Defining Dharma (Definition & Deeper Meaning)
In Buddhist studies and teachings, the term dharma is often referred to but left untranslated, as the all-encompassing concept is difficult to replace with a single English word. We might define dharma as the teachings of the Buddha, passed down orally for centuries before taking shape as scripture. Dharma can simply be translated as a norm, or a phenomenon, the objects of our experience. Dharma can refer to reality itself, the true nature of existence. Dharma is also a way of living, something that we experience versus simply believe in. And dharma is expressed in everything we see.
Dharma is a Sanskrit word, while dhamma is the Pali. The root of dharma is ‘dhr’ which can mean to support, sustain, hold or bear. When we decide to take Buddhist refuge, we turn to the three jewels of Buddha, dharma and sangha, each of which offer us support, sustaining us along the path to freedom from suffering. The dharma in particular holds us up, preventing us from taking rebirth in a lower realm.
There may not be one simplified dharma definition, but “truth” comes close. Dharma is the truth the Buddha taught, the truth of universal law, and the truth of existence. We can explore the meaning of dharma from many different angles, but each is connected to the others. Seen from a Buddhist perspective, everything is dharma.
Dharma as Buddha’s Teachings
The dharma is most often defined as the teachings of the historical Buddha. This quite literally refers to the body of scripture that records what the Buddha has said. The very first teaching the Buddha gave after his enlightenment is called the ‘first turning of the wheel of dharma.’ But the real meaning of dharma goes deeper than that.
The Buddha is not merely a historical figure, but alive and well in all beings everywhere who demonstrate great wisdom and compassion. Likewise, the Buddha’s teachings aren’t limited to ancient texts, but can be found in anything and everything we read, hear and experience.
The teacher may appear as our most challenging relationships, while the teachings may include our most painful, adverse experiences. For unexpected moments of hardship are often what wakes us up. The dharma is anything that brings us closer to the truth.
Dharma as Truth
It’s said that even in the absence of a teacher or teaching, dharma exists. In this sense, dharma is reality itself, the natural order of how things work. Through mindful observation, the reality of the teachings become apparent. We observe that to suffer is the dharma of a person overtaken by craving, aversion or ignorance. In the same manner, it is the dharma of a person who walks the Buddhist path to become free from such delusion.
As we expand our awareness with the four foundations of mindfulness, we become increasingly aware of dharma as the foundation of all existence. We realize the four seals of dharma, that all conditioned things are impermanent, all contaminated things only lead to discontentment, all phenomena are empty of self, and only nirvana offers lasting bliss. This realization requires more than just belief, but our participation.
Dharma as a Way of Life
The process of developing right view entails taking responsibility for healing ourselves of our pain. To take refuge in dharma is to trust in the laws of karma and all the Buddha taught. We have very little doubt that to live morally and ethically is the only way to live, for we recognize the unfolding of cause and effect.
Dharma, then, becomes less theory and more of a doctor’s prescription, a means of healing us of our illness. To live the dharma is to live with the intent to minimize harm and gather merit. We do our best to avoid the 10 non-virtuous actions and to choose the eightfold path. We apply awareness such that there’s not a single action in our lives that is not informed by dharma.
Among the types of dharma is that which is realized, or made manifest by our actions. We keep the dharma alive by living skillfully and honorably, thus becoming an example, a teacher, a bearer of the dharma who supports and holds up others.
In this way, the dharma is not separate from us, nor merely a concept, but a sustaining, present, accessible truth that holds all things.