Understanding the Three Jewels

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Part of a series of teachings on Essence of Refined Gold by the Third Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Sonam Gyatso. The text is a commentary on Songs of Experience by Lama Tsongkhapa.

  • Three objects of refuge
  • Qualities of the Buddha

Essence of Refined Gold 17 (download)

Now we want to begin our teaching on the lamrim text by His Holiness the third Dalai Lama. Let’s cultivate our motivation and think for a minute that we want to listen to teachings and think about them very well so that we can improve our mind and generate love and compassion and wisdom for the purpose of becoming a fully enlightened buddha for the benefit of all beings. Let’s cultivate that motivation.

Three reasons for taking refuge

We’ve been talking about refuge in the Dalai Lama’s text and last time we talked about the three reasons for taking refuge. In other words, (1) an awareness of the danger or the possibility of our being born in the three lower realms or in samsara, (2) confidence or faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as a viable refuge to follow on the spiritual path, and (3) then in the case of Mahayana refuge, having taken refuge with great compassion for all living beings who are in the same predicament that we are. Please try and meditate on this and if you’re doing a daily practice, if you are meditating on the Buddha or Chenrezig or whatever, we always start out our practices by taking refuge.

It’s very good in this way to do some reflection at the very beginning of your meditation about the three reasons for taking refuge and develop those three strongly in your mind so that when you actually say the refuge prayer you can mean what you’re saying. This is all a very great opportunity to integrate the lamrim together with whatever deity practices we may be doing. If we’re not doing any deity practices then by just doing a meditation on the Buddha and then afterwards contemplating the different points that we go through in our teaching as a checking or analytical meditation, that’s really beneficial.

The Three Jewels of refuge: The Buddha Jewel

Today I wanted to talk a little bit about what the Three Jewels of refuge are, because if we understand what they are, it becomes easier to have faith or confidence and trust in them. That is one of the conditions for taking refuge—it helps us to take refuge in a deeper and more meaningful way. When we talk about the jewel of the Buddha, the ultimate Buddha Jewel is the dharmakaya mind—the omniscient mind of the Buddha as well as the emptiness of that mind and the true cessations that exist on that mindstream. That’s the ultimate Buddha refuge.

The conventional Buddha refuge, what appears in the world to benefit us, is what is called the rupakaya, or the form body of the Buddha. This is of two kinds: there is the resource body—I used to translate that as enjoyment body but actually resource body is better because this body acts as a resource for all of the arya bodhisattvas in the pure land—that’s one of the types of form body, and the second kind is the emanation body or dharmakaya. This, for example, is Sakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha that appeared in our world. Any buddhas that appear, that we may actually encounter, they are the nirmanakaya emanation form, and they are the conventional Buddha Jewel.

The Three Jewels of refuge: The Dharma Jewel

When we talk about the Dharma Jewel, the ultimate Dharma Jewel are the last two noble truths: true cessations and true paths. The true paths, sometimes we speak of them as the three higher trainings, in other words, the higher training in ethical conduct, in concentration, and in wisdom—those can be broken down into the eightfold noble path, so there the true path becomes right view and right intention, which are included under the higher training of wisdom. Right speech, right action and right livelihood are the higher training in ethical conduct. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration are included in the higher training of concentration. That’s one way of talking about the path, or I should say the true paths, the last of the four noble truths. The true paths also include the bodhicitta, the actual realizations of bodhicitta. But primarily, the true paths refer to the wisdom realizing emptiness directly, non-conceptually, because it’s that wisdom that actually eliminates the defilements and frees us from cyclic existence.

As we actualize the path we eliminate, consecutively, different layers or levels of defilements on the mind. Each time one of those layers or levels is eliminated in such a way that it can no longer appear in our mindstream, then that is a true cessation. [We describe in Buddhism five bhumis or grounds or paths. Various realizations occurs sequentially that mark the beginning of each of these. Listed in order the five are: the path of accumulation, of preparation, of seeing, of meditation, and of no-more-learning which is Buddhahood.] True cessations begin on the many stages of the path, beginning with the third, the path of seeing. This is when we actually begin to have the actual true cessations. It’s only with the path of seeing that emptiness is realized directly, and then the various layers of afflictions and defilements are removed. Each one of those eliminations of afflictions and defilements is a true cessation.

Sometimes when we talk about the four noble truths we put it in the singular, like true suffering or true duḥkha, (dukkha is the Pali and duḥkha is the Sanskrit word), true origins, true cessations and true path. But actually it should be true sufferings (plural) and true origins, true cessations and true paths, because all of these things are plural. Even though we put them in the singular they are all plural. That’s the true cessations and the true paths. Those are the ultimate Dharma refuge. The conventional Dharma refuge are the teachings that the Buddha spoke. There are the oral teachings, the written teachings, all the ways in which the Buddha communicated the path and his realizations to us. Then in terms of the Sangha, the ultimate Sangha are the aryas, those beings who have realized emptiness directly, non-conceptually. They may be either laypeople or monastics, and an arya Sangha may be one individual who has that realization of emptiness.

The Three Jewels of refuge: The Sangha Jewel

The conventional sangha is a group of four or more fully ordained monastics, four bhikshus or four bhikshunis. The reason that it’s the number four is because there are different requirements in the vinaya, our monastic code, of how many bhikshus or how many bhikshunis need to be present in order to perform certain monastic functions. Four is the number that, for example, is required to do our confession and restoration of vows that we do twice a month—four fully ordained monks or nuns.

I want to comment here—and many of you have probably heard me say this before—that the way the word sangha is being used in the West is not accurate. I’ve seen sometimes people get confused because they’ll ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama a question about the sangha and in His Holiness’s mind the sangha means the monastic community. In the West a lot of people call the sangha anybody who comes to a Buddhist center. I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate.

First of all, they are not monastics but that aside, not everybody who comes to a Buddhist center is even a Buddhist. Last time we talked about how some people are reluctant to call themselves Buddhist, even if they’ve taken refuge. If you’re not clear that you’re a Buddhist, you definitely can’t be considered sangha. Also, it can be very confusing for people because when they hear in the teachings, “Take refuge in the sangha,” then they look around at the Buddhist center and you have a lot of people there who are just beginning on the path. That one is going out to drink after teachings, and that one is smoking, and that one is sleeping with somebody else’s wife, and this one is cheating on their income tax. Newcomers go, “Well wait a minute, these people aren’t any better than I am. How come they’re the sangha I’m supposed to take refuge in?” They get really, really confused.

I think it’s much better to use the term “sangha” in its traditional way, as the ultimate Sangha is one person or more who has realized emptiness directly and the conventional sangha is the monastic community. There is, however, a way in which the Buddha did speak of the fourfold sangha and here, what he meant was male and female fully ordained ones and male upasakas and female upasikas. A male upasaka or a female upasika is a layperson who has taken refuge and all five of the lay precepts. Actually, there is a way where you don’t take all five, where you take one, two, three, or four, but the complete upasaka or complete upasika has taken all five.

You can see that there is a real commitment to keeping ethical conduct and that’s why the monastic community is not just one monk or nun by themselves, but it has to be the community of people who are keeping pure ethical conduct and who have the capability to purify their vows and give ordination and so on and so forth. They’re the ones that primarily determine if the Dharma is flourishing in a country.

I would call everybody who comes to a Buddhist center people who are exploring Buddhism. That gives them space because some of them don’t even consider themselves Buddhist, let alone want to be called sangha. If it is committed lay practitioners who have taken refuge and who have taken precepts, then I think it is good to call it the Buddhist community. You are a Buddhist community who are practicing together, and in that way when you ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or actually any of the Asian teachers, questions and you use the word sangha, then you’ll get an answer that corresponds to your question. If you are meaning sangha as people who come to a Buddhist center and they’re interpreting sangha as the monastic community, you’re likely to get an answer that doesn’t fit your question.

I remember just a couple of weeks ago I was talking with one Theravada monk, a Western Theravada monk actually, who had been living in Sri Lanka for many years. He came back to the West to America not too long ago and was invited to a Buddhist center to teach and he said he was asking about how many people came and somebody said, “Well, we have 20 people in our sangha.” He thought, “Wow, this is fantastic, 20 monastics! This is great!” But when he got there, there wasn’t a single monastic. He had to say, “Well, what happened? Where are they all?” Then it came out that he, by the word sangha, was thinking the monastic community, and the layperson who told him how many people was thinking of a different definition, so there was a lack of communication there.

It’s interesting because in the States we’re a very egalitarian society. We don’t like hierarchies, so everybody wants to be sangha, but we don’t necessarily want to fulfill the commitments of being a sangha. You ask people to take precepts and it’s like, “Um…ah…um…ah, I’m really busy today.” If they take precepts they take the first four. The fifth one, about intoxicants, is a little bit hard for some people.

Then we all want to take bodhisattva vows and do highest-class tantra initiation, do Mahamudra and Dzogchen, which are very advanced practices. But the precepts which are the foundation of the practice, to not kill, to not steal, to not have unwise and unkind sexual activity, not to lie, not to drink and drug and smoke, those things we don’t want to have anything to do with. They don’t move on taking those precepts. But we want to meditate on all the high fancy stuff. Somehow this is indicative of our American consumer mind and we actually need to start at the beginning of the practice and build a nice, solid foundation. If we do that then we can progress from there.

Taking refuge and the five precepts

I really recommend to people to take refuge formally in a ceremony and get yourself to a point where you can call yourself a Buddhist. If you don’t really feel comfortable calling yourself a Buddhist, then taking bodhisattva vows or tantric initiations is not really appropriate yet. You want to take refuge and you want to take the five precepts. Really train well in those and they are a beautiful, beautiful practice.

If you keep the five precepts, guaranteed your relationships with other people will improve, guaranteed. Because if you think about it, if you stop harming them physically, stop ripping off their stuff, stop sleeping with people you shouldn’t be sleeping with, stop lying and stop drinking and drugging, you’re going to have a lot more friends and a lot fewer arguments. Things are going to go much better in your life just automatically. That’s kind of a foundation practice and if we keep them well then we definitely see a change in our lives.

Four kinds of fearlessness

I wanted to go in a little more depth here about the qualities of the Buddha because it’s very interesting and we don’t always get this kind of explanation. I thought you might be interested in knowing, in a little bit deeper way, what some of the qualities of the Buddha are by talking about the four fearlessnesses, or four kinds of intrepidity. The four kinds of fearlessness, and these are in the Pali Canon in the Greater Discourse on the Lion’s Roar Sutra, are also quoted by Chandrakirti in his Supplement to Fundamental Wisdom. I’m not sure what sutra in the Tibetan canon or in the Sanskrit canon they’re found in, but I’ll read you two verses from the Pali canon. The Buddha here is talking to Shariputra. He says,

Shariputra, the tathagata [the tathagata is another synonym for a buddha] has these four kinds of fearlessness, possessing which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma. What are the four?

Here is the first one:

Here, I see no ground on which any recluse or Brahmin or god or Mara or Brahma or anyone else at all in the world could, in accordance with the Dhamma (Dharma) accuse me thus: ‘While you claim enlightenment, you are not fully enlightened in regard to certain things.’ And seeing no ground for that, I abide in safety, fearlessness, and intrepidity.

In that one, what the Buddha is saying is that there is no ground for any recluse. In other words, here by recluse they mean a renunciate or a monastic or a Brahmin (because at the time of the Buddha there were all these Brahmin class who did all the ritualistic functions) or gods (any kind of celestial being or Mara who is kind of the mischief-maker, or Brahma who is seen in Hinduism as the lord of the world), “or anyone else at all in the world who, in accord with the Dharma …” (i.e., somebody who is speaking according to the Dharma—truthfully) there is nobody who can accuse the Buddha, saying that while he claims to be fully enlightened he isn’t really fully enlightened regarding certain things. What this boils down to is that the Buddha is fearless in the sense of declaring that he is fully omniscient and fully enlightened.

The meaning of omniscience

What omniscient means here is that the Buddha is able to know all phenomena very clearly, as clearly as we see things in the palm of our hand. That’s how clearly the Buddha knows all phenomena in the past, present, and future. The Buddha, however, is not omnipotent, so omniscient and omnipotent are different. Omniscient means all knowing. The Buddha has eliminated all defilements from the mind so there is no obscuration (or anything blocking) him knowing all things that exist. The Buddha is not omnipotent in the sense that theistic religions claim their deity to be omnipotent because, for example, an omnipotent creator or an omnipotent ruler of the universe has all power and can make anything happen. In other words, all they have to do is decide they want something to happen and they make it happen.

The Buddha does not have any obstacles from his or her own side from helping sentient beings and manifesting things, but the power of the Buddha has to work within the power of sentient beings’ karma. The Buddha can only help and do things in accordance with the karma that people have created. The Buddha is not omnipotent in the sense that a buddha cannot remove our karma like pulling a thorn out of our foot. The Buddha can’t cancel out our karma. He can’t crawl inside of our mind and push some buttons to change how we think and feel. He didn’t create us and he isn’t going to make us enlightened. All the Buddha did was to describe things. The Buddha is not omnipotent in the way a theistic religion claims its deity is omnipotent. That’s something important to understand.

Why do we pray in Buddhism?

I’m getting off on a little bit of a tangent here but some people may say, “Well then, why do you pray in Buddhism? If the Buddha isn’t omnipotent then why are you making all these request prayers? Who are you praying to, and how do you pray?” Prayer does mean something a little bit different in Buddhism than it means in theistic religions. We are addressing our prayers to the buddhas and bodhisattvas and the highly realized beings, and we may be asking for their inspiration or their blessings. But what we’re aware of is that when we are requesting those, the process of our requesting them opens our mind to receive the Buddha’s influence.

Remember last time we talked about when we say, “Buddhas and bodhisattvas, please pay attention to me?” What we really mean is “me” please pay attention to the buddhas and bodhisattvas. In the same way, sometimes when we read or speak our request prayers, what we’re really doing is signaling to ourselves that these kinds of topics are very important; we want to contemplate them, actualize them and develop the realization of them inside of our own mind.

We’re also aware that the process of opening our mind to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, by recognizing their good qualities, creates some positive potential, which can offset the obscuration and negative karma in our mind so that we can receive the Buddha’s enlightening activity. We’re not just praying to the Buddha, “Buddha, please may I have great compassion,” and in the meantime I’m going to watch boxing on the television set or go to the baseball game or the fashion show or something, but “Buddha, please may I have great compassion for all sentient beings.” It doesn’t work like that because if the Buddha could have just transferred his realizations to our mind, any buddha would have done that already. But it’s the case that we actually have to develop these realizations, and saying the prayers is a step that helps us to develop those realizations. His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks about this so much—all the time—how just making requesting prayers to the buddhas and bodhisattvas alone will not get us realizations. He says it again and again because I think he’s looking around and a lot of people like to do pujas, they like to do prayers and ring bells and play drums and do rituals. Maybe they don’t change their minds very much because they’re not really meditating properly when they’re doing the rituals. And so that’s why he’s continually …

[Talk abruptly ends here]

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