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Dharma: Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas


The pan-Indian term dharma (from the Sanskrit root dh, "to sustain, to hold"; Pali, dhamma; Tib., chos ) has acquired a variety of meanings and interpretations in the course of many centuries of Indian religious thought. Buddhism shares this term and some of its meanings with other Indian religions, but at the same time it has provided a set of unique and exclusive interpretations of its own. Dharma can imply many different meanings in various contexts and with reference to different things. Here we shall consider it under two general headings: the first as dharma in a general sense, comprising a variety of meanings, and the second as dharma (s) in a technical sense, denoting the ultimate constituents or elements of the whole of the existing reality.

General Usages

Dharma was and still is employed by all the religious denominations that have originated in India to indicate their religious beliefs and practices. In this sense, dharma refers broadly to what we would term "religion." Dharma also designates the universal order, the natural law or the uniform norm according to which the whole world (sasāra ) runs its course. Within the Buddhist context this universal order is coordinated in the doctrine of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda ). This rigorous natural law, which controls the sequence of events and the behavior and acts of beings, has no cause or originator. It is beginningless and functions of its own nature. It is said in the Aguttara Nikāya and the Sayutta Nikāya, and later rephrased in the Lakāvatāra Sūtra, that the nature of things is such that the causal law as the inevitable determination of karman continues to evolve spontaneously whether or not the tathāgata s appear in this world. It is an inherent and all-pervading law that does not depend for its existence on the appearance of the Buddhas, whose mission in this world is merely to reveal it. Śākyamuni Buddha first perceived and understood this fundamental law and then proclaimed and explained it to his followers. The discovery of the nature of dharma is compared in some sūtras to the discovery of an old and forgotten city. In the Mahāyāna, especially within the context of the doctrine of the three Buddha bodies (trikāya ) and the reinterpretation of the relationship between sasāra and nirvāa as two aspects of the same reality, dharma as the universal norm received a wider and deeper interpretation. As a part of the compound dharmakāya, it signifies both the immanent and transcendental reality of all beings and appearances. Thus, it clearly denotes the essence of sentient beings as well as the nature of the Buddhas. In the sense of denoting phenomenal existence, it is also referred to as reality (dharmatā ), the essence of reality (dharmadhātu ), suchness (tathatā ), emptiness (śūnyatā ), or store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna ). In the sense of referring to the nature of the buddhas, it is known as buddhahood (buddhatā ), as the self-nature of the buddhas (buddhasvabhāva ), or as the womb of the buddhas (tathāgata-garbha ).

Dharma as the Buddha's teaching or doctrine as a whole comprises his exposition of the universal order of nature as described above and his proclamation of the path toward deliverance. Thus, when his teaching is meant as a whole system it is the term dharma (or śāsana ) that is employed. When his teachings are referred to or explained from two different angles, that is, when theoretical and practical aspects are differentiated, two terms are employed: dharma, as a body of religio-philosophical discourses as contained in the Sūtras, and Vinaya, or monastic discipline, the rules and regulations for the application and practice of dharma. The Prātimoka (monastic code) contains rules of conduct, each of which is also called dharma.

The shortest and yet the clearest exposition of dharma as the Buddha's word (buddhavacana ) is epitomized in Śākyamuni's first sermon, when he "set in motion" (i.e., proclaimed) the wheel (lore) of dharma: the four noble truths and eightfold noble path. There is suffering and it has a cause that can be eliminated through the knowledge and practice of the path of dharma as summarized by the Eightfold Noble Path: right views, right conduct, and so forth. Another presentation of the same path is articulated within the basic trilogy of monastic practice of cultivating wisdom (prajñā ), morality (śīla ), and meditation (dhyāna ). Through wisdom one acquires a full vision of dharma, through morality one purifies all that obscures the vision of dharma, and through meditation one matures dharma within oneself and indeed transforms oneself into an epitome of dharma.

Dharma denotes truth, knowledge, morality, and duty. It is the truth about the state and function of the world, the truth about how to eliminate its evil tendencies, and the truth about its immutable spiritual potentiality. It is knowledge in the sense that once one becomes aware of dharma one acquires the knowledge to become free from the bonds of phenomenal existence. It is morality, for it contains a code of moral conduct that conduces to spiritual purification and maturation. It is duty, for whoever professes dharma has a duty to comply with its norms and to achieve the goal that it sets forth. In this sense there is only one duty in Buddhism: the ceaseless and constant effort to strive for nirvāa.

Dharma, together with the Buddha and the sagha, constitute a "threefold jewel" (triratna ) before which one makes prostrations and in which one takes refuge. Here dharma does not so much represent a body of teachings as it assumes a character of awesomeness, protection, and deliverance wholly appropriate to the Truth. One stands in awe of dharma as a self-sustained righteousness whose universal legacy is to protect through its righteousness those who profess it. Soon after his enlightenment, realizing that there is no one more perfect than himself in virtue, wisdom, and meditation under whom he could live in obedience and reverence, Sākyamuni decided that he would live honoring and revering dharma, the universal truth he had just realized. As one of the Three Jewels, the Buddha is dharma' s embodied personification, revealer, and teacher. The sagha constitutes a body of dharma 's followers among whom dharma thrives as the norm of daily life, becoming an inspiration and a path to deliverance. The Three Jewels as conceived in the early period can be paralleled, as a somewhat general comparison, with the later concept of the three buddha bodies. Dharma as dharmakāya represents its own sublime and absolute aspect, the Buddha as a sabhogakāya represents the pure and glorified state of dharma, and the sagha as nirmāakāya represents dharma as discovered and operating within the world.

Technical Usages

The strictly technical meaning of dharma s as ultimate elements or principles of existence as systematized in the Abhidharma literature, especially in the Abhidharma works of the Sarvāstivāda school, is not so distinct or rigidly formulated in the four Nikāyas (Āgamas). In the sūtras of the four Nikāyas we find many descriptions of dharma s and their various classifications, but their systematization into what we could call "dharma theory" took place within the Abhidharma literature. Thus, in the Nikāyas dharma s are usually characterized as good or bad with reference to ethical conduct, but receive little attention as coherent metaphysical or epistemological systems. The Dasuttara Sutta enumerates some 550 dharma s to be cultivated or abandoned. The Sagīti Sutta gives an even larger number of them, and the Mahāparinibbāna Suttanta lists some 1,011 dharma s. In this latter work we also find a set of dharma s that Śākyamuni ascertained to be for the benefit of living beings. These include the thirty-seven bodhipakya dharma s that constitute the thirty-seven practices and principles conducive to the attainment of enlightenment.

Rather than providing further examples from the sūtras I propose now to concentrate on describing the dharma theory of the Sarvāstivāda school. Within its systematized presentation one finds practically all the important aspects of dharma s and their role; the variant interpretations of other schools will be mentioned wherever appropriate.

Buddhism makes an emphatic and "dogmatic" statement that a "soul" (ātman ) as interpreted by non-Buddhist schools in India does not exist. By denying the existence of a soul as a permanent and unifying factor of a human entity it has removed all grounds for asserting the permanency of the human entity or the existence of any indestructible element therein. With reference to the substantiality of physical things it has removed the concept of substance and replaced it by modalities: there is no substance but only the appearances of what we call substances or things. Having removed the notion of substance Buddhism has construed an explanation as to how this world functions. According to this explanation, the universe is seen as a flux of dharma s, the smallest elements or principles of which it consists, but this flux is not merely a flux of incoherent motion or change. On the contrary, the world evolves according to the strict law of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda ).

This universal flux can be conveniently viewed, for the moment, at three simultaneous and interrelated levels. If we take the inanimate world (matter) alone, it flows in accordance with a uniformly homogeneous and natural law of change. Similarly, the organic world (vegetation) flows according to its own uniform evolution of natural life (germination, growth, etc.). The third level is constituted by sentient life. This last one, apart from comprehending the other levels (matter and organic functions), includes a sentient element (consciousness or mind) as well. In general, we can say that it includes material as well as immaterial elements. Such sentient life, in which the material and immaterial elements are tied together, evolves or flows according to the strict law of causality as decreed in the causal nexus of dependent origination. Furthermore, this constant flux of sentient life coordinated by the law of dependent origination has a moral law superimposed upon it: the "law" of karman. It is with regard to such a flux that the dharma theory attempts to provide an explanation. There is no substance or person but there are dharma s (psychophysical elements) that flow according to the law of dependent origination that is set in motion by the law of karman. Basically, the dharma theory provides an explanation of how the universe functions within the context of a sentient life, in particular a human flux, for it is human life that Buddhism is concerned with. Dharma theory constitutes then not so much an explanation of what the universe is as it does an attempt to describe of what it consists and how it functions. Thus, in the detailed enumeration of dharma s as basic and infinitesimal elements that constitute the conglomeration of the universe we find an analysis of human life and its destiny. But this analysis is not "Buddhist psychology," as many call it; it is an exposition of both the constant and inevitably coordinated flux of phenomena and the inherent potentiality of bringing this flux to a halt.

I shall now describe some general classifications of dharma s (again, after the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma). Dharma s are divided into conditioned (saskta ) and unconditioned (asaskta ). The conditioned dharma s (seventy-two in all) comprise all the elements of phenomenal existence (sasāra ). They are called conditioned because by their nature and in their flow they cooperate in and are subject to the law of causality; they conglomerate or cooperate in the production of life (phagjana ). The unconditioned elements (three in all) are those that are not subject to the law that governs phenomenal existence. Dharma s are also divided into those that are influenced or permeated by negative tendencies or depravities (āsrava; in a moral sense, bad karma s) and those that are not under the influence of depravities (anāsrava; morally, good karma s). These are the same dharma s as in the previous classification but here they are viewed from two aspects: when they are influenced chiefly by ignorance (avidyā ) their flux has the tendency to perpetuate itself; when they are under the influence of intuitive wisdom (prajñā ) they acquire the tendency toward appeasement or tranquillity. By their nature the unconditioned dharma s must be classed among the dharma s that are not under the influence of depravities. We should recall here that the chief characteristic of sasāra is motion or unrest, dukha, and that of nirvāa is tranquillity, nirodha. The dharma s can be also divided in relationship to the four truths. Here again we have a twofold division. The first two truths (unrest, dukha, and its cause, samudaya ) refer to the seventy-two dharma s that are permeated by depravities or that are conditioned. The two other truths (rest, nirodha, and the means to it, mārga ) refer to the three unconditioned dharma s that are always at rest (nirodha ) and to the dharma s that are on the way (mārga ) to become extinguished (nirodha ).

Having described the general divisions I shall now proceed to list a set of three standard classifications within which individual dharma s are distributed. The first classification, which includes the conditioned dharma s alone, refers to their grouping as perceived in a sentient life. This classification divides dharma s into five aggregates or skandha s. Here we have (1) matter or body (rūpaskandha ): eleven dharma s; (2) feelings, sensations, or emotions (vedanāskandha ): one dharma ; (3) perceptions (sajñāskandha ): one dharma; (4) impulses or will-forces (saskāraskandha ): fifty-eight dharma s; (5) consciousness or mind (vijñānaskandha ): one dharma. This division into five skandha s not only constitutes an analysis of all phenomena but also serves to prove that there is no soul (ātman ) in a human entity, for none of the five skandhas can be identified with or regarded as a soul.

The second classification divides dharma s with reference to the process of cognition. Here we have the six sense organs (indriya ) and the six sense objects (viaya ) jointy called the "bases" or "foundations" (āyatana ) of cognition. The six sense organs or internal bases are (1) sense of vision (cakur-indriyāyatana ); (2) sense of hearing (śrotra- ); (3) sense of smell (ghrāna- ); (4) sense of taste (jihvā- ); (5) sense of touch (kāya- ); and (6) consciousness or intellectual faculty (mana- ). The six sense objects or external bases are (7) color and form (rūpa-āyatana ); (8) sound (śabda- ); (9) smell (gandha- ); (10) taste (rasa- ); (11) contact (spraavya- ); and (12) nonsensuous or immaterial objects (dharma- ). The first eleven āyatana s have one dharma each; the immaterial objects comprise sixty-four dharma s.

The third classification groups dharma s in relationship to the flow (santāna ) of life that evolves within the threefold world (kāma-, rūpa-, and ārūpya-dhātu ) as described by Buddhist cosmology. This group is divided into eighteen dhātu s, or elements. It incorporates the previous division into the twelve bases, to which is added a corresponding set of six kinds of consciousness to the intellectual faculty. Thus we have (13) visual consciousness (cakur-vijñānadhātu ); (14) auditory consciousness (śrotra- ); (15) olfactory consciousness (ghrāa- ); (16) gustatory consciousness (jihvā- ); (17) tactile consciousness (kāya- ); and (18) nonsensuous consciousness (mano- ). Within this group the five sense organs and their five objects contain one dharma each (ten dharma s in all). Consciousness (no. 6) is divided here into seven dhātu s (no. 6 plus 1318). The dhātu that represents immaterial objects (no. 12) contains sixty-four dharma s. All the eighteen dhātu s exist in the sensuous world (kāmadhātu ) or the world in which the mind operates through the sense data. In the world of refined matter (rūpadhātu ), the objects of smell and taste (nos. 910) and the olfactory and gustatory consciousnesses cease to exist. In the world without matter (but frequently interpreted as very subtle matter for we are still within sasāra ) all the dhātu s cease to exist except for consciousness (no. 6), its immaterial objects (no. 12), and its nonsensuous aspect of cognition (no. 18).

Now at last we come to enumerate the individual dharma s. Within the classification into the five skandha s, matter (rūpa ) contains eleven dharma s: five sense organs (āyatana s 15) and their five corresponding sense objects (āyatana s 711), plus an additional element to be discussed below. Āyatana (dhātu ) number 12 (nonsensuous objects) is in this system classified as an immaterial dharma, as we shall see, and hence is not considered here.

Matter or body is conceived as consisting of the four primary elements (mahābhūta s)earth, water, fire, and air. Secondary or refined matter (bhautika, derived from or related to matter) is represented by the senses and their objects (i.e., sense data). As already mentioned above, there is no substance as such. The four primary elements are talked about in Buddhism, but rightly understood these are taken to refer to properties: hardness (earth), cohesion (water), heat (fire), and motion (wind). The primary matter (four elements) present in a body sustains the secondary matter (the senses and their objects). Since the Buddhists analyze matter within the context of a sentient life, their description of matter is mainly concerned with discerning how it functions and how it appears, not with what it is, for properly speaking it does not exist. The world is in constant flux, the living life changes from one moment to the next. Consequently, because Buddhists are constrained from speaking in terms of soul or substance, matter is styled as sense data alone. Such a definition of the physical dharma s that constitute the sense data (ten dharma s) accounts for the component of matter that sustains consciousness, the other component of sentient life. What then is the eleventh dharma ?

The Sarvāstivāda, viewing the human personality as a threefold aspect of body, speech, and mind, divided karman (as it operates within a sentient life) into mental action (manas, identified with volition, or cetanā ) and physical and vocal actions. Mental action was classed as immaterial but physical and vocal actions that proceed from mental action were classed as belonging to matter (rūpaskandha ). Furthermore, physical and vocal action was seen as being an (external) "expression" (vijñapti ), but when mental action was committed but not externalized its "material" concomitant was seen as "nonexpression" (avijñapti ). It is the latter "unexpressed matter" (avijñaptirūpa ) that constitutes the eleventh dharma among the skandha division. Although immaterial, it was classed as matter because physical and vocal action with which it was associated was classed as such.

Three skandha s (feelings, perceptions, and impulses) contain jointly sixty dharma s, which are included as immaterial objects within the two other (āyatana, dhātu ) classifications (no. 12 in both). The three immutable elements (asaskta ) and avijñapti are also included among the immaterial dharma s of these two latter divisions, thus making a total of sixty-four dharma s.

Now I shall describe the sixty dharma s that are included in all three classifications (skandha, āyatana, and dhātu ). They are divided into two main groups: one group comprises forty-six associated dharma s or mental dharma s (caittadharma ), that arise from or in association with pure consciousness or mind (citta-saprayuk-tasaskāra ); the second group comprises fourteen unassociated dharma s, that is to say, dharma s that can be associated neither with matter nor with mind (rūpa-citta-viprayukta-saskāra ).

The forty-six associated dharma s include ten mental dharma s that are present in a sentient life (citta-mahābhūmika ): (1) feeling, (2) perception, (3) will, (4) contact, (5) desire, (6) comprehension, (7) memory, (8) attention, (9) aspiration, and (10) concentration; ten morally good (kuśala-mahābhūmika ) dharma s that are present in favorable conditions: (11) faith, (12) courage, (13) equanimity, (14) modesty, (15) aversion to evil, (16) detachment from love, (17) detachment from hatred, (18) nonviolence, (19) dexterity, and (20) perseverence in good; six obscuring (kleśa-mahābhūmika ) dharma s that enter the stream of a sentient life in unfavorable moments: (21) confusion (ignorance), (22) remissness, (23) mental dullness, (24) lack of faith, (25) indolence, and (26) addiction to pleasure; ten additional obscuring (upakleśa-bhūmika ) dharma s that may occur at different times: (27) anger, (28) hypocrisy, (29) maliciousness, (30) envy, (31) ill-motivated rivalry, (32) violence, (33) malice, (34) deceit, (35) treachery, and (36) self-gratification; two universally inauspicious (akuśala-mahabhūmika ) dharma s: (37) irreverence, and (38) willful tolerance of offences; and eight dharma s that are called undetermined (aniyata-bhūmika ) or undifferentiated in the sense that they can have different moral implications: (39) remorse, (40) deliberation, (41) investigation, (42) determination, (43) passion, (44) hatred, (45) pride, and (46) doubt. All forty-six dharma s listed above cannot be associated with (or cofunction with) consciousness at the same time on the general principle that their inner inclinations are variously geared toward either good or evil.

The fourteen unassociated dharma s are (47) acquisition (prāpti ), or the controlling force of an individual flux of life, (48) force (aprāpti ) that suspends some elements, (49) force of homogeneity of existence, (50) force that leads to trance, (51) force produced by effort to enter trance, (52) force that stops consciousness, thus effecting the highest trance, (53) force that projects life's duration, (54) origination, (55) duration, (56) decay, (57) extinction, (58) force that imparts meaning to words, (59) force that imparts meaning to sentences, and (60) force that imparts meaning to sounds.

Pure consciousness or mind constitutes one dharma (fifth skandha, sixth āyatana ). In the division into dhātu s vijñāna is, as it were, subdivided among seven dhātu s (no. 6 plus 1318) where the same consciousness is viewed in relation to the sense organs and immaterial objects.

Adding all the conditioned dharma s together yields eleven material dharma s, one dharma representing consciousness, forty-six associated dharma s, and fourteen unassociated dharma sseventy-two in all. These are the dharma s into which the whole of phenomenal existence is analyzed and which account for all events that take place within it.

The Sarvāstivāda also enumerate three unconditioned dharma s: space (ākāśa ), emancipation through discerning knowledge (pratisakhyānirodha ), and emancipation through nondiscerning knowledge (apratisakhyā-nirodha ). Thus, the total of dharma s both conditioned and unconditioned amounts to seventy-five in the Sarvāstivāda school.

The Theravāda tradition enumerates only one unconditioned dharma (nirvāa ) and eighty-one conditioned dharma s: four primary elements; four secondary elements; five sense organs; five sense objects; two aspects of sex (male and female); heart as the sustaining element of psychic life; two kinds (bodily and vocal) of avijñaptirūpa; a psychic vitality of matter; space; three properties (agility, elasticity, and pliability) of body; three characteristics (origination, duration, and decay) of conditioned dharma s; material food; fifty-two mental elements, including twenty-five wholesome, fourteen unwholesome, and thirteen morally neutral elements; and consciousness.

The Sarvāstivāda asserted that all the conditioned dharma s are real (they exist for they happen) and that they have the characteristic of coming into existence, lasting for a short period, and disappearing again in order to reappear in a new karmically determined formation. They also maintained that dharma s exist in all three times: past, present, and future.

The Lokottaravāda school, a Mahāsāghika subsect, treated all the conditioned dharma s as unreal and held that only the unconditioned dharma s are real. The Prajñaptivāda school, another Mahāsāghika group, argued that the twelve āyatana s are not real because they are the products of the skandha s, which are the only real entities. The Sautrāntikas admitted the existence of thought but rejected the reality of the majority of the associated and all the unassociated dharma s, denied the reality of the past and future, and maintained that only the present exists. They also rejected the existence of the unconditioned dharma s, considering them mere denominations of absence. The Mādhyamika school rejected the ultimate reality of dharma s altogether. The Vijñānavāda school recognized mind as the only reality (cittamātra ) and treated the whole of phenomenal existence as its illusive projection. Finally, a well-known Buddhist formula (ye dharmā hetuprabhavā, etc.) expresses the soteriological aspect associated with the analysis of sentient beings in terms of dharma s: "Whatever events arise from a cause, the Tathāgata has foretold their cause, and the Great Hermit has also explained their cessation."

See Also

Buddhist Philosophy; Four Noble Truths; Karman, article on Buddhist Concepts; Mādhyamika; Nirvāa; Pratītya-samutpāda; Sarvāstivāda; Sautrāntika; Soteriology; Soul, article on Buddhist Concepts; Yogācāra.


The dharma theory of the Sarvāstivādins is systematically set forth in Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa, translated by Louis de La Vallée Poussin as L'Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu, 6 vols. (19231931; reprint, Brussels, 1971). Theodore Stcherbatsky's The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word "Dharma" (1923; reprint, Delhi, 1970) is a lucid introduction to the topic. For the Theravāda view, see especially A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics: Dhammasangani, translated by C. A. F. Rhys Davids (London, 1923), a rendering of the first book of the Theravāda Abhidharma. Ñyāatiloka's Guide through the Abhidhamma Pitaka, 3d ed., revised and enlarged by Ñyāatiloka Thera (Colombo, 1957), is the single most useful guide to the study of the Theravāda Abhidhamma. The reader will also find useful A. K. Warder's "Dharmas and Data," Journal of Indian Philosophy 1 (1971): 272295.

New Sources

Bhuti, Tsewang. "Klong rdol bla ma's List of 108 Dharmas of Prajnaparamita and the Commentary." Tibet Journal 25, no. 3 (2000): 4868.

Cox, C. Disputed Dharmas, Early Buddhist Theories on Existence: An Annotated Translation of the Section of Factors Dissociated from Thought from Sanghabhadra's Nyayanusara. Tokyo, 1995.

Dessein, Bart. "Dharmas Associated with Awarenesses and the Dating of the Sarvastivada Abhidharma Works." Asiatische Studien 50, no. 3 (1996): 623651.

Frauwallner, E., S. F. Kidd, and E. Steinkellner. Studies in Abhidharma Literature and the Origins of Buddhist Philosophical Systems. Albany, 1995.

Ganguly, S. Treatise on Groups of Elements: The Abhidharma-dhatukaya-padasastra: English Translation of Hsüan-tsang's Chinese Version. Delhi, 1994.

Mejor, M. Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosa and the Commentaries Preserved in the Tanjur. Stuttgart, 1991.

Tadeusz Skorupski (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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