The three treasures are the path to the awakened mind, and they are that awakening itself. They point to the ultimate nature that is realized through practice, as well as to how that nature manifests in our practice and actualization, how we embody our understanding of the real nature of things.
The Buddha, dharma, and sangha are the real activity of compassion that has been passed down through many generations. They point to how real people seek real truth in a particular time and place. At the same time, the three treasures are timeless: they are free of changing times and conditions; they reach everywhere. To take refuge in the three treasures, says Master Dogen in his classic Shobogenzo, is to unreservedly rely on them. The only way we can do this is to have profound trust and faith in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. To depend on them to that degree, they have to be worthy of our trust. This means that we must also have that depth of trust in ourselves, for the three treasures are nothing other than our real nature.
In the Zen tradition, at regular intervals during the year we practice fusatsu, a renewal of vows centered on the Buddhist precepts. During that ceremony, the sangha chants:
Being one with the Buddha with all sentient beings, raise the bodhi mind, let the Supreme Way be realized;
Being one with the dharma with all sentient beings, penetrate all sutras, let wisdom be like the ocean;
Being one with the sangha with all sentient beings, lead the people, let harmony pervade everywhere.
Being one with the Buddha with all sentient beings, raise the bodhi mind, let the Supreme Way be realized.
To take refuge in the Buddha treasure is to take refuge in the Buddha Shakyamuni. There was such a person. He had a mother and father, just like you and me. He was raised to live in his culture and to believe in the ideas of his time, so he was conditioned by that very culture. He also had a deep yearning to live in a way that was larger than what was dictated to him by his family and friends; he had a profound desire to live without fetters.
We can imagine him as a young man, feeling that deep calling within himself, and struggling to fit in. Surely he struggled to accept the life he’d been given, the world he saw around him, his time in history, the beliefs that dominated his culture, the influences that he was subjected to. He must have tried so hard to do what others around him were doing. To go along and find satisfaction in life as best he could. To take on the life that was expected of him by the people who mattered most in his life.
We can imagine how hard it might have been for him to walk away from that—to reject and disappoint those whom he loved and who loved him—yet this is just what he did. In being one with the Buddha, we identify with the imperative we each face to let go of what is familiar and seemingly secure, and enter the wilderness of spiritual practice.
Raise the bodhi mind and let the Supreme Way be realized.
Raising the bodhi mind—bodhichitta—is to know there is a life that is somehow beyond the one we’re living. To not be satisfied with a life in which we “get by” with simple answers to profound questions. To be unafraid to ask questions that cannot yet be answered within oneself. Bodhichitta, arising in one’s consciousness, contains the seeds of an unwillingness to compromise; that is, an unwillingness to take on the life expected of us, but instead to trust and follow one’s intuition and faith that there is something more, even though it is, at present, beyond our experience. Moreover, to do so even when that may mean standing alone, moving against the current of what those around us are doing. It is to dedicate our efforts to discovering the truth of this body, this mind, this time, this place. It is to take up the questions: What is it? Who am I? What is this? We begin to probe the profound implications of those questions, and determine that we will not be lazy in our investigation or fearful of what we might discover.
Bodhichitta can only arise from a profound faith in our inherent enlightened nature. We need to let go of our self-centered and fearful grasping of all that’s familiar, and to be one with the courage, sincerity, and faith of the Buddha so we can discover a deep determination to live as an awakened being now, rather than at some future point or in some future perfect situation. And as we walk this path, we must diligently challenge ourselves when we become weary or complacent, and demand more of ourselves than others might ask of us.
Why do we do this? To let the Supreme Way be realized. Our vow is to forget the self—to realize the self’s true nature—and allow that liberated self to manifest freely. We must stop denying that we have the capacity to awaken. We can no longer retreat into our old ways in which we deny who we actually are. To paraphrase Chinese Zen Master Yunju Daoying: If you want to attain the Way, you must be a person of the Way. You already are a person of the Way. So why worry about the attainment of the Way?
Being one with the dharma with all sentient beings, penetrate all sutras, let wisdom be like the ocean.
To rely on the dharma treasure is to turn again and again toward the teachings of the Buddha. To turn toward them when they sound like music, and when they sound like crashing thunder. When they soothe and caress, and when they seem to rip our skin off.
As the Buddha said in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, when we can encounter the teachings of selflessness without turning away in fear, then we may be ready to take refuge in the dharma treasure. That treasure, the truth to which the Buddha awakened, is ineffable; it can’t be spoken of and yet it must be expressed. It is without self—without any inherently abiding characteristic—and yet it manifests in ten thousand forms. It is the infinite diversity and richness of life, sentient and insentient. It is fully present in everyone, and yet we must practice to realize it.
Without this dharma treasure, there is no practice and no realization, and there is no cessation of suffering in our lives. Without this treasure there is bodhihcitta, but there is no path to realize bodhi. And yet, to ultimately realize the dharma we must go beyond all dharma views.
The Buddha treasure is the great ocean, and the dharma treasure is the stream by which we return to that ocean. The dharma is true words, live words, expressing and pointing to the truth of things. It is expression, understanding, and insight made manifest in practices that have been tested by countless people—men, women, young, old. But even though the dharma treasure it true, and even though practice is skillful, without faith in the dharma treasure, we cannot enter. There is a door that we yearn to pass through, but it won’t open.
In cultivating a deep and stable trust in the dharma treasure, we must also be developing a profound faith in ourselves. If we do not have such faith, if we cannot accept who we are, as we are, it is very difficult to have faith in other people and other things. Taking refuge in the dharma treasure means that we trust deeply our capacity to realize the truth of our self-nature—not because we’re extraordinary beings, but simply because we are human beings. As we practice and our faith gets stronger, the more that door, which would not yield before, begins to open. Of course, it was open all along. And, as we gain insight, we finally realize there never was a door.
To penetrate all sutras is to be one with the dharma. It’s to realize the teachings of the enlightened beings as our own, direct experience. We discover the wisdom without boundary that reaches everywhere like a great ocean. A Chinese master said this was the moment the sutras returned to the person.
Be one with the sangha with all sentient beings. Lead the people and let harmony pervade everywhere.
To take refuge in the sangha treasure is to rely upon those who are walking the path with us. It’s to understand deeply the value—indeed, the necessity—of being engaged in such a profoundly solitary practice with others. We often think of the sangha treasure in terms of the support it provides, but it’s more than that. It allows us to fulfill our natural, necessary, and inescapable obligation to others. If we are to alleviate the suffering of others—of all beings—it should begin here, with this person in front of us, with the people in our sangha. If it doesn’t happen here, it’s not likely to happen at all.
If we’re to regard all beings as endowed with enlightened nature, we should view the people most present in our lives as possessing that nature. Once we genuinely appreciate that the people we practice with possess buddhanature, then we need to cultivate the aspiration to do whatever we can to help them realize that truth. We then realize we can’t confine such wisdom and generosity to our dharma friends. It becomes obvious that we need to open our hearts to every being, to the ten thousand things, regardless of their appearance and personality, their karma and background, their politics and lifestyle, what they do and don’t do for us.
I’ve long felt that the practice of the sangha treasure is Buddhism’s response to the eternal human question: Can we live together in peace? Since it’s so easy to be caught in self-centeredness, we need to be very alert as we indulge our anger, or cultivate resentment or jealousy. In this way we develop tremendous patience, both with others and ourselves, as we open the heart of great compassion and begin to manifest harmony with all beings.
To realize being one with the sangha is to realize that there is one body—one practice, one mind, one awareness, one realization—and so we let go of the self that creates disharmony, self-interest, competition, jealousy, and conflict.
Lead the people and let harmony pervade everywhere.
How do we lead the people? With wisdom and compassion. As Buddhists we know this, but how? How do we take this from an intention to an embodied truth? This is what the precepts—the shila—offer us. To embody the precepts is to manifest wisdom and selfless compassion as our own body and mind, as our own life. We shouldn’t think of “being a leader”; that’s just another idea to promote the self. Rather, just be yourself, your original self. Be true to your real nature when you’re standing and when you’re falling, and know intimately how to fall and how to stand. We should take chances as we immerse ourselves in the details of our lives and our world so we learn to do this well.
To take refuge in the three treasures is not to go through life safely, hugging the leash. It’s to leap forward with profound trust in the natural wisdom present in all phenomena.
Let us, then, each be honest and sincere, shaking off the constraints of gain and loss, success and failure. To let go of all judgment and self-clinging, to relieve ourselves of the burden of self-promotion and self-denigration—isn’t this how we inspire others, and are inspired? Isn’t this how we can lead, by embodying liberation, demonstrating the Way, being the Way? Isn’t this being one with the Buddha, dharma, and sangha?
These three treasures are our body and mind, and the body and mind of everything, sentient and insentient. They are the enlightened being, the enlightened teachings, and the enlightened community. If we have the opportunity to practice within a sangha, to study the dharma with a realized teacher, we can easily forget how incredibly rare these treasures really are. We shouldn’t forget. Let’s cultivate a deep gratitude for the karma that has brought us into close contact with the three treasures. Let’s appreciate that the karma that often seems to bind us in our lives is the very same karma that has helped us find our way to the door that is always open.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold is the abbot and resident teacher of Zen Mountain Monastery and abbot of the Zen Center of New York City. He received dharma transmission from John Daido Loori Roshi in 1997. Along with Pema Khandro Rinpoche and Sylvia Boorstein, he will lead Lion’s Roar magazine’s annual retreat at the Garrison Institute, “Boundless Love: How to Generate Compassion for Yourself and Others” on September 8-10.