Triratna, or Ratnatraya … The Three Jewels, [is] the technical term for the well-known formula “Buddha, Dharma and Sangha” (or Samgha), the two latter terms meaning, in modern interpretations, “religious law” (Dharma), and the “priesthood” (Sangha).
Esoteric Philosophy, however, would regard this as a very loose rendering.
The words “Buddha, Dharma and Sangha” ought to be pronounced as in the days of Gautama, the Lord Buddha, namely “Bodhi, Dharma and Sangha”; and interpreted to mean “Wisdom, its laws and priests”, the latter in the sense of “spiritual exponents”, or adepts.
Buddha, however, being regarded as personified “Bodhi” on earth, a true avatar of Adi-Buddha, Dharma gradually came to be regarded as his own particular law, and Sangha as his own special priesthood. Nevertheless, it is the profane of the later (now modern) teachings who have shown a greater degree of natural intuition than the actual interpreters of Dharma, the Buddhist priests.
The people see the Triratna in the three statues of Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya Buddha; i.e., in “Boundless Light” or Universal Wisdom, an impersonal principle which is the correct meaning of Adi-Buddha; in the “Supreme Lord” of the Bodhisattvas, or Avalokiteshvara; and in Maitreya Buddha, the symbol of the terrestrial and human Buddha, the “Manushi Buddha”.
Thus, even though the uninitiated do call these three statues “the Buddhas of the Past, the Present and the Future”, still every follower of true philosophical Buddhism – called “atheistical” by Mr. Eitel – would explain the term Triratna correctly.
The philosopher of the Yogacharya School would say – as well he could – “Dharma is not a person but an unconditioned and underived entity, combining in itself the spiritual and material principles of the universe, whilst from Dharma proceeded, by emanation, Buddha [‘reflected’ Bodhi rather], as the creative energy which produced, in conjunction with Dharma, the third factor in the trinity, viz., ‘Samgha’, which is the comprehensive sum total of all real life.”
Samgha, then, is not and cannot be that which it is now understood to be, namely, the actual “priesthood”; for the latter is not the sum total of all real life, but only of religious life. The real primitive significance of the word Samgha or “Sangha” applies to the Arhats or Bhikshus, or the “initiates”, alone, that is to say to the real exponents of Dharma – the divine law and wisdom, coming to them as a reflex light from the one “boundless light”. Such is its philosophical meaning.
Trisharana [is] the same as “Triratna” and accepted by both the Northern and Southern Churches of Buddhism. After the death of the Buddha it was adopted by the councils as a mere kind of formula fidei, enjoining “to take refuge in Buddha”; “to take refuge in Dharma”, and “to take refuge in Sangha”, or his Church, in the sense in which it is now interpreted; but it is not in this sense that the “Light of Asia” would have taught the formula.
Of Trikaya, Mr E.J. Eitel, of Hongkong, tells us in his Handbook of Chinese Buddhism that this “trichotomism was taught with regard to the nature of all Buddhas. Bodhi being the characteristic of a Buddha” – a distinction was made between “essential Bodhi” as the attribute of the Dharmakaya, i.e., “essential body”; “reflected Bodhi” as the attribute of Sambhogakaya; and “practical Bodhi” as the attribute of Nirmanakaya. Buddha combining in himself these three conditions of existence, was said to be living at the same time in three different spheres.
Now, this shows how greatly misunderstood is the purely pantheistical and philosophical teaching.
Without stopping to enquire how even a Dharmakaya vesture can have any “attribute” in Nirvana, which state is shown, in philosophical Brahmanism [i.e. Hinduism] as much as in Buddhism, to be absolutely devoid of any attribute as conceived by human finite thought – it will be sufficient to point to the following: –
(1) the Nirmanakaya vesture is preferred by the “Buddhas of Compassion” to that of the Dharmakaya state, precisely because the latter precludes him who attains it from any communication or relation with the finite, i.e., with humanity;
(2) it is not Buddha (Gautama, the mortal man, or any other personal Buddha) who lives ubiquitously in “three different spheres, at the same time”, but Bodhi, the universal and abstract principle of divine wisdom, symbolised in philosophy by Adi-Buddha. It is the latter that is ubiquitous because it is the universal essence or principle.
It is Bodhi, or the spirit of Buddhaship, which, having resolved itself into its primordial homogeneous essence and merged into it, as Brahma (the universe) merges into Parabrahm, the ABSOLUTENESS – that is meant under the name of “essential Bodhi”.
For the Nirvanee, or Dhyani-Buddha, must be supposed – by living in Arupadhatu, the formless state, and in Dharmakaya – to be that “essential Bodhi” itself.
It is the Dhyani Bodhisattvas, the primordial rays of the universal Bodhi, who live in “reflected Bodhi” in Rupadhatu, or the world of subjective “forms”; and it is the Nirmanakayas (plural) who upon ceasing their lives of “practical Bodhi”, in the “enlightened” or Buddha forms, remain voluntarily in the Kamadhatu (the world of desire), whether in objective forms on earth or in subjective states in its sphere (the second Buddhakshetra). This they do in order to watch over, protect and help mankind.
Thus, it is neither one Buddha who is meant, nor any particular avatar of the collective Dhyani Buddhas, but verily Adi-Bodhi – the first Logos, whose primordial ray is Mahabuddhi, the Universal Soul, ALAYA, whose flame is ubiquitous, and whose influence has a different sphere in each of the three forms of existence, because, once again, it is Universal Being itself or the reflex of the Absolute.
Hence, if it is philosophical to speak of Bodhi, which “as Dhyani Buddha rules in the domain of the spiritual” (fourth Buddhakshetra or region of Buddha); and of the Dhyani Bodhisattvas “ruling in the third Buddhakshetra” or the domain of ideation; and even of the Manushi Buddhas, who are in the second Buddhakshetra as Nirmanakayas – to apply the “idea of a unity in trinity” to three personalities – is highly unphilosophical.
— H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary p.341-344
Further information about some of these topics can also be found in “The Voice of the Silence” by H.P. Blavatsky, the ideal handbook for those who would tread the Bodhisattva Path of initiation.
“To become a Buddha one has to break through the bondage of sense and personality; to acquire a complete perception of the REAL SELF and learn not to separate it from all other selves; to learn by experience the utter unreality of all phenomena of the visible Kosmos foremost of all; to reach a complete detachment from all that is evanescent and finite, and live while yet on Earth in the immortal and the everlasting alone, in a supreme state of holiness.” – HPB