What is Dharma?
Dharma is a word you may hear quite a bit in Buddhist groups and teachings, but what is dharma exactly? It is a complex word that has many meanings, and can be confusing when we begin to hear it in meditation groups or while reading a book about meditation. There are many different traditions and religions that use the word dharma, and many different meanings within Buddhism alone.
The Buddha dharma, or Buddhadharma, is what we will focus on here, as that is where our experience and knowledge lies. We will offer some resources further on to investigate the meaning of dharma in other traditions and religions.
The first thing to look at when learning about dharma is what the word actually means. It is difficult to give one dharma meaning in English, as the word has many different uses. As such, the answer to the question “What is Dharma?” is not just a simple translation. We can look at the root of the word, but this does not necessarily give us the full picture.
According to Oxford Bibliographies, the word dharma comes from the Sanskrit root dhṛ, which means to hold, uphold, or maintain. This points toward the use of dharma as the nature of reality, the pointing of the Buddha’s teachings toward ultimate truth, and phenomena, which we will cover next.
What is Dharma in Buddhism?
The word dharma has many meanings in Buddhism, and is one of the most commonly used Pali words. Whether you’re listening to a dharma talk, looking at the dharma wheel symbol, or sitting in meditation at a dharma center, you’re bound to hear this word quite often in your practice.
The word dharma has many uses, with the most common including:
- Fundamental reality, or cosmic law
- The teachings or path taught by the Buddha
- Experienced phenomena
The Buddha makes many references to dharma in the suttas. As shared by Access to Insight, the dhamma, or dharma, is the truth pointed toward by the Buddha. The suttas, or discourses, suggest that the Buddha was pointing toward an ever-present reality. It is not dependent upon us seeing it, a teacher leading the way, or practice.
The dharma may be thought of as the foundational cosmic law and order. This makes it sound rather esoteric, but dharma is not inaccessible to us. In fact, the purpose of meditation practice in Buddhism is to see the nature of reality clearly. That is, we are working to see and understand the dharma.
Understanding the dharma brings us peace, or nirvana. The dharma in this sense includes laws of the universe in Buddhist teachings such as karma, the law of dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths, and other facts of our reality. We can see that the root of the word, to uphold, is pointing here toward the dharma upholding our entire reality.
Dharma as Phenomena
Dharma is often used to describe phenomena in Buddhism. This meaning of the word dharma is a bit different than the first one, but just as important. Dharma in this sense is what happens in our experience. This includes anything we experience at one of the six-sense doors. It may be a thought, a smell, a taste, a sound, a feeling in the body, or a sight. It includes the grief, the breakups, the illness, and the stubbed toes. It also includes the sunshine, the birds chirping, the peace of meditation practice, and concentration.
Although this seems different on the surface, it really is not so much different upon deeper investigation. These everyday phenomena are really just outward reflections of the deeper dharma which the Buddha often referenced. The 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows we experience in this human life are just manifestations of the deeper laws of the universe. In meditation practice, we can begin to see the nature of reality and how the deeper dharma creates the causes and conditions for all that we experience.
When we’re beginners to meditation, we may hear the word dharma used to describe the path or teachings and be confused. When the Buddha taught after his enlightenment, he was not teaching something called Buddhism. It was known as dharma. As Buddhism spread, it was the dharma, or teachings that were being taught across Asia and the world.
The word dharma, or dhamma, is often used to describe the Buddha’s teachings or path. This is known as the Buddha dharma, or buddhadharma. The dharma here means the Buddha’s teachings on the Noble Eightfold Path, the cultivation of mindfulness, and the work toward opening the heart through metta practice. There are many other teachings included in the Buddha’s dharma, and all do the same thing.
They point us toward the ultimate truth. Again, the word dharma here seems to have a different meaning, but we can see how it is related. The Buddha’s teachings or path are called dharma because the point toward dharma, or the ultimate laws of the universe in which we live.
Dharma in Other Traditions
It’s important to note that dharma is a term used in many other traditions, and predates Buddhism and the Buddha. Dharma is a concept in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and many other smaller traditions and philosphies. In general, dharma in Hinduism and other traditions often refers to the law of the universe and the way of living in accordance with spiritual and religious teachings.
In different traditions, these laws of the universe and teachings on ways to behave may be different. These different religions of course have different teachings, and these differences are reflected in their use of the word dharma. The dharma in Hinduism is not the same as the dharma in Buddhism, but the term still means a similar thing.
Taking Refuge in Dharma
The dharma is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, or three things toward which we turn for refuge. The Buddha taught that we should seek refuge in the dharma (among other things), and pointed toward this repeatedly. So, what exactly does it mean to take refuge in the dharma?
In its simplest form, taking refuge in the dharma means turning toward ultimate truth by following the Buddha’s teachings to see phenomena clearly. Or in other words, taking refuge in the dharma means turning toward dharma by following the dharma to see dharma clearly. That’s a lot when put like that, isn’t it?
The Buddha’s teachings encourage us to take refuge, understand, and know dharma. This is not something we just read about and move on. It’s a gradual path of awakening that we must continually cultivate and work toward. We can take refuge in the dharma by meditating, practicing generosity, not harming others, etc.
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