Dharma and Dharmas

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Sanskrit uses the term dharma in a variety of contexts requiring a variety of translations. Dharma derives from the root [.radical] dhr˚ (to hold, to maintain) and is related to the Latin forma. From its root meaning as "that which is established" comes such translations as law, duty, justice, religion, nature, and essential quality. Its oldest form, dharman, is found in the pre-Buddhist Rgveda, which dates to at least three thousand years ago. Thus, the Buddha must have known and used the term even before his enlightenment. At present, dharma is used generically for "religion," indicating religious beliefs and practices. TheravĀda Buddhism uses the Pāli variant dhamma; Gāndhārī Prākrit, as attested in the Dharmapada from Khotan (second century c.e., probably of Dharmaguptaka affiliation) uses either dhama or dharma. Gāndhārī, the language (s) of the Gandhāran cultural area, including Gandhāra, Bactria, and Khotan, was the language used by the Buddhist schools in that area, such as Sarvāstivāda, Mahāsāṃghika, Dharmaguptaka, and so on. It is also the language from which most Chinese translations before the time of KumĀrajĪva (350–409/413) derive. It is the Buddhist literature of the Gandhāra region that was introduced to China during the first century b.c.e. through at least the fourth century c.e. The Chinese phonetic transliteration attests to the word dhama, but in canonical literature the term is almost always translated as fa (Japanese ; Korean pŏp). The common Chinese meaning of fa is law, plan, or method, but it is now vested with the full range of Buddhist meanings as well.

The Buddhist interpretation of dharma

The traditional meaning of dharma can be understood as uniform norm, universal and moral order, or natural law; it also includes one's social duty and proper conduct. The Buddha understood this universal order in terms of pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination), an eternal law governing all elements in this conditioned world. This dharma, which was rediscovered by the Buddha, was the subject matter of his teaching; hence, dharma also means teaching or doctrine.

The twelve links in the chain of dependent origination are explained in the sūtras of both the Pali nikāyas (divisions of the scriptural texts) and the Chinese āgamas ("transmission" of Buddha's word), as well as in many scholastic texts. Two links are said to be in the past: ignorance (avidyā), which produces formations (samskāra). The meaning of formations comes close to karma (action). Eight links are in the present: consciousness (vijñāna), producing name-and-form (nāmarūpa), a quasi-person, which leads to the six sensory faculties (ṣaḍāyatana), which lead to contact (sparśa) between the six sensory faculties, their objects, and the resulting six consciousnesses. This leads to feeling or experiencing (vedanā), which leads to craving (trsnā), which brings grasping (upādāna), which leads to becoming or existence (bhava). Two links are in the future: birth (jāti) and old age and death (jarāmarana). This process explains the natural law that is the dharma. The path toward deliverance from this process governing birth, death, and rebirth can be found in the four noble truths.

The word dharma is also used for the corpus of discourses, the scriptural texts, that expound the Buddha's teaching. The practice of dharma is found in the vinaya, the monastic instructions. The practical application of dharma, involving the rules and regulations and their sanctions, is contained in the prĀtimoksa. Each of these rules is also called dharma. Dharma and vinaya together constitute the teachings of the Buddha; what in the West is called Buddhism, the Buddhists themselves call the Dharmavinaya.

The Buddha, who had realized enlightenment not far from the capital of Magadha, preached his first sermon, the Dharmacakrapravartana-sūtra (Turning the Wheel of Dharma), in Sarnath in the Deer Park, some distance from the banks of the Ganges in Vārāṇasī or Benares. This sermon explains the path to salvation via the four noble truths. The Buddha's diagnosis sees everything as duḤkha (suffering), which has a cause (samudaya), namely craving, which can be extinguished (nirodha) through the noble eightfold path (mārga):

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

In the sequence of the eightfold path one distinguishes the monastic practice of cultivating prajnĀ (wisdom), morality (śīla), and concentration (samādhi). Steps one and two of the path correspond to wisdom. Prajñā is commonly translated as wisdom, even though this is the meaning that it received in a Mahāsāṃghika milieu in northwestern India as a reaction against the Sarvāstivāda. The Sarvāstivāda sees prajñā as an analytical knowledge of factors, or dharmas. Steps three to five of the path correspond to morality, which purifies one's conduct. Concentration corresponds to steps seven and eight. All three practices are associated with step six. Dharma, the doctrine, may also be understood as the truth about the phenomenal world, and how to

do away with its defilements. Thus, dharma also means knowledge, freeing one from phenomenal existence. The whole process of dependent origination begins with ignorance or nescience (avidyā). Dharma also means morality because it contains a code of moral conduct, and it means duty because one has a duty to comply with it while striving for nirvĀṆa. These interpretations of dharma join the age-old understanding of the term as natural law and social duty, but this time given a Buddhist interpretation.

Dharma is also the second of the three jewels or refuges (triratna)—Buddha, dharma, SAṄ gha. Taking this triple refuge is nowadays an essential criterion for being considered a Buddhist. The dharma is the truth and protector. The Buddha is the teacher of the dharma and becomes its personification. The disciples were advised to take the dharma as their guide after the Buddha's death. The dharma is the essence of the Buddha. Upon discovering the dharma, Śākyamuni attained buddhahood. The saṅgha, the monastic order, puts dharma into practice in daily life.

MahĀyĀna Buddhism explains buddhahood by distinguishing two, three, or four aspects or bodies (kāya). The two bodies are the law-body (dharmakāya), which is the dharma, the essence of a buddha, and the material body (rūpakāya), the physical aspect. The law-body is a personification of the truth of the universal law. Better known is the three-body breakdown, which includes the body of enjoyment (sambhogakāya) or the reward-body, the body that enjoys the reward for previous meritorious conduct. It is the ideal buddha-body in the realm of the real (dharmadhĀtu). An example would be AmitĀbha, who made forty-eight vows while he was the bodhisattva Dharmākara, and he gained buddhahood in the Western Paradise of Sukhāvatī after a long period of practice. The transformation-body (nirmānakāya) appears as a person during his or her earthly existence, and belongs to a specific time and place; Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha, is an example of transformation-body.

The Tripiṭaka, the "three baskets" of the canon that contain the teaching, are also regarded as the teaching, the dharma. The first basket, the sūtras, is traditionally divided into either nine or twelve parts, based on literary form. The Sūtrapiṭaka is now divided into nikāyas or āgamas. The second of the three baskets contains the vinaya. With the phase of scholastic or abhidharma Buddhism during the last centuries b.c.e. and the first centuries c.e., abhidharma was added as a third basket, but not all schools agreed with this classification. Even within the Sarvāstivāda there was a difference of opinion. One branch, the Vaibhāṣikas, who were active in Kashmir from the third till the middle of the seventh century c.e. and were long considered to be the orthodoxy, said that the Abhidharmapiṭaka was the Buddha's word. The earlier and very diverse western Sarvāstivāda groups in the Gandhāra area did not agree and considered only the sūtras to be definitive truth. These groups were called SautrĀntika, as opposed to Vaibhāṣika, and they did not have an Abhidharmapitaka, only abhidharma works.

Dharmas, or factors

The factors or constituents of the dharma, the teachings, are also called dharma (s). Such dharmas are psychophysical factors, which flow according to the natural process of dependent origination. Dharma theory explains how the human being is a flux or continuum (santāna), without any permanent factor or soul (ātman). Existing reality is called the "realm of the real" (dharmadhātu). Buddhism concerns itself with the phenomenal, by which existence is recognized. This phenomenal world is in constant change. Buddhism sees all phenomena as formations (saṃskāra), formative forces or volitions that are formed (saṃskṛta) by causes and conditions. Formation has an active and a passive meaning. Factors (dharmas) are formed, but sometimes at least one unformed or uncompounded factor, nirvĀṆa, is recognized. The Sarvāstivāda, which had a tremendous influence in northwestern India and in East Asia, distinguish three unformed or uncompounded (asaṃskṛta) factors. Everything that is an obvious object of consciousness is a factor. A person, just like the whole of existence, is a flux, a series of impermanent factors, but sentient life has a sentient element: mind (manas) or consciousness. A human being is a flow of material and immaterial factors set in motion by karma and controlled by the law of dependent origination. Dharma theory explains how existence functions in the context of a human continuum. It explains its ultimate factors and it contains the possibility of stopping this continuum.

Originally Buddhism used a threefold classification of factors: (1) five skandha (aggregate), (2) twelve bases or sense fields (āyatana), and (3) eighteen elements (dhātu). During the last centuries b.c.e., the dharma theory developed considerably in abhidharma Buddhism. The most influential dharma theory was that of the diverse Sarvāstivāda schools. Other schools either adopted most of the Sarvāstivāda dharma theory (as did the Mahīśāsaka), introduced minor changes (Dharmaguptaka), were influenced by it (Buddhaghosa in fifth-century Theravada), reacted to it (Mahāsāṃghika, Madhyamaka), or built on it (Vijñānavāda). The Vaibhāṣikas in Kashmir inherited a fivefold classification from their Gandhāran brethren, who, after about 200 c.e., came to be called Sautrāntikas. Even among the western Sarvāstivādins there was no general agreement about the number of factors.

Nevertheless, the Sarvāstivāda branch that was most influential in Central and East Asia, in the Gandhāran part of northwestern India, and in Kashmir after the demise of the Vaibhāṣikas, was the branch that ultimately based its classification on such texts as the Abhidharmahrdaya (Heart of Scholasticism) and on the Astagrantha (Eight Compositions), both probably from the first century b.c.e. This branch used a fivefold classification as found in the Pañcavastuka (Five Things), which was translated in China during the second century c.e. and advocated a Buddhist version of the five elements or modes that were popular at the time. The Aṣṭagrantha was revised and renamed Jñānaprasthāna (Course of Knowledge) at the end of the second century c.e. and became the central text or corpus (śarīra) for the Vaibhāṣikas. The Abhidharmahrdaya was commented on in the Miśrakābhidharmahṛdaya (Sundry Heart of Scholasticism), and this text was the basis of Vasubandhu's AbhidharmakoŚabhĀṢya (Storehouse of Abhidharma), which dates to the early fifth century. The influence of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, or Kośa, was and is considerable. When a Tibetan text was written to instruct Khubilai's Mongol crown prince in Buddhism late in the thirteenth century, the manual was based on the Kośa. However, the old classification in five aggregates was never forgotten. When Skandhila, a Gandhāran living in "orthodox" Kashmir during the fifth century, composed his Abhidharmāvatāra (Introduction to Scholasticism), he classified the factors on the basis of the five aggregates or skandhas, but added the three unformed factors.

The original threefold classification of dharmas

The earliest division of the factors was into five skandha, twelve bases or sense fields (āyatana), and eighteen elements (dhātu). The five aggregates (skandha means literally "bundles") divide sentient life into five psychophysical elements:

  1. Form or matter (rupa)
  2. Feeling (vedana)
  3. Notions or perceptions (samjña)
  4. Formations (samskara), also called volitions or formative forces
  5. Consciousness (vijñana)

Aggregates two through five may be called name (nāma). Name-and-form is a synonym for the five aggregates, which are fundamentally impermanent. They have nothing one might consider to be a "self," and they bring suffering, being inevitably subject to change. The first five disciples of the Buddha became arhats (saints) upon understanding the teaching of the egolessness of the aggregates. Matter has mass; it obstructs. It incorporates the four great elements: earth (hardness), water (moisture), fire (heat), air (motion). Feelings may be physical or mental, and are classified as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Notions are concepts, which are formed; one may have the concepts of color and form, for example, when seeing a green leaf. Formations are the mind in action, in which volition (cetanā) is central. Consciousness is the cognitive function.

The twelve bases (āyatana) refer to the process of cognition. Āyatana means "a place of entry," namely the six sense organs or faculties (indriya), the six internal bases. Alternatively, āyatana can refer to that which enters, namely the six objects (viṣaya) of cognition, the six external bases. The twelve āyatana are: the six bases of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind; and the six objects of color or form, sound, smell, taste, palpables, and mental or immaterial objects (the factors).

The eighteen elements are distinguished in relation to the flow of life in the three realms of existence: the realm of sensuality (kāmadhatu), the realm of subtle matter (rūpadhātu), and the immaterial realm (ārūpadhātu). The first twelve constitute the above twelve bases (ayatana), to which are added the six corresponding consciousnesses: visual consciousness through to mental consciousness.

Sarvastivada dharma theory

Many Sarvāstivāda texts elaborate on dharma theory. Besides the texts already mentioned, one may add the Dharmaskandha (Aggregate of Factors) and the Prakaraṇa (Treatise). Existence is described in four categories of formed factors, totaling seventy-two factors, and one category of three unformed or unconditioned factors, thus giving seventy-five dharmas in all. The five categories are:

  1. Matter (rupa)
  2. Thought (citta)
  3. Thought-concomitants or mentals (caitta) associated with thought, arising in association with pure consciousness or mind
  4. Formations dissociated from thought (cittaviprayukta)
  5. Unformed factors (asamskrta)

Form or matter contains eleven factors: the first five faculties and their objects, plus unmanifested form (avijñaptirūpa). When mental action is made manifest in physical or vocal action, it is described by the term intimation (vijñapti). When it is not externalized or made manifest, the material aspect is nonintimated, and thus unmanifested. One might understand avijñaptirūpa as the moral character of a person or a force of habit. It is a potential form, preserved in the physical body. Not all branches of the Sarvāstivāda school distinguished this material factor, but it appears in the Śāriputrābhidharma, which is said to be of Dharmaguptaka affiliation.

The second category—thought—is just the one factor of mind, or pure consciousness. In the classification of the eighteen elements, it includes the six consciousnesses, plus the mind element. It is the consciousness aggregate and also the internal mind faculty. The third category is the forty-six thought-concomitants, which are factors associated with thought. Not all adherents of the Sarvāstivāda school agreed with the existence of these factors. For example, Dharmatrāta (second century c.e.), a Dārṣṭāntika (probably a Sautrāntika who followed the long vinaya), says that these factors are only subdivisions of volition, and he denies their separate existence. Buddhadeva (first century c.e.) says that they are none other than thought itself. But the Kośa enumerates forty-six thought-concomitants.

Ten mental factors accompany every thought; these are the factors "of large extent" (mahābhūmika), that is, basic or general. They are:

  1. Feeling (vedanā)
  2. Notion (saṃjñā)
  3. Volition (cetanā)
  4. Contact (sparśa)
  5. Attention (manaskāra)
  6. Desire (chanda)
  7. Inclination or aspiration (adhimokṣa)
  8. Mindfulness (smṛti)
  9. Concentration (samādhi)
  10. Comprehension (mati, prajñā)

Ten factors accompany every wholesome thought; these are the wholesome factors of large extent (kuśalamahābhūmika). They are:

  1. Faith (śraddhā)
  2. Diligence (apramāda)
  3. Repose (praśrabdhi)
  4. Equanimity (upekṣa)
  5. Shame, with reference to oneself (hrī)
  6. Aversion, with reference to other people's bad actions (apatrāpya)
  7. Noncovetousness (alobha)
  8. Nonmalevolence (adveṣa)
  9. Nonviolence (ahiṃsā)
  10. Strenuousness (vīrya)

Six factors accompany every defiled thought; these are the defiled factors of large extent (kleśamahābhūmika). They are:

  1. Confusion (moha)
  2. Negligence (apramāda)
  3. Mental dullness (kausīdya)
  4. Nonbelief (āśraddhya)
  5. Sloth (styāna)
  6. Frivolity (auddhatya)

Two factors accompany every unwholesome thought; these are called unwholesome factors of large extent (akuśalamahābhūmika). They are:

  1. Shamelessness (āhrīkya)
  2. Lack of modesty (anapatrāpya)

Ten defiled factors of limited extent (upakleśaparīttabhūmika), which may occur at various times, are:

  1. Anger (krodha)
  2. Hypocrisy (mrakṣa)
  3. Stinginess (mātsarya)
  4. Envy (īrṣya)
  5. Ill-motivated rivalry (pradāsa)
  6. The causing of harm (vihiṃsā)
  7. Enmity (upanāha)
  8. Deceit (māyā)
  9. Trickery (śāṭhya)
  10. Arrogance (mada)

Eight undetermined (aniyata) factors have variant moral implications and may accompany either a wholesome, unwholesome, or indeterminate thought. They are:

  1. Initial thought (vitarka)
  2. Discursive thought (vicāra)
  3. Drowsiness (middha)
  4. Remorse (kaukṛtya)
  5. Greed (rāga)
  6. Hatred (pratigha)
  7. Pride (māna)
  8. Doubt (vicikitsā) about the teaching

Fourteen factors are neither material nor mental and are dissociated from thought (cittaviprayukta). They are:

  1. Acquisition (prāpti), a force that controls the collection of elements in an individual life-continuum, which links an acquired object with its owner
  2. Dispossession (aprāpti), which separates an acquired object from its owner
  3. Homogeneity (sabhāgatā)
  4. Nonperception (āsaṃjñika), a force that leads one to the attainment of nonperception
  5. Attainment of nonperception (asaṃjñisamāpatti), which is produced by the effort to enter trance after having stopped perceptions
  6. Attainment of cessation (of notions and feeling, nirodhasamāpatti), the highest state of trance
  7. Life force (jīvitendriya)
  8. Birth or origination (jāti)
  9. Duration (sthiti)
  10. Old age or decay (jarā)
  11. Impermanence or extinction (anityatā)

The last three factors are the characteristics of a conditioned factor:

  1. Force imparting meaning to letters (vyañjanakāya)
  2. Force imparting meaning to words (nāmakāya)
  3. Force imparting meaning to phrases (pādakāya)

Finally, there are three unformed factors. They are:

  1. Space (ākāśa)
  2. Extinction through discernment (pratisaṃkhyanirodha), namely through comprehension of the truths and separation from impure factors
  3. Extinction not through discernment (apratisaṃkhyānirodha), owing to a lack of a productive cause

Some Sautrāntikas asserted that these factors are not real. They count forty-three factors. All factors exist in all three time periods of past, present, future. This belief explains the term Sarvāstivāda, which means "the teaching that all exists." The Mahīśāsakas, who split from the Sarvāstivāda, supported the Sarvāstivāda in this thesis.

A general classification of all factors could be: (1) impure (sāsrava) factors, chiefly influenced by ignorance, and (2) pure (anāsrava) factors, tending toward appeasement under the influence of wisdom.

Theravāda dhamma theory

The Theravāda dhamma theory is outlined in the school's Abhidhammapitaka, primarily in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi (Enumeration of Dhammas) and in the Dhātukathā (Discussion of Elements). The ethical classification of dhammas as wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral (avyākata) is central. The last category has four divisions:

  1. Resultant consciousness or thinking (vipākacitta)
  2. Functional consciousness (kriyācitta)
  3. Matter
  4. The unconditioned factor nibbāna (nirvana)

Some factors are not found in the traditional threefold classification. For example, matter contains the faculty "femininity" (itthindriya). The final Theravāda dhamma theory is found in manuals dating from the fifth century on. Knowing that they belong to the Sthaviravāda group, it is not surprising that there is Sarvāstivāda (Sautrāntika) influence. Buddhadatta, a fifth-century contemporary of Skandhila, makes a fourfold classification in his Abhidhammāvatāra (Introduction to Scholasticism): form, thought, mentals, nibbāna. Buddhaghosa, in the fifth century, defines factors as "those which maintain their own specific nature," while Buddhadatta says factors possess specific and general characteristics. Theravāda typically uses a classification of 170 factors and four categories, but there are other classifications, such as eighty-one conditioned factors (matter 28, thought 1, mental 52) and one unconditioned factor, nibbāna.

Analysis of dharmas in the Madhyamaka school

The MahĀsĀṂghika school, rival of the Sarvāstivāda ever since the first schism, multiplied the number of unconditioned factors, even adding dependent origination itself to the list. One Mahāsāṃghika subschool, the Prajñaptivāda, taught that conditioned factors are only denominations (prajñapti) and the twelve bases are the products of the aggregates, the only real entities. Another subschool, the Lokottaravāda, held that only the unconditioned factors are real. The ideas of the Mahāyāna Madhyamaka school may have started within the Mahāsāṃghika milieu in northwestern India, in opposition to the dominant Sarvāstivāda school. The Madhyamaka school itself was organized in southern India (Āndhra) around 200 c.e., at the same time that the Vaibhāṣikas were organizing in Kashmir to the north. The Madhyamaka school rejected the reality of any factor and claimed that all conceptual thinking was empty (śūnya). The real is devoid of thought-construction (vikalpa) and can be realized only through nondual wisdom (prajñā). NĀgĀrjuna (ca. second century c.e.) interpreted the law of dependent origination to mean relativity or ŚāŪNYATā (emptiness). According to Nāgārjuna, nothing is real when taken separately. He was not interested in delineating the number of factors or in constructing any classification schemata, but he was interested in the inherent nature of factors (dharmatā). Existence is only valid from a conventional (saṃvṛti) point of view, but it is not valid when viewed from the standpoint of absolute (paramārtha) truth.

Vijñānavāda dharma theory

The Vijñānavāda or YogĀcĀra school agrees with Madhyamaka that all is empty, but posits that consciousness is real. Vijñānavāda postulates a kind of subconscious, called the storehouse consciousness (ĀlayavijnĀna). Phenomenal existence is the illusory projection of that storehouse consciousness. Every factor stored in the ālayavijñāna is a seed (bīja), a Sautrāntika term. One should do away with tainted seeds and develop untainted seeds. The school also distinguishes a consciousness called mind (manas), which clings to the idea of self. In East Asia this school is called the Faxiang school (Sanskrit, dharmākāra) or "characteristics of dharmas." Dharma here refers to the hundred factors this school distinguishes, elaborating on the Sarvāstivāda classification. What became the East Asian variety of Yogācāra was first taught in Nālandā by Dharmapāla (439–507) and taken to China by Xuanzang in 645. It claims that the specific nature of a factor is distinct from its specific mode. Their one hundred factors are:

  1. Eight thought factors, namely the eight consciousnesses
  2. Fifty-one associated mental factors (5 universal, 5 limited, 11 wholesome, 6 defiled, 20 secondary defilements, and 4 indeterminate)
  3. Eleven matter factors
  4. Twenty-four dissociated factors
  5. Six unconditioned factors

Most important is the eighth consciousness, the storehouse consciousness, which stores the seeds of all potential manifestations.

See also:Āgama/Nikāya; Anātman/Ātman (No-Self/Self); Buddhahood and Buddha Bodies; Consciousness, Theories of; Cosmology; Psychology; Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda


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Charles Willemen