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Buddhism and psychology
Buddhist psychology
Buddhist philosophy
Buddhism and psychoanalysis
Buddhism and psychotherapy

Four Noble Truths
Noble Eightfold Path
The Five Precepts
Nirvāna · Three Jewels

Key Concepts
Three marks of existence
Skandha · Cosmology · Dharma
Samsara · Rebirth · Shunyata
Pratitya-samutpada · Karma

Practices and Attainment
Buddhahood · Bodhisattva
Four Stages of Enlightenment
Paramis · Meditation

Buddhism by Region

Schools of Buddhism
Theravāda · Mahāyāna
Vajrayāna · Early schools

Pali Suttas · Mahayana Sutras
Vinaya · Abhidhamma

Comparative Studies
Culture · List of Topics

Dharma wheel 1.png

Dharma (Sanskrit) or Dhamma (Pāli) in Buddhism has two primary meanings: the teachings of the Buddha which lead to enlightenment, and the constituent factors of the experienced world. In East Asia, the character for Dharma is pronounced in Mandarin and in Japanese. The Tibetan translation of this term is chos (chö).

Buddha's teachings

For practicing Buddhists, references to "dharma" (in English often "the" Dharma) primarily mean the teachings of the Buddha – sometimes called Buddhadharma by other schools of thought. Some Buddhists object to this type of terminology on the grounds that the Dharma is the universal and singular law of nature and to call it Buddhadharma misleadingly suggests that other kinds of Dharma may exist. Buddha Dharma itself, however, means "Path of Awakening" and so is a universal understanding of Dharma.

The status of the Dharma is regarded variably by different traditions. Some regard it as an ultimate and transcendent truth which is utterly beyond worldly things, somewhat like the Christian logos. Others, who regard the Buddha as simply an enlightened human being, see the Dharma as the 84,000 different teachings (the Kangyur/bka.'gyur) that the Buddha gave to various types of people based on their needs. The teachings are expedient means of raising doubt in the hearer's own cherished beliefs and view of life; when doubt has opened the door to the Truth, the teaching can be put aside.

"Dharma" usually refers inclusively not just to the sayings of the Buddha but to the later traditions of interpretation and addition that the various schools of Buddhism have developed to help explain and expand upon the Buddha's teachings. For others still, they see the dharma as referring to the "truth" or ultimate reality or "the way things are".

The Dharma is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism of which practitioners of Buddhism seek refuge in (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 (awakened beings who provide guidance and support).

Buddha's Dharma Body

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

"Yo kho Vakkali dhammam passati so mam passati"
Vakkali, whoever sees Dhamma, sees me [the Buddha]

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

"Tathagatassa h'etam Vasettha adivacanam Dhamma-kayo iti pi ...":
O Vasettha! The Word of Dhammakaya is indeed the name of the Tathagata

Qualities of Buddha Dharma

The Teaching of the Buddha also has six supreme qualities:

  1. Svākkhāto (Sanskrit: Svākhyāta "well proclaimed"). The Dhamma is not a speculative philosophy, but is the Universal Law found through enlightenment and is preached precisely. Therefore it 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 can be tested by practice and therefore he who follows it will see the result by himself through his own experience.
  3. Akāliko (Sanskrit: Akālika "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.
  4. Ehipassiko (Sanskrit: Ehipaśyika "which you can come and see" -- from the phrase ehi, paśya "come, see!"). The Dhamma welcomes all beings to put it to the test and come see for themselves.
  5. Opanayiko (Sanskrit: Avapraṇayika "leading one close to"). The Dhamma is capable of being entered upon and therefore it is worthy to be followed as a part of one's life.
  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 and enlightened enough 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 skilful 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) (cause and effect) and developing good impressions in one's mind, to how to reach full enlightenment by recognizing the nature of mind.

Dharmas in Buddhist phenomenology

Other uses include dharma, normally spelled with a small "d" (to differentiate), 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 denial of a "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. (ie 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
sarvopalambhapaśamaḥ prapañcopaśamaḥ śivaḥ
na kva cit 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

Dharma as righteousness

According to S. N. Goenka, teacher of Vipassana Meditation, the original meaning of dhamma is “dhareti ti dhamma’, or “that which is contained”. 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. The 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), in major sutras such as the Mahasatipatthana sutra. 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”.

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