The Könchoksum (དཀོན་མཆོག་གསུམ་), also known as the Three Jewels or the Three Objects of Refuge, is among the best-known groups in Buddhism. In Bhutan, most learn about it as children and continue to pray to the Three Jewels throughout their lives. However, beyond being able to simply enumerate the Three Jewels–the Buddha, dharma, and sangha–very few know what actually constitutes the Three Jewels or what the Buddha, dharma and sangha refer to.
In the basic theories of Buddhism, which spread widely even during the lifetime of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni, the term ‘Buddha’ referred to a rare being who uprooted all negative emotions and impulses, realized the true nature of existence, and reached full enlightenment. Dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha, which existed in the two forms of doctrine and practical experiences. The sangha are the followers of the Buddha who upheld the dharma. One takes refuge in all three: in the Buddha by accepting the Buddha as a teacher, in the dharma by accepting it as one’s way of life, and in the sangha as companions on the path.
We find a more scholastic presentation of the Three Jewels authored by the famous Indian scholar Vasubandhu as according to the Vaibhaṣika School of thought in his magnum opus Abhidharmakośa. According to this system, the Buddha was a prince who was born as such due to his previous karma. So, his person was not transcendental per se but rather an assembly of ordinary psychophysical aggregates. One should not take refuge in the person of the Buddha but rather in the two inner qualities of elimination (སྤངས་པ་) or the absence of defilements, and spiritual realization (རྟོགས་པ་). The realization or spiritual knowledge of the Buddha, which is transcendent, is the true Buddha in whom one must take refuge. Similarly, true dharma does not mean the fleeting words of teachings but rather the state of nirvāṇa, or the absence of defiling elements, which the Buddha and some of his followers have attained. The real sangha in which to take refuge is the spiritual realization in the minds of the Buddha’s followers.
In the Mahāyanottaratantra, Maitreya presents the Three Jewels according to a particular Mahāyāna understanding. According to him, the Buddha must possess two sets of three qualities. The first set is that Buddhahood, with respect to its own benefit, is unconditioned, spontaneous and unknowable. Second, with respect to benefiting others, Buddhahood must have wisdom, compassion and power. The dharma includes the freedom from defiling emotions and the path to such freedom. The state of freedom from negative emotions is described as inconceivable, non-dualistic and non-conceptual. The path to freedom is described as pure, luminous and remedial (or antidotal) in nature. These two correspond to the third and fourth of the Four Noble Truths. Sangha, in this context, refers to the wise Bodhisattvas who have reached the irrevocable stage of the Mahāyāna path. They are said to possess the understanding of single nature of reality, of the phenomenal diversity of things, and pure internal insight.
Definitions of the Buddha, dharma and sangha further vary as one approaches the different schools of Vajrayāna system. Instead of seeking refuge in the Three Jewels as a set of external entities, Vajrayāna traditions often point to latent qualities within a person as the potential Buddha, dharma and sangha and encourages the practitioner to take refuge in oneself and the enlightened qualities that are inherently within. Vajrayāna traditions further add the Three Roots as an object of refuge, which will be treated in a separate essay. They add a trio of sacred channels, energies and fluids, and also the triad of nature, essence, and immanence as objects of refuge.
Whichever tradition one follows, it is crucial to understand the objects of refuge in order to effectively undertake this most fundamental Buddhist practice of taking refuge in the Three Jewels. Without fully appreciating why and in what one is taking refuge, basic Buddhist practice risks becoming a hollow ritual or a blind practice.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel as part of a series called “Why We Do What We Do.”