Dharma and Dharmas | Definition
Sanskrit uses the term dharma in a variety of contexts requiring a variety of translations.
Dharma derives from the root dhṛ (to hold, to maintain).
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 Ṛig-Veda, which dates to at least 3 000 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;
Gāndharī Prākrit, as attested in the Dharmapada from Khotan (2nd century C.E., probably of Dharmaguptaka affiliation) uses either dhamma or dharma.
Gāndharī, the language of the Gandhāran cultural area, including Gandhāra, Bactria, and Khotan, was the language used by the Buddhist schools in that area, such as Sarvāstivāda, Mahāsaṁghika, 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 1st century B.C.E. through at least the 4th century C.E.
The Chinese phonetic transliteration attests to the word dhamma, but in canonical literature the term is almost always translated as fa (Japanese ho; Korean pop).
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 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 pratītya-samutpāda (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 12 links in the chain of dependent origination are explained in the Sūtras of both the Pāli Nikāyas (divisions of the scriptural texts) and the Chinese Āgamas (“transmission” of Buddha’s word), as well as in many scholastic texts:
2 links are said to be in the past:
(1) ignorance (avidya), which produces (2) formations (saṁskāra).
The meaning of formations comes close to Karma (action).
8 links are in the present:
(1) consciousness (vijñāna), producing (2) name-and-form (nāma-rūpa), a quasi-person,
which leads to the (3) 6 sensory faculties (ṣaḍ-āyatana), which lead to (4) contact (sparśa) between the 6 sensory faculties, their objects, and the resulting 6 Consciousnesses.
This leads to (5) feeling or experiencing (vedanā), which leads to (6) craving (tṛṣṇā), which brings (7) grasping (upādāna), which leads to (8) becoming or existence (bhava).
2 links are in the future:
(1) birth (jāti) and (2) old age and death (jarā-maraṇa).
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 Prātimokṣa. 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 Māgadha, preached his first sermon, the Dharma-cakra-pravartana-sūtra (Turning the Wheel of Dharma), in Sārnāth 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 8-fold path one distinguishes the monastic practice of cultivating:
1. wisdom (prajñā),
2. morality (śīla), and
3. concentration (samādhi).
Steps 1-2 of the path correspond to wisdom.
Prajñā is commonly translated as wisdom, even though this is the meaning that it received in a Mahāsaṁghika milieu in north-western India as a reaction against the Sarvāstivāda. The Sarvāstivāda sees Prajñā as an analytical knowledge of factors, or dharmas.
Steps 3-5 of the path correspond to morality, which purifies one’s conduct.
Concentration corresponds to steps 7-8.
All 1-3 practices are associated with step 6.
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 (avidya).
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 2nd of the 3 Jewels or Refuges (tri-rātna)—Buddha, Dharma, Saṅgha. 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 2, 3, or 4 aspects or bodies (kāya):
The 2 bodies are:
1) the law-body (dharmakāya), which is the dharma, the essence of a Buddha, and
2) the material body (rūpa-kāya), the physical aspect.
The law-body is a personification of the truth of the universal law.
Better known is the 3-body breakdown:
1) the law-body (dharmakāya),
2) the body of enjoyment (Saṁbhogakāya)
3) the transformation-body (Nirmāṇakāya)
which includes the body of enjoyment (Saṁbhogakāya) 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 (Dharma-dhātu):
An example would be Amitābha, who made 48 vows while he was the bodhisattva Dharmakāra, and he gained Buddhahood in the Western Paradise of Sukhāvatī after a long period of practice.
The transformation-body (Nirmāṇakāya) 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 9 or 12 parts, based on literary form. The Sūtra-piṭaka 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 during 3-7th century C.E. and were long considered to be the orthodoxy, said that the Abhidharma-piṭaka 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 Abhidharma-piṭaka, only Abhidharma works.
The factors or constituents of the dharma, the teachings, are also called dharmas. 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” (dharma-dhātu). Buddhism concerns itself with the phenomenal, by which existence is recognized. This phenomenal world is in constant change.
Buddhism sees all phenomena as formations (saṁskāra), formative forces or volitions that are formed (saṁskṛta) 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 north-western India and in East Asia, distinguish 3 unformed or uncompounded (asaṁskṛta) 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 3-fold classification of factors:
(1) 5 Aggregates (Skandha),
(2) 12 Bases or sense fields (Āyatana), and
(3) 18 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 (Buddhaghoṣa in 5thcentury Theravada),
- reacted to it (Mahāsaṁghika, Madhyamaka), or
- built on it (Vijñāna-vāda).
The Vaibhāṣikas in Kashmir inherited a 5-fold 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 north-western India, and in Kashmir after the demise of the Vaibhāṣikas,
was the branch that ultimately based its classification on such texts as the Abhidharma-hṛdaya (Heart of Scholasticism) and on the Aṣṭa-grantha (Eight Compositions), both probably from the 1st century B.C.E.
This branch used a 5-fold classification as found in the Pañca-vastuka (Five Things), which was translated in China during the 2nd century C.E. and advocated a Buddhist version of the 5 elements or modes that were popular at the time.
The Aṣṭa-grantha was revised and renamed Jñāna-prasthāna (Course of Knowledge) at the end of the 2nd century C.E. and became the central text or corpus (śarīra) for the Vaibhāṣikas.
The Abhidharma-hṛdaya was commented on in the Miśrak-Abhidharma-hṛdaya (Sundry Heart of Scholasticism), and this text was the basis of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa Bhāṣya (Storehouse of Abhidharma), which dates to the early 5th century.
The influence of the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, or Kośa, was and is considerable:
When a Tibetan text was written to instruct Khubilai’s Mongol crown prince in Buddhism late in the 13th century, the manual was based on the Kośa.
However, the old classification in 5 aggregates was never forgotten:
When Skandhila, a Gandhāran living in “orthodox” Kashmir during the 5th century, composed his Abhidharmāvatāra (Introduction to Scholasticism), he classified the factors on the basis of the 5 aggregates or skandhas, but added the 3 unformed factors.
The earliest division of the factors was into:
1) 5 aggregates (skandha),
2) 12 bases or sense fields (āyatana), and
3) 18 elements (dhātu).
The 5 aggregates (skandha means literally “bundles”) divide sentient life into 5 psychophysical elements:
1. Form or matter (rūpa)
2. Feeling (vedanā)
3. Notions or perceptions (saṁjñā)
4. Formations (saṁskāra), also called volitions or formative forces
5. Consciousness (vijñāna)
Aggregates 2-5 may be called name (nāma).
Name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) is a synonym for the 5 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 5 Disciples of the Buddha became Arhats (saints) upon understanding the teaching that aggregates are without an essence.
Matter has mass; it obstructs.
It incorporates the 4 great elements:
a) earth (hardness),
b) water (moisture),
c) fire (heat),
d) air (motion).
Feelings may be:
a) physical or b) mental,
and are classified as either:
a) pleasant, b) unpleasant, or c) neutral.
Notions are concepts, which are formed;
one may have the concepts of colour 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 12 bases (āyatana) refer to the process of cognition.
Āyatana means “a place of entry,” namely:
1. the 6 sense organs or faculties (indriya),
2. the 6 internal bases.
Alternatively, āyatana can refer to that which enters, namely:
1. the 6 objects (viṣaya) of cognition,
2. the 6 external bases.
The 12 āyatana are:
1. the 6 bases of:
eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind; and
2. the 6 objects of:
colour or form, sound, smell, taste, palpable, and mental or immaterial objects (the factors).
The 18 elements (dhātu) are distinguished in relation to the flow of life in the 3 realms of existence:
1. the realm of sensuality (kāma-dhātu),
2. the realm of subtle matter (rūpa-dhātu), and
3. the immaterial realm (arūpa-dhātu).
The 1-12 Elements (dhātu) constitute the above 12 bases (āyatana),
+ 6 corresponding Consciousnesses:
visual consciousness through to mental consciousness.
Many Sarvāstivāda texts elaborate on dharma theory. Besides the texts already mentioned, one may add the Dharma-skandha (Aggregate of Factors) and the Prakaraṇa (Treatise).
Existence is described in:
- 4 categories of formed factors, totalling 72 factors, and
- 1 category of 3 unformed or unconditioned factors,
= thus giving 75 dharmas in all.
The 5 categories are:
1. Matter (rūpa)
2. Thought (citta)
3. Thought-concomitants or mental (caitta) associated with thought, arising in association with pure consciousness or mind
4. Formations dissociated from thought (citta viprayukta)
5. Unformed factors (asaṁskṛta)
Form (matter) contains 11 factors:
= the 1-5 faculties and their objects,
+ plus unmanifested form (avijñapti-rūpa).
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 non-intimated (unmanifested).
One might understand avijñapti-rūpa 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 Śāriputra-Abhidharma, which is said to be of Dharmaguptaka affiliation.
The second category—thought (citta)—is just the 1 factor of mind, or pure consciousness:
In the classification of the 18 elements (dhātu), it includes the 6 Consciousnesses, plus the mind element. It is the consciousness aggregate and also the internal mind faculty.
The third category is the 46 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 (2nd 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 (1st century C.E.) says that they are none other than thought itself.
But the Kośa enumerates 46 thought-concomitants.
10 mental factors accompany every thought;
these are the factors “of large extent” (mahābhūmika), that is, basic or general.
1. Feeling (vedanā)
2. Notion (saṁjñā)
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)
10 factors accompany every wholesome thought;
these are the wholesome factors of large extent (kuśala-mahābhūmika).
1. Faith (śraddhā)
2. Diligence (apramāda)
3. Repose (praśrabdhi)
4. Equanimity (ukpekṣā)
5. Shame, with reference to oneself (hrī)
6. Aversion, with reference to other people’s bad actions (apatrāpa)
7. Non-covetousness (alobha)
8. Non-malevolence (adveṣa)
9. Nonviolence (ahiṁsā)
10. Strenuousness (vīrya)
6 factors accompany every defiled thought;
these are the defiled factors of large extent (kleśa-mahābhūmika).
1. Confusion (moha)
2. Negligence (apramāda)
3. Mental dullness (kausīdya)
4. Non-belief (aśraddhā)
5. Sloth (styāna)
6. Frivolity (auddhatya)
2 factors accompany every unwholesome thought;
these are called unwholesome factors of large extent (akuśala-mahābhūmika).
1. Shamelessness (āhrīkya)
2. Lack of modesty (anapatrāpya)
10 defiled factors of limited extent (upa-kleśa-paritta-bhūmika),
which may occur at various times, are:
1. Anger (krodha)
2. Hypocrisy (mrakṣa)
3. Stinginess (mātsarya)
4. Envy (īrṣyā)
5. Ill-motivated rivalry (pradāsa)
6. The causing of harm (vihiṁsā)
7. Enmity (upanāha)
8. Deceit (māyā)
9. Trickery (śāthya)
10. Arrogance (mada)
8 undetermined (aniyata) factors have variant moral implications and
may accompany either a wholesome, unwholesome, or indeterminate thought.
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
14 factors are neither material nor mental
and are dissociated from thought (citta-viprayukta).
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. Non-perception (āsaṁjñika), a force that leads one to the attainment of non-perception
5. Attainment of non-perception (āsaṁjñī-samāpatti), which is produced by the effort to enter trance after having stopped perceptions
6. Attainment of cessation (of notions and feeling, nirodha-samāpatti), 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 3 factors are the characteristics of a conditioned factor:
12. Force imparting meaning to letters (vyañjana- kāya)
13. Force imparting meaning to words (nāma-kāya)
14. Force imparting meaning to phrases (pāda-kāya)
Finally, there are 3 unformed factors. They are:
1. Space (ākāśa)
2. Extinction through discernment (prati-saṁkhyā-nirodha),
namely through comprehension of the truths and separation from impure factors
3. Extinction not through discernment (aprati-saṁkhyā-nirodha),
owing to a lack of a productive cause
Some Sautrāntikas asserted that these factors are not real. They count 43 factors.
All factors exist in all 3 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.
The Theravada dhamma theory is outlined in the school’s Abhidhamma-piṭaka, primarily in the Dhamma-saṅgaṇi (Enumeration of Dhammas) and in the Dhātu-kathā (Discussion of Elements).
Important is the ethical classification of dhammas as:
a) wholesome, b) unwholesome, and c) neutral (avyākata).
The Neutral (avyākata) dhammas are of 4 divisions:
1. Resultant consciousness or thinking (vipāka-citta)
2. Functional consciousness (kriyā-citta)
4. The unconditioned factor Nibbāna (Nirvāṇa)
The final Theravada dhamma theory is found in manuals dating from the 5th century on.
Knowing that they belong to the Sthāvira-vāda group, it is not surprising that there is Sarvāstivāda (Sautrāntika) influence.
Buddhadatta, a 5th century contemporary of Skandhila, makes a 4-fold classification in his Abhidharmāvatāra (Introduction to Scholasticism):
1. Form, 2. Thought, 3. Mental, 4. Nibbāna.
Buddhaghoṣa, in the 5th century,
defines factors as “those which maintain their own specific nature,”
while Buddhadatta says
factors possess specific and general characteristics.
Theravada typically uses a classification of 170 factors and 4 categories,
but there are other classifications, such as 81 conditioned factors
(matter 28, thought 1, mental 52) and
1 unconditioned factor, Nibbāna.
The Mahāsaṁghika 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 Mahāsaṁghika sub-school, the Prajñaptivāda, taught that conditioned factors are only denominations (prajñapti) and the 12 bases are the products of the aggregates, the only real entities.
Another sub-school, the Lokottaravāda, held that only the unconditioned factors are real.
The ideas of the Mahāyāna Madhyamaka School may have started within the Mahāsaṁghika milieu in north-western 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 non-dual wisdom (prajñā).
Nāgārjuna (ca. 2nd century C.E.) interpreted the law of dependent origination to mean relativity or Śūnyatā (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 schema, but he was interested in the inherent nature of factors (dharmatā):
Existence is only valid from a conventional (saṁvṛti) point of view,
but it is not valid when viewed from the standpoint of absolute (paramārtha) truth.
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 (Ālaya-Vijñāna).
Phenomenal existence is the illusory projection of that storehouse consciousness.
Every factor stored in the ālaya-vijñāna is a seed (bījā), a Sautrāntika term.
One should purify the 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, Dharmakāra) or “characteristics of dharmas:”
Dharma here refers to the 100 factors this school distinguishes,
elaborating on the Sarvāstivāda classification.
What became the East Asian variety of Yogācāra was first taught in Nālanda by Dharmapāla (439-507) and taken to China by Hsüan-tsang in 645:
It claims that the specific nature of a factor is distinct from its specific mode.
Their 100 factors are:
1. 8 thought factors, namely the 8 Consciousnesses
2. 51 associated mental factors:
(5 universal, 5 limited, 11 wholesome,
6 defiled, 20 secondary defilements, and 4 indeterminate)
3. 11 matter factors
4. 24 dissociated factors
5. 6 unconditioned factors
Most important is the 8th consciousness:
the storehouse consciousness, which stores the seeds of all potential manifestations.