Three gifts for a Zen Christmas
In the traditional Nativity story that I grew up with, three travellers come all the way to Bethlehem to present the baby Jesus with three gifts. Buddhism also has three 'treasures', and so this week we're going to take a look at what they are.
(Yeah, I know it's a stretch. I foolishly promised my Wednesday night class that I'd try to think of a festive-themed class for the end of the year, and this is the best I could do. Please just pretend it's a stroke of genius, and read on anyway!)
What are the Three Treasures?
Also known as the Triple Gem, Three Jewels or Three Refuges, the Three Treasures are three key aspects of Buddhist practice: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Between them, they offer a framework of support for anyone wishing to travel the Buddhist path.
But why do we need support in the first place? Because the path is hard! Meditation can be difficult, frustrating or boring at times; our practice can go through periods where it doesn't really seem like it's helping any more, like we've forgotten what we're doing or (worse) that it was never actually working in the first place. Many of the classic texts (and probably a fair few of my articles) make it sound like the moment you hit a meditation cushion your experiential reality will be transformed into sacred wonder and you'll never have another bad day ever again, but the reality is not always so appealing. Of course, in the long run practice really does enrich our lives in profound ways (I wouldn't devote so much time and effort to teaching if it didn't!), but at times it can be hard to remember that.
And so we have these three treasures, or three refuges - three factors that we can turn to for support when we need it most. So let's take a look at them!
At the simplest level, 'Buddha' refers to the historical figure of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni ('sage of the Shakya clan'). Siddhartha is the O.G. Buddha, founder of the whole tradition - according to the stories, the son of a king who abandoned his inheritance to become a homeless wanderer, searching for a solution to the problem of suffering. After many trials and tribulations he eventually found what he was looking for, and spent the last 45 years of his life teaching it to anyone who would listen. The legacy of his remarkable life is both one of the world's great religions, and a remarkably practical approach to examining one's experience and coming to understand how we can suffer less and be kinder, more compassionate people.
Siddhartha wasn't the only buddha, however. In some of the early discourses he talks about himself as the seventh in a line of historical buddhas. Later on, many more buddhas and bodhisattvas were added to the collection. Over time, Buddhism developed a pantheon of figures associated with different qualities - for example, Amitabha Buddha presides over the Pure Land, located west of Mount Sumeru in Buddhist cosmology, and the Pure Land sect of Buddhism is essentially devoted to the worship of Amitabha. There are many other inspiring figures among the buddhas and bodhisattvas, notably including the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara/Kuan Yin/Kannon, considered to be the embodiment of compassion, and Manjushri, the embodiment of wisdom. Many stories are told about these figures in the classic texts, and they can be brought to mind as a source of inspiration if you're that way inclined.
On the other hand, if this is all sounding a bit mythological and abstract, we can also look at the term 'Buddha' as referring simply to the great teachers of the tradition, including those in our lineage, and perhaps even those alive today. After all, we have to learn this stuff somehow, and the reason that so many wonderful, powerful spiritual teachings are available to us today is because of the patient efforts of many generations of men and women who have investigated, understood and subsequently embodied them in order to pass them on to the next generation in turn. We live now in a remarkable era in which Zen masters and senior teachers from other traditions offer their guidance freely over the Internet, which is pretty amazing when you really stop to think about it.
Finally, one more (comparatively esoteric) meaning of 'Buddha' is our own awakened nature. Whether we have immediate access to a human teacher or not, our own Buddha Nature is always with us - it's only difficult to see because it's so close. And as our practice goes deeper and we see more of who we really are, we can learn to trust our inherently awakened nature, and come to rely on it to get us through even the toughest times.
The second of the Three Treasures is the Dharma, which in this context typically means 'the teachings of the Buddha'. Of course, as we've explored recently, different iterations of Buddhism have taken different approaches to the problem of suffering; depending on how you look at it, you might see that as multiple paths within one Dharma, or multiple Dharmas serving slightly different needs within different contexts.
Either way, though, we do have this body of teachings to inspire, instruct and guide us in our explorations of ourselves and our world. And while in the previous section I highlighted the role of teachers throughout the ages in passing the Dharma down to each new generation, we can also look at the teachings as they stand apart from the imperfect human individuals involved in the chain of transmission. Sadly, it isn't hard to find examples of senior teachers who have betrayed the trust that their students placed in them in all kinds of terrible ways. But to focus too much on high-profile cases of wrong-doing at the expense of the tremendous benefit that the teachings bring to millions of people worldwide is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Furthermore, the Dharma provides us with a tremendous resource of time-tested practices. It can be tempting to go one's own way with meditation practice and ignore all the tedious bits in an established tradition, or to follow a charismatic guru who claims to have awakened spontaneously with no formal instruction, but in turning away from the established traditions we miss out on the opportunity to benefit from thousands of years of research and development, thousands of years of testing and refining the practices that have proven time and again to work well. The more I study Zen, the more I discover the purpose of even those aspects of the path that I initially dismissed as 'just tradition' or 'just a cultural thing', and over time I've (hopefully!) become a little more humble and a little less likely to assume that I can immediately tell what's useful and what isn't.
Finally, just as Buddha can be interpreted esoterically as a reference to our own awakened nature, Dharma can be interpreted as a reference to reality itself. The Tang dynasty Zen master Nanyang Huizhong said that the Buddha mind is 'fences, tiles, walls and pebbles' - in other words, the everyday things of the world. Sometimes it can seem like Zen teachings point to something very remote and special, but time and again Zen stories point us back to the world that's right in front of us. There's no need to go somewhere special to find it - it's already here.
The final 'jewel' is the sangha - the community of practitioners. Traditionally, the term was used in a few different ways. At times, it referred specifically to the monastic community, while at other times it indicated those practitioners (lay or monastic) who had attained at least the first stage of awakening, stream entry, and could thus speak from a place of genuine personal insight rather than simply repeating the words of others. Perhaps the most inclusive traditional use of the term is the 'fourfold sangha' - the collection of monks, nuns, male householders and female householders. I tend to regard 'sangha' as simply 'people who practise', with no need for further subdivision - all are welcome.
We are tribal creatures, and it can be immensely supportive to be in a group with people who share our interest in meditation. I read a study recently which suggested that perhaps the majority of the benefit of eight-week mindfulness courses actually came from the community aspect of the course rather than the practices themselves! Sitting with other people on a regular basis can also help us to keep the practice going when times are tough - the first time I attempted a solo retreat (during last year's lockdown) I realised how much I rely on my fellow practitioners in the meditation hall to carry me through the sitting periods at times.
Of course, it isn't all roses. From time to time, those people will almost certainly get on our nerves and challenge us in ways that we'd prefer not to be challenged. But in some ways, even this is a benefit in disguise. A senior teacher once quipped that 'some people are arahants (fully enlightened) only on retreat'. It's easy to be enlightened in a cave where there's nobody to bother you! Jack Kornfield's excellent book 'After the Ecstasy, the Laundry' has a great story about an order of nuns who maintained a vow of silence for many years, then one day decided to reintroduce speech - and were horrified to discover how challenging it was to maintain the boundless love they had experienced for each other in silence.
One more point about sangha is that it provides us an opportunity for ritual. It's easy to be a little suspicious of ritual, which can come across as quaint, archaic, or perhaps even as a kind of cultural appropriation. But ritual can also be seen as serving a kind of social function. When we get together in a certain context, we agree to behave in certain ways and follow certain rules - for example, during the group meditation we all sit in silence (more or less!) until the bell rings, rather than getting up and walking around or texting our friends. There's nobody to enforce those rules, but generally speaking we're happy to follow them, because they support our collective practice. In this sense, ritual can be seen as a physical enactment of our values - we gather together and agree to behave in a certain arbitrary way together, because that ritual represents our collective aspiration to be the type of people who meditate. Setting an intention goes a long way in this business, and having other people to remind us of that intention and help us to uphold it can be tremendously supportive.
A final note for 2021
This is my last article for the year - I'll be back teaching from January 5th, so the first article of 2022 will appear on January 6th, all being well.
I'd like to thank everyone who reads these articles, and wish you well for the festive period. I hope you have the opportunity to spend some quality time with your loved ones. See you all in the New Year!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.