The symbol which we referred to as the ship and three drums comes down to us from India. It is a stylization of a Sanskrit letter, the vowel sound “i”. In Sanskrit this sound is considered to be of the highest vibration: the symbol of ungraspable spontaneity and freedom, the enlivening vowel. It was originally written as three dots arranged as a triangle, with a curved line beneath. It was often used as a metaphor for the elements of training arranged in the right balance. So it represented the Three Refuges or three aspects of training such as Compassion, Love and Wisdom.
When Buddhism entered China the similarity of the Sanskrit letter to the Chinese character for heart-mind was noted, and the meaning of the character – essence, spirit, heart, physical and spiritual, as well as mind and Mind – blended into the meaning of the Sanskrit letter.
Our tradition…the “three dots” are the enlivening aspect of the Dharma – that is, our own meditation and training which we bring to the ceremony and to all aspects of daily life.
In the symbol of the Ship and Three Drums the ship which carries all beings to the other shore is the container, the Dharma, the lineage, and the three drums are the Life – the enlivening aspect, the True Sound of the Dharma.
It has always been taught, however, that we must go quickly beyond understanding the mere symbol to truly understanding – through our own experience – the great Matter which lies beyond.
(The above is an adaptation of an original article by Reverend Master Koten Benson.)