What are the Three Jewels and Five Vows?
Perhaps the closest thing to a summary of Buddhist beliefs is the brief creedal formula of the “Three Jewels.” “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma; I take refuge in the sangha.” Buddhists in various places and times have interpreted those Jewels rather differently.
For many the Buddha was a human teacher and an example, but no more. For many others, the Buddha represented the universal possibility of enlightenment. Still others regard the Buddha, along with countless Buddhas-to-be called Bodhisattvas, as a divine power and source of grace and salvation.
Buddhist tradition retained the important Hindu term dharma but reinterpreted it. For Buddhists, dharma means all that the Buddha taught. They know dharma as enshrined in the sacred texts and communicated by religious teachers.
The term sangha means “assembly” and refers to the Buddhist Order of monks and nuns and, by extension, to the whole community of believers. Along with the affirmation of the “Three Jewels,” the believers take a secondary but very important affirmation of the “precepts” or vows. Members of the monastic sangha take ten vows, while devout laypeople take the first five.
Many Buddhists begin their day by reciting the “Three” (refuges) and then adding the “Five” (precepts). They promise to refrain from killing, theft, unchastity, deception, and intoxication. Reaffirming one’s commitment to the precepts functions not unlike a creedal statement of assent to the core beliefs of a religious tradition.