Deciphering Buddhism’s most common word
The Sanskrit term dharma—dhamma in Pali, chos (pronounced chö) in Tibetan, fa in Chinese, ho in Japanese, and pop in Korean—is a term of wide import in Buddhism. It is also notoriously difficult to translate, a problem acknowledged in traditional sources, where as many as ten different meanings are enumerated. Dharma derives from the Sanskrit verbal root dhri, which means “to hold” or “to maintain.”
The term dharma was important in India even before the rise of Buddhism. In Vedic literature, it often refers to the ritual sacrifice that maintains the order of the cosmos. In Hinduism, there is an important genre of literature called the Dharmashastras, “treatises on dharma,” which set forth the social order and the respective duties of its members in relation to caste, gender, and stage of life. Indian kings used the term to refer to the policies of their realms.
In the 18th century, officers of the British East India Company were instructed to educate themselves in the fine points of the Hindu legal system. After consulting with Brahmin priests, they began to study the Dharmashastras and translated dharma as “law.” This led in turn to the common 19th- and 20th- century rendering of the term as “law” in Buddhist contexts, as in “the Buddha turned the wheel of the law.” (This same sense is conveyed in the Chinese translation of dharma as fa, which also means “law.”)
In Buddhism, dharma has a number of distinct meanings. One of its most significant and common usages refers to “teachings” or “doctrines,” both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Hence, in recounting his search for the truth prior to his enlightenment, the Buddha speaks of the dharma he received from his teachers. After his enlightenment, the Buddha’s first sermon was called “turning the wheel of the dharma” (dharmachakrapravartana). When the Buddha described what he himself taught to his disciples, he called it the dharmavinaya, with vinaya referring to the rules of monastic discipline and dharma referring presumably to everything else. This sense of dharma as teaching, and its centrality to the tradition, is evident from the inclusion of the dharma as the second of the three jewels (along with the Buddha and the sangha), in which all Buddhists seek refuge. Ancient Indian commentators specify that dharma in the refuge formula refers to the third and fourth of the four noble truths: the truth of the cessation of the causes that lead to suffering and the truth of the path to that cessation. Here, the verbal root of dharma as “holding” is evoked etymologically to mean something that “holds one back” from falling into states of suffering. When the Buddha praises the “gift of the dharma” (dharmadana) as the greatest of gifts, he is referring to this meaning.
A distinction is also drawn between the teachings as something that is heard or studied, called the scriptural dharma (agama-dharma), and the teachings as something that is made manifest in the consciousness of the practitioner, called the realized dharma (adhigama-dharma).
A second (and very different) principal denotation of dharma is a physical or mental “factor,” a fundamental “constituent element,” or simply a “phenomenon.” In this sense, each of the individual building blocks of our compounded existence is a dharma, here glossed as something that “holds” its own nature. Thus, when Buddhist texts refer to the constituent elements of existence, they will often speak of “all dharmas,” as in “all dharmas are without self.” The term abhidharma, which is interpreted to mean either “higher dharma” or “pertaining to dharma,” refers to the analysis of these physical and mental factors, especially in the areas of causation and epistemology. The texts that contain such analyses form one of the three general categories of the Buddhist canon, the “three baskets,” or Tripitaka: Sutra, Vinaya, and Abhidharma.
A third meaning of the term dharma is “quality” or “characteristic.” Thus, reference is often made to the dharmas of the Buddha, referring in this sense not to his teachings but to his various auspicious qualities, whether physical, verbal, or mental. This is the primary meaning of the word in the compound dharmakaya. Although this term is sometimes rendered into English as “truth body,” dharmakaya seems to have originally been meant to refer to the entire corpus (kaya) of the Buddha’s transcendent qualities (dharma).
The term dharma also occurs in a large number of important compound words. Saddharma, or “true dharma,” appears early in the tradition as a means of differentiating the teachings of the Buddha from those of other, non-Buddhist teachers. In the Mahayana sutras, saddharma was used to refer, perhaps defensively, to the Mahayana teachings; one of the most famous is the Saddharmapundarikasutra, known in English as the Lotus Sutra, whose full title is White Lotus of the True Dharma Sutra. In Buddhist theories of history, the period after the death of the Buddha (often said to last 500 years) is called the time of the true dharma. This period of saddharma is followed by a period of a “semblance” of the true dharma (saddharmapratirupika) and a period of “decline” (saddharmavipralopa). The term dharmadhatu refers to the ultimate nature of reality, as does dharmata, “the nature of things” or “dharma-ness.”
It should also be noted that the word dharma commonly appears in the designations of persons. A dharmabhanaka is a preacher of the dharma, and a dharmapala is a deity who protects the dharma; in both instances, dharma refers to the Buddhist doctrine. A dharmaraja is a righteous king, especially one who upholds the teachings of the Buddha.
Because of these many meanings of the term, a number of contemporary translators have, after deep reflection, decided to render the Sanskrit term dharma with the now English word dharma.
Adapted from the entry “dharma” in The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. © 2014 Princeton University Press. Reprinted with permission.
Image: René Edde, “Dharma Wheel of 10,000 Lights,” International Buddhist Academy, Kathmandu, Nepal.