“Svakkhato bhagavata dhammo
The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One
Apparent here and now
Paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi ti
To be experienced by the wise.”
The second of the Three Refuges of Buddhism (Tisarana), is the Dharma (Dhamma in the Pali language), a word that has several connotations in the Buddha’s teachings. It is the ultimate reality that lies beyond all our delusions; it is the complete truth that is usually hidden behind all our lies; and it is the teaching of this reality by the Buddha and his followers. The Dharma isn’t like the ultimate in theistic religions in that it hasn’t been personalized by the human imagination – it is completely impersonal. It isn’t a deity, but simply the way things are, rather than the way we take things to be. Every evening in Theravada Buddhist monasteries and homes people chant the six attributes of the Dharma, known as Dhammaguna in Pali, the liturgical language of this tradition.
Svakkhato bhagavato dhammo: The doctrine has been well taught by the Lord Buddha. The myriad Buddhist teachings exist primarily to help us to help ourselves to realize true and lasting contentment. Having been expounded by the Blessed One in ancient India, they have traveled down through the centuries to us today in various forms suitable to different races and different characters. The breadth and depth of these teachings are testament to the wisdom, compassion, and skill of the Buddha, but they also reveal the transcendent nature of the Dharma itself.
Sanditthiko: It is immanent and not in some far off place such as a heaven. The Dharma exists in this very world, this very body, and this very mind. We can know it by observing the way things are, for the way things are is the Dharma. This encourages us to look for the Dharma in the here-and-now, not thinking that we will encounter it at some point in the distant future. The Dharma can, and should, be known right here, right now, to the best of our abilities.
Akaliko: The Dharma is outside of time, beyond the limits of a particular era. That the Buddha first taught it over two and a half thousand years isn’t disputed much these days, but that doesn’t mean that it’s out of date or inappropriate for us moderns. And although the outer appearance of Buddhism has altered much in the twenty five centuries since the Blessed One lived, the essential truths that lie at its core remain. Life is still unsatisfactory (dukkha) today just as it was back then, and all things are impermanent (anicca) and not self (anatta), just the same. The Dharma is timeless in the sense that it transcends the limits of created things: it is the uncreated, the unlimited.
Ehipassiko: Just as the Dharma is here-and-now, so it is to be investigated by each of us for ourselves. It ‘invites’ our attention, but it is us that must make the effort to look into the reality of things and discover that which is not a thing that lies beyond them. This buried treasure isn’t on some distant island, but is with us where we are, with the methods of mindfulness and meditation founded by the Buddha existing to help us dig it up and make our ‘spiritual fortune’.
Opanayiko: The Dharma leads us not to some heaven in the skies, nor to some other-worldly place or dimension. It leads us inwards to the peace and wisdom inherent in our own minds, but normally hidden beneath the delusion of self. Listening to and understanding the Dharma causes awareness to turn around and look at what is experiencing life. Traveling through the concentrative states of meditation is letting go of our desires to the point that we become ripe to experience the full awakening of enlightenment.
Paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi: Simply reading or hearing the Dharma isn’t enough to lead us away from suffering. We need to experience it for ourselves, opening up to the wisdom that liberates. Just as if we read about the taste of an apple but eat one, if we intellectually grasp the Dharma but don’t experience its truths directly, we will never know its taste, which is the taste of freedom.
The Dharma isn’t a god to be worshiped then, but rather a beautiful teaching. Indeed, a well known description of it from the original Pali sources describes it as “beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end”. If we open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the Dharma, we will find a limitless source of wisdom that if heeded will see us traverse this sea of suffering and reach the island of enlightenment.