The Three Jewels are the source of refuge for Buddhist practitioners: The Buddha as our teacher; the Dharma as the teachings; and the Sangha as our spiritual companions.
Over twenty-five hundred years ago, Prince Siddhartha of the Shakya kingdom (located in the foothills of the Himalayas) set himself the task of solving human suffering after observing the agonies of old age, disease and death, and encountering a wandering ascetic who lived a simple yet happy life. The prince cut his hair, exchanged his rich robes for rags, and embarked on a spiritual journey. He spent years practicing austerities under the guidance of renowned masters but realized that spiritual awakening would not result from starvation and physical weakness. He then traveled to Bodhgaya, India. There, after forty-nine days of undistracted meditation under a bodhi tree, he transcended the conventional dualism of a self that perceives the rest of the world as “other,” and thereby experiences pain and pleasure in relation to it. He became known as the Buddha Shakyamuni; Buddha meaning “awakened one” and Shakyamuni meaning “the sage of the Shakyas.”
After achieving realization, the Buddha shared his insight with those who asked for guidance according to their varied dispositions. His teachings are collectively referred to as the Dharma; it is said that he “turned” the wheel of Dharma three times. Each turning represents a series of teachings suitable for students of different levels, with each level serving as the foundation for the next.
The Buddha first turned the wheel of Dharma in Sarnath, India, where he proclaimed the four noble truths: (1) all sentient beings experience suffering; (2) suffering is caused by negative actions, propelled by ignorance and ego-clinging; (3) the pacification of suffering can be achieved by renouncing negative and self-centered activities; and (4)the path to suffering’s pacification consists of practicing ethical conduct, engaging in meditation, and developing wisdom. For much of his lifetime, the Buddha gave teachings on these truths and explained how we can free ourselves from suffering through spiritual practice.
The second and third turnings form the basis of the Mahayana (the great vehicle). This is the very path that Buddha undertook for many lifetimes as a bodhisattva, a being striving for spiritual awakening to benefit others. The Buddha’s second turning began at Vulture Peak in Rajgir, India. There, he taught the perfection of wisdom: all phenomena arise based on our subjective perception and are inherently empty of self-imposed labels. He also explained the Mahayana practices of generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, and contemplation that accompany the perfection of wisdom. In the third turning, the Buddha made clear that the true nature of all sentient beings is buddhahood and that our true nature is not presently understood due to temporary mental obscurations. Just as a womb is the basis for birth, this nature is the basis for all beings to become buddhas.
These three turnings are the foundation for the Vajrayana (the diamond or indestructible vehicle), the path that has brought both monastics and householders to spiritual awakening within a single lifetime through practices that purify negative actions. Vajrayana practitioners engage in meditations focused on the understanding that our essence is ultimately pure like the Buddha. As the Buddha prophesied, the Vajrayana would flourish in future times and its teachings would be transmitted by masters such as Padmasambhava, who facilitated the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century CE. Through the Vajrayana path, we each can transform ordinary activity into enlightened action and, in so doing, experience the awakened nature of mind—the Buddha’s primordial and deathless aspect, Vajradhara, holder of the indestructible scepter, who represents our true changeless nature.
The Buddha established one of the world’s oldest monastic orders, the Sangha, a community of monks and nuns crucial to the preservation of the Dharma for future generations. In the centuries that followed the Buddha’s passing, the ordained sangha has been established in each country where the Dharma has taken root and has ensured the authentic practice of the Buddhist teachings from one generation to the next. Today, the term sangha may refer to both ordained and lay practitioners. But it is the Noble Sangha—the Buddha’s realized disciples and assembly of bodhisattvas—in whom we take refuge as our companions on the path to awakening.