What is Dharma? The meaning of the dharma in Buddhism
The Dharma is a key concept in Buddhism and Hinduism. In
English there are generally two distinct (but connected) meanings. The
first is that The Dharma (when capitalized) simply means the collective
teachings of The
Buddha. In this respect, you might think of the Dharma as simply meaning
The second meaning is usually associated with the lowercase dharma, and
translates as "the way things are." This may seem overly vague, until
you understand that the word "dharma" has been used to imply "the laws
of nature" or "that which sustains the universe." Sometimes it is synonymous
with the English word nature. (In Thailand, where I am from, we use the
word Thamma-Chart [from Dharma and Charti] to say "Nature" or "Environment".)
It is this second meaning that we will focus on.
One thing to remember is that throughout ancient times, since the era
of the Vedas some several thousand years BCE, dharma has been thought
of as an unchanging universal law, similar to the laws of gravity, mathematics,
and fluid dynamics. As gravity is thought of as a universal law no matter
what it is called in different languages, dharma is also considered a
universal law no matter what it is called in different religions.
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The earliest writings on dharma (from the Vedas) implied
that only sages could experience it, and needed to pass it on to the laymen
through mantras and other acts. Later on, the writings known as the Dharma
Sutras gave a different meaning and implications about dharma: They implied
that dharma was the performance of duties in accordance to Vedic law.
Dharma was taking on the meaning of "one's role in Vedic society."
Unfortunately, later writings did not help to clear up the loose meanings
of the word dharma. They tended not to present a uniform meaning to the
word. Further, they gave no practical steps to the lay person on how to
realize the dharma for themselves.
The dharma is touched upon at length in The Bhagavadgita (The Song of
God), a section of the epic poem The Mahabharata. In it, Krishna explains
the meaning of righteousness in sustaining the world order. It is implied
that everyone has a path that they must follow in order to uphold righteousness
and lead to their individual salvation. Krishna stated that of the three
paths that lead to salvation - yoga and ascetic practices, bhakti or devotion,
and Dharma or wholesome activities according to your role - it was the
latter that was most effective because it contribute to both the individual
and the world as a whole, while the two former practices only helped the
Those familiar with Buddhism know that the dharma was the main focus of
the Buddha's meditations (see article Who
Was The Buddha?). These were the main characteristics of the dharma:
1) Namely, that it was infinite and spanned both the material (mundane)
and spiritual (supra-mundane) worlds.
2) The dharma could be thought of as the mental "sense." That is to say,
while the eye has sight and the ear has sound and the nose has smell,
the mind has dharma.
3) The dharma was the carrier of goodness and wholesomeness, and thus
the word dharma good be used to imply a good sense, while the word adharma
would imply a bad sense.
4) Dharma was a person's duty, those acts which were fit to be carried
out according to their responsibilities.
5) Dharma is a permanent universal truth, including the laws of nature
and the nature of laws.
It is through the meditations of the Buddha that he tried to realize the
true meaning of the dharma. It is through insight meditation (Vipassana)
that the Buddha instructed that lay people would be able to realize the
dharma themselves. The Buddha taught that direct realization on an individual
level was superior to relying on speculation or traditional beliefs.