The “Three Treasures” are the three entities that Shakyamuni Buddha taught his disciples to make their spiritual foundation soon after he began spreading his Dharma: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. These are referred to as “treasures” because they are precious to all Buddhists.
The notion of a spiritual foundation brings to mind Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching: “Be a light unto yourself; making the Dharma your light.” “Be a light unto yourself” are powerfully reassuring words that give us great encouragement. Here the Buddha is not referring to the self that is filled with delusions, but instead the self that lives the Dharma. We ourselves “burn” with the light of the Dharma, and it is also our duty to illuminate the society in which we live. In other words, although we must survive in this world through our own effort, our way of life must always be in accord with the Dharma.
“The Dharma” is the true principle, or universal truth. It is very hard for ordinary people to grasp the ultimate reality of this truth, and this makes us feel insecure about depending on the Dharma to shape our frame of mind and guide our actions in the conduct of daily life. For this reason, Shakyamuni Buddha translated the concept of the Dharma—universal truth—into three principles that ordinary people can easily grasp. These are the Three Treasures.
The first is the Buddha, the person who becomes one with universal truth when he attains Supreme Perfect Awakening.
The second is Dharma is the sense of Dharma as the teachings of the Buddha.
Third is the Sangha. The Sanskrit word saṃgha means “bound closely together.” Shakyamuni Buddha chose this word to use as the name of his group of disciples—the community who follow the same path of practice to Buddhahood.
Ordinary people find it difficult to seek the Dharma and practice it in total isolation. People practicing by on their own tend to become negligent and wander onto mistaken paths. But if they join together with people of the same faith to form a single community, they can advance steadily on the path of practice by teaching, admonishing, and encouraging one another. Accordingly, Shakyamuni Buddha teaches us to make the Sangha one of our spiritual supports.
Together, the components that make up our spiritual foundation include these three pillars we rely upon: the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha. If we spiritually depend upon the Buddha, his teachings and the community of people who share our faith, we will be able to put the “right” Dharma into practice in our daily lives. For this reason, Buddhists take refuge in the “Three Treasures” at all times.