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
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.
Dhamma also means the fundamental principle of righteousness,
the cosmic law of virtue and goodness.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
- 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
the Ashoka course The Buddha's Teaching As It Is