【Practical Methods for Positivist Buddhism】Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

buddha statue near trees

Chapter One: Basic Concepts of Buddhism

Section One: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, collectively known as the Three Treasures or the Three Jewels, are also referred to as the Buddha Jewel, Dharma Jewel, and Sangha Jewel. When we first encounter Buddhism, we are immediately faced with the question, “What are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha?” However, it is not easy to clarify this fundamental question. According to the “Samyukta Agama,” only those who have attained the First Fruit or higher can possibly develop unshakable faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.[1] In other words, the faith of all ordinary people, including practitioners approaching the First Fruit,[2] can be undermined when it comes to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Why is that? The main reason is that they cannot accurately understand the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha can be divided into two groups. One group consists of sentient beings, including the Buddha and Sangha. The other group is Dharma (facts and truth), which is not sentient. The Buddha or Sangha can proclaim language and words that point to the facts and truth. Although language and words are not the facts and truth themselves, they can help us find the facts and truth, so they are also conveniently referred to as Dharma.

After dividing Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha into two groups, let’s think about which came first, the Buddha or the Dharma? (Some people say: Dharma came first. Some people say: There is Dharma because there is Buddha. Others say: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha exist simultaneously, without distinction of precedence.)

If someone asks such a question, I would first ask them: “What do you mean by ‘Buddha’? And what do you mean by ‘Dharma’?” I would answer after clarifying these meanings. Why do this? Because language and words often have multiple meanings, and one could even say that the meanings change with each use. For example, if I say my name “Lu Zhen Guan” and then say it again, “Lu Zhen Guan.” Do you think the meaning of the first “Lu Zhen Guan” is exactly the same as the second “Lu Zhen Guan”? (Some people say: the same. Some people say: not the same.)

Does “Lu Zhen Guan” represent one of the five aggregates? When I mentioned the first “Lu Zhen Guan,” it referred to the “Lu Zhen Guan” of that moment. When I said it for the second time, it was the “Lu Zhen Guan” a few seconds later. During these few seconds, are the five aggregates of the “Lu Zhen Guan” the same or different? (Some people say: they change momentarily.)

Indeed, the meaning of the first “Lu Zhen Guan” and the second “Lu Zhen Guan” is different. Don’t think that I am playing with words here, as sometimes the difference can be quite significant. For example, in a hospital, when a doctor says “so-and-so,” the person might be alive the first time their name is called, but the second time, they might have already passed away. In short, phenomena are impermanent, and the meanings represented by the language and words that describe these phenomena are inevitably impermanent as well.

We can temporarily disregard this momentary change. In other situations, we can also notice significant differences in the meanings of language and words. For example, the word “Dharma.” Someone just said, “Buddha comes before Dharma.” If this statement is correct, under which meaning is it correct? If it’s incorrect, under which meaning is it incorrect? We need to clarify this.

If we regard the Dharma as the teachings expressed through language and text, it is evident that the Buddha came before the Dharma. However, this view is a common perception among ordinary people and does not entirely align with the usual definition of “Dharma” in the scriptures. The “Dharma” discussed in the scriptures mostly refers not to the teachings expressed through language and text but to the facts and truth.[3] Therefore, many sutras state that regardless of whether a Buddha appears in the world, the Dharma (facts and truth) always exists. When we define Dharma as facts and truth, the facts and truth must exist before the Buddha. Sentient beings must discover and comply with the facts and truth in order to attain Buddhahood.

Earlier, someone mentioned that “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha exist simultaneously, without distinction of precedence,” which can also be considered correct. The “Mahaparinirvana Sutra” states that the true “Buddha” is not the Buddha of the five aggregates, but the eighth consciousness. The most fundamental part of the truth is the eternal existence of the eighth consciousness; all phenomena that appear to arise and cease are actually the manifestations of the functional differences of the eighth consciousness. Therefore, the “Dharma” points to the eighth consciousness, the “Sangha” also points to the eighth consciousness, and all sentient beings are the eighth consciousness as well – the eighth consciousness is also called the mind, which means “The three realms are nothing but mind, and all phenomena are only consciousness.” Thus, it can be said that “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha exist simultaneously, without distinction of precedence.”

The term “Dharma” mentioned earlier has three meanings. According to the first meaning, “Buddha” exists before “Dharma”; according to the second meaning, “Dharma” exists before “Buddha”; and according to the third meaning, “Buddha,” “Dharma,” and “Sangha” do not have a specific order. All three interpretations can be correct, provided that you first clearly define “Buddha” and “Dharma.” If these definitions are clear but contradict the understanding of worldly wise people, they are incorrect. For example, if someone defines “Dharma” as facts and truth and “Buddha” as a sentient being with perfect enlightenment and conduct, but then claims that “Buddha” exists before “Dharma,” this would be incorrect.


Let’s further explain the meanings of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We’ll start with “Dharma” (facts and truth) because it is more important than Buddha and Sangha. If my statement causes you any distress, please bear with me and continue to listen to see if what I’m saying makes sense. Does anyone know the scriptural basis for why Dharma takes precedence over Buddha and Sangha?

(Someone says: All Buddhas of the ten directions regard the Dharma as their teacher.) That’s a good point. (Another person says: Whether a Buddha appears in the world or not, all such phenomena are constant and unchanging – the nature of Dharma, the realm of Dharma, the determinations of Dharma, and the abiding of Dharma. All Tathagatas got equal awakening, having realized their own awakening and perception, proclaim, explain, and distinctly reveal it to sentient beings, enabling them to attain the same awakening and liberation from delusive thoughts and inverted discriminations.) That’s correct. These all support the idea that Dharma is more important than Buddha and Sangha, based on the order of existence. Additionally, according to the principle of “relying on the Dharma, not on the person,” Dharma also takes precedence over Buddha and Sangha. Some people might say, “Buddha is not a person.” In fact, the “person” in “relying on the Dharma, not on the person” is translated as “sentient being” in the Yogacarabhumi-sastra. Therefore, according to the principle of “relying on the Dharma, not on the person,” Dharma is even more important than Buddha.

In terms of precepts, one can also discern the relative importance of the two. There was a Chandala (low-caste) girl who tied a bowl to her stomach and covered it with clothes, then publicly slandered Shakyamuni Buddha, claiming he had made her pregnant. This is slandering the Buddha. If another person slanders the eighth consciousness, saying, “The eighth consciousness, Tathagatagarbha, or Nirvana are merely imaginary and do not exist at all,” this is slandering the Dharma. Slandering the Buddha leads to hell, but it is not among the five heinous acts of shedding the Buddha’s blood, so it does not necessarily lead to the Avici hell. However, slandering the Bodhisattva’s treasury (slandering the meaning of the eighth consciousness) is an even greater sin than the five heinous acts. It not only leads to the Avici hell but also results in becoming an ‘icchantika’.[4] Thus, when comparing through the lens of precepts, it is clear that the “Dharma” is more important than the “Buddha.”

(Question: Is it correct to say “It is better to shed the blood of a Buddha than to slander the Tathagatagarbha?”) Yes, that’s correct. Shedding the blood of a Buddha is one of the five heinous crimes, but it doesn’t make one an ‘icchantika.’ Slandering the Dharma is considered even more severe than the five heinous crimes, as mentioned in the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra.[5] The scriptures state that even those who have committed the five heinous crimes can still be reborn in the Pure Land after repentance. The Avatamsaka Sutra’s chapter on the Practices and Vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (Bodhisattva of Universal Virtue) also states that as long as you undertake the practices and vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, “the extremely evil karma of the Five Uninterrupted [Crimes]… will be swiftly eradicated in a single thought.”[6]

So, when practitioners come to me and ask what to do if they have broken their precepts, I ask them if they have killed their parents or slandered the Dharma. If they haven’t, there’s still hope. Those who have broken their precepts can still be saved if they return to the essence of Buddhism. Returning to the essence of Buddhism includes two parts: first, undertaking the practices and vows of a bodhisattva, specifically those of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, which can quickly eradicate your committed sins; and second, returning to the perfection of wisdom (Prajna Paramita) and abiding in the samadhi of true suchness (Tathata).[7] Only slandering the Dharma cannot be saved unless you become aware of your slander before your death and sincerely repent; otherwise, the retribution of the Avici Hell cannot be avoided.

(Question: Is the Dharma the same as the Tathagatagarbha?) I think it’s not incorrect to say that, but the term “Tathagatagarbha” can be ambiguous. If you refer to the mind essence that has the capacity to contain all things as the “Dharma,” I think that’s not sufficient, because it would leave out many aspects. However, if Tathagatagarbha refers to the eighth consciousness, then I would agree, because “the three realms are only mind, and all phenomena are only consciousness!” Even so, we should try not to say that the “Dharma” refers specifically to Tathagatagarbha. Why? First, some people may not know what Tathagatagarbha is. Second, some people might have a negative attitude towards Tathagatagarbha, but no one would say that facts and truth are bad. All natural laws fall within the scope of facts and truth, and no one would deliberately oppose them. When we say “facts and truth” as the Dharma, we can adapt to the modern scientific and rational society, which is the language and text most easily accepted by contemporary people.


Now, let’s talk about “Buddha.” A few years ago, I went to the provincial museum in Wuhan to see a cultural relics exhibition, which featured many Buddha statues. Among them, some statues depicted a man embracing a woman, both of them naked. The guide told us that this was a symbol, called “union of compassion and wisdom.” In fact, some people actually practice this way, which is called the “dual-body method.” Those who understand the context can recognize that such statues are worshipped by practitioners of the dual-body method. They worship this method and depict Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Vajra beings in dual-body forms. If the Buddha must be portrayed like this, would everyone acknowledge it as a Buddha? At most, this could be considered a Buddha in the sense of “no distinction between mind, Buddha, and sentient beings,” not a Buddha with perfect realization and practice.

The “scriptures” of the dual-body method require practitioners to practice the dual-body method daily, even after attaining Buddhahood. They regard the dual-body Buddha as the “Buddha” because they are ignorant. There are many types of ignorance, with the most important being not understanding what constitutes the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. If one understands what Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are, they would not follow such strange practices. Practicing the dual-body method, the more one practices, the greater their desires grow. If they have no one to practice with, they will suffer immensely. However, learning Buddhism should lead to a decrease in afflictions as one learns more; it should not increase afflictions.

There are three types of Buddhas: Dharmakaya Buddha, Sambhogakaya Buddha, and Nirmanakaya Buddha.

If we consider the Buddha as a sentient being, then he is a sentient being with perfect realization and practice. Realization refers to the direct experience of the ultimate truth, while practice is the cultivation of virtues in accordance with the truth. So, what kind of Buddha is a sentient being with perfect realization and practice? (Someone said: It’s the Nirmanakaya Buddha.) It is the Sambhogakaya Buddha. The “Life Span of the Tathagata” chapter of the Lotus Sutra talks about the merits accumulated by Shakyamuni Buddha over many great eons in the past, resulting in his extremely long life span. This is the Sambhogakaya Buddha, which has such a long life span. Shakyamuni Buddha, as the Nirmanakaya, manifested in the human world with a life span of only 80 years and even showed suffering through illness, being struck by a golden lance, eating barley, and other hardships. If this were the result of perfect realization and practice, many people would not want to attain Buddhahood. Therefore, a sentient being with perfect realization and practice is the Sambhogakaya Buddha, who constantly teaches the Dharma in the Akanishta Heaven. This is not the Dharmakaya Buddha either, as the Dharmakaya Buddha transcends the concept of life span and is an eternal existence.

Shakyamuni Buddha is a Nirmanakaya Buddha, existing for 80 years. Some people see emanation Buddhas in meditation or dreams, which exist only for a few minutes. These two types have no comparability with Sambhogakaya and Dharmakaya Buddhas, so they are classified into one category, collectively referred to as Nirmanakaya Buddhas. Therefore, it is generally said that there are three bodies of the Buddha: Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya. The Lotus Sutra states that when a Bodhisattva Dharma teacher is preaching the Dharma, Shakyamuni Buddha sends emanated beings to listen to the teachings; these beings may be emanation Buddhas. They have already attained Buddhahood, and in order to support the Dharma teacher’s preaching of the Buddhist teachings, they will manifest various transformed beings to join the assembly.

Dharmakaya Buddha refers to the eighth consciousness. The Buddha generally understood by sentient beings is not the Dharmakaya Buddha. However, among the three types of Buddhas, Dharmakaya Buddha is the most important. The Diamond Sutra states: “In your world system, all sentient beings with various mental states are fully known by the Tathagata.” This “Tathagata” refers to the eighth consciousness. There are many other places in Buddhist scriptures where the Dharmakaya Buddha of the eighth consciousness is discussed. For example, “Rising from their seats by the power of the Buddha,” and many similar phrases can be found, and you can search for them yourself. Could it be that without the power of the Buddha, these equally enlightened Bodhisattvas cannot stand up? I once thought that there needed to be a performance in the Dharma assembly, so the Buddha who preached used his supernatural power to make the Bodhisattva stand up and join him in the performance. I believe many people would interpret it this way. However, once you know what the Dharmakaya Buddha is, you will not think this way. What is the truth? When you stand up, you need to “rely on the power of the Buddha”; when you speak, you also need to “rely on the power of the Buddha.” Which Buddha is this? This is the eighth consciousness, that is, the Dharmakaya Buddha. Therefore, when the scriptures mention “rising from their seats by the power of the Buddha,” these Buddhas refer to the Dharmakaya Buddha. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the World-Honored One says that people claim he was born of Maya, and after his birth, he was taken to certain places, later going somewhere to shave his head… After recounting these experiences, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra states: “I” never actually went through these things. For the Sambhogakaya or Nirmanakaya Buddhas, these events are possible. Sambhogakaya Buddha has a lifespan and will certainly comply with some rules of the Three Realms. The Nirmanakaya Buddha is even more so. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha, like a human being, had to beg for alms and eat; he also once manifested illness and then took milk as medicine after being sick. At this time, you cannot say that he did not eat. So, if the scriptures say “I have never eaten,” “I have never been married,” or “I have never had a marital life,” you should know that the “I” here refers to the Dharmakaya Buddha.

The Dharmakaya Buddha is not only possessed by the ultimate Buddha, but all sentient beings also have a Dharmakaya Buddha. If I ask, “Did you eat today?” and you reply, “No.” That would be the most accurate answer because the Dharmakaya Buddha is the true “self,” and it never eats. When you integrate and understand these principles, it becomes easy to initiate the Samadhi of Thusness. Therefore, among these three kinds of Buddhas, the most important one is the Dharmakaya Buddha – the eighth consciousness. Without the eighth consciousness, sentient beings would not only be unable to become Buddhas but even fail to be ordinary people.


The “Sangha Jewel” we take refuge in does not refer to a single individual. The “Sangha” mentioned in Buddhist scriptures refers to the monastic community, not a single person. An individual monastic is called a bhikshu or bhikshuni. There is no ambiguity in the Sanskrit language. It is a great misunderstanding for a certain group to label someone who slanders a particular individual (such as a lecturer or the person in charge of the formal procedure relating to precept) as a ” Karmavācanā[8] wheel-turning Sangha breaker.” “Sangha” refers to the monastic community, not an individual. “Breaking the Sangha” means dividing the monastic community into two or more groups. Breaking and dividing a harmonious Sangha is to split one harmonious monastic community into two. However, the prerequisite is that it must be a harmonious Sangha. If they were already quarreling, and because of your words, they become two separate groups, although you also have a fault, it does not meet the criteria of breaking a harmonious Sangha since they were not harmonious in the first place.

(Question: How many people are needed to form a sangha?) A sangha is defined as a group of four or more monastics who come together to perform Uposatha (recitation of precepts and handling of disciplinary matters). This has a clear stipulation. Breaking a harmonious sangha means dividing a single Uposatha-performing sangha into two separate Uposatha-performing sanghas. If several individuals leave the sangha but do not establish another Uposatha-performing sangha, it does not constitute breaking a harmonious sangha. Therefore, slandering a single person cannot constitute breaking a harmonious sangha or disrupting a karmavācanā-performing sangha.

In Sanskrit, nouns have suffixes indicating quantity, specifying singular, dual, or plural. Plural means three or more. Those who have studied Sanskrit know that, from a textual perspective, the Sanskrit word for “sangha” is plural, so it must refer to at least three people. However, in terms of the requirements for the precepts, a sangha of at least eight people is needed for the possibility of being split into two sanghas.

The Three Jewels are sometimes translated as the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and sometimes as the Buddha, Dharma, and Assembly, as in Kumarajiva’s translation of the Vimalakirti Sutra. From this, it can be seen that the Sangha Jewel refers to the sangha as a group, not an individual. Moreover, slandering the Buddha without causing him to bleed is not a heinous crime, so why would slandering a person who has not yet attained Buddhahood constitute a heinous crime? This is obviously unreasonable.

Everyone must also understand that the “Sangha Jewel” that we can take refuge in does not only refer to monastics but also refers to a collective of practitioners who have attained realization. Monastics can be divided into two types: those who are monastics in appearance and those who are monastics in essence. Monastics in appearance shave their heads and wear monastic clothing. The monastic robes in modern China are different from those in the time of the Buddha, while the robes in Southeast Asia may be more similar. So which type of clothing should one wear to be considered a monastic? In fact, these are all just appearances.

The true monastics are judged by their observance of precepts and their level of realization. If precepts are the standard, they must hold the monastic precepts without serious transgressions (taking human life, sexual conduct, stealing, grave false speech), and they must accept Buddhist teachings and not advocate for non-Buddhist views. If realization is the criterion, they must attain at least approaching Sotapanna (approaching the First Fruit).

An unenlightened person, one day decides to become a monastic, shaves their head, puts on monastic clothing, and takes the monastic precepts. If they didn’t understand the Dharma before, would they suddenly understand it just because they participated in the monastic ordination ceremony? Obviously not. If ordination could instantly lead to realization, there wouldn’t be so many monastics who slander the Dharma, and the Buddhist world would not be plagued by so much chaos.

An unenlightened monastic is no different from a layperson at the level of view. If a layperson has not yet achieved liberation themselves, how can they help you attain liberation? The monastics of the ten directions are capable of helping you escape the afflictions of the three realms because their teachings align with the truth and facts. Unenlightened monastics who meet certain criteria are classified as “Field of Merit Monastics” in Buddhist scriptures. Although they have not attained enlightenment, if you regard them as representatives of the ten direction wise monastics, your refuge in them will still be meritorious.

The “Sangha Jewel” does not refer to a specific group, and not even necessarily a group on Earth, but rather to all sentient beings who have attained realization in the ten directions of the world. Suppose someone claims that only those who have been acknowledged as enlightened by a certain group on Earth can represent the Sangha Jewel; then the problem becomes severe. Why? Because Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva from the Pure Land is not a member of this group and has not been acknowledged as enlightened by them. Does that mean he is not part of the Sangha Jewel?

Therefore, when we take refuge in the “Sangha Jewel,” we do not take refuge in a particular person or a specific group but rather in the collective assembly of the wise monastics of the ten directions. The person or group that helps you take refuge merely serves as a representative of the wise monastics of the ten directions. The assembly of these wise monastics is indestructible, and it is impossible for anyone to destroy this broadly-defined monastic community.

Finally, let me share a story with you all. When Master Xuanzang recounted his experiences in India, he mentioned that a monastic asked an Arhat with supernatural powers to take him to the Tushita Heaven’s Inner Court to meet Maitreya Bodhisattva. He saw that Maitreya Bodhisattva appeared as a layperson, so he only bowed but did not kneel down to pay homage. The Arhat asked him, “Why don’t you kneel down and worship when you see an equally awakened Bodhisattva?” He replied, “A monastic should not prostrate before a layperson.” The Arhat took him there three times, and each time, he refused to kneel and worship. In the end, the Arhat believed his arrogance was too strong and refused to take him there anymore.

“The monastic way” does not exist in the heavenly realms, so there are no monastics in the Tushita Heaven. Moreover, from the appearance (keeping hair and wearing adornments) it can be seen that Maitreya Bodhisattva is not a monastic. In fact, among the well-known Bodhisattvas, only Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva has the appearance of a monastic. Other great Bodhisattvas, such as Avalokitesvara, Mahasthamaprapta, Manjushri, and Samantabhadra, all have the appearance of laypersons.

Therefore, everyone should be cautious not to choose the object of refuge based on the appearance of monasticism, otherwise, you would not even be able to take refuge in equally awakened Bodhisattvas. Taking refuge is for the purpose of transcending the three realms. As long as the teacher guiding you has the realization above the level of the first fruit of a Sravaka, whether or not they possess the appearance of a monastic is not important.

[1] 《雜阿含經》卷41:「若有成就四法者,當知是須陀洹。何等為四?謂於佛不壞淨,於法、僧不壞淨,聖戒成就,是名四法成就者,當知是須陀洹。」(CBETA 2023.Q1, T02, no. 99, p. 298c15-18)

[2] Approaching the First Fruit is one of the stages of liberation in the path of fruition, meaning that one is progressing toward the First Fruit but has not yet fully accomplished the merits of First Fruit. In Hinayana Buddhism, the stages of the Sravaka path are divided into eight, also known as the Four Pairs and the Eight Types, which are: approaching Sotapanna (approaching the First Fruit), Sotapanna (First Fruit), approaching Sakadagamin (approaching the Second Fruit), Sakadagamin (Second Fruit), approaching Anagamin (approaching the Third Fruit), Anagamin (Third Fruit), approaching Arahant (approaching the Fourth Fruit), and Arahant (Fourth Fruit). Approaching Sotapanna is the lowest stage of fruition, while Arahant is the highest stage. Arahants are considered “beyond training,” while the other seven stages involve training.

[3] 《雜阿含經》卷12:「緣起法者,非我所作,亦非餘人作。然彼如來出世及未出世,法界常住,彼如來自覺此法,成等正覺,為諸眾生分別演說,開發顯示。」(CBETA 2023.Q1, T02, no. 99, p. 85b24-27) 《大般若波羅蜜多經》卷296:「若佛出世若不出世,如是諸法常無變易,法性、法界、法定、法住,一切如來等覺現觀,既自等覺、自現觀已,為諸有情宣說開示、分別顯了,令同悟入,離諸妄想分別顛倒。」(CBETA 2023.Q1, T06, no. 220, p. 506a11-15) The scriptures mentioned above all state that Bodhisattvas, upon realizing the existence of facts and truth, can attain the supreme and perfect enlightenment. After achieving this, they then expound the Dharma teachings through language and text for the benefit of sentient beings.

[4] An ‘icchantika,’ also known as a person who has severed their roots of goodness, is someone who slanders the Dharma. After suffering in the three evil realms, when they return to the human realm, they will slander the Dharma once again due to the lingering effects of their past misdeeds, and then fall back into the evil realms. This vicious cycle will not end in the foreseeable future, which is why the Buddha referred to them as ‘icchantika’ individuals.

[5] 《大般若波羅蜜多經》卷544〈7 地獄品〉:「五無間業雖感重苦,而不可比毀謗正法,謂彼聞說甚深般若波羅蜜多,毀謗拒逆言:『此般若波羅蜜多非真佛語,不應修學,非法、非律、非大師教。』由此因緣其罪極重。」(CBETA 2023.Q1, T07, no. 220, p. 801a13-17)

[6] 《大方廣佛華嚴經》卷40:「所造極惡五無間,誦此普賢大願王,一念速疾皆銷滅。」(CBETA 2023.Q1, T10, no. 293, p. 848a27-28)

[7] The Samadhi of True Suchness is a type of meditative concentration, specifically, the samadhi (a state of meditative stability and insight) that resides in the realm of true suchness. It refers to the clear understanding (superior comprehension) of the principle of the one true Dharma realm, resulting in a state of meditative concentration free from attachment and clinging. When combined with the observational thinking, this abiding will deepen gradually, leading all the way to the attainment of Buddhahood.

[8] Karmavācanā refers to the handling of disciplinary matters in a monastic context.




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