Triratna in Sanskrit
in Pali, are the three central concepts in Buddhism. They are the Buddha, the Dhamma (or teachings) and the Sangha (community of monks/nuns). Since they are central to the Buddhists, regardless of which sect they belong to, they are highly valued and revered as the cornerstone of Buddhism. So they are metaphorically termed “jewels” or “gems”.
The Buddha is the prime source of authority and inspiration. His experiences have shown that there is a way to escape from the world of suffering, and that it can be achieved through one’s own efforts. The Buddha which means “awakened one”, suggests that his enlightenment was a “waking up” to the world as it really is, free from its delusion and ignorance. Consequently, in Buddhism, the fact that he wanted to show others the way to Nirvana also makes him worthy of the greatest respect and as the prime source of inspiration and authority for adherents.
The Buddha is believed to have faced a great dilemma after his enlightenment – whether he should pass on his knowledge or to keep it to himself. But out of compassion for the rest who could not experience the profound insight on the truth of life and death, he decided to pass on his teachings. These teachings came to be collectively known as the Dhamma (in Pali) or Dharma (in Sanskrit) which embodies the essential doctrines of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths, Kamma, Rebirth, Samsara, Dependent Origination, and so on. These bodies of teachings, which were first committed to writing in the Pali Canon in about the 1st century BCE, were instruments to make great spiritual progress and even attain enlightenment. Since they offer the means to escape from sufferings (Dukkha), Buddhists revere it as one of the Three Jewels.
The sangha is the pragmatic realization of the Buddha’s thought – an institution where there is no hierarchy. The Sangha, or the monastic community of monks and nuns was thus founded by the Buddha, based on this high ideal. The sangha became the central institution of the Buddhists, where the monks and nuns, after vowing themselves into celibacy, devoted their lives to meditation and study, and also teach the laity to achieve Nirvana. The sangha is therefore accorded a special significance because it is seen as the making of the Buddha’s teachings as an exclusive focus of their lives.
The Three Refuges
The Three Jewels is also known as the Three Refuges. The initiation of a monk into the Sangha is marked by the recitation of the following words: I seek in the Buddha; I seek refuge in the Dhamma; I seek refuge in the sangha.
The Three Jewels and The Three Refuges are a reminder that that the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha offer protection and comfort from sufferings and at the same time, envision the opportunity to work towards enlightenment.