What is dharma?

image of Avalokitesvara teaching the dharma to a devotee

In a painting from the early twelfth century, Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, teaches the dharma to a devotee. | Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Avalokitesvara Dharma (Sanskrit), or dhamma (Pali) is a fundamental concept in ancient Indian spiritual traditions. The term buddhadharma is sometimes used to mean Buddhism in general or, more specifically, the Buddha’s teachings. Beyond that, however, dharma has a vast range of meanings in Buddhism, depending on the the context.

Broadly, dharma can refer to the eternal—cosmic, natural law—or to mundane “reality.” In the plural, dharmas refer to phenomena: the impermanent events of ordinary samsaric life and our habits of mind. Dharma can be specific—scripture, a sacred text, a teaching, a doctrine. But the dharma is above all experiential. In  the Buddha’s day there were no written texts; the teachings were oral, perceived directly by those who heard and practiced them.

Now, as then, buddhadharma is living truth. Scholar Rupert Gethin defines dharma as “the basis of things, the underlying nature of things, the way things are; in short it is the truth about things, the truth about the world.” Dharma also refers to insight into the truth of how things are.

Further, dharma is not merely descriptive but prescriptive—how we should act, the ethical conduct set out in the eightfold path that leads to an awakened life.

In sum, “there is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma,” the Theravada monk and scholar Walpola Rahula states in his classic work, What the Buddha Taught. “There is nothing in the universe or outside, good or bad, conditioned or non-conditioned, relative or absolute, which is not included in this term.”

As a word to live by, the Japanese Soto Zen master Kodo Sawaki Roshi said, “What’s the buddhadharma about? It’s about having every aspect of your daily life pulled by the Buddha.”



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