Dharma (Buddhism)

Dharma (Buddhism)
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Dhamma (Pali: धम्म) or Dharma (Sanskrit: धर्म) in Buddhism can have the following meanings:

  • The state of Nature as it is (yathā bhūta)[1]
  • The Laws of Nature considered collectively.
  • The teaching of the Buddha as an exposition of the Natural Law applied to the problem of human suffering.
  • A phenomenon and/or its properties.[2]


Etymology and Linguistic variants

Dharma is derived from Sanskrit of the same spelling, meaning "what is established, law, duty, right". The derived Prakrit word is Dhamma [3]

In East Asia, the character for Dharma is , pronounced in Mandarin Chinese, in Japanese and beop in Korean. The Tibetan complete English translation of this term is chos (Tibetan: ཆོས་, Lhasa dialect IPA: [[tɕǿʔ]]).[citation needed] In Uyghur, Mongolian, and some other Central Asian languages, it is nom, which derives from the Ancient Greek word νόμος, nómos, meaning "law".[4]

Etymologically, the word Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma) is derived from the root "dham," meaning "to uphold" or "to support," and the commentary further explains that it is that which upholds or supports the practitioner (of Dhamma) and prevents him or her from falling into states of misery or birth in a woeful existence. Of all Buddhist terminology, the word Dhamma commands the widest, most comprehensive meaning [2]. Dharma is to cultivate the knowledge and practice of laws and principles that holds together the fabric of reality, natural phenomena and personality of human beings in dynamic interdependence and harmony.

Dharma within Indian Religions

Religion in India comes within the general purview of the concept of Dharma. Dharma means Law in the widest sense (see article dharma) as well as life that is lived in accord or in harmony with the law (whether legal statutes or natural law). Dharma in this latter sense is 'the path of righteousness'[5][6][7], the way of 'correct', 'appropriate', 'decent', or 'proper' behaviour. The different religious traditions of India are conceived as so many variations of this path of righteousness. Therefore a Jain practices Jain-dharma; a Hindu follows Sanatana-dharma; and a Buddhist practices Buddha-dharma. Historically, the Indian mindset has been characterized by religious pluralism and inclusivity. All religion is considered a matter of eternally valid laws of nature (sanatana dharma) because suffering and bondage and the path to freedom and liberation is conceived (even if one believes in a personal God) in terms of causes and effects. Dharma (as the perennially fixed set of natural laws governing causation) presents the structure of rules which if understood correctly leads to natural or skillful action (dharma or kusala kamma) or if not understood and contravened leads to unskillful action (adharma or akusala kamma) with unfortunate consequences. It is the persistence of the laws of nature (and the principle of causation) from day to day, from year to year and across the vastness of time that enables one to conceive dharma as eternal. Wholesome, fair-minded actions always bring forth positive future results whereas unwholesome and unjust actions lead to suffering, misery and future retribution.[8] Though each path of dharma (Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) signifies a particular religious form with its own rules and practices there is nontheless general uniformity among these traditions concerning the underlying philosophy of liberation. To walk the path to liberation is to unravel and reorganize the entangled and disharmonious psycho-physical structures formed in the course of the path of unskillful action[9] and the principal means by which this is achieved is Yoga, a central feature of Indian religions. Yoga is the ascetic path of purification by which the effects of sin (akusla kamma) may be undone. Most forms of Indian religion employ some form of yogic discipline as an important, if not central, tool in the process of mind-body purification. Buddhism (a word invented by British scholars and Christian missionaries at the beginning of the nineteenth century) is therefore, properly speaking, Buddha-dharma, the system of analysis taught by the Buddha (recorded in the Pali canon) regarding the causes of suffering and the necessary course of action needed to undo these causes. In India and the Asian countries to which the Buddha's doctrine of liberation was transmitted over the centuries the teaching has always been referred to as Buddha-dharma; Buddha-dharma signifying that path of disciplined practice that Gautama Buddha undertook and espoused.

Dhamma-vinaya; the Buddha's Path of Practice

Gautama Buddha referred to the path that he prescribed his students as dhamma-vinaya (dhamma is the conventional rendering of the Pali word into Roman script compared to Sanskrit which is rendered as dharma) which means this path of discipline (vinaya means discipline). The path of the Buddhas (Gautama Buddha saw himself as one in a long line of Buddhas stretching back into remote antiquity) is a path of self-imposed discipline. This discipline involves refraining as much as possible from sexual activity (this is called Brahmacarya), a code of ethical behaviour (Śīla) and effort in the cultivation of mindfulness and wisdom. (See also Threefold Training)

In the Buddhist Scriptures, the expression "The Dharma" often refers to the Buddha's teachings and their scriptural recension (e.g. the Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon), and can more broadly include the later traditions of interpretation and exegesis that the various schools of Buddhism have developed to help explain and expand upon the Buddha's teachings. In later Mahayana tradition, this was seen as the 84,000 different teachings (the Kangyur/bka.'gyur) that the Buddha gave to various types of people based on their needs.

In this sense of being synonymous with the Buddha's teachings the Dharma constitutes one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism in which practitioners of Buddhism take refuge (what one relies on for his/her lasting happiness). The three jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha (mind's perfection of enlightenment), the Dharma (teachings and methods), and the Sangha (the community of committed practitioners of the buddha dharma who provide mutual support, encouragement and spiritual friendship).

Understanding Nature; dhamma vicaya

The cultivation and attainment of wisdom is part of the goal and practice of Buddhism. In order to attain wisdom one must understand the nature of things (the dharma) and part of the practice of Buddhism is the investigation of Nature - dhamma-vicaya. This means to adopt an objective, scientific approach to understanding the causal relationships between various phenomena. In particular it refers to the dispassionate self-observation discussed in teachings such as the Satipatthana Sutta. The Buddha himself has been called a great or even a super-scientist[10] because his teachings on the way out of suffering use analyses of the causal relationships between the different factors which constitute mind and body. The crowning achievement of this analysis is the doctrine of dependent origination.

The Buddha's Dharma Body

The qualities of the Dharma (Law, truth) are the same as the qualities of the Buddha and form his "truth body" or "Dhamma Kaya": In the Samyutta Nikaya, Vakkali Sutta, Buddha said to his disciple Vakkali that,

"Yo kho Vakkali dhammaṃ passati so maṃ passati"
O Vakkali, whoever sees the Dhamma, sees me [the Buddha]

Another reference from the Agganna Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, says to his disciple Vasettha:

"Tathāgatassa h'etam Vasettha adivacanam Dhammakayo iti pi ...":
O Vasettha! The Word of Dhammakaya is indeed the name of the Tathagata

Qualities of Buddha Dharma

The Teaching of the Buddha has six supreme qualities:

  1. Svākkhāto (Sanskrit: Svākhyāta "well proclaimed"). The Buddha's teaching is not a speculative philosophy but an exposition of the Universal Law of Nature based on a causal analysis of natural phenomena. It is preached, therefore, as a science[11] rather than a sectarian belief system. Full comprehension (enlightenment) of the teaching may take varying lengths of time but Buddhists traditionally say that the course of study is 'excellent in the beginning (sīla – Sanskrit śīla – moral principles), excellent in the middle (samādhi – concentration) and excellent in the end' (paññā - Sanskrit prajñā . . . Wisdom).
  2. Sandiṭṭhiko (Sanskrit: Sāṃdṛṣṭika "able to be examined"). The Dhamma is amenable to scientific scrutiny and is not based on faith alone. It can be tested by personal practice and he who follows it will see the result for himself by means of his own experience.
  3. Akāliko (Sanskrit: Akālika "timeless, immediate"). The Dhamma is able to bestow timeless and immediate results here and now, for which there is no need to wait until the future or next existence. The dhamma does not change over time and it is not relative to time
  4. Ehipassiko (Sanskrit: Ehipaśyika "which you can come and see" — from the phrase ehi, paśya "come, see!"). The Dhamma invites all beings to put it to the test and come see for themselves.
  5. Opanayiko (Sanskrit: Avapraṇayika "leading one close to"). Followed as a part of one's life the dhamma leads one on to liberation. In the "Vishuddhimagga" this is also referred to as "Upanayanam."
  6. Paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhi (Sanskrit: Pratyātmaṃ veditavyo vijñaiḥ "To be personally known by the wise"). The Dhamma can be perfectly realized only by the noble disciples (Ariyas) who have matured in supreme wisdom.

Knowing these attributes, Buddhists believe that they will attain the greatest peace and happiness through the practice of the Dhamma. Each person is therefore fully responsible for himself to put it in the real practice.

Here the Buddha is compared to an experienced and skillful doctor, and the Dhamma to proper medicine. However efficient the doctor or wonderful the medicine may be, the patients cannot be cured unless they take the medicine properly. So the practice of the Dhamma is the only way to attain the final deliverance of Nibbāna.

These teachings ranged from understanding karma (Pāli: kamma) (literal meaning 'action')) and developing good impressions in one's mind, to reach full enlightenment by recognizing the nature of mind.

Dharmas in Buddhist phenomenology

Other uses include dharma, normally spelled in transliteration with a small "d" (this differentiation is impossible in the South Asian scripts used to write Sanskrit), which refers to a phenomenon or constituent factor of human experience. This was gradually expanded into a classification of constituents of the entire material and mental world. Rejecting the substantial existence of permanent entities which are qualified by possibly changing qualities, Buddhist Abhidharma philosophy, which enumerated seventy-five dharmas, came to propound that these "constituent factors" are the only type of entity that truly exists. This notion is of particular importance for the analysis of human experience: Rather than assuming that mental states inhere in a cognizing subject, or a soul-substance, Buddhist philosophers largely propose that mental states alone exist as "momentary elements of consciousness", and that a subjective perceiver is assumed.

One of the central tenets of Buddhism, is the denial of a separate permanent "I", and is outlined in the three marks of existence. The three signs: 1. Duḥkha (Pali: Dukkha) - Suffering, 2. Anitya (Pali: Anicca) - Change/Impermanence, 3. Anātman (Pali: Anatta) - Non-self. At the heart of Buddhism, is the realization of no "self" or "I" (and hence the delusion) as a separate self-existing entity.

Later, Buddhist philosophers like Nāgārjuna would question whether the dharmas (momentary elements of consciousness) truly have a separate existence of their own. (i.e. Do they exist apart from anything else?) Rejecting any inherent reality to the dharmas, he asked (rhetorically):

śūnyeṣu sarvadharmeṣu kim anantaṃ kim antavat
kim anantam antavac ca nānantaṃ nāntavac ca kiṃ
kiṃ tad eva kim anyat kiṃ śāśvataṃ kim aśāśvataṃ
aśāśvataṃ śāśvataṃ ca kiṃ vā nobhayam apyataḥ
sarvopalambhopaśamaḥ prapañcopaśamaḥ śivaḥ
na kvacit kasyacit kaścid dharmo buddhena deśitaḥ

When all dharmas are empty, what is endless? What has an end?
What is endless and with an end? What is not endless and not with an end?
What is it? What is other? What is permanent? What is impermanent?
What is impermanent and permanent? What is neither?

Auspicious is the pacification of phenomenal metastasis, the pacification of all apprehending;
There is no dharma whatsoever taught by the Buddha to whomever, whenever, wherever.
Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, nirvāṇaparīkṣā, 25:22-24

Meanings of "Dharma"

Dharma in the Buddhist scriptures has a variety of meanings, including "phenomenon", and "nature" or "characteristic".

Dharma also means ‘mental contents’, and is paired with citta, which means heart/mind. In major sutras (for example, the Mahasatipatthana sutra), the dharma/citta pairing is paralleled with the pairing of kaya (body) and vedana (feelings or sensations, that which arise within the body but experienced through the mind).

Dharma means the source of things and Truth.

Dharma is also used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha, not in the context of the words of one man, even an enlightened man, but as a reflection of natural law which was re-discovered by this man and shared with the world. A person who lives their life with an understanding of this natural law, is a "dhammic" person, which is often translated as "righteous".

The Buddha would teach the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Marks of Existence, and other guidelines in order to achieve the freedom and liberation from suffering.


  1. ^ http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O108-yathbhta.html ; also see below
  2. ^ The late Venerable Buddhadasa, one of the most influential Buddhist philosophers of twentieth century Thailand, explains the meaning of the term Dhamma/Dharma in the context of Buddhism by a fourfold definition. According to this, Dhamma means a) The state of Nature as it is, b) The laws of nature, c) The duties that must be performed in accordance with the laws of nature, and d) The results that are derived from the fulfillment of such duties. [1]
  3. ^ Turner, Ralph 1939, entry #6753 in "A comparative and etymological dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages; http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/soas/
  4. ^ "The Dhamma of Islam: A Conversation with Snjezana Akpinar and Alex Berzin." Inquiring Mind (Berkeley, California), vol. 20, no. 1 (fall 2003).
  5. ^ http://hinduism.about.com/od/basics/a/dharma.htm
  6. ^ http://www.sanatansociety.org/yoga_and_meditation/dharma.htm
  7. ^ http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Dharma
  8. ^ Na hi verena verani sammantidha kudacanam averena ca sammanti esa dhammo sanantano, Hatred is never dissipated by hatred, only by non-hatred (loving-kindness) is hatred brought to an end. This is eternal law. Verse 5; Dhammapada
  9. ^ In a traditional story the Buddha is visited by an angelic being who says, "A tangle inside, a tangle outside. This generation is entangled in a tangle. I ask you this, O Gotama, Who can disentangle this tangle?" (Samyutta Nikaya.i.13). The great Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa explains that in this verse the tangle mentioned refers to the network of craving (within the psyche). The Buddha responds to the deva, "When a wise man, established well in virtue, develops consciousness and understanding, then as a bhikkhu ardent and sagacious he succeeds in disentangling this tangle." Visuddhimagga Ch.1
  10. ^ An accolade used by Mr S N Goenka
  11. ^ "A pure science of mind and matter" S.N. Goenka

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