Orthodox Chinese Buddhism
Why Do Buddhists Have Faith in the Three Jewels?
Having faith in the Three Jewels is certainly the most characteristic feature of a Buddhist. Followers of other, theistic religions either believe only in God (i.e., Jews and Muslims), or in the Holy Father, Holy Son, and Holy Spirit (i.e., [Protestant] Christians), or in this trinity plus the Holy Mother (i.e., Catholics). Because Buddhism is an atheistic religion, Buddhists do not worship the Buddha as a deity, nor do they regard him as the one and only Buddha or as the creator of everything who can absolve all the sins of humankind. Rather, the Buddha is a teacher who can help students change their dispositions, acquire knowledge, and cultivate their bodies and minds; he cannot, however, learn for the students or take entrance examinations for them.
So for these reasons, we can see that faith in Buddhism is purely rational and ethical. Buddhists' worship of the Buddha is much like the filial reverence children give their parents: it is motivated by a desire to repay kindness. An orthodox Buddhist would certainly not worship the Buddha in order to seek prosperity or avoid misfortune. Although the power of a Buddha's vows may be stimulated by the mental power produced by prayer and thereby bring about a miraculous response, this mainly depends on the person praying. If the person who prays has fixed karma that ripens, even if he or she prays, the Buddha can do nothing to help. If one can practice in accordance with the Buddha’s Dharma—for example, developing the perfections of giving, keeping precepts, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom—then one's karmic energy from previous lives can be changed: heavy negative karma might result in only light karmic retribution, and light negative karma may be dissolved entirely. This is because the maturation of karma is analogous to the sprouting and growth of a plant, which require favorable conditions. A seed given sunlight, air, water, soil, fertilizer, and appropriate care by gardeners will grow very fast to its full size. On the contrary, if these conditions are lacking, the same seed will grow slowly into a frail plant, and might not even germinate at all. The same principles apply to karma and retribution in Buddhism. So the Buddha’s greatness is not due to his creation of the universe or absolution of sins (no one can really absolve another person's sin), but because he personally realized the Dharma of liberation and taught it to others. Those who practice accordingly can also achieve liberation and can even help others become Buddhas, just as the Buddha did.
So, many Buddhists are unwilling to be addressed as “Buddhists” and prefer to be called “disciples of the Three Jewels.” This is because although the Buddha developed Buddhism, it is the Dharma that is the most essential part of Buddhism. The Buddha cannot liberate anyone ,but the Dharma allows people to emancipate themselves. To worship the Buddha is to show our adoration for him for his kindness inteaching us the Dharma he realized. Before his realization, the Buddha spent three immeasurable kalpas cultivating the bodhisattva path, and after his realization, he offered all he had learned to us without holding anything back. The greatness of his kindness is a billion times greater than all the meritorious worldly deeds combined—indeed, a billion times is really an understatement, as it really is beyond comparison or conception.
Propagation of the Dharma has to rely, however, on the Buddha's cadres, the members of the Sangha. The Sangha consists of bodhisattvas (such as Mañjuśrī, Maitreya, Guanyin, and Earth Treasury), śrāvakas (including arhats such as Śāriputra, Maudgalyāyana, and Mahākāśyapa), and ordinary monastics (i.e., all monks and nuns who keep the precepts, practice the Dharma themselves, and expound the Dharma to others). Due to the Sangha, the Buddha’s Dharma of liberation and enlightenment has been propagated and handed down to us, and so the kindness of the Sangha is also immeasurable.
The task of spreading the Dharma is not limited to monastics, since laypeople can do this also. But only monastics can uphold the Dharma. What we mean by uphold the Dharma is to act as a representative and symbol of the Dharma, to maintain a Buddhist presence in the world. This is because if the average person on the street sees a monastic, he will think of Buddhism, but if he sees a lay Buddhist, he will not think of Buddhism. (Unless the layperson explicitly identifies himself as a Buddhist—but it would be awkward to do so every time he meets somebody.)
Summing up, we see that the Buddha uncovered the Dharma, that the Dharma is the core of Buddhism, and that the Sangha upholds the Dharma so that it remains in the world. That’s why between the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the Three Jewels, the jewel of the Dharma is of primary importance. This Dharma that leads us away from suffering to happiness was realized and taught by the Buddha, and is upheld and transmitted by the Sangha, so the Buddha and Sangha are also called jewels.
When the Buddha was in our world, taking refuge primarily meant seeking refuge in the Buddha; after he passed away, it has meant to seek shelter in the Sangha. The purpose of taking refuge is to learn the Dharma, and to learn the Dharma one must rely on the wise guidance of the Sangha; such guidance is given through the Sangha's transmission of ideas and influence on one's behavior. So after the Buddha's passing away, the Sangha became the primary recipient of offerings to the Three Jewels. Buddhism teaches that we should “rely on the Dharma, not on an individual,”7 and so taking refuge in and transmitting the correct Dharma is of utmost importance. Consequently, the behavior of monastics is their personal business, and as long as they have correct views and can preach the Dharma, even if they break the precepts, laity should still give them respect and offerings. This respect should be given because of the principles of human relations between people of different social roles (lunli); just as the common saying goes, “There are no unvirtuous parents in the world” [implying that even if one’s parents commit wrong acts, one still must honor and respect them as parents]. The respect owed to imperfect monastics is also comparable to the respect a college graduate should have for his or her former elementary school teacher who has no college degree.
So, to an orthodox Buddhist, the Buddha is worshipped because of the Dharma, and the Sangha is paid reverence due to one's faith in and acceptance of the Dharma. Worshipping the great bodhisattvas is one way of paying reverence to the Sangha. While of course we should revere and make offerings to spiritually realized monastics, great bodhisattvas, and arhats, we should also do the same for ordinary monks and nuns who keep precepts and teach the Dharma. In fact, such respect should even be extended to monastics who do not keep the precepts but have right view and can preach the Dharma correctly (what is essential is that they have right view and can teach the true Dharma). In fact, in these days long after the Buddha has left us, noble monastics [i.e., monks and nuns enlightened to the noble (Sārya) level] are hard to find, so we generally pay our respect to ordinary monks and nuns. The sūtras mention that making offering to ordinary monastics is no different from supporting noble monastics, and supporting either brings one inconceivable and immeasurable blessings.
The magnificence and grandeur of Buddhism are fully embodied in the Three Jewels, so to have faith in Buddhism is to have faith in the Three Jewels. Respect for the Sangha was unquestioned during the Buddha's time and is likewise unquestioned even today in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. But in Chinese areas, reverence to the Sangha has never been accepted as a universal practice, perhaps because some monks and nuns are of dubious virtue. Generally, only a few eminent members of the Buddhist clergy are revered. Some people respect these eminent clerics for their virtue, yet others blindly worship them as if they were gods. And because of this custom of worshipping eminent monastics, some despicable clerics put on acts of strange behavior in order to attract the blind faith of the masses of ignorant people. These are all concepts urgently in need of correction, and an orthodox Buddhist would never behave in such a manner.
Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, Why Do Buddhists Have Faith in the Three Jewels?, p.64-p.67.