The Sacred Elements of Buddhism

by David Luekens

Because attachment is viewed as the cause of suffering, the Buddha is thought to have insisted that his followers refrain from worshiping him as a sacred being or deity. Many Buddhists do hold important sites, statues, scriptures and relics associated with the Buddha as sacred, but this does not seem to be in line with the Buddha's wishes. Still, there are three elements that are undeniably sacred in Buddhism.

The Three Jewels

The most widespread devotional prayer in Buddhism is "Refuge in the Three Jewels," also known as the "Triple Gem" or "Three Treasures." Buddha is the first "jewel," the second is dharma, or the teachings, and the third is sangha, or the community. When Buddhists the world over enter a temple, they typically bow three times to represent taking refuge in these three jewels. Buddha, dharma and sangha are indeed sacred elements of Buddhism, but to understand just how, it's necessary to reflect deeper on what they represent.

Buddha

The term Buddha refers not only to the religion's historical founder, but also to everything he's believed to represent. Buddha's mind is said to have been completely purified, meaning he carried a profound sense of love and compassion for all beings while feeling absolutely no ill will towards anyone or anything. While the "Bodhisattva Ideal" of the Mahayana tradition holds that compassion is the single most vital aspect of Buddhist practice, compassion is sacred to Buddhists of all schools and traditions. Buddha also represents enlightenment -- the cessation of or release from suffering -- or the attainment of nirvana. In Buddhist scripture, nirvana is usually described by highlighting what it is not, but this highest goal of Buddhism is commonly associated with transcendent freedom and peace. In this sense, peace is sacred to Buddhists.

Dharma

While dharma, or dhamma, refers to the Buddha's actual teachings, the term also conveys underlying truths that the teachings attempt to uncover. Buddhists believe all things to be impermanent and lacking a fixed soul or self. Dictated by karma, the universal law that every action has a consequence, all phenomena are thought to ebb and flow -- mixing, blending, transforming -- in a continual natural process. Hinted at in Buddhist philosophical terms like "emptiness" and "thusness," dharma refers to everything that is, has been or will be, all of which is made up of a common universal substance. Korean Zen master Seung Sahn clarified this point by teaching that everything in existence is akin to a batch of cookie dough. Though different shapes can be cut out from the dough, the taste remains the same. The related principle of Buddha-nature suggests that because all things manifest from the same substance, they're indistinguishable from the Buddha and all he represents, meaning that the potential for enlightenment runs through all things like threads through fabric. In this sense, all phenomena are sacred in Buddhism.

Sangha

Sangha referred to the group of monastics who accompanied the Buddha during his lifetime, and the term is still used in reference to Buddhist communities large and small. Non-monastic meditation groups in the West often refer to themselves as sangha, and the word is sometimes used to describe all of the world's Buddhists. But in Buddhist scripture, sangha refers explicitly to the monastic community. The sangha are responsible for the dharma's survival; without this devoted community, there would be no dharma in the world today. In this sense, the monastic community is sacred in Buddhism.

About the Author

Based in Thailand, David Luekens has explored and written about Asian spiritual traditions since 2005. He is a regular contributor to Travelfish.org and author of the book, "Every Drop." David holds a Bachelor of Arts in Eastern Studies from Burlington College, Vermont, USA.

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