16 October 2009

Dharma - Buddhist Terminology

Dharma in various scriptsIn this essay I want to try to get across the breadth of the word dharma (Pāli dhamma) as used in early Buddhism. Last week I took a diachronic (across time) approach, this week will be synchronic (looking at one point in time - more or less). Various different schemes have been proposed which divide the semantic field of dharma into various sectors some find more than a dozen 'meanings' of dharma. Almost every introductory Buddhism book will have something to say about this. However since my starting point was the 2004 issue of the Journal of Indian Philosophy dedicated to 'dharma' I'll use the scheme from there. In the JIP Rupert Gethin describes six categories in which the word dharma is used in early Buddhism.
  1. Teaching
  2. Good conduct
  3. Truth
  4. Nature or Quality
  5. Natural Law
  6. Mental or Physical State
I adopt his categories but I am not entirely convinced by Gethin's approach to the content discussed under each heading and will say more in context. Though I've adopted his headings most of these glosses are my own.


As I mentioned last week (Dharma - Early History), it has been argued that the Buddha might have been reluctant to adopt the term 'dhamma' to describe his teaching. However, this does not seem to have lasted long. In fact along with sāsana, dharma is probably the most common noun for it - for teaching the usual verb is deseti (which more literally means 'to point out'). Dharma as teaching refers both the content of the teaching and to the form of it (i.e. the texts).

Gethin here cites (p.516) the nine aṅgas or limbs of the teaching, that is the nine kinds of text which are spelt out in the texts themselves: suttaṃ, geyyaṃ, veyyākaraṇaṃ, gāthaṃ, udānaṃ, itivuttakaṃ, jātakaṃ, abhutadhammaṃ, vedallaṃ which he translates as "discourses, chants, analyses, verses, utterances, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and dialogues". (at e.g. M i.133ff).

Good Conduct.

Here the word is used as an adjective. In my research on confession I showed that confessing a wrong-doing restores a person to the ethical path so that they behave yathādhamma or dharmically. (see Attwood Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha). Gethin cites examples of dharma in the instrumental case (indicating how an action is carried out) which seem to mean something like conforming to the norm. For instance kings must rule dhammena or by the dharma, which we take to mean ethically. [1]

Another use of dharma in this sense comes in the word dharacārin (this is the neuter form of the word: m. dharmacārī/ f. dharmacāriṇī). Carin means 'one who fares', or 'one who behaves', and dharma is used here in an adjectival sense 'dharmically'. I avoid common renderings such as 'righteously' because of the heavy Christian overtones (it always makes me thing of righteous indignation, which is not dharmic). The implication is that a dharmacārin conforms to the ethical precepts and to right view. (Of course in the sense of a member of the Western Buddhist Order we must qualify this: we undertake to conform ethically - including the precept to abstain from micchādassanā or confused views - and we do our best to repair breaches, but we don't claim to be perfect!)


This for me is the most problematic category. Gethin seeks to show that this is different from the category of 'natural law', but in fact his examples make better sense if we do not translate dharma as 'truth'. Gethin suggests that there is some truth about "the world or reality" which is taught by the Buddha, but I've become wary of this kind of approach which I associate with Western philosophy. What the Buddha taught about, from my point of view, is the processes of experience, not about some external reality. You could argue that by reality we mean the processes of experience, but this invites confusion because by 'reality' we almost always mean the substantial or ideal world beyond and underlying experience. The truth about experience, if there is such a thing, is simply that it is governed by pratītya-samutpāda. This is not a (metaphysical) Truth as I understand it. In fact far from being a dogma, it is the insight that we Buddhists seek, rather than the knowledge we already possess. That we believe it to be true, does not make it Truth.

Nature or Quality

When the Buddha is about to die he says: vayadhammā saṅkhārā, appamādena sampādetha. I have commented on these words at length in my essay the The Last Words of the Buddha. Vayadhammā is a compound vaya + dhammā (plural). 'Vaya' (Sanskrit: vyaya) means both 'decay' and 'death', so I have translated it as 'perish' since this has almost exactly the same connotations (and similar etymology, both being from a verb i 'to go'). Dhamma here denotes 'nature' and I translate it by adding the suffix -able to give 'perishable' - by which we understand that something perishable has perishability as a characteristic, or is of a nature to perish. The translation is then: all experiences are perishable. Dharma is routinely used in this kind of way to indicate the nature or quality of something. This probably relates to the more basic meaning of foundation. Gethin quotes the phrase
yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhammaṃ ti [2]
Very literally we might translate this as: "All those somethings which have the nature to arise, have the nature to cease". Or better: everything that can arise, will cease.

The characteristic of something is the foundation (dharma) on which our knowledge of it rests.

Natural Law

By natural law we mean the natural law: pratītyasamutpāda (Pāli paṭiccasamuppāda). The idea that the universe was a harmonious interconnected whole goes back to the earliest Indian religious texts. It is apparent in the Ṛg Veda. For Buddhists it was 'only natural' to take up this idea and give a Buddhist account of it. [3] The simplest expression of paṭiccasamuppāda is:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti
While that exists, this exists. When that does not exist, neither does this.
Confusingly the pronoun in every case is idaṃ [4] meaning 'this' (something present to the speaker) - the Pāli is not making a this/that distinction though it is always present in English translations. It is more like the sort of syntax you see in computer programming languages: "while this, this; when not this, not this."

However the strongest association is with the twelve-fold chain of nidānas (source, cause, origin). In this formulation each preceding link is the cause of the succeeding one. Later Buddhists interpreted the links as spreading over three life-times, though this is not present in the earliest texts, nor are the twelve links clearly a circle - they more naturally are a chain except that the last two links are birth and old-age/death which, according to virtually all Indian religions, follow each other repeatedly. Other version of the chain exist with different numbers of links - significantly the chain in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) has ten links. [5]

Sangharakshita, drawing on work by C.A.F Rhys Davids and Dr B. Barua has given prominence to another kind of conditionality - which he calls spiral as opposed to the other kind which is cyclic - the locus classicus is the Upanisa Sutta (SN 12.23; PTS: S ii 29) (see especially Sangharakshita 1993 and 1967). It has been argued that upanisa, which is used in this sutta as a synonym of nidāna, is the same word as the Sanskrit upaniṣad with virtually the same meaning: secret connection (See for instance: Jones 2009). In this version of conditionality one link in the chain leads to another in a progressive and cumulative manner so that one reaches the state of knowledge and vision of reality (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana) and continues on to the destruction of the āsavas (aka awakening). Bikkhu Bodhi (1995), writing in response to Sangharakshita, follows the Nettipakarana, a Pāli exegetical treatise, in calling this type of conditionality 'transcendental dependent arising' (lokuttara-paṭiccasamuppāda).

Another relevant term here is dhamma-niyāmatā which we can translate as "the lawfulness of reality" (cf Jones 2007). Jones says that this is, in effect, a way of referring to paṭiccasamuppāda and that it is synonymous with "cosmic order in all its forms". An aspect of this is the Buddha's life story. It is said that every Buddha's life story follows exactly the same pattern and that this is dhammatā - the rule, or natural order.

Mental or Physical State

While many uses of dhamma are important, in some ways this is the most significant use of dhamma. Here dhamma is the 'foundation' for consciousness - recall that for Buddhists consciousness is always consciousness of something. Dhammas are the objects of the mind (mano; Sanskrit. manas), which includes the information from the five physical senses as well as purely mental phenomena as memory, abstractions, and imagination. This use will be the subject of my next post. I will try to show how the way Buddhists understood dhamma in this sense subtly changed over the years creating splits and resulting in some brilliant polemics which have themselves become canonical.


From the relatively humble Vedic origins which I outlined last week (Dharma - early history) the term dharma became one of the most important in the Indian religious lexicon. My initial impression was that the Buddhist usage was so varied as to defy understanding - however my conclusion having written this essay is that almost all uses of dharma are comprehensible in terms of the basic meaning of 'foundation' in some applied or abstract manner. Perhaps it is appropriate therefore to found Buddhism on dharma? [Note since writing this I have re-read the latter part of Gethin's paper and he comes to more or less the same conclusion - I have therefore not entirely done justice to his views]

Though my approach this week has been synchronic we need to be aware that even within Buddhism the definitions and usage of words changed over time as well - I follow one thread of this change in next week's post. Despite being able to see the origins of usage, the many different ways dharma is used has resulted in considerable ambiguity and at times confusion. I believe, for instance, that the first section of the Diamond Sūtra (up to the first ending) is best understood if one holds the many definitions of dharma in mind almost simultaneously - because the text relentlessly plays on the ambiguity in a way which might otherwise be see as paradoxical. To my mind this section seems very close in spirit to the Pāli texts and the product of a mind which, like many ancient Indians and modern Westerners, enjoys punning very much.

  1. The phrase here (p.516) is dhammena rajjaṃ kāreti - though PED suggests kāreti is 'build, construct' (kāreti is a causative of karoti 'to do, make'. Presumably the text is talking about building his kingdom?
  2. Gethin doesn't cite the origin of the passage and I cannot locate it. Gethin translates (p.518): "the nature of everything whose nature it is to arise, is to cease".
  3. I would make a distinction here: early Buddhism sees things as connected through conditionality. The idea of interconnectedness - that all things condition all other things - is in my view missing from early Buddhism and is supplied in the Mahāyāna from Vedic precedents. One of the most important metaphors for interconnectedness is Indra's net (indrajāla) and I suggest that it is no coincidence that the net belongs to the chief god of the Vedas.
  4. imasmiṃ is the locative of idaṃ used in a temporal sense: to give the sense of "while this".
  5. The different numbers of links has given rise to the theory that there were originally two different nidāna chains - one beginning with taṇha, to which was added one beginning with avijjā. Joanna Jurewicz has theorised that especially the early part of the chain was intended as a parody of Vedic cosmogny - Jurewicz's papers are difficult to get hold of, and even more difficult to read (a knowledge of Sanskrit is an advantage) but the details are summarised and discussed in Richard Gombrich What the Buddha Thought (esp Chapter 9). Note that, in his MA dissertation, Jones (Paṭiccasamuppāda in C0ntext) has cast some doubt on Jurewicz's thesis - hopefully he will publish before long.

  • Attwood, Jayarava Michael. 2008. 'Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol 15. http://www.buddhistethics.org/15/attwood-article.html
  • Bodhi. 1995. 'Transcendental Dependent Arising : A Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta.' Access to Insight, June 7, 2009, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel277.html.
  • Gethin, Rupert. 2004. 'He Who sees Dhamma sees Dhammas: Dhamma in Early Early Buddhism. Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 513-542.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. 2009. Paṭiccasamuppāda in C0ntext : the Buddha in Debate with Brahminical Thinking. MA Dissertation, Cambridge University, unpublished.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. 2007. The 'Five Niyamas', Sangharakshita, and the Problem of Karma. http://www.dhivan.net-a.googlepages.com/niyamasessay.pdf [See also another shorter version of this essay and some commentary on Dhīvan's website]
  • Sangharakshita. 1967. The Three Jewels : an introduction to Buddhism. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. (esp. chapter 13 : The stages of the Path)
  • Sangharakshita. 1993. A Survey of Buddhism : its doctrines and methods through the ages. [7th ed]. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. [1st published 1957]. (esp Chapter 1.14 Samsāra and Nirvaṇa)

image: dharma in various scripts: Devanāgarī, dbu can, Ranjana, Sinhala.
Related Posts with Thumbnails