The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha constitute the Triple Gem. The Buddha is a Sanskrit term that refers to a perfectly awakened being who has realized the truth of the universe and is further able to teach that truth to living beings for their liberation based upon his inexhaustible vow of compassion. Due to his self awakening, awakening to others, and the perfection of his enlightenment and practice, he has attained unsurpassed, perfect enlightenment (anutara samyaksambodhi),and is therefore called “the Buddha.” Here this refers to Sakyamuni Buddha, the original teacher and founder of Buddhism, but it may also refer generally to all the Buddhas of the ten directions and the three time periods—past, present, and future.
“Dharma” is a Sanskrit term that connotes “the rule and its observance,” what is known as the Fourfold Dharma Gem of the Buddha’s teaching, its meaning, its practice, and its fruit. Dharma is the rule-governed path that can lead to the attainment of unsurpassed, perfect enlightenment, just as the Buddhist canon is able to do, hence the name. Here Dharma refers to the fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Three Dharma Seals, but it may also refer generally to the Twelve Divisions of the Buddhist Canons.
“Sangha” is a Sanskrit term which can be translated as “harmonious community.” Here it refers to the monastic order whose members practice the Dharma and live together in harmony which possesses two aspects: “harmony in principle” and “harmony in action.” Harmony in principle refers to unanimity of understanding about the afflictions to be removed and the truth to be realized. Harmony in action refers to the conformity of observance about six main points regarding the three karmas of body, speech, and thought. No action should run counter to these six main points which form the foundation of the Buddhist monastic order.
- Maintain harmony in view by sharing the same understanding, which means establishing a consensus of thought.
- Maintain moral harmony by observing the same precepts, which means that everyone is equal under the rules.
- Maintain economic harmony by sharing things equally, which means distributing benefits equally.
- Maintain mental harmony by sharing happiness, which means having common spiritual goals and objectives.
- Maintain verbal harmony by avoiding disputes, which means avoiding verbal arguments.
- Maintain physical harmony by living together, which means not violating others.
The two harmonies of “in principle” and “in action,” that is, to propagate the Dharma and to liberate sentient beings, represents both the liberation of self and the liberation of others, and so it is called the monastic order or Sangha. Here Sangha refers to the initial five bhiksus (male Buddhist monastics) who followed the Buddha in joining the monastic order and cultivating the Buddha’s path, as well as the twelve hundred and fifty great bhiksus and arhats; but it may also refer generally to the present Buddhist monastic order and greater community of bodhisattvas and monastics.
Indeed, ultimately speaking, the term “Buddha” refers to ourselves because everybody possesses the Buddha nature. In taking refuge in the Buddha, we are taking refuge in our Buddha nature. What is called “Dharma” constitutes the truth; it is the Dharma nature of self-awakening within each one of us, as well as the undying life of wisdom and Dharma body. What is called “Sangha” represents the field of merit. It is as if we were in possession of a great land or field in which we can plant and build things after having opened up the land within the mind field. In this way one is able to have unwavering faith in one’s own merit.
In simpler terms, the Triple Gem means taking refuge in the Buddha as founder, the Dharma as truth, and the Sangha as mentor. All three constitute important causes and conditions that enable living beings to attain liberation. This is why the Buddhist scriptures give the following analogy of the Buddha as a good physician, the Dharma as profound medicine, and the Sangha as a nurse. Those suffering from illness can only find its cure when in possession of all three at the same time. Human life is also just like this, for it is only by relying upon the power of these three–Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha–that we can end suffering, enjoy happiness, and reach the realm of liberation. This is why the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are called the Triple Gem.
*This text was taken from the BLP booklet ‘The Triple Gem‘.