The three treasures are: first, the Buddha-treasure; second, the dharma-treasure; third, the Sangha-treasure. The present “Pure Land School” belongs to the Buddha-treasure. (Shinran, Lamp for the Latter Ages, Letter 8, CWS, p. 534)
In the eighth letter of the Lamp for the Latter Ages, Shinran Shonin locates the Pure Land tradition of Shan-tao–the True Pure Land School (Jodo Shinshu), which he inherited from his teacher Honen Shonin—within the overall family of the schools of Buddha Dharma. He categorises Jodo Shinshu in terms of the scriptures we revere, the three bodies of the Buddha, the four vehicles, the two kinds of teachings, and much more.
We all know that the three treasures are the Buddha, dharma and sangha. Furthermore, in the Mahayana, taking refuge in these three treasures is to take refuge in their underlying significance. The Buddha is certainly Amida Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha, but the underlying meaning is the enlightenment of the Buddha. The dharma is certainly the teaching handed down through the ages but the underlying meaning is the ineffable truth of which the teaching is a manifestation. The sangha is certainly the community of monks and nuns, but the underlying significance is the harmony of that community. Indeed, there are elements of the Mahayana, which go much deeper still.
In the section on the True Buddha and Land in The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation, Shinran quotes these words from the Nirvana Sutra:
All sentient beings fear birth-and-death; hence they seek the three refuges. (CWS, p. 181)
As I said in the opening essay of my reflections on the Hymns of Shinran, those who become aware of the plight of existence and are sensitive to its intractable spiritual oppression are those very people who take refuge in the three treasures. In our world today, there are many distractions from the troubling questions about the anguish of existence, and the resulting relief that comes upon taking refuge in the Buddha. But there are still many who continue to seek out the Buddha Dharma as affording a bright and liberating insight into life that eventually brings them inner strength and joy.
When Shinran tells us that–of the Three Treasures–the Pure Land way belongs to the Buddha treasure, he reminds us of many things. One of these is that the Pure Land teaching comes directly from the Buddha. But of more significance is the fact that Buddha encompasses dharma and sangha.
To say … that there is a distinction in nature among the three treasures, or to trust in wrong words or [such wrong teachers as] Purana, is termed “trust in what is wrong.” These people, although they have trust in the treasures of Buddha, dharma, and sangha, do not believe that the treasures are identical in nature and character. (CWS, p. 235)
By accepting the call of the Vow of Amida Buddha alone in the Name, Namo Amida Butsu, everyone—no matter what their status or condition—joins the entire cohort of those who take refuge in the three treasures and are assured of nirvana. Such people are true disciples of the Buddha.