Deepest, Apparent and Representative Levels of the Three Gems

Levels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha

So far in our discussion, we’ve seen the general structure of how we meditate on refuge, putting a safe direction in our life. Now, we can get into the specifics of where this direction is going. This is described and indicated by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – the Three Rare and Precious Gems. For each of these, there is a deepest level, an apparent level, which is the level that we can see or hear, and then a level that represents it. It’s important to differentiate these three different levels.

The deepest levels of each of these three all refer to the third and fourth noble truths – namely, the true stoppings and true pathway minds – but from slightly different points of view. They are the deepest level of what we are aiming for; in other words, attaining them is the direction in which we want to go. If we attain them, it will enable us to avoid any type of difficulty or problem, either within ourselves or in dealing with others. 

The deepest level of the Buddha Gem are the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuum of a Buddha. All the good qualities of the mind of a Buddha are the results of these two. Because of that, when we learn of the good qualities of a Buddha’s mind and therefore entrust ourselves to a Buddha and to following their guidance for methods to rid ourselves of all sufferings and their causes, we are actually entrusting ourselves to the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuum of a Buddha.

In general, when we speak about the four noble truths, we’re talking about things that occur on an individual mental continuum and are experienced with the mind; we are not talking about something abstract. For example, the first two noble truths, true sufferings and true origins of sufferings, are things that we all experience. But we want to attain a true stopping of them, which means completely getting rid of suffering and the causes of suffering. Where does this true stopping occur? It also occurs on a mental continuum, which, by nature, is devoid of true sufferings and their true causes. The true stopping of them means they are no longer present on the mental continuum and so no longer experienced. 

How do we obtain such a true stopping? It’s with a non-conceptual cognition of voidness, which is also with the mind. This non-conceptual cognition is referred to as a “true path.” In other words, it’s a cognition that leads somewhere; it leads to true stoppings. That’s why I call it a “pathway mind.” However, true pathway minds are not only the non-conceptual cognitions that lead to true stoppings, but they are also the types of cognition that are attained as the result of the attainment of true stoppings. 

These, then, are the four noble truths – true sufferings, true origins of suffering, true stoppings and true pathway minds, and they all occur on a mental continuum. 

To gain confidence that we can attain these true stoppings and true pathway minds ourselves, we need to look to examples of those who have attained them; entrust ourselves to their guidance and then go in the direction that they indicate. The deepest level of the Three Jewels, then, are these true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of those who have attained them.

The Buddhas are those who have a complete set of all the true stoppings and all the true pathway minds on their mental continuums. The aryas and arhats are those who have some, but not all of them on their mental continuums. The deepest Buddha Gem, then, are these true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of the Buddhas; and, according to one scriptural source, both the deepest Dharma and Sangha Gems are the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mental continuums of all aryas, which would include arhats and Buddhas. Let that sink in for a moment.


Deepest, Apparent and Representative Levels of the Three Gems

The complete set of all true stoppings and all true pathway minds on the mental continuum of a Buddha – in other words, the deepest Buddha Gem – is actually a Buddha’s Dharmakaya, a Corpus Encompassing Everything. A Dharmakaya has two aspects. A Buddha’s Deep Awareness Dharmakaya – a Jnana Dharmakaya – refers to the true pathway minds on the continuum of a Buddha’s omniscient mind; a Buddha’s Essential Nature Dharmakaya – a Svabhavakaya – refers to the true stoppings on a Buddha’s omniscient mind. In more detail, the Svabhavakaya is the double purity of a Buddha’s mind, which is parted from the fleeting stains of disturbing emotions and naturally parted from the stains of self-established existence. That natural purity is the voidness of a Buddha’s omniscient mind.  A Dharmakaya, then, is the third and fourth noble truths on the mind of a Buddha.   

The apparent Buddha Gem is what we can see; namely, a Buddha’s Corpus of Forms, or Form Bodies. They include Sambhogakayas, which are bodies making full use of the Mahayana teachings, and Nirmanakayas, which are emanations of Sambhogakayas. The thirty-two excellent signs and eighty exemplary features of the bodies of Sambhogakaya and Supreme Nirmanakaya Buddhas indicate the constructive actions a Buddha has practiced in previous lifetimes that resulted in their attainment of such a body. In this way, these signs and features, too, indicate the direction we want to go in. We can, therefore, entrust ourselves to the guidance of these Form Bodies.

What represents the Buddha Gem are the paintings and the statues of a Buddha. It is important to understand that they are just representations; we aren’t worshipping them or anything. However, we show them respect because they represent something that we have respect for.

The deepest Dharma Gem, again, is the third and fourth noble truths, but now, not just those on the omniscient mental continuum of a Buddha, but rather all of them that occur on the mental continuums of all aryas, both lay and monastic. “All aryas” includes all those with at least some number of true pathway minds and true stoppings on their mental continuums, starting with those who have attained a seeing pathway mind, the so-called “path of seeing,” who have gained partial sets of the two, all the way up to and including Buddhas, who have gained the complete sets of both of them. 

The apparent Dharma Gem, which is what we can listen to, is the actual teachings – the Buddha’s teachings classified into the twelve scriptural categories. We entrust ourselves to them for our actual guidance. What represents them are the Dharma books and texts that have the apparent Dharma Gem as their contents. Likewise, we show respect to these.

As already mentioned, the deepest Sangha Gem is the same as the deepest Dharma Gem, the third and fourth noble truths on the mental continuums of all aryas. The apparent Sangha Gem, which is what we can see, is the actual persons who are aryas. They are persons who set an example and thus can show us the direction to go in. It’s difficult to relate to a Buddha, but through the example of arya persons, we can learn how to reach Buddhahood, step by step. 

What represents the Sangha is a group of four or more fully ordained monks or nuns. They don’t have to be all from one group – just four, so that we have a community. Even if they aren’t terribly good monks or nuns, nevertheless, the fact that they have given up the householder life, is important. They are dedicating themselves to this path, which shows us that there are steps to reach this goal. It further suggests that there are people, in theory at least, working toward it. Therefore, all monks and nuns are appropriate objects of respect. 

To review, for each of the Three Gems, there are deepest, apparent, and representative levels. The deepest levels are the true stoppings and true pathway minds, either on the omniscient mental continuum of a Buddha, in the case of the Buddha Gem, or on the mental continuum of any arya, all the way up to and including the mind of a Buddha, in the case of the Dharma and Sangha Gems. The apparent-level Gems, ones that we can actually see or listen to, are the Form Bodies of a Buddha, the actual teachings, and the community of persons who have become aryas. The representative Gems, which we can have in our homes or nearby, are the paintings and statues of the Buddha, actual Dharma texts, and fully ordained monks and nuns. They remind us of the path and what we are aiming to attain, the deepest Gems. 

Those who have attained the deepest Gems can show us the way; however, we are aiming for what they have attained ourselves, on our own mental continuum. We are not aiming for what’s on their mental continuums, as we can only attain what is on our own mental continuum. This is what we’ve been talking about up until now – the stopping of these various causes of problems and the stopping of the problems that they create: destructive behavior, disturbing emotions, compulsive positive behavior or helping when nobody wants our help and so on. We want a true stopping, as well, of not knowing how to help others. We want to get the understanding, the discipline, the concentration, the love and compassion, and all these things that are going to stop these troublemakers. Everything that we’ve been talking about has been going in the direction of the third and fourth noble truths and getting rid of the first and second noble truths. This is what Buddhism is all about. It’s all taking place in the mind, our minds. Let that sink in for a moment.


Differences among Deepest Buddha, Dharma and Sangha Gems

The question that naturally arises is: What are the differences among the deepest Buddha, Dharma and Sangha Gems? Why do we have pretty much the same thing, the third and fourth noble truths, as the deepest Gem for all three?

We find the answer to that in a surprising place: in the Lama Chopa − the Guru Puja − in the tsog offering section. When we make offerings to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the text says that the Buddhas are the source of the actual attainments, the Dharma is the source of inspiration, and the Sangha is the source of enlightening influence, or enlightening activity, because we request each of those, respectively, from the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha. The Sangha is represented there by the dakinis and Dharma protectors. 

What does all of this mean? It’s very helpful actually, to think about this. The Buddhas have the actual full attainment of the true stoppings and true pathway minds that we are aiming for. Actual attainments are called siddhi in Sanskrit. The deepest Dharma Gem, the true stoppings and true pathway minds of all aryas, all are sources of inspiration. The term, here, adhisthana in Sanskrit, chinlab in Tibetan, is often translated as “blessings,” but “inspiration,” I think, comes closer to the meaning, which is something that uplifts us. The true stoppings and true pathway minds of all aryas that constitute the deepest Sangha Gem are sources of enlightening influence. They influence us to go in their direction.  

On the level of the apparent Gems, as well, the examples of arya persons have an enlightening influence on us to work to go in the direction they indicate, as they have done. The Dharma teachings inspire us to follow the teachings. The Form Bodies of the Buddhas show us the way to gain these actual attainments ourselves. 

From another point of view, who and what are going to help us? Buddha Shakyamuni in his aspect as a Form Body, the actual teachings he gives and the arya Sangha who advanced on the path – so, the apparent level Three Gems.  

What are going to help us to keep mindful of these Gems? The representations we have of them: paintings and statues of the Buddha, Dharma books, and monks and nuns. They help remind us to go in their safe direction. By showing them respect, we are also respecting what we are trying to do with our own lives. 

Further, showing respect to them is a way of developing respect for ourselves, since we too are trying to achieve this. The important factor is respect, that we recognize the good qualities in something, we admire them, and we’d like to attain these qualities ourselves. That’s why I was talking about a sense of self-worth. If we, just through a simple act of kindness to somebody, make them smile, we are able to make a small, positive difference. This positive act gives us a sense of self-worth, which leads to self-respect. 

Just one more point to add: causal refuge is in those true stoppings and true pathway minds that have occurred on the minds of the Buddhas and the aryas, while resultant refuge is in what we are aiming to attain on our own mental continuum.

Let’s try to digest all of this.



On the mental level, I understand that we have the capacity to deal with fear and depression, but deep inside of me, I don’t have this belief. How may I grow this understanding, this confidence, deep inside of me?

That is a very good question. How do we go from an intellectual understanding to an actual emotional understanding, so that it makes a transformation in us, because we need both an intellectual and emotional component to our understanding? These two components are like wisdom and compassion, which all Dharma texts say we need together. So, we need to take that seriously. Having the two is important not only for refuge, but also with anything within Dharma. 

The answer that is usually given in the Dharma is that we need to build up a lot of merit. So, then we have to think, “Well, what does this mean? Does it mean that if we get enough points by being good, then now we’ve deserved and earned it?” It certainly doesn’t mean this. “Merit” is better translated as “positive force,” like charging a battery. With sufficient charge, a battery functions properly; likewise, with sufficient positive force, our minds function properly to gain the confidence of both an intellectual and an emotional understanding of the Dharma. 

So, how do we build up this so-called “merit?” We build it up with practices of compassion, for example. Meditating with love, compassion, concern for others and so on builds up this positive force. One specific way to develop it is through the meditations on the four immeasurables – immeasurable love, compassion, joy and equanimity. At the beginning of almost every practice, there are the meditations on refuge, bodhichitta and these four immeasurables. With these four, we meditate, “May everybody be happy; may they all be free of suffering. May they never be parted from joy; and may they all have the equanimity of being free of attachment and repulsion that may block these attainments.” 

What does this meditation do? It opens up our hearts and minds with positive emotion. Then, with that state of mind, when we approach some complex point in the Dharma, we are more open and better able to understand it. There’s a big difference between approaching something difficult to understand with the closed mind of “me, me, me, I can’t understand it” or “I have to understand it,” and approaching it having opened our hearts and minds beforehand with the four immeasurables. There’s a huge difference!

So please try these meditations and see if there’s a difference. Then we can understand why meditation on the four immeasurables is there at the start of every practice and study. It builds up positive force, opening up our minds and hearts so that we can fully understand. And our understanding will have some emotional impact. 

I have several questions. First, how do you find the proper balance between compassion for others and compassion for yourself in conflict situations? Second, do I understand it correctly that the key point here in conflicts is not to be angry, but that it’s still possible to keep our boundaries and our interests? And another point about this is, if you don’t correct the other person, you get angry, but if you correct them, they may get angry, which we are trying to fight in ourselves?
Here’s a very specific example: I have a young teenage son who goes to school and, each day, before I go to work, I prepare two portions of food for when we come home, one for him and one for me. I come home after he does and find that he has eaten both portions of food. Then the next day, the same thing happens. The question is: Should I tell him about it, explain to him and insist that he takes only one portion of food? Because if I do, it will lead to him having disturbing emotions about that.

We can speak in general, or we can refer to this specific example. In this specific example, if your son eats both portions, it either indicates that he is really hungry, or that he is very greedy. So, if he is really hungry, make more food. If he is just greedy, well, you have to separate the portions. Leave out one portion for your son, whatever amount would be sufficient to fill him and, somehow, hide your portion. Put it somewhere where your son won’t get it. If you have a microwave, then put it in the freezer, and then when you get home, microwave it. Basically, you need to find some simple, practical solution.

So, use skillful means? 

Yes, use skillful means. In general, though, before we can apply skillful means with compassion, we first need to develop compassion for ourselves. That’s called “renunciation” – the determination for us to be free of our own problems. It is on that basis that we can turn it toward others, wishing that they can also be free of problems. This is the general way in which we develop compassion. If we feel that we don’t deserve to be happy, then why should others deserve to be happy? Once we have the proper motivation of compassion like this, we can then apply skillful means without getting angry.

However, you also asked about a conflict situation. So, there are conflict situations in which we have an opinion, and the other person has an opinion, and they are quite different; it’s then that we may have a conflict or an argument. Now, some advice for conflict resolution in general – the strategy that doesn’t work is getting defensive and defending our position. That inevitably leads to attacking the other position, which then causes them to get defensive. This doesn’t help; it just gets us into a real argument. So, the tactic that is recommended, which often works, is when the other person presents a completely different solution, or a completely different way of doing things, we ask them to explain it. Maybe they’re right! We try to learn what is behind their thinking and position. In a sense, we open up rather than close down and get defensive.

When we open up to learn what their position is, and why they think like that, if still we feel that our position is better, then, we calmly explain our thinking. Not just, “Well, I’m right and you’re wrong.” 

However, it doesn’t always work, because the other person has to be open to giving and receiving an explanation. They could be very stubborn and say, “Well, you can’t understand,” or “I just think so.” Then that’s a very difficult situation. So, it doesn’t always work. The other person has to cooperate as well. However, with the method I suggested, we can at least stay calm. That’s a start.