Thursday, August 2, 2012


He is teaching the Dharma; do you understand?

The word Dharma lies at the heart of Buddhism. It is the way-things-are, the nature of existence according to the Buddha, and it is the Buddhist teachings themselves, first taught by him, and then developed and expanded on by generations of Buddhist teachings. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha states that the Dharma exists whether it is taught or not, as it is fundamental to the workings of the universe (Dhamma-niyama Sutta, AN 3.134). The Buddha, however, totally identified with his role as teacher of the Dharma, and therefore declared that whoever sees the Dharma sees the Buddha, and vice versa (Vakkali Sutta, SN 22,87). The Dharma, then, is the natural order of things, and the teachings that encapsulate it. As such, it is the second of the three refuges of Buddhism, along with the Buddha & the Sangha (the community of the enlightened). But, what exactly is it?

The Dharma has been formulated into collections of scripture known as Tipitika in Pali and Tripitika in Sanskrit. The former is generally considered the older of the two, and therefore nearer the actual teachings of the historical Buddha, and is usually called the Pali Canon in English. In this monumental collection of ancient Buddhist texts there can be found descriptions of the nature of the Dharma, that is to say, ways of recognizing it. This is important, for it's one thing to study Buddhist teachings and understand them intellectually, but another thing entirely to apply them to our lives. Knowing how the Dharma is to be approached and digested will help us in this endeavor, and the following description of it taken from the Pali Canon is the perfect place to start: svakkhato bhagavato dhammo, sanditthiko, akaliko, ehipassiko, opanayiko, paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi.

Svakkato bhagavato dhammo can be translated as 'Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One.' Dhamma is the Pali equivalent of the more widely known word Dharma, and the Blessed One is another name for the Buddha. So, what this phrase is telling us is that the Buddha taught the Dharma really well. So, if we explore his teachings as found in Buddhist scriptures, we will have a source of teachings that we can use for reflection that will lead to the ultimate goal of Buddhism: the ending of suffering. In the scriptures, alongside the Buddha, there are other accounts of the Dharma just as valid, spoken by his disciples. Moreover, subsequent teachings by Buddhist luminaries over the past two-and-a-half millennia are also extensions and variations on the Blessed One's teachings. All of this can be considered 'well expounded' and worthy of our attention. 

Sanditthiko means 'apparent here and now.' The Dharma is not mere abstraction. It is not a philosophy designed as a neat summing up of existence: it is to be known existentially, in our lives, right now. The three characteristics of anicca, dukkha, & anatta (impermanent, unsatisfactory, & not-self) are central Buddhist teachings to be experienced, not only understood. If we look around us, we can observe the impermanent nature of everything. But, how many of us have observed the ephemeral nature of the mind? Thoughts & emotions are also impermanent phenomena, aren't they? The Dharma, therefore, is 'apparent here and now,' and waiting for us to discover it.

Akaliko means 'timeless,' and indicates that the Dharma is not bound by time. It is a set of truths that remain the same whether encountered now, in the ancient past, or in the distant future. In this sense, the Dharma is like the laws that govern the universe, and to which we are all subject. The Dharma is timeless in another sense as well, which harder to grasp as it is not with the intellect that we do so, but purely through experience. When we penetrate to the heart of the Buddhist teachings, existentially speaking, we discover a timeless zone. This zone is without any characteristics, and is not only ageless but also deathless (amata); to experience it is to achieve the awakening (bodhi) also known as nirvana.

Ehipassiko means 'inviting investigation.' The Buddhist teachings do not exist as mere doctrines to be believed in. Neither are they a logical philosophy to be intellectually accepted.Rather than dogmas, the Dharma invites us to examine it, only accepting as true what we find satisfies our experience. It is upaya (Pali & Sanskrit), which can be rendered 'skillful means' or 'expedient means' in English. In the famous analogy of the raft (Alagaddupama Sutta, MN 22), the Buddha describes Buddhist teachings as being useful only as far as they lead us to nirvana. Like a raft, we should not cling to them after we have 'reached the other shore,' but rather let others use them to realize their own enlightenment. So, rather than having blind faith in the Dharma, we should investigate it, question it, reflect on it, and in conjunction with other skillful means, use it to realize nirvana.

Opanayiko means 'leading inwards.' Humans tend to look outwards. We study the world, try to understand it, and attempt to lead happy lives in it. We do not often, if ever, turn our attention around and examine ourselves for any decent length of time. According to Buddhism, this is exactly what we need to do if we wish to discover the cause of suffering (dukkha) in ourselves and then end all suffering through following the Buddhist Path (magga). An integral part of that path is what is termed 'meditation' in the English language. In such practices, we learn to look within, and see that suffering is caused by our own desire (tanha) & clinging (upadana). It is our inner reactions to outer phenomena that create suffering around them, not the other way around. The Dharma leads us inwards to realize this truth.

Paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi means 'to be experienced individually by the wise.' There is a discourse of the Buddha found in the Pali Canon called the Dhamma-viharin Sutta (AN 5.73). In it, the Buddha contrasts on the one hand the Dhamma-viharin ('one-who-dwells-in-the-Dharma') with those keen on studying the Dharma (with the intellect), describing the Dharma (to others), reciting the Dharma, and thinking about the Dharma. Those that meditate & experience the Dharma with mindfulness are extolled above the others. The Buddha described such people as Dhamma-viharin, or 'Dharma-dwellers.' Such persons will develop wisdom as opposed to knowledge, and though they may indulge in the other activities as well, it is by experiencing the Dharma individually that they really benefit from their practice.

These six attributes of the Dharma are chanted by Buddhists the world over every morning & evening. If only they were investigated as often as they are uttered, there would be so many more noble persons (ariyapuggala) around! The importance of the Dharma in the life of a Buddhist cannot be overestimated, nevertheless. For, even if one is not a 'Dharma-dweller' just yet, the Dharma is that which one believes, studies, teaches, recites, and ponders over. This is with regards the Dharma in the form of Buddhist teachings; as the 'way-things-are,' it affects us all, Buddhist or not, and reflecting upon it can only benefit ourselves and the world at large. Furthermore, if reflected upon wisely, the Dharma may be revealed as none other than the Buddha, the 'Awakened One,' and we may become members of the noble community of the enlightened (Ariya-Sangha). May it be so!

No comments: