offer their lives to service, alleviating the suffering of others. Remember that Buddhahood or awakening, attaining freedom from suffering, salvation if you will, all come from our own understanding, our own insight into 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, this would be a faith based in accurate knowledge and experience. It can't come simply through meditation, either, at least not by meditation alone. It must be achieved thorough a combination of meditation and deep spiritual study, the principles of which are eventually applied to one's everyday life.

So, the most important element of the 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 on others. 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 deeply transforming insight, wisdom and understanding.

So, we take refuge in the Buddha. 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. This is what we are referring to in the whole concept of a “Sangha Without Borders”. Our teacher, our Buddha is to us who choose him to be. This is the one who points us toward our own reality.

The second jewel of refuge is Dharma-we take refuge in the Dharma. Dharma means "to be held." Dharma, in its ultimate meaning, means reality itself. Beneath that, it has a wide range of other meanings like the specific teachings that you identify with. Your Dharma may be a particular spiritual path or way of life that you have chosen. The most important meaning of Dharma is the reality that it holds us in freedom from suffering. Our Dharma holds us in a state of profound understanding, awareness and bliss. Dharma is our own reality that will enable us to attain self realization. Dharma therefore also consists of those methods and teachings that are the arts and sciences, which enable us to open our hearts and minds completely. Our Dharma is our practice, what we do to follow those teachings and that enable us to implement them in our lives.

Virtues, ethics and practices are also Dharma, these are the positive qualities that lead us toward freedom and reality. That is how Dharma came to mean a religion in some contexts, and also "duty" or 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!" In Buddhist terms, however, Dharma is more like Joseph Campbell's great statement, "Follow your bliss!" Bliss is your freedom. So it means, "Follow your joy, your freedom!” It took on this meaning even more so in India, after Buddha's time as well as 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 becoming Buddha ourselves, to whatever extent we can open to reality. We take refuge in the reality of the Dharma, this is the second jewel.

The third jewel is the Sangha, the community of those who enjoy the Triple Gem, the jewels of refuge, those who learn the teaching, seek the understanding, and work to the Dharma, a central part of their lives. These are people who are consciously evolving toward buddhahood and are willing to share their understanding and bliss with others. They do so as friends and teachers, helping others discover the precious jewels of refuge. This includes all Buddhists and spiritual teachers of true wisdom everywhere, throughout all time.

Taking refuge in the Buddha -- Awareness without delusion

Taking refuge in the Dharma -- Proper viewpoints without deviation

Taking refuge in the Sangha -- Purity without pollution

The Buddhist Chant:

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.”

Source: "The Jewel Tree of Tibet" by Robert Thurman, copyright 2005

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Sangha Without Borders is currently physically located in London, UK