The Buddha taught that there were three things that a person could take refuge in:
- The Buddha – The Buddha, or “fully self-awakened one”, perceived the nature of things without help from others (i.e. another Buddhist teacher). He set the wheel in motion for others. In many respects the Buddha is more like a doctor than a teacher, because he helps to cure the ills of the world, and gives prescriptions on how to accomplish it. In practical terms, the Buddha also provides a model for disciples to follow, and an inspiration when one lacks confidence. Another term used to describe the Buddha is Tathagata or “thus come one”.
- The Dharma – The Buddha’s words, as memorized by disciples and set down in the sutras provide the best reference we have to what the Buddha taught. Many sutras exist in Buddhism, there is no single “book” as found in other religions. Instead, the entire collection of sutras form the basis of Buddhist doctrine, however, many schools center around and “specialize in” certain sutras. Not all sutras were written at the same time, and not all of them are written in India, but certain over-arching themes can be found in all sutras, and this represents the Dharma or teachings of the Buddha.Note that “Dharma” in the original Pali language can also means “the way things are”. The idea of the Dharma is less a doctrine or dogma, and more of a universal set of principles. One can perceive these principles in life, and validate them, or they can live their whole life ignorant of them if they so choose. By understanding and living a life that aligns with these principles, though, one can save themselves a lot of unnecessary grief and frustration.
- The Sangha – The Sangha represents both the monastic community (monks and nuns), but also lay-followers of various backgrounds. It can represent one’s immediate temple, or the unbroken line of followers who helped bring Buddhism. While the Dharma is the teachings of the Buddha, the Sangha is what keeps it alive and flourishing across many cultures and times.
Collectively these were known as the Three Treasures or Three Jewels of Buddhism.
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