The symbol which we refer 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. In the Brahmi script, it was originally written as three dots arranged as a triangle, sometimes with a curved line beneath. It was often used as a metaphor for the elements of training arranged in the right balance. That is, if the three dots are vertical or horizontal they do not make up the letter but only when rightly arranged. 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 this character, (i.e. essence, spirit, heart, physical and spiritual, as well as mind and Mind) blended into the meaning of the Sanskrit letter.
Our tradition holds the whole meaning of the Sanskrit letter and Chinese character together indistinguishably. Thus we have the “three circles of the Soto Lineage” as well as the three circles made by the celebrant with the spade or torch at the funeral ceremony. In the eye-opening ceremony for a Buddha statue, the three dots are made by the pen or brush. In all of the above 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 Rev. Master Koten Benson)