The Three Jewels in Buddhism: Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
The Three Jewels in Buddhism are also known as the “Three Treasures”, “Three Refuges”, or simply the “Triple Gem” are said to be essential to attain enlightenment. Without the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha we continue to wander in samsara.
Although the recitation of the chant to take refuge in the Three Jewels formally makes one a Buddhist in some parts of the world, this is not always the case in today’s modern Western world.
In fact, the Dalai Lama doesn’t advise formally becoming a Buddhist but rather have people adapt the Three Jewels (and Buddhist teachings in general) to your own spiritual tradition. For example, if you’re a Christian then you would take refuge in Jesus, the Word of God, and the Church respectively.
What does it mean to take refuge?
The word refuge means “shelter or protection from danger or distress” or “a place to flee back to”.
In Buddhist thought I found that Robert Thurman summarized the concept well in his book “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between” where he defines taking refuge in the Three Jewels as finding “a haven from the extreme dangers of the suffering life-cycle and finds assurance of the positive evolutionary direction of his/her succession of lives”.
The term ‘Buddha’ literally means “awakened” or “one who is awakened to the truth of the nature of reality”.
When we say “I go for refuge in the Buddha” (Buddham saranam gacchami) they are not referring to Buddha as a deity but rather they are taking refuge in Shakyamuni Buddha as a teacher of Buddha-nature of everything which is Perfect Bliss, Freedom, or Nirvana.
The term ‘Dharma’ is one that has many different meanings. Originally in Hinduism dharma meant “law, right, justice” in the sense of cosmic law of the gods and is also related to the word dharayati meaning “holds firm, stable, constant”.
So when we say “I go for refuge in the Dharma” (Dhammam saranam gacchami) we mean Dharma in the Buddhist sense is that which “holds us in freedom from suffering” or taking refuge in the true nature of reality.
The term ‘Sangha’ comes from the Sanskrit word “samgha” (sam “together” + han “to come in contact”) so means “coming together” of people.
When we say “I go for refuge in the Sangha” (Sangham saranam gacchami) we are not only referring to the monastic community of monks and nuns of the Theravada tradition but also to groups of lay practitioners who come together to help one another realize the Dharma and become a bodhisattva.
The Sangha could also refer to the myriad Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are enfolding us in their love and compassion all around us even though we may not perceive them. When we study and practice, we sit with the millions of Buddhas and begin to feel their infinite compassion and love.
So for those who are adherents of various religions, I encourage you to go out and revisit the religion or spiritual worldview held by your family but contemplate the Three Jewels in Buddhism and what it means to take refuge in your own way.
What do you take refuge in?
Let me know if you have any questions or additional insights on the Three Jewels in Buddhism. I’d love to hear from you!
Namo Buddham saranam gacchami
Namo Dhammam saranam gacchami
Namo Sangham saranam gacchami