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The Three Jewels


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This morning I’m going to try to do two things, and that is to talk about the three jewels: buddha, dharma and sangha, because these are the very basis of practice and what Buddhism is about.

And the second is to talk about appropriate efforts for the student. And that’s one of the reasons I like to use the three jewels as a framework. And I think we’ll start from the inside out. By that I mean when we rest deeply in experience— and this actually means to rest quite deeply in experience—we find a couple of things happen.

The first is: any sense of being a self—in opposition to experience—disappears. Right now we have such an idea, that “I am here” and “I am conscious of this”, so I/other.

And there are many levels of conditioning there, but the more deeply we rest in experience, the more tenuous that sense of I becomes and I think that Buddha’s great insight was: there’s actually nothing there at all. This is, in the scheme of things, not that difficult an experience to uncover.

Milarepa once said, “It’s quite easy to have a glimpse of pure being. It’s really difficult to stabilize it. That’s a lifetime’s work.” Now this is what the term empty, which is used in Mahayana Buddhism all the time, means. They say, “Mind is empty”. We can also say, “Experience is empty.” It just arises; there is no thing there.

There’s not only not an individual self (an I) but when you rest deeply in experience one begins to see that there’s nothing to experience either. Right now anger comes up; it feels like something really solid. A crisis comes up and you’re like, “This actually exists and something has to be done and it has to be this way!” and it all becomes very rigid and very concrete.

But the more deeply you rest in experience the more you see that nothing is absolute. Things come and go, they come and go in relationship with each other, and it’s kind of mysterious and kind of wonderful. And you begin to see more and more that the problem comes from trying to hold on to things, hold onto a sense of self, hold onto a certain experience, keep a certain experience away, whatever. It’s all open, it’s all empty. Not in the sense—and this is very important—that there’s nothing there but in the sense that there’s nothing to anything. It’s different.

That’s buddha. That’s being awake, which is what buddha means. Buddha was sometimes asked, and he wasn’t called Buddha, though we have that in the sutras of course. He was probably called Gautama, Shakyamuni. So it would be like, “Hey Gautama, what makes you different from everybody else?” And he’d say, “I’m awake.”

And he never claimed to have the answer to anything or in fact there’s a list of questions that he wouldn’t answer. This is a possible way of being—just being awake, which is experiencing things as they are without the projection of thought and emotion. That’s what he meant by being awake. And when we’re awake we know that there’s just arising of experience and there isn’t a self that opposes, rises in opposition to that. That’s buddha.


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And that emptiness isn’t nothing. Because there’s this knowing quality—this potential to know, this clarity. And that’s another thing that happens when you rest in experience: things become clear. I mean, how many of you, when you’ve been meditating, some niggling thought about a little problem has come up and you go, “Oh, that’s what I need to do.”

It’s not meant to happen, I mean that’s kind of a distracting thought, but it happens all the time. As the mind rests, things become clear. And so there’s this clarity to this quality of no thingness.

And it’s just there and you can say that it’s like a light bulb. One uses different metaphors: crystal, mirror, all kinds of things. But it really is quite indescribable, and we discover that in this emptiness of being there’s this extraordinary clarity.

That’s the dharma. Because that clarity sees things as they are and because things are seen as they are, you know what to do. And the word dharma, well in ancient times if you bought a box of cereal or some little kit, it would have the dharma on it – it just means instructions on what to do with it.

So that this word we have dharma — is just like, “What do you do?” That’s really what the dharma’s about, the clarity of the natural knowing that is our nature.


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Now when you have that openness, emptiness and that clarity, guess what happens? Experience arises. Thoughts, feelings and sensations…those are the components of experience. We have physical sensations: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. Objects of the senses: forms, sounds, tastes, touches. We tend to regard these things as the properties that we regard as external, but actually they’re just components of experience.

And then there are all the thoughts which are chattering around all over the place. But that’s what experience consists of—just those three things. And they arise all the time. They don’t stop. The quality which is referred to as unceasing. That’s the sangha. All of that experience. You have to deal with it. There it is.

But when you rest in the knowing which isn’t organized around a sense of self, there is a clarity so that as experience arises you know what it is and you know how to relate to it. So we have these three aspects of our being, if you wish. Empty, clear, unimpeded. Unity of experience and awareness—buddha, dharma, sangha.

That’s really what the Three Jewels are about. You find that in the Tibetan tradition. In the Zen tradition they don’t like to talk about these things, but you can find it there if you push them hard enough. And you find it in the Theravadan tradition. In fact this particular formulation comes from a friend of mine Jim [unclear], and you find it everywhere.


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Now the Tibetans, following the Indians, they always like to make things as complex and intricate as possible. So we are going to take another look at the three jewels, which comes out a different way.

When we start, we don’t know what it means to be present. And so the possibility of presence for most of us is revealed through another person, a teacher. It can be revealed in a number of different ways: by the person’s behavior, through what you yourself come to understand by hanging around this person; there are all kinds of different ways it can be revealed. And that’s the essential role of the teacher.

And you may recall the comments, Buddha’s last words: “I’ve shown you the way.” And that’s all that the teacher does—reveals possibilities, possibilities which in our benighted confusion, we might not be able to discern. And there’s a huge mystery here.

In the three year retreat at one point His Holiness the 16th Karmapa came to the retreat and he gave us some instruction. Now His Holiness was a pretty powerful guy and when he was giving you instruction in the nature of mind he was not always very subtle. And this instruction was delivered with such power in his presence that it was basically like being picked up by your collar—“Here’s the nature of mind”—and then being thrown against a wall. “Did you get it? No, well here it is again”. And he threw you again. Now you’ve all had this instruction. You’ve all heard it.

After that there was a very, very powerful experience when I was back in my room. What did he actually say? It could be boiled down to this one sentence: “Thoughts come and go.” Have any of you ever heard that? But this is what I mean by the mystery and about the role of the teacher. We’ve all heard this phrase, “Thoughts come and go.”

Descartes got it completely screwed up. “Thoughts come, that means I exist.” Totally wrong. As a proof of existence it’s completely wrong. Sent western philosophy down the wrong alley way for several centuries. Thoughts come and go. How often do you let thoughts come and go? Grab, grab, grab, grab. That’s the problem.

You’re sitting practicing—there you’re doing a little bit of letting thoughts come and go. If thoughts come and go, who are you? “Aye, there’s the rub,” as Hamlet would say. If we actually lived thoughts come and go we would live without any sense of an individual self.

So, on the one hand there’s nothing mysterious or obscure or secret or anything like that in what the teacher does. He just tells you how things actually are. The mystery comes when we begin to live that because we begin to appreciate that life itself is a mystery and only has meaning when we are in the experience of it. Any sense of standing back and it becomes an idea.


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So the whole thrust of practice then, is to be able to relate to experience completely. Now in the Tibetan tradition there is a particular method for relating to experience completely. In its fuller form its actually quite involved and very complex but I’m just going to boil it down to its essential quality.

Take any aspect of experience, and what’s useful here is to take the aspects that you get hung up on. And we usually get hung up on one of three things: an ideal, a personality trait, or an emotional reaction. Wars are fought over ideals so we can say people get hung up on them.

People become very attached to certain traits in their personality, and attached can mean detest them as well. And then there’s all the emotional reactions that we’re getting stuck on all the time. So here’s where the dharma comes in—relating to experience completely.

Well, very interesting things happen then. For instance, you take a typical emotional reaction, say, wanting to be loved. Now if you go into this completely, you’re going to have to figure out what there is in you to be loved. Right? And who’s going to do all of that loving? And as with any facet of our experience the more deeply you go into it the less you find to hold onto.

And you find that in the case of wanting to be loved, means that the only way to meet that is to be completely open to experience yourself. In other words, to love everything. And you find that this turn happens over and over again when we go into experience.

Anger. If you’re going to be angry you’ve got to be angry at something, you can’t be angry at nothing. So to really go into that you’ve got to find what you’re angry at. And because anger has so much energy the more that you go into it the more difficult it is to find anything to be angry at, but the clearer and clearer your mind grows. So this is what it means to go into your experience completely. And that’s the dharma.


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And the sangha, from this point of view, is the knowing that knows what to do in even the most difficult circumstance. Time and time again you hear a person say, “I don’t know if I can handle this.” Popular expression these days. Well it’s nonsense. You’re always going to handle it. The only question is how.

You can handle it as a reaction or you can handle it out of one’s natural knowing. But to do that you’re going to have to relate to the totality of your experience. You won’t be able to leave anything out and now we’re back into the sangha again—all of that experience.

And the way you do this in practice is you open, to everything. And I’ve done this with many, many people in individual sessions. A particularly striking example, I was facilitating a group at a corporation where I’m doing some consulting.

And one person arrived late for the meeting. And he had a crucial role in the meeting. He arrived about 10 minutes late. He said, “Just let me get here.” And he had to say something, said “I’m just trying to get everything out of my mind so I can focus on being here.”

And he was struggling, and because I had done individual coaching with him I said, “Look, don’t try to push that stuff out of your mind. Just open to it all. It’s all there, all the mess, all the confusion, all the pressure.”

So he got back to take care of as soon as this meeting is over. “Just open to it all right now.” And he stopped, and he did, and now he was here. And so we could proceed. But our ordinary way of functioning is we try to push that stuff away. No, we’ve got to include everything and rely on the knowing that arises right there. And it’s different from how most people try to do this.


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And that’s another take on the three jewels.

And then there’s the traditional take. Buddha refers to Buddha Shakyamuni, the teacher, the one who discovered that it’s possible to know that one doesn’t exist as a thing, and to not die in the process—at least not die physically. And down to the present day, 2,500 years later, the significance of that opening or discovery or whatever you want to call it resonates with such power that we’re all here today. We have to be very careful here. Because nothing has been passed down, in terms of an understanding.

That understanding is what each of us is. And as Buddha said, it’s up to each of us to work out our own freedom. To discover this ability or aspect to our being for ourselves. All that hearing about it from somebody else does is open the possibility for us and gives us the tools. It doesn’t mean anything until it becomes alive in our own experience.

And that’s what the dharma is about.


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