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Barbara O'Brien

Dharma, an Indefinable Word

By June 28, 2012

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I've been writing an article on the meaning and usage of the word dharma. It's an essential word that we all use, but we don't always define it. And what definitions there are usually sell the word short.

The standard glossary definition of "dharma" is "the teachings of the Buddha." But that's a really bad definition. It isn't incorrect, but it conveys the misunderstanding that "dharma" is synonymous with "doctrine."

The Sanskrit word dharma is taken from the pre-Hindu Vedas. Its original meaning is something like "natural law," from a root word that means "to uphold." In this sense, dharma is the name we give to whatever holds the universe together and causes everything to be as it is. Those of you who have dabbled in Taoism might see a resemblance to the Tao.

In Buddhist usage, most of the time dharma refers to both the Buddha's teachings and the true nature of reality revealed by those teachings. It's important to understand that those meanings are linked together. An intellectual presentation of Buddhist doctrines that shows us nothing about the true nature of reality is not a presentation of dharma.

In Zen, usually when we talk about someone's understanding of dharma we're referring to what that individual has realized; or, crudely put, his "degree" of awakening. The ability to present dharma as the true nature of reality distinguishes a master dharma teacher from a lecturer on Buddhist doctrines.

June 28, 2012 at 9:20 pm
(1) NellaLou says:

The Triratna Order has an interesting piece on the meaning of the word dharma here http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/texts/read?num=002&at=text

Maybe it is useful for your purposes.

June 29, 2012 at 5:54 am
(2) Shi Faxing says:

Good article.
The referrence to Tao for the purpose of illuminating Dharma works for me.
Thanks a lot!

June 29, 2012 at 10:41 am
(3) Mila says:

off-topic — but there’s a letter writing campaign, directed to the members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is currently in session, urging them to be more proactive about the Tibetan situation. Seems very worthwhile:


July 1, 2012 at 10:55 am
(4) max siewke says:

The above campaign is a non-starter given that China is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power .

July 3, 2012 at 11:58 am
(5) Neil says:

The standard definition is not ‘really bad’. It is exact and precise. It does not, for example, talk about what ‘holds the universe together’-rather it makes the universal observation that everyting (universe included) changes.

July 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Neil — you’re confusing doctrine with etymology. The word “dharma” is older than Buddhism and shared by other spiritual/philosophical traditions, and here I’m looking at the word in its broadest sense, not limited to Buddhism.

I’ve seen that when people narrowly define it as “the teachings of the Buddha” they don’t appreciate the full meaning of the word, which can take in everything from morality to the nature of phenomena. Also it is understood and used slightly differently in Mahayana than in Theravada, although the difference is subtle.

July 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm
(7) Neil says:

Barbara- I’ve never thought of the Buddha’s teachings as doctrinal but I would not have left a comment were you simply trying to explain the wider scope of what dharma means. Dharma, or things as they are, holds that everything changes. Your statement that dharma is ‘…whatever holds the universe together’ is fundamentally at odds with that viewpoint. Buddhism does not say that the universe is being ‘held together.’ Quite the opposite.

July 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Neil — the sentence you are pointing to is not specifically about Buddhism. It is about the origin of the word dharma and how it is understood in the earlier Vedic religions and in other spiritual traditions. Please learn to read more carefully. However, to say that dharma just means “everything changes” is not correct for Buddhism, either. The meaning of dharma includes “everything changes” but also is used as a synonym for “phenomena” or “factors of existence.” It takes in form and emptiness, relative and absolute, everything conditioned and unconditioned — what changes, and also what doesn’t change. I’d say you’re only seeing half of it.

July 4, 2012 at 9:29 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

Neil — I intended to click “reply” to your last comment and instead I accidentally deleted it, which I did not intend to do. I apologize.

As I remember, you said once again that “everything changes.” Yes, Buddhism teaches that all PHENOMENA are always changing, but there’s more to reality than phenomena. You’re only seeing part of it. Spend some time with the Trikaya doctrine, for example. The dharmakaya or emptiness or absolute or whatever you want to call it is not subject to decay, birth and rebirth, etc. Spend some time with the Heart Sutra also.

July 4, 2012 at 11:48 am
(10) Neil says:

Let me try to explain in this way. In the mahayana tradition the emptiness of all phenomena is the highest teaching. It can be said that when the mind fully realizes this it has reached the state of nirvana.
This is the teaching- it is not my opinion.
If you feel that your comments are in accord with this teaching then please, continue on.

July 4, 2012 at 12:08 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

In the mahayana tradition the emptiness of all phenomena is the highest teaching.

Yes. But that emptiness is not nothingness.

This is the teaching- it is not my opinion.

Yes, but you don’t understand it yet.

If you feel that your comments are in accord with this teaching then please, continue on.

Oh, I have your permission to continue! I feel so much better. However, you might want to read some of the articles before you presume your current understanding is all there is to know.

July 4, 2012 at 1:33 pm
(12) Neil says:

Oops. You are angry Barbara. I don’t know why you thought it necessary to point out that emptiness is not nothingness. Do you suspect a nihilism in my writing? It is certainly true that I do not understand emptiness. That’s a very long haul, not usually done in a lifetime, but I will continue to try! I think I will confine my readings to dharma publications, thank you. My current understanding, woefully inadequate, begs for the best. May I suggest the same for you?

July 4, 2012 at 6:59 pm
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

Do you suspect a nihilism in my writing?

It flows logically from what you wrote. You assume phenomena are all there is to existence; hence, you assume that there is nothing that does not change. However, there is that which changes, and that which doesn’t change. I am not angry, btw.

I think I will confine my readings to dharma publications, thank you.

You need a teacher, someone who will work with you face to face. You can’t learn this stuff from books. However, in most schools of Mahayana it’s said you don’t have to wait until some other lifetime to realize enlightenment.

July 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm
(14) Neil says:

Ouch! Stop with the bullets please! I said no such thing about phenomena. I merely repeated what the Buddhist teaching is on the emptiness of phenomena. Please don’t misrepresent my position.
I have teachers too and some thirty years of a fairly solid sitting practice.
I am willing, at this point to say the following: Buddhist teaching says that ‘Everything changes.’ It does not say that some things do and some don’t. You are of a different opinion. That’s fine but it is not representative of buddhist thought.

July 5, 2012 at 4:17 pm
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

That’s fine but it is not representative of buddhist thought.

It is representative of Mahayana Buddhist thought, and I believe Theravada also, but to a lesser degree. You somehow missed huge chunks of teaching. Again, what you’re missing are the Trikaya teachings, in particular the dharmakaya; the Two Truths (see the Heart Sutra — form is emptiness; emptiness is form); and the teachings on Buddha Nature. This is mainstream Mahayana Buddhism, not my opinion. Your ideas are not representative of Buddhist thought. If you have been taught otherwise, you have been badly taught. In what tradition are you practicing?

I apologize if you got a more rigorous challenge than you expected, but you don’t get to come around here, misrepresent mainstream Buddhist teaching, and then say you understand and other people don’t. You do not, in fact, understand it. You’re only seeing half of it.

July 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm
(16) Neil says:

Ouch! The bullets keep flying. I submit. You are correct. I will never use small caps again on the two truths. My understanding of relative truth as the obscuration through which one has to see to reach absolute truth is gone. I will now see it as the other ‘half’. And if you want to ascribe ‘Form is emptiness; Emptiness is form.’ as two halves of one whole I’m right there with you. Are you accepting new students? I really want to learn about the other half. Imagine that! Thirty years and nobody, except you, has mentioned this other half.

July 5, 2012 at 7:53 pm
(17) Barbara O'Brien says:

My understanding of relative truth as the obscuration through which one has to see to reach absolute truth is gone.

Good, because that’s not a proper understanding of the two truths. Relative is not just an “obscuration.” Relative and absolute are both “true.” Are you familiar with the Sandokai? It’s a Zen text. You didn’t mention which tradition you are practicing in, which would be useful to me to understand your perspective.

Generally in Mahayana, Buddha Nature is considered to be the immutable nature of all beings; the fundamental unity all existence; the ground of being. In some schools Buddha Nature is thought to be a potential within beings, and in others it is thought to pervade everything, everywhere, always present, perfect and complete. This relates to one meaning of the word “dharma” as the fundamental unity of all existence. Here’s a nice Zen teisho on Buddha Nature by my first teacher. Here he’s quoting Chan master Changsha Jingcen (800-868).

The next line of the commentary says, “Before there ever was scattering and no scattering, movement and stillness, being and non-being, there’s always been buddha nature.” According to Mahayana Buddhism, buddha nature is immutable. It’s the eternal nature of all beings.

This is all news to you?

if you want to ascribe Form is emptiness; Emptiness is form as two halves of one whole

That’s not exactly right, because there is no separation of form and emptiness, but most of the time people only see one and not the other. That’s seeing half. It’s all in the Heart Sutra. All phenomena are in a state of flux, being born and destroyed, coming and going. But because phenomena are empty of inherent existence, they are neither born nor destroyed, neither coming nor going. I recommend Red Pine’s book on the Heart Sutra, btw.

Are you accepting new students? I really want to learn about the other half. Imagine that! Thirty years and nobody, except you, has mentioned this other half.

I’m not a teacher. Neither are you. Don’t lecture people about what is or is not real Buddhist teaching if you don’t understand it yourself. I’m sorry that in your thirty years you didn’t work with a good teacher. I became a formal Zen student only 24 years ago, although I’d been introduced to Zen some years earlier, but I’ve been fortunate to work with a couple of genuine lineage holders. It makes all the difference. It’s unfortunate that there are a lot of half-assed teachers out there, but there are.

July 6, 2012 at 9:32 pm
(18) Ibu Tina says:

Thank you to both Barbara and Neil. To be here reading the dialog between the two of you is serendipity to me. I am new to Mahayana Buddhism and have lots of questions about the teachings. I was searching for information on Mahayana teachings and found Barbara’s guide on this website, which also led me to this dialog. It’s like watching a great tennis match :-) I enjoyed it. The short and intense discussion between the two of you gave me an understanding about some of the principles of Mahayana Buddhism. Like Neil, I too have read in some Buddhist text that “everything changes”. So, I appreciate Barbara’s clarification that not everything changes – that “buddha nature is immutable”. Thank You. But I still don’t understand and can’t see “Form is emptiness; Emptiness is form.” I have already signed up for Barbara’s newsletter. I hope to see articles on this topic and other principles of the Mahayana. Once again, my sincere appreciation to both of you for a healthy and informative exchange. Thank You. In gassho, with palms together, ibu tina.

July 7, 2012 at 8:43 am
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

But I still don’t understand and can’t see “Form is emptiness; Emptiness is form.”

I was introduced to that line in the Heart Sutra about 25 years ago. Today I can say that I think I am catching on. :-) Thoroughly perceiving that form is emptiness and emptiness is form is realizing enlightenment, or very close to it. It takes most of us many years of practice.

July 8, 2012 at 10:56 pm
(20) dave says:

Universal Dharma ( Thervada and Mayahanya) (sorry unable to spell) is not only undefinable but completely beyond anyones meager comprehension. It will never be defiined and that is why it works and is so special.

July 15, 2012 at 12:18 am
(21) bullet bob says:

A bit off the subject of dharma definition, but maybe in the teachings of Lord Buddha is a discussion of “self”. Can you define “self”? I get confused about the concept of ” no self”, yet there is rebirth. Also, there is merit as a result of behavior or actions. Have I misread? If Buddha refers to no specific person but refers to an elightned one who has shed ego,desire and fear along achievement of pure consciousness. Well, I surmize there is no “self” of the enlightened and entry into the garden of eternal bliss beyond those two guards is possible because really there is nobody there! Perhaps that storybook event is pure poetry and I like that kind of teaching method. Must be a very effective method, for it is used in all religion. Reading religious documentation or canon as literal or factual may be ok, but read it as poetry is a lot more fascinating and romantic and hopefully, your imagination leads to the real message. Now, you got something!

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