Despite the differences in the varieties of Buddhism, there are always the same three cornerstones which are called the Three Jewels. These are the Buddha, the Dharma which is the teaching of the Buddha, and the Sangha, which is the community who follow the teaching.
When a person accepts the Buddhist philosophy and wants to make it part of their life, the traditional way is to say "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha."
The Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha is based on the Four Noble Truths and this is symbolised by the wheel. Originally, the Sangha was the monastic community and this was later to include all those following the Buddhist path.
The first jewel is the Buddha. To take refuge in the Buddha is not to hide in the safety of a powerful being. Refuge in this situation is more like moving to a new perspective, to a new awareness of the possibility within us all. By taking refuge in the Buddha, we align ourselves with the ability to become a Buddha ourselves, to seek the capacity to be awakened to what the Buddha experienced. This precious jewel reminds us to find our own Buddha nature.
The Dharma is the path which follows the teaching of the Buddha, and which will ultimately lead to awakening. The Dharma teaches us compassion for ourselves and others through an understanding of The Four Noble Truths and leads to a release from fear and ignorance. The path involves embracing the teaching of the Buddha and applying that understanding to everyday life. The Dharma is called the second jewel.
The Sangha comprises those who come together in any size group to study, discuss, practice meditation with a desire to help and be helped by that group. The Buddha saw that the interaction with others who are on the path as being essential for practice. He saw this as being important for ordained monks as well as those of the general community. The Sangha is the third precious jewel.
In the original teaching and in current Theravada communities, the Sangharefers only to the monks, nuns and other ordained teachers. The concept of Sangha is more broadly interpreted in many Mahayana and Western groups to include all those who embrace the Dharma as a community.
Just as the Three Jewels forms the simple framework for the transmission of the Buddhist philosophy, the Five Precepts are the basic ethical guidelines for the followers of the philosophy.
The Five Precepts are not an absolute rigid set of rules, but provide a practical basis for good, ethical living which will produce the right environment in which to seek out our own truths.
The first precept is that of not intentionally killing living beings. We step on ants every day, and this isnt really with any lack of care, and I doubt if its possible to avoid occasionally beating the odd cockroach to oblivion, however, the premeditated killing of other human and senseless killing of animals for sport certainly is not desirable for Buddhists. The primary goal of this precept is to develop concern for the safety and welfare of others and to have compassion for all living things.
The second precept is to take only what has been given. This is broader than not stealing, as it means returning borrowed items, and not taking unfair advantage even when it is still within the laws of the country. This means that you develop a sense of fair play, and generosity towards others.
The third precept often talks about sexual misconduct, but may also be interpreted as not misusing the senses. As the strongest drive after the survival instinct, the sexual drive will dominate our lives and cause much suffering unless directed wisely and skilfully. Living to excess, and in particular excessive eating, also causes grief. This precept encourages us to be content with more simple lives.
In the fourth precept we are encouraged not to speak falsely, not to lie, slander, misrepresent or to gossip maliciously. This teaches us to speak truthfully and kindly and to have positive motives when we approach a discussion.
The fifth precept is most important for todays affluent Western society, and that is to avoid intoxicants. This includes alcohol, unnecessary drugs, and stimulants such as tobacco and caffeine. This precept is important to develop rational thinking and will allow the development of inner clarity needed for mindfulness.
As always, the Buddha was compassionate and pragmatic, and recommended these rather than dogmatically insisting that these five precepts were essential. But there is considerable good sense in each precept and by living with them every day, the way is then clear to be able to focus on the personal search for enlightened understanding.