Because we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, when we are new to Buddhadharma, we generally have the attitude that all three must be perfect. We, therefore, expect that any member of the Sangha must be perfect, and then as soon as we discover —as we eventually must— that members of the Sangha have problems, then we decide that the whole thing must be a lie. We are disillusioned about the Sangha. This causes us to distrust the Dharma and lose faith altogether. This, however, can be easily prevented by gaining an understanding of the attributes of the Three Jewels as explained by the Buddha. If you understand the distinctions the Buddha made among the attributes of the Three Jewels, this disillusionment and rejection of Dharma —this disappointment— need not occur.
If the Buddha had said, “I take refuge in the Sangha, supreme among all that are free of attachment,” then our disillusionment would be justifiable. If the Buddha had claimed that the Sangha was free of attachment, then as soon as we detected a Dharma teacher or member of the Sangha demonstrating attachment, such as attachment to food, or sex, or pleasure of some kind, disillusionment would be justifiable. But the Buddha never said that.
The Buddha did not say, “Take refuge in the Sangha because they are free of attachment.” He said, “Take refuge in the Sangha, the best society, supreme among assemblies.” Now, what does it mean? As human beings, we are involved in societies, groups, and organizations of all kinds. Many of these are inherently negative. Many of them are neutral. But among all of the societies in which we may take part, the Sangha is unique because it is dedicated to mutual support in the pursuit of awakening. So the Buddha never claimed that we should expect the Sangha to be perfect. But we should understand the Sangha to be the best society.
He did, on the other hand, assert the perfection of Dharma. He said, “I take refuge in the Dharma, supreme among all that is free of attachment.” And there is a reason for this. Just as the Buddha did not claim that the Sangha is free of attachment, he did claim that Dharma is free of attachment. Dharma has two aspects: the Dharma of tradition and the Dharma of realization. The Dharma of tradition refers to the Buddha’s teachings and the commentaries upon them. These exist as books. Books are inanimate objects. Books, the words in books, the ideas communicated by those words, as inanimate things cannot possibly have kleshas (obscurations). You can never mistrust the message found in these books on the basis of assuming that it might have a klesha. It cannot.
The other aspect of Dharma is realization. This realization Dharma is the achievement of the fruition (or result) of the path —the achievement of nirvana— whether it is the nirvana of a shravaka, the nirvana of a pratyekabuddha, or the great non-abiding nirvana of a Buddha— the wisdom which knows what there is and the nature of all that there is, the culmination of the Bodhisattva path. Whether it is the one-sided nirvana of a shravaka or pratyekabuddha, or the great nirvana of a Buddha, which transcends both samsara and nirvana, realization refers to the transcendence of samsara and therefore all kleshas. When someone achieves realization Dharma, they cannot and do not have kleshas. Therefore neither the Dharma of tradition nor the Dharma of realization can possess attachment or any other kleshas. Therefore it was correct and important for the Buddha to make that assertion.
If you understand the difference between the Dharma and the Sangha, then you will not be surprised and disillusioned when you see flaws in Dharma teachers or other members of the Sangha. You will recognize that as members of the Sangha they deserve your support in the mutual achievement of liberation.
In this way, an understanding of the attributes of the Three Jewels not only inspires confidence in them, but it enables us to understand correctly the differences between them. And this understanding will enable us when we observe the imperfections of members of the Sangha not to become angry at them, but to feel compassion for them. We will recognize that the other members of the Sangha are attempting to follow the correct path, but that they have not yet completed it —they have not yet achieved the state of Buddhahood— and therefore they still have kleshas.
Recognizing that, we will not be surprised or shocked; we will feel compassion. This brings two benefits. The first, most obvious benefit, is that we will feel supportive compassion for other members of the Sangha rather than aggression or anger. The other benefit is that we will not commit the downfall of abandonment of Dharma. The abandonment of the Dharma is a more serious problem than even the five actions of immediate consequence (killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing a Bodhisattva, wounding a Buddha, and dividing the Sangha).
By recognizing the difference between the Dharma and the Sangha, we will feel compassion and not anger toward the Sangha, and we will ourselves be free from the abandonment of Dharma. However we may act as members of the Sangha, if we can remember that the Buddhadharma itself is flawless, then we will avoid the problems of losing faith, losing heart, and these benefits will accrue.
—Bardor Tulku Rinpoche