The Three Refuges of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Rev. Master Mokushin Hart

Often referred to as the “Triple Treasure”, the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha constitute one of the most basic teachings in Buddhism.  They are included as part of the Buddhist Precepts, which are a description of how the spiritual life naturally manifests itself.  The Refuges are recited frequently in our ceremonial. Whenever offering incense, for instance, one holds it to one’s forehead while reciting “Homage to the Buddha, Homage to the Dharma, Homage to the Sangha”, before placing it in the incense burner.  Like all the teachings of Buddhism, this one sounds simple and yet is quite profound.

The Triple Treasure is a good name for this teaching because it emphasizes the three-fold nature of Refuge. The Three Refuges are not really three separate things.  They cannot be separated from one another without losing the depth of the meaning contained therein.  The individual elements of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are interdependent and telescope in and out of one another in their deepest meaning.   

I take refuge in the Buddha.

There is an unborn, undying, unchanging Buddha Nature.  Regardless of how we feel, we are not separate from It and can find recognized reunion with It: we can experience Truth for ourselves.  It does not require an intermediary or any other external person or thing for us to realize It in Its Pure Nature. Even so, It makes use of all things at all times and in all places.  How could it be otherwise?  “I am not the Eternal, and there is nothing in me which is not of the Eternal.”  The seeming separation from It is due to the results of past action, experienced as karmic consequence in states of thought, perception and especially feeling. 

Spiritual certainty is not a relative thing.  It is not subject to the changeable conditions that characterize all of existence-as-we-know-it.  The Eternal Buddha Nature gives us this certainty when all conditions ripen and we have done our part to bring ourselves into alignment with It.  In order for this to be accomplished, we must ask for Its help. With that help, we will find the true spiritual meaning of life and our focus will naturally realign itself onto It, the Source of all things.

With the finding of this certainty comes the responsibility to convert the inherited karma that in the past obscured our experience of our oneness with the Eternal.  We are given an initial experience of that oneness as a promise of what lies ahead if we continue in this undertaking.  Later on, we experience it more fully.  There is always the “Going on, always going on, always BECOMING Buddha”1. 

I take refuge in the Dharma.

I take refuge in that which the Eternal teaches.  Because we are not separate from Buddha Nature, we have the inherent capacity to understand the True Nature of all things for ourselves—to become steeped in this understanding in every fiber of our being—through our own practice of meditation and training in the Precepts.  “All things teach at all times and in all places.”  If we doubt our own capacity, we will not be able to perceive this.  That which is Eternal and not subject to decay can make use of our limited, changeable existence and all that it contains.  Therefore, all of our senses are potential avenues for the Truth.  “If, from your experience of the senses, basic Truth you do not know, how can you ever find the path that certain is, no matter how far distant you may walk?”2.  Thus, we can hear, see, smell, taste, and touch the Truth.  At each moment, all of existence works to show us the way to the recognized reunion with the constant unfolding of Pure, Unchanging Buddha Nature:  “Always we must be disturbed by the Truth.”

I take refuge in the Sangha

I take refuge in those who know the Eternal, who have found spiritual certainty for themselves.  Shakyamuni found the Truth of oneness with the Buddha Nature and spent the rest of his life continuing his practice and teaching the Dharma for the benefit of himself and all beings.  From these actions have sprung forth generations of students and teachers of the Dharma.

When we find our own willingness to begin the conversion of our karmic inheritance so that both we and all other beings may know that same oneness that Shakyamuni found, there is a necessity for finding a true Teacher.  The asking for help from one who knows the Eternal assists us in finding the way to a deeper following of our own True Heart, our own Buddha Nature.  The conversion of our karma is a difficult process and there are potential pitfalls along the way.  Someone who has travelled the road a ways ahead can help point out the safe route through those pitfalls.  Above all, the willingness to trust the Buddha Nature of a fellow human being assists us greatly in learning to trust our own Buddha Nature enough to turn within and truly cry out for help to That Which Is—the Unborn Eternal permeating all.              

“The Buddhas do but point the Way, remember thou must go alone.”  We cannot substitute asking others for doing the practice ourselves. The use of the Sangha refuge is to aid us in the following of our own True Heart, not to substitute for that following.  We always reap the consequences of our own actions and decisions, including the decision whether or not to ask for help from members of the Sangha.  We each must always be aware of our potential for making a mistake by substituting our own habitual forms of ignorance for true direction from our meditation.   Just as importantly, we must not confuse the wise awareness of our humanity with doubt and uncertainty.

The process of rediscovering our oneness with the Eternal requires the willingness to apply the teachings to our actions in daily life, paying close attention to the results.  The results help us to learn, always more deeply, how to recognize what it is to follow our Heart so that we may each come to know, with absolute certainty,  the fundamental unity of all things.  Because we do all along share in the Buddha Nature together with all of existence, when any of us is acting from meditation—from the place of harmony with the Eternal—it results in an influence towards this same harmony on everything and everyone else.

Often we help one another best without being aware of it.  As we go deeper into the spiritual life greed, hate and delusion convert into compassion, love and wisdom, which show themselves naturally without any special effort on our part.  Our efforts go into the inner work of conversion, not into an outwardly directed effort to become compassionate, loving and wise.  The harmony spoken of here is not something at which we need to work in order to establish harmony amongst people who train together.  The Sangha Refuge manifests the harmony that is at the root of existence when those who train stay true to their highest purpose, doing their best to live from the Heart, the Buddha Nature. 

Ultimately, every seeming harmonious or inharmonious act is made use of by the Eternal and all things are seen to be immaculate from the beginning.  “When all is within the Lord, all stand straight together, a million Buddhas stand in one straight line.”3. 


Homage to the Buddha

Homage to the Dharma

Homage to the Sangha

Homage to the highest Buddha

Homage to the most immaculate Dharma

Homage to the harmonious Sangha

Homage to the Buddha

Homage to the Dharma

Homage to the Sangha


1.  “The Scripture of Great Wisdom”, in The Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity (Mt. Shasta, Ca: Shasta Abbey Press, 1990).

2.  Great Master Sekito Kisen, “Sandokai”,  in The Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity, (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 1990).

3. Rev. Master P. T. N. H. Jiyu-Kennett, Kyujukaimon and Commentary, (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey, 1977) p. 11.  This also appears in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, Rev. Master P. T. N. H. Jiyu-Kennett, M. O. B. C., Second Edition, Shasta Abbey, 1993) p. 34.