The Three Jewels
The Three Jewels, also rendered as Three Treasures, Three Refuges or Triple Gem (Sanskrit: Triratna, also Ratna-traya, Pali: Tiratana, Tisarana Chinese: 三寶 or 三宝, Sānbǎo, Japanese: Sambō or Sampō) are the three things that Buddhists give themselves to, and in return look toward for guidance, in the process known as taking refuge.
Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is central to Buddhist lay and monastic ordination ceremonies, as originated by Gautama Buddha. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is generally considered to make one officially a Buddhist . Thus, in many Theravada Buddhist communities, the following Pali chant, the Vandana Ti-sarana is often recited by both monks and lay people:
The Mahayana Chinese/Japanese version differs only slightly from the Theravada:
Importance of the Triple Gem
The Triple Gem is important and is one of the major practices of mental "reflection" in Buddhism, we reflect on the true qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. These qualities are called the Mirror of the Dharma in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta and help us attain the true "mind like a mirror".
Reflection in the Mirror of the Dharma
The qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are frequently repeated in the ancient texts. It is a Buddhist practise to reflect upon them.
In some traditions, the Buddha as refuge, is known as the historical Buddha and also 'the full development of mind', in other words, the full development of one's highest potential i.e. recognition of mind and the completion or full development of one's inherent qualities and activities.
Refuge in the Dharma in the Vajrayana tradition includes reference not only to the words of the Buddha, but to the living experience of realization and teachings of fully realized practitioners. In Tibetan Buddhism, it includes both the Kangyur (the teaching of the Buddha) and the Tengyur (the commentaries by realized practioners) and in an intangible way also includes the living transmission of those masters, which can also be very inspiring.
In the Vajrayana, a more liberal definition of Sangha can include all practitioners who are actively using the Buddhas teachings to benefit themselves and/or others. It can be more strictly defined as the 'Realized Sangha' or 'Arya-Sangha', in other words, practitioners and historical students of the Buddha who have fully realized the nature of their mind, also known as realized Boddhisatvas; and 'Ordinary Sangha', which can loosely mean practitioners and students of the Buddha who are using the same methods and working towards the same goal.
In the Vajrayana traditions, there is another very important and expanded aspect of the Refuge, the refuge in the teacher. This can be understood on many levels including what is called the Three Roots- the Root of Blessing, Root of Methods and Root of Protection. Another way to understand this is as the Body (Sangha), Speech (Dharma) and Mind (Buddha) of the Buddha. The teacher has a prominent place in the Vajrayana, as without his personal permission and guidance, a practitioner cannot achieve proper spiritual progress.
Why is it called the Triple Gem?
In Buddhism, the following three are called Gems (Ratna) as they are invaluable :
The three gems are so called since amongst all gems, the Buddha gem and Dharma gem are considered incomparable in value as they are not material, so cannot be created, destroyed or changed in any way. Buddha's mind in his earth body or sambhogakaya is frequently associated with the greatest gem of all, the diamond. In the Anguttara Nikaya(3:25), Buddha talks about the diamond mind:
With this we understand that to take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in the mind like a diamond, the hardest natural substance that can cut through all delusion.
The Three Gems when used in the process of taking refuge, become the Three Refuges.
The expression Three Gems are found in the earliest Buddhist literature of the Pali Canon, besides other works there is one sutta in the Sutta-nipata, called the Ratana-sutta, which contains a series of verses on the Jewels in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In the Ratana-sutta, all the qualities of the Sangha mentioned are attributes of the Buddha's enlightened disciples.
The Three Refuges occur very frequently in the ancient Buddhist Texts,
and here the Sangha is used more broadly to refer to either the Sangha
of Bhikkhus, or the Sangha of Bhikkhunis.