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Dharma (Buddhism)

For a general discussion of the concept, see Dharma.
Translations of
Pali: dhamma
Sanskrit: dharma
(rōmaji: )
(RR: beop)
Tibetan: ཆོས
(chos, [tɕǿʔ])
Glossary of Buddhism

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

  • The state of Nature as it is (yathā bhūta)[1]
  • The Laws of Nature considered both collectively and individually.
  • 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 a Sanskrit word, and the derived Prakrit word is Dhamma.[3]

Etymologically, the word Dhamma is derived from the root "dham," meaning "to uphold" and "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.[4] Dharma is to cultivate the knowledge and practice of laws and principles that hold together the fabric of reality, natural phenomena and personality of human beings in dynamic interdependence and harmony.

In Uyghur, Mongolian, and some other Central Asian languages, it is nom, which derives from the Ancient Greek word νόμος, nómos, meaning "law".[5]

Dharma within Indian Religions

Religion (a conceptual domain which in Europe has only been considered a discrete entity since the Age of Enlightenment[6]) is part of the concept of dharma within traditional Indian Civilization. Dharma means the Law (see article dharma) as well as life that is lived in accordance with the law (whether legal statutes or natural law). Dharma in this latter sense is 'the path of righteousness', the way of 'correct', 'appropriate', 'decent', or 'proper' behaviour. The different religious traditions of India are conceived as so many variations of what is considered a life of purity and goodness. Therefore a Jain practices Jain-dharma; a Hindu follows Sanatana-dharma; and a Buddhist practices Buddha-dharma. However, these designations should not be taken to imply sectarianism.[7] Historically, the Indian mindset has been characterized by religious pluralism and inclusivity.[8] 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.[9]

Though each path of dharma (Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) signifies a particular religious form with its own rules and practices there is nonetheless 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[10] 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.

Dharma in Buddhism

Buddhism (a word invented by British scholars and Christian missionaries at the beginning of the nineteenth century) is referred to in the East as Buddha-dharma or Dharma vinaya. This refers to both the system of analysis taught by the Buddha (recorded in the sutta pitaka of the Pali canon) regarding the causes of suffering (Pali: pariyatti) and the necessary course of action needed to be taken to undo these causes (Pali: patipatti). This course of action involves leading a life of moral uprightness abstaining from unwholesome behaviours and engaging in wholesome ones. Such a lifestyle as well as keeping a person out of harm's way brings about over time a purification of any taints brought about by unskilful past activities. Buddhism is thus often referred to as "the path of purification" (Pali: Visuddhimagga) and within a Western context can be seen as an applied system of natural mental health and well-being. As with other Indian religions, the end point of this path (notwithstanding the commitment to helping others to achieve the same), the final undoing of all the internal causes of suffering, is final liberation or Moksha. This is accompanied by a profound peace of mind referred to as nirvana.

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, systematic 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 principal teaching from 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 Vakkali Sutta,[11] 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]."

In another reference from the Aggañña Sutta,[12] the Buddha 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" or "self-announced"). 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 taught, therefore, as a science[13] 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 Dharma is open to scientific and other types of scrutiny and is not based on faith.[14] It can be tested by personal practice and one who follows it will see the result for oneself by means of one's own experience. Sandiṭṭhiko comes from the word sandiṭṭhika which means visible in this world and is derived from the word sandiṭṭhi-. Since Dhamma is visible, it can be "seen": known and be experienced within one's life.
  3. Akāliko (Sanskrit: Akālika "timeless, immediate"). The Dhamma is able to bestow timeless and immediate results here and now. There is no need to wait for the future or a 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 to liberation. In the "Vishuddhimagga" this is also referred to as "Upanayanam." Opanayiko means "to be brought inside oneself". This can be understood with an analogy as follows. If one says a ripe mango tastes delicious, and if several people listen and come to believe it, they would imagine the taste of the mango according to their previous experiences of other delicious mangoes. Yet, they will still not really know exactly how this mango tastes. Also, if there is a person who has never tasted a ripe mango before, that person has no way of knowing exactly for himself how it tastes. So, the only way to know the exact taste is to experience it. In the same way, dhamma is said to be Opanayiko which means that a person needs to experience it within to see exactly what it is.
  6. Paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhi (Sanskrit: Pratyātmaṃ veditavyo vijñaiḥ "To be meant to perceive directly"). The Dhamma can be perfectly realized only by the noble disciples (Pali: ariya-puggala) who have matured in supreme wisdom. No one can "enlighten" another person. Each intelligent person has to attain and experience for themselves. As an analogy, no one can simply make another know how to swim. Each person individually has to learn how to swim. In the same way, dhamma cannot be transferred or bestowed upon someone. Each one has to know for themselves.

Knowing these attributes, Buddhists believe that they will attain the greatest peace and happiness through the practice of the Dhamma. Therefore, each person is fully responsible for his or her self to put it into practice for real.

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 anantaṁ kimantavat
kim anantam antavac ca nānantaṁ nāntavacca kiṁ
kiṁ tad eva kim anyat kiṁ śāśvataṁ kim aśāśvataṁ
aśāśvataṁ śāśvataṁ ca kiṁ vā nobhayam apyataḥ 'tha
sarvopalambhpaśamaḥ 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, nirvṇānaparīkṣā, 25:22–24

Meanings of "Dharma"

A dhamma sign in Sri Lanka.

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


Dharma can mean the source of all mental experiences. In major sutras (for example, the Mahasatipatthana sutra), Dharma is paired with citta (heart/mind) to show citta as the reflection of Dharma. This teaching is paralleled with the pairing of kaya (body) and vedana (feelings or sensations), where vedana arise within the body but are experienced through the mind. Dharma in this context is the origin of order and organization that is the foundation of ideas, wisdom, understanding, and values.[15]

Teachings of natural law

Dharma is also used to refer to the teachings of 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.

Comparison to dharma in other Indian religions

According to David Kalupahana, dharma in Buddhism is also the term for "phenomena".[16] Kalupahana states Buddha defined this dharma as "dependently arisen phenomena" (paticca-samuppanna-dhamma), thus distinguishing the notion of dhamma from the Indian conception where the term dharma meant reality (atman), in an ontological sense, while the Buddha utilized the conception of result or consequence or fruit (attha, Sk. artha) to bring out the pragmatic meaning of dhamma. However, other scholars have questioned Kalupahana's analysis.[17]

See also

Reality in Buddhism


  1. ^ "Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism: yathā-bhūta". Retrieved May 13, 2013. 
  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][dead link]
  3. ^ Turner, Ralph 1939, entry #6753 in "A comparative and etymological dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages;
  4. ^ "The Dhamma". buddhanet. Retrieved May 13, 2013. [dead link]
  5. ^ "The Dhamma of Islam: A Conversation with Snjezana Akpinar and Alex Berzin." Inquiring Mind (Berkeley, California), vol. 20, no. 1 (fall 2003).
  6. ^ See Cantwell Smith, 1962[full citation needed]
  7. ^ For example, Buddhism is widely referred to throughout Asia as Buddha-dhamma (Sanskrit: Buddha-dharma) but the Buddha himself did not use the expression Buddha-dharma but rather dhamma-vinaya (see below). The Buddha did not teach a sectarian religion but a way of life leading to liberation based on an accurate understanding of Nature (dhamma). He referred to his followers as Dhammikko or Dharmiko (One who understands and follows the Dhamma by means of his/her own intuitive wisdom). Dharma with the addition of any other person's name becomes a sect and cannot be said to be universal. The Dhamma or Dharma is universal.
  8. ^ Derived in part from an ethos instituted among his people by the Emperor Ashoka, one of the earliest world-historic figures to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ Vakkali Sutta Saṃyutta Nikaya 22.87, translated by Maurice Walshe, retrieved 2014-11-21
  12. ^ Digha Nikaya 27
  13. ^ "A pure science of mind and matter" S.N. Goenka. cit. 'Meditation Now: Inner Peace through Inner Wisdom', S.N.Goenka; VRP, Pariyatti Publications
  14. ^ The Buddha had in fact required that his teaching be scrutinized to see for oneself. Thathagathappavedito bhikkave dhamma vinayo vivato virochathi, no patichchanto. (Anguttara Nikayo, Thika Nipatho, Harandu vaggo, Sutta 9) The Dharma vinaya of Thathagata shines when opened for scrutiny, not when kept closed.
  15. ^ "Mahasatipatthana Sutta". Buddha Dharma Education Association & BuddhaNet. 2012. Retrieved 12 January 2012.  |chapter= ignored (help)
  16. ^ David Kalupahana. The Philosophy of the Middle Way. SUNY Press, 1986, pages 15–16
  17. ^ Karen Lang (1987), Book Reviews - David Kalupahana, The Philosophy of the Middle Way., The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume 10, Number 2, pp 167-175
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