The Buddhist path to enlightenment, or at least the path to living with an open-heart, includes three foundational elements that Buddhists call the Three Jewels. These three jewels, or gems, are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddhist practitioners are guided to “seek refuge” in these three jewels; the Buddha being a human example of what is possible for each one of us; the Dharma, his teachings that can be studied in order to follow in his footsteps; and the Sangha, the community of fellow seekers or comrades on the journey, who will support us and whom we support along the way. “Seeking refuge” refers to making a commitment or vow, to surrendering to these three gems as the primary guidance and principal resources in one’s life. Similar to a marriage vow, when one takes refuge in the three jewels, one is declaring intention and commitment with regard to their spiritual path.
The Buddha was a human being, like you and me, who was able to practice a very simple form of meditation which we now call Vipassana (literally translated as super-seeing or insight). Discovering this practice, the Buddha woke up in a big way. He was able to transcend the cycles of suffering with which you and I wrestle every day, the ups and downs associated with our attachments to life being different than it is. The good news is that we all have the capacity to wake up to and surrender our attachments, to accept the variable and ever-changing experience of being human. The Buddha’s experience of inner peace is available to all of us.
The second of the three jewels is the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha taught for many years. We can study his teachings, analyze them, and incorporate them into our lives. The Buddha was big on self-examination—he said that we should not take anything he said at face value, but rather, explore his teachings for ourselves and discover whether or not they actually aligned with our own personal experience.
Having taken that guidance to heart, I've spent decades exploring and experimenting and have developed a deep appreciation and love for Dharma; I have studied Buddhist Dharma and Hindu Dharma, as well as Christian, Taoist and Muslim “Dharmas” or wisdom teachings. All the great iconic spiritual leaders, including Jesus Christ, Krishna, Buddha, Mohammed and myriad others have blessed us with guidance for living life in ways that will be meaningful, authentic, and loving. I am not drawn to the dogma of the religions that have been constructed around the various Dharmas, but I have committed to a lifetime of receiving the wisdom of great teachers, applying their guidance in my everyday life, and sharing my insight and deepening awareness with others.
The third of the three jewels is the Sangha, or the community of supportive friends and fellows on the spiritual path. More conventionally thought of as a monastic community, in today’s world Sangha includes all those who are learning together to walk the talk of devotion and surrender to the wisdom of Dharma, whichever wisdom tradition or traditions resonate most clearly for that particular group or collective of humans. The point is the shared experience, the knowing that we are all in this together.
Sangha can be known through an experience of sitting in a room full of meditators and knowing that you are likely not the only one bored, falling asleep, or extremely anxious. Knowing there are other people going through the exact same thing you are can be of great comfort. Having access to other people with whom we can talk about our spiritual experiences, obstacles faced or challenges underway, who can offer us advice and guidance when we get discouraged or dejected along the way, this is Sangha. When someone takes refuge in Sangha they are not going it alone in a dark cave—they are growing, developing, evolving and practicing within a supportive community.
The three jewels are foundational for the Buddhist path though taking vow of refuge is not required to call ones self a Buddhist. And I find the jewels to be essential pilars of any spiritual path one chooses. A question does arises for me, however and that is . . . "is choosing a path necessary? Is choosing a teacher, a teaching and an associated community necessary?"
The answer is different for each of us, I suppose. But I’m discovering that most all the realized teachers I have followed, whose teachings I have studied, are saying the same thing. Using different, language, symbols, stories, songs and sacred references; they are all pointing toward home, toward reunion with that which we can feel and know to be our true nature, our essential self which seems to exist both within and beyond its physical manifestation. As a result, I'm not sure it matters much at all which lane you choose, but choosing and committing can help to focus; and focus helps to accelerate and deepen.
Then it is a question of which teacher, teaching and community most clearly speaks to or resonates with your innate sense of truth. And if you find yourself at a difficult psychological/spiritual intersection, do you perceive the teacher, the teaching or the community to be wrong or lacking in some way and move on, or do you deepen into your own resistance to the emerging relationship you have with lack, with not getting what you think you should from these inevitably fallible, always human teacher/teaching/community constructs.
As previously mentioned, it is a bit like getting married, only to a specific spiritual path. You could, (and I did) for example, meet someone and spark a romantic relationship and spend your lifetime (25 years, in my case) with that person without getting married. But there is something to be said for getting up in front of your friends and family, your community or Sangha and saying, “I’m in it with this person, for better or worse. I’m committed to standing by them and I am committed to being myself with them regardless of what may come.” There’s some weight in making that vow (which I finally did, with my husband, after 25 years).
In the same vein, taking a refuge vow is also standing in front of a supportive community and saying, “Okay. For better or worse, I’m in it with this Buddhist stuff, or this Hindu business, or this Christian approach, or this Wicca tradition . . . whatever. I’m committed to meditating, contemplating, praying, singing, chanting and exploring the example of the iconic (usually dead) leader. I’m committed to learning from the living human teachers representing and interpreting the OG guru and their teachings; and I’m committed to the community of other devoted souls, and will serve the highest good of all, faithfully and to the best of my ability.”
I recommend at least experimenting with such a commitment, (even if you put off the vow part), because immediately, as soon as you say “yes, I will,” “I do,” issues of personal will, willingness and resistance come into play and you’re off to the personal growth and self-awareness races . . .
Ultimately, while the support of the teacher and the community help us to embody the teachings, I’m not sure there is an absolute need for a life-long direct association with a living guru or teacher, or even community for that matter. However, developmentally, just like we need parents to guide us, set boundaries and help us learn about and respect our limitations, and stay the course when life gets hard, so too, living teachers help us awaken to those parts of ourselves we might otherwise resist or ignore. Metal sharpens metal . . . friction makes smooth. The imperfect human dimensions of these spiritual relationships, just like a marriage, reveal the perfection of the diamond in the coal, the human heart in the infinite soul.