What does taking refuge in the Three Jewels mean today?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out in his recent book, Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, taking refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha can be considered “the demarcation of becoming a Buddhist” that transcends the diversity of Buddhist traditions that has sprung from one teacher.1 Having no direct access to the historical Buddha, nor to his teachings except in the form of expositions and interpretations given by generations of Buddhist scholars and teachers, what it means “to take refuge in the Three Jewels” is different today from its original meaning.

The starting point of the Three Jewels is the appearance of the historical Buddha. To be more precise, the Three Jewels came into being when the prince Siddhartha of the Sakya clan became the awakened one, or the Buddha, after realizing enlightenment in Uruvela, and delivered his first discourse about the truth of the world, or the Dharma, to a group of five ascetics in the Deer Park in Isipatana, who would become his first disciples. This is when the Sangha as a community of shravakas, or “word-hearers” who directly heard the Buddha’s discourses, was born. Two important additions to the Buddha’s early Sangha were Maudgalyayana and Shariputra, who would become the Buddha’s chief disciples.

The membership of the Sangha had to be expanded beyond a community of monastic disciples to include lay followers as well, as the Buddha started to attract increasing numbers of ordinary people to follow his teachings. Early entrants from the lay community include such names as Yashas, son of a well-to-do Benares business family, and his family and friends, King Bimbisara of the kingdom of Madadha, known as one who donated the bamboo grove to the Buddha’s Sangha, and Anathapindika of Kosala, a rich and generous donator known as the “Feeder of the Poor”, who donated Jeta’s Grove. Mention must also be made of Rahula, the Buddha’s son, Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin, and Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s stepmother, who all became the followers of the Buddha and his teachings.

As Thich Nhat Hanh points out in his Peaceful Action, Open Heart, the Sangha as the “fourfold assembly” (catuparisa) consisting of monks, nuns, male lay followers and female lay followers, came to be widely recognized by the time the Lotus Sutra was compiled.2 It is recorderd in the Nikayas that the Buddha himself talked about these four groups as those who “adorn” the Sangha: “Bhikkhus, these four kinds of persons who are competent, disciplined, self-confident, learned, experts on the Dhamma, practicing in accordance with the Dhamma, adorn the Sangha.”3

The four kinds of persons the Buddha recognized as those who adorn his Sangha still adorn the Sangha today. As Bhikkhu Bodhi points out, there is no question that the Sangha is “the visual representation of the Buddha in the world” today.4 However, unlike those people who joined the Sangha as “word-hearers”, those of us who decide to join the Sangha today do so through indirect exposure to the Buddha’s teachings by reading books and articles written by Buddhist scholars, by listening to talks given by Buddhist teachers, or by attending retreats given at many Buddhist practice centers that are now to be found in many parts of the world. This means that we become members of the Sangha not as “word-hearers” but as “dharma-practitioners”, based on what we perceive to be the Buddha’s Dharma as expounded by these scholars, teachers, and retreat organizers.

Because our exposure to the Buddha’s Dharma is vicarious today, there are a number of ways in which we become “dharma-practitioners”. We may be “dharma-practitioners” in the sense that we commit ourselves to observing the Five Precepts. Observing the Five Precepts, needless to say, is just the entry level when it comes to Buddhist practice. The next level of Buddhist practice would be to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha taught as the path that would lead to the cessation of suffering. But the relevance of the Noble Eightfold Path need to be reexamined in the context of the realities of the world today if it is to serve as a guide for “dharma-practitioners” today. Or to put it differently, the Dharma that members of the Sangha need to practice as “dharma-practitioners” must be the “living Dharma” that is relevant to our daily living in the world of 21st century.

What, then, is the “living Dharma”? According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the essence of the “living Dharma” is “mindful living”: “When you practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, you bring peace and serenity into yourself, you get understanding and compassion, and you radiate peace while you walk, sit and speak. Love understanding, and peace can be seen, and that is the living Dharma.”5 To the extent that the Sangha practices the living Dharma, we can have confidence in its role not only as the third jewel of the Three Jewels in the 21st century but also in its role as the promoter of love, understanding, and peace that we so desperately need in the world today. Such a Sangha can indeed be declared the best kind of Sangha that the Buddha talked about: “To whatever extent there are Sanghas or groups, the Sangha of the Tathagata’s disciples is declared the best among them … Those who have confidence in the Sangha have confidence in the best, and for those who have confidence in the best, the result is the best.”6

  1. Tenzin Gyatso, Bhiksu, and Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron, Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2014.
  2. Nhat Hanh, Thich, Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2008, p. 19.
  3. Anguttara Nikaya 4:7.
  4. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “The Challenge of the sangha in the 21st Century”, Bodhi Monastery Bulletin, July 19, 2006.
  5. Nhat Hanh, Thich, and the Monks and Nuns of Plum Village, One Buddha Is Not Enough: A Story of Collective Awakening, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2010, p. 213.
  6. Anguttara Nikaya 4:34.