Qualities of the Dhamma

By Bhikkhu Bodhi

 

IThe Buddha's teaching is called the Dhamma. Dhamma comes from the Pali root dar, which means to support, to sustain, to hold up. In this lesson we look at the various shades of meaning in this word.

You may see this word referred to in its Sanskrit form, Dharma, or in the Pali we use in this course, Dhamma. The canonical texts and commentaries of the Theravada tradition are preserved in the ancient Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) language known as Pali. The MIA languages are descended from Vedic Sanskrit but older than classical Sanskrit. Since the Buddha traveled through many regions in northeast India, it is likely that he spoke in the dialect appropriate to the region in which he was teaching. The earliest Buddhist texts were probably recorded in the language of the state of Magadha (present-day Bihar), in northeast India. Pali belongs to this same family of languages, but is probably a hybrid combining features of several MIA dialects, with a dominance of west Indian features.

The true nature of things
In the most basic sense, Dhamma is the fundamental element of lawfulness operating in the universe, structuring all events, all experience and all phenomena. All actual things, all phenomena are called dhammas in the plural because all of them embody the true nature of things.

Ethical law
Dhamma also means the fundamental principle of righteousness, the cosmic law of virtue and goodness.

The path
Dhamma also has a practical sense, something applicable to our own life. Dhamma is that which sustains us, which supports us, or which upholds our own effort to live in virtue and goodness. In this sense Dhamma is the path. It is both the lower path of virtue and the supramundane path, the higher path that leads to realization of the true nature of things, that brings the attainment of truth.

The Buddha’s teaching
The Buddha's teaching is called the Dhamma, because this teaching makes known the true nature of things, disclosing the true nature of all existence.

Dhamma — a path and the truth to be realized

In approaching Dhamma it is necessary to come to it with the right attitude, right understanding and right intention. By way of understanding the Dhamma, we should not take it to be something that demands to be accepted on faith. As well Dhamma should not be taken to be a set of doctrines to be played with intellectually.

Dhamma is a path, a way that leads to the realization of truth, and Dhamma is also the truth to be realized, realized in immediate experience.

Dhamma is called opanayaka because it leads onwards step by step to a deepening realization of truth.

The Dhamma is the true nature of things. the truth that’s written into our own experience. And this truth has to be realized with the same immediacy as that with which we can see an object held in our hands. To realize this truth we have to travel a path, the path of Dhamma. There is no one else who can walk it for us, but the Dhamma taught by the Buddha guides us in our effort to walk the path. It enables us to see, pointing out what needs to be understood.

Dhamma is called niyanaka, emancipating — liberation is to take place within ourselves.

The Dhamma isn't meant to be approached as a neat system of ideas to be admired and discussed. it doesn’t let us off with easy answers to the ultimate questions. What it gives us is basically the methods, the way to find the answers for ourselves, make our own discovery of truth through the immediacy of our own life.

 

Beginning with an observation
Rather than starting off with theoretical dogmas or beliefs, the Buddha's teaching begins with a simple observation, but one very profound, the gateway to all wisdom: that human life is essentially problematic, beset with problems, difficulties, inadequacies — what the Buddha called Dukkha  (usually translated as suffering).

The value of the Dhamma is pragmatic and instrumental. It offers to show us the way out of our problematic situations and the way to attain inner freedom, to realize the highest and truest (in the true) happiness.

The entire doctrine of the Buddha flows between the two points of suffering and the end of suffering.

The entire doctrine of the Buddha flows between the two points of suffering and the end of suffering. Every other consideration — of all the speculations, the metaphysical concerns,  the dogmatic subtleties that often infest religion — all of these are set aside as irrelevant. And not only does the Buddha make suffering and its cessation  the focal point of his teaching, but he deals with the problem in a very realistic way – a way that is personal and immediate, a way that can be verified in our own experience.

And the Buddha presents the Dhamma as the means to this goal, as a method.

A raft to the shore of freedom

 

Speculative concerns are irrelevant
Because of this practical bent, the Buddha dismisses all speculative concerns as irrelevant. He says that he teaches only suffering and the cessation of suffering. All other philosophical pursuits are futile, misleading and even dangerous.

 

A teaching to be examined not believed
The Buddha’s teaching is offered solely as the way to liberation. As the way to freedom he holds up purified conduct and correct understanding. And even the Buddha functions simply as a teacher of the path, not as a savior who grants salvation.  The Buddha points out that the path to the end of suffering has to be followed each for himself. The Buddha can show the path, but each person has to follow it according to his own energy and his own understanding. For this reason the Buddha rejects the call for blind faith and belief, discouraging those who might merely believe in him or accept his doctrine out of respect or through faith.

He asks his followers to examine his teaching, to investigate it, until they become convinced of it themselves. He says that just as a goldsmith, when he is given a lump of metal and told it’s gold. doesn’t accept this through belief but he tests and examines it by burning, cutting and scraping until he’s convinced that it’s gold, so in the same way he tells his disciples, “Accept my doctrine only after examining and scrutinizing it, not merely out of respect for me.”

Features of the Dhamma

In the following lessons we explore the essential ingredients of the Buddha’s Dhamma:

  • The Four Noble Truths
  • The Noble Eightfold Path
  • The True Nature of  Existence
    • The Five Aggregates Of Clinging
    • The Trilogy of Anicca, Dukkha and  Anatta
  • Dependent Arising
  • Kamma
  • Nibbana
  • Rebirth
  • Meditation

From the Ashoka course The Buddha's Teaching As It Is