Different Levels of the Three Jewels

Print

Different Levels of the Three Jewels

The Three Jewels may be understood on different levels and in many ways. We will first divide them into two groups, that of the Phenomenal and the Principle. These two groupings can be understood in the context of the teachings of "two truths" in Buddhism. These refer to the "absolute" truth and the "conventional" truth. The absolute or principle truth is the view of reality as experienced by the enlightened. Since it transcends dualistic logic, it cannot exactly be expressed in words and conceptual constructs. The relative truth is reality on a phenomenal level; it is what ordinary people experience, and is expressed readily in dualistic concepts and words. For a deeply enlightened person who has realized the absolute truth, the two truths are inseparable. But for a person who only understands the conventional truth, absolute truth remains an abstract concept.

These two groupings can be understood in the context of the teachings of "two truths" in Buddhism. These refer to the "absolute" truth and the "conventional" truth. The absolute or principle truth is the view of reality as experienced by the enlightened. Since it transcends dualistic logic, it cannot exactly be expressed in words and conceptual constructs. The relative truth is reality on a phenomenal level; it is what ordinary people experience, and is expressed readily in dualistic concepts and words. For a deeply enlightened person who has realized the absolute truth, the two truths are inseparable. But for a person who only understands the conventional truth, absolute truth remains an abstract concept.

These two truths provide a framework to understanding the different levels of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. We start by taking refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels; that is, a true refuge in this world that provides insight and guidance toward awakening and liberation. The Phenomenal Three Jewels are tangible, so they are easily understood by ordinary people.

Once nirvana is realized—that is, you are fully awakened to the inseparability of the two truths—you embody the Principle Three Jewels. At this point, to speak of a refuge outside of you becomes irrelevant; the Principle Three Jewels are inseparable from you. This is abstract to most people, but quite clear to someone who has already actualized the true suchness of self-nature. We will return to this issue below. For now, it is important to know that all sentient beings have buddha-nature, the potentiality for buddhahood. It is only because of the vexations and confusion of karma that we cannot perceive this truth. The reason we take refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels is to find and manifest our buddha-nature in the Principle Three Jewels.

We start by taking refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels; that is, a true refuge in this world that provides insight and guidance toward awakening and liberation. The Phenomenal Three Jewels are tangible, so they are easily understood by ordinary people.

Once nirvana is realized—that is, you are fully awakened to the inseparability of the two truths—you embody the Principle Three Jewels. At this point, to speak of a refuge outside of you becomes irrelevant; the Principle Three Jewels are inseparable from you. This is abstract to most people, but quite clear to someone who has already actualized the true suchness of self-nature. We will return to this issue below. For now, it is important to know that all sentient beings have buddha-nature, the potentiality for buddhahood. It is only because of the vexations and confusion of karma that we cannot perceive this truth. The reason we take refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels is to find and manifest our buddha-nature in the Principle Three Jewels.

The Phenomenal Three Jewels can be divided into The Abiding Three Jewels and The Manifested Three Jewels.

We start by taking refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels; that is, a true refuge in this world that provides insight and guidance toward awakening and liberation. The Phenomenal Three Jewels are tangible, so they are easily understood by ordinary people.

Once nirvana is realized—that is, you are fully awakened to the inseparability of the two truths—you embody the Principle Three Jewels. At this point, to speak of a refuge outside of you becomes irrelevant; the Principle Three Jewels are inseparable from you. This is abstract to most people, but quite clear to someone who has already actualized the true suchness of self-nature. We will return to this issue below. For now, it is important to know that all sentient beings have buddha-nature, the potentiality for buddhahood. It is only because of the vexations and confusion of karma that we cannot perceive this truth. The reason we take refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels is to find and manifest our buddha-nature in the Principle Three Jewels.

These two groupings can be understood in the context of the teachings of "two truths" in Buddhism. These refer to the "absolute" truth and the "conventional" truth. The absolute or principle truth is the view of reality as experienced by the enlightened. Since it transcends dualistic logic, it cannot exactly be expressed in words and conceptual constructs. The relative truth is reality on a phenomenal level; it is what ordinary people experience, and is expressed readily in dualistic concepts and words. For a deeply enlightened person who has realized the absolute truth, the two truths are inseparable. But for a person who only understands the conventional truth, absolute truth remains an abstract concept.

These two truths provide a framework to understanding the different levels of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. We start by taking refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels; that is, a true refuge in this world that provides insight and guidance toward awakening and liberation. The Phenomenal Three Jewels are tangible, so they are easily understood by ordinary people.

Once nirvana is realized—that is, you are fully awakened to the inseparability of the two truths—you embody the Principle Three Jewels. At this point, to speak of a refuge outside of you becomes irrelevant; the Principle Three Jewels are inseparable from you. This is abstract to most people, but quite clear to someone who has already actualized the true suchness of self-nature. We will return to this issue below. For now, it is important to know that all sentient beings have buddha-nature, the potentiality for buddhahood. It is only because of the vexations and confusion of karma that we cannot perceive this truth. The reason we take refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels is to find and manifest our buddha-nature in the Principle Three Jewels.

We start by taking refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels; that is, a true refuge in this world that provides insight and guidance toward awakening and liberation. The Phenomenal Three Jewels are tangible, so they are easily understood by ordinary people.

Once nirvana is realized—that is, you are fully awakened to the inseparability of the two truths—you embody the Principle Three Jewels. At this point, to speak of a refuge outside of you becomes irrelevant; the Principle Three Jewels are inseparable from you. This is abstract to most people, but quite clear to someone who has already actualized the true suchness of self-nature. We will return to this issue below. For now, it is important to know that all sentient beings have buddha-nature, the potentiality for buddhahood. It is only because of the vexations and confusion of karma that we cannot perceive this truth. The reason we take refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels is to find and manifest our buddha-nature in the Principle Three Jewels.

The Phenomenal Three Jewels can be divided into The Abiding Three Jewels and The Manifested Three Jewels.

We start by taking refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels; that is, a true refuge in this world that provides insight and guidance toward awakening and liberation. The Phenomenal Three Jewels are tangible, so they are easily understood by ordinary people.

Once nirvana is realized—that is, you are fully awakened to the inseparability of the two truths—you embody the Principle Three Jewels. At this point, to speak of a refuge outside of you becomes irrelevant; the Principle Three Jewels are inseparable from you. This is abstract to most people, but quite clear to someone who has already actualized the true suchness of self-nature. We will return to this issue below. For now, it is important to know that all sentient beings have buddha-nature, the potentiality for buddhahood. It is only because of the vexations and confusion of karma that we cannot perceive this truth. The reason we take refuge in the Phenomenal Three Jewels is to find and manifest our buddha-nature in the Principle Three Jewels.

The Phenomenal Three Jewels can be divided into The Abiding Three Jewels and The Manifested Three Jewels.

The Principle Three Jewels can be divided into The Three Jewels of One Essence and The Three Jewels of Principle.

The Phenomenal
The Abiding Three Jewels


The Abiding Three Jewels describe aspects of the Three Jewels that are directly perceivable in the ordinary, phenomenal world: 1) Statues of the Buddha made of jade, stone, gold, bronze, clay, and wood or images of the Buddha in oil paint, ink, silk embroidery, and drawings. 2) The three collections of scriptures which include the sutras (recorded words of the Buddha), the shastras (treatises and teachings by eminent practitioners), and the vinaya (the body of texts containing the precepts, which serve as a guide for the behavior of Buddhist practitioners ). 3) Buddhists monastics that shave their heads and wear the proscribed robes. Their work is to perpetuate Buddhism in the world.

The Manifested Three Jewels

The Manifested Three Jewels refer to what brought Buddhism into the world: the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, who attained enlightenment and entered nirvana. The Dharma constitutes the teachings he gave during that time, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Six Perfections, the Eightfold Path, and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. These are important teachings that all Buddhists should know. Many Buddhist books discuss them. For those of you who wish to learn more about them, please refer to my book, There is No Suffering: A Commentary of the Heart Sutra, for a full explanation of these teachings. Finally, the Sangha are those who followed him during that time. Thus, the Buddha appeared in the world, gave teachings, and formed a community of monastic practitioners.

The Principle
The Three Jewels of One Essence


Each of the Three Jewels contains the virtue and merit of all of the Three Jewels. First, the Buddha illuminates and enlightens, so he is the Buddha Jewel. He gives Dharma teachings, is free from the bounds of all phenomenal reality, and has the ability to preserve and maintain the purity of the teachings. Hence he is also the Dharma Jewel. The Buddha is free from transgression and contention, so he is also the embodiment of harmony, which represents the Sangha Jewel. Second, the Dharma awakens beings to Buddhahood, so it is the Buddha Jewel. It has the function of preserving itself, so it is the Dharma Jewel. Because all Dharmas are equal and mutually non-obstructive, it is equanimous and harmonious. Therefore, the Dharma is also the Sangha Jewel. Third, the Sangha Jewel includes those who are wise and luminous, so it includes the Buddha Jewel. Because its purpose is to preserve the Dharma, it is also the Dharma Jewel. Moreover, it is harmonious, so it is the Sangha Jewel as well.

The Three Jewels of Principle
The Three Jewels of Principle refer to ultimate reality or the absolute truth in the two truths paradigm. It is the world as experienced by someone who is enlightened. For this reason, it is the ultimate place of refuge.

Venerable Master Yinshun (1906-2005) explains the Three Jewels of Principle from two perspectives: that of Hinayana, personal liberation, and of Mahayana, universal liberation. The Hinayana and Mahayana are two main paths of Buddhism. The former focuses on the awakening of oneself; the latter on the awakening of all beings. Both paths identify the Three Jewels in terms of its intrinsic virtue. This virtue has many names, as seen above, but the essence is the same—the state of liberation and full awakening itself. Master Yinshun states:

"The real object of refuge lies in the actual virtues of the Three Jewels. These virtues have been discussed in many ways; two points of view will be introduced here. The first sees the Buddha Jewel as identical with the Buddha's faultless virtues. According to the teachings of individual liberation, the Buddha's faultless virtues are the five attributes of the Dharmakaya (or "true body of reality"), although in the Mahayana teachings they are embraced by perfect enlightenment (the fourfold wisdom). The Dharma Jewel is the true Dharma—that is, nirvana itself. The Sangha Jewel is identical with the faultless virtues of those who are still learners and those who are not. According to the individual liberation path, the faultless virtues are those of the four stages and four grades of sainthood; but according to the Mahayana path of universal liberation, they are the faultless virtues of the Bodhisattva Way (or the "universal liberation way," which includes those who gained individual liberation upon hearing the Buddha’s teachings and those who gained liberation without a teacher by contemplating dependent origination).

"The real object of refuge lies in the actual virtues of the Three Jewels. These virtues have been discussed in many ways; two points of view will be introduced here. The first sees the Buddha Jewel as identical with the Buddha's faultless virtues. According to the teachings of individual liberation, the Buddha's faultless virtues are the five attributes of the Dharmakaya (or "true body of reality"), although in the Mahayana teachings they are embraced by perfect enlightenment (the fourfold wisdom). The Dharma Jewel is the true Dharma—that is, nirvana itself. The Sangha Jewel is identical with the faultless virtues of those who are still learners and those who are not. According to the individual liberation path, the faultless virtues are those of the four stages and four grades of sainthood; but according to the Mahayana path of universal liberation, they are the faultless virtues of the Bodhisattva Way (or the "universal liberation way," which includes those who gained individual liberation upon hearing the Buddha’s teachings and those who gained liberation without a teacher by contemplating dependent origination).

"The second view of the real virtue of the Three Jewels draws from the Mahayana teachings of universal liberation, according to which the Buddha treasure is identical to the pure realm of ultimate reality—revealed ultimately, completely, and perfectly (in essence, form, action, and function). The Sangha treasure is the pure realm of ultimate reality that is partially revealed. That is, it refers to those who have reached profound states of realization of the teachings. The Dharma Jewel is the universal realm of ultimate reality—without increase or decrease, neither dualistic nor discriminating (and called suchness, reality, and so on). The other standard terms for the Three Jewels—the Three Jewels in One Essence, the Three Jewels of Principle, and the Abiding Three Jewels – all refer to the same Three Jewels discussed above, but they are explained in different ways." (The Way to Buddhahood, pp. 23-24; translation slightly modified)

The five attributes of the Dharmakaya refer to the virtues of a fully awakened being. They are: moral perfection, cessation of deluded ideas, the wisdom of omniscience, attainment of nirvana, and the perfect knowledge of the state of liberation. Nirvana here means the cessation of greed, aversion, and ignorance and the perfection of awakening. This relates to perfect enlightenment, the content of which is known as the four wisdoms. Each of these four wisdoms describes a function of a buddha’s insight. They are: the " great mirror wisdom," which reflects all forms exactly as they are; the "wisdom of equality," which is the result of being free from self-grasping; the "wisdom of wondrous observation," which is the ability to discern with precision the various workings of the phenomenal world; and lastly the "wisdom of unrestricted activity," which is the ability to save sentient beings according to their spiritual capacities. We all have these perfect virtues within us — all of the qualities of the buddhas are ours if only we can free ourselves from the bondage of karma, vexations, and self-referential clinging. It is in this way that the virtues function: when we take refuge in them, we take refuge in what is most intrinsic in ourselves, our potential to be awakened and perfect that awakening.

Just as conventional truth is inseparable from absolute truth, we must realize that without the Abiding Three Jewels, the Principle Three Jewels will not manifest. Without the Principle Three Jewels, the Abiding Three Jewels could not exist. The Abiding Three Jewels are the great function of the Principle Three Jewels. The Principle Three Jewels are the whole of the Abiding Three Jewels. Faith in Buddhism should begin with believing in the Three Jewels. The reason for believing in the Abiding Three Jewels is to facilitate understanding of the Principle Three Jewels.

There are some Buddhist devotees who, without having any real understanding of the true meaning of the Principle Three Jewels, claim that they only believe in the Principle Three Jewels. In other words, they disregard the significance of the Abiding Three Jewels. This is not only an upside down view, but a position that is completely contrary to the Buddhist path.

Ordinary people can only perceive the phenomenal Three Jewels, and of these, the Manifested Three Jewels only existed when Sakyamuni Buddha lived. After the passing of the historical Buddha, only the Abiding Three Jewels are left. Within the Three Jewels, the Buddha is most precious, the Dharma is most rare, and the Sangha is most holy. After the passing of the Buddha, it is the Sangha that safeguards Buddhist monasteries, preserves collections of Dharma teachings, and maintains Buddhist culture. The Sangha also transmits Buddhist culture and teaches Dharma to the laity.

When the Buddha was in the world, he was the center. After his passing, the Sangha became the center, so we must take the Sangha as our refuge, and we must take the Sangha Jewel as the object of our veneration. But we must remember that within the Sangha Jewel, there is a mixture of "dragons and snakes," a Chinese term meaning virtuous and non-virtuous people. We should choose teachers who are virtuous, but we should respect all Sangha members. It is said in the sutras that even though a monk has transgressed the precepts, he is still the teacher of men and gods. In our hearts, we should not entertain ideas of the virtuous and the non-virtuous, and criticize others, let alone criticize the Sangha Jewel.

Once we take the Three Refuges, we have a strong platform of faith on which to begin our practice. There are five stages to building one's practice:

1. The Three refuges of turning away from heterodoxy—the initial entering of the door of Buddhism.

2. The Three refuges of five precepts—when one receives the five precepts after having developed confidence in the Three Jewels.

3. The Three refuges of eight precepts—the traditional ritual days where one maintains eight precepts for the duration of twenty-four hours.

4. The Three refuges of ten precepts—the precepts one receives when one enters the monastery as a novitiate.

5. The Three refuges of complete precepts—the full precepts of monks and nuns.

Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is always a part of all ceremonies involving the receiving of precepts. This is also true for the higher precept ordinations of monks and nuns, when the precept essence is conferred. Taking refuge is also necessary after repentance and making vows during the ceremony of receiving the bodhisattva precepts. The ceremonies of taking refuge and receiving precepts are mutually supportive.

Taking refuge is the basis of daily practice for all Buddhists. It is included in the daily liturgy in monasteries as well as at the conclusion of every Buddhist event. South Asian Buddhists consider this ceremony to be of highest importance and they chant the refuge as a blessing to the laity.


| More
Back to news list

Your are here : Archives > Chan Garden Refuge-Taking > Why Take Refuges in Three Jewels > Different Levels of the Three Jewels