-- the Buddha, the example of the historical person who became enlightened (and the idea that we, too, can become enlightened);
-- the Dharma, the truth of the Buddha's teachings that lead to enlightenment.
-- the Sangha, the community of those who practice the Buddha's teachings.
It's interesting that sangha is given equal importance to the teacher and the teachings. Buddhism is often seen as a solitary, internal thing, with meditators sitting in silence or even in isolation, meeting occasionally with gurus in mountaintop caves.
Why, then, is community so important? Why did the Buddha name it as equal to the teacher and the teachings?
It's said, in fact, that his follower Ananda asked him about that. When Buddha explained the importance of having "admirable people as friends" on the path, Ananda nodded, saying, he understood that admirable friendship "is half of the holy life." "No, Ananda," the Buddha responded, "sangha is the whole of a spiritual life."
Sangha, the third jewel, contains the first two, Buddha and Dharma. It allows us to put the teachings into practice, so see whether we've incorporated them or can merely parrot them -- to know, in the words of a dakini, whether we know the meaning or just the words.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there's a tradition of three-year solitary retreat, which is just what it sounds like -- three years of practicing on your own, while checking in with and getting practices from your guru. My teacher says she's seen people finish three years of solo practice and come out with the same behaviors as when they went in. The practice doesn't manifest in them because they're doing it in isolation.
Noah Levine says sangha is like a rock tumbler. By rubbing up against others, bumping into them, we're wearing off the rough edges. And when our edges are less rough, there's more ease in our lives, for ourselves and others.
The importance of sangha cannot be over-estimated. Trying to achieve enlightenment by yourself and only for yourself is like trying to walk uphill in a mudslide. Opening yourself to others, supporting and being supported, is critical to loosening the fetters or ego and selfishness. -- Barbara O'BrienMany of the Buddha's teachings are aimed at how we behave in relationship with others. The Five Precepts are all about how we act toward others; we abstain from killing, lying, stealing, intoxication, and sexual misconduct. The Brahma Viharas, the Four Immeasurables, describe how people behave in a heaven on earth: with equanimity, kindness, compassion, and appreciation toward all.
By acting mindfully and virtuously, we create safe space for ourselves and others, space where the inevitable difficulties-- sickness, old age, grief -- are eased.
As O'Brien says, "By taking refuge in the sangha we become the refuge. This is the path of the buddhas."