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The Meaning of the Dharma

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 2: The Meaning of the Dharma

Friends, Yesterday I spoke a few words about the significance of our threefold salutation with which we begin all our meetings, the salutation to the Buddha, salutation to the Dharma, salutation to the Sangha. And these three, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha they constitute what we call in Buddhism the three jewels or the three most precious things, the three highest or the three greatest, the three most ultimate values. So Buddhism is concerned mainly with these, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Enlightenment, path to Enlightenment, community of people following the path to Enlightenment, and Buddhism revolves mainly around these three things. Now yesterday evening we considered the question 'Who was the Buddha?' So we've learned something about the first of these three jewels, the Buddha and this morning therefore I want to come on to the second of the three jewels and consider something about the Dharma. And once again I must ask our olders, our regular members to bear in mind that we are considering in this short series of talks the needs and requirements of those who are new to our movement rather than the needs and requirements of those who have been with us a long time. At the same time we always do recognise that to recapitulate, to revise, to refresh our memories is always a very good thing. It's sometimes strange as I know myself when you go over some old familiar text and you find a verse, a very important, a very striking verse which somehow you do not think you have ever noticed before, so there's no harm in revision, no harm in recapitulation.

I remember in this connection once my old friend in Kalimpong, Mr Cheng, a Chinese Buddhist yogi, told me that in his younger days when he was a student, a student monk, he went through the entire canon in Chinese three times very, very carefully, studying by himself, also with a teacher, sutra by sutra, and there are more than nine thousand six hundred sutras in the Chinese canon. He went through the whole thing three times and he thought he knew it quite well. But some years later he said one of his teachers, in the course of instruction said at such and such point you should refer to the Great Dragon sutra, it's one of the most important in the entire canon. So he thought back but he couldn't remember having read a word about the Great Dragon sutra. And he thought well is there such a sutra? I don't remember it, I've read it three times, three times I have gone through that canon. I don't remember any Great Dragon sutra. He did not say anything to the teacher, he kept his doubts to himself. But he thought well the teacher said it's one of the most important in the whole canon., how could I have missed it? So he went quietly in the evening, he went back to his worn out volumes of the canon, turned over the pages, sure enough there it was, the Great Dragon sutra, it had been there all the time and he couldn't remember having read it. And he said this surprised him very much, this experience. But this is the sort of thing that we do find. It may be reading about the life of the Buddha, sometimes when I have proposed speaking about the life of the Buddha I can almost hear our friends as it were, saying 'Do we need to go over that elementary stuff all over again? We know that the Buddha left home when he was twenty-nine, and we know He sat under that bodhi tree, and we know He did austerities for six years, and we know that His chief disciples were Sariputra and Mogslana, do we have to go over it all again?" But sometimes we do need because there are all sorts of not only facts but significant connections and occurrences and implications which we miss. And I know in my own case that I have gone over some Buddhist scriptures time and time again. But every time I came to speak about them I find there's something new to discover or something new to appreciate, some fresh angle, some fresh aspect that we hadn't considered before. So let us not mind therefore, not only for the benefit of newcomers, even perhaps for our own benefit going back to fundamental things, revising, recapitulating and refreshing.

So let's come on therefore this morning to that well-known topic the Dharma, the meaning of the Dharma, the second of the Three Jewels, the second of the Three Refuges. Now let me say right away that this word Dharma is a very difficult one. It's quite untranslatable. There's no one English word by which we can render this word Dharma. So it's rather difficult to simplify here.

If we go through the Buddhist scriptures, the sutras, we find that the word Dharma is used in a number of quite different senses. I think we can say that in the Buddhist scriptures there are five principle meanings of the word Dharma. Each of which shades as it were into every other meaning. So let's begin by a groundwork as it were by considering these five principle meanings of the word Dharma in the Buddhist tradition, in the Buddhist scriptures. First of all Dharma means thing, things, a phenomenon, if you like, to use more sophisticated, more philosophical language. But just things in general are Dharma. Usually in translations we find that when the word Dharma has this meaning it's printed with, in English, a small "d". You may remember that in the Dhammapada there's a very famous verse 'All things are anatta. All things are devoid of separate self'. So the word which is used here for things in the original is dharma or dhamma. All things are devoid of separate self, of real individuality. So the first of the five principle meanings of the word dharma is simply thing in general, a phenomena, any thing whether it's mental, whether it's physical, whether it's spiritual, transcendental, a dharma, a thing, an ultimate element of existence as it were.

Then secondly, dharma means a mental object, an object of mind. In the West we usually speak of five senses, but the Indian tradition, including the Buddhist tradition, speaks of six senses and their respective sense objects. There's of course the eye, it's object is form, not matter but form, rupa. There is the ear, its object is sound. The nose - its object is smell, and so for the rest of the physical senses. And then in Buddhism there comes mind. And its object is we could say idea, but in Pali and Sanskrit it's dharma, another meaning of the word dharma. Dharma in the sense of an object of mind, a mental object, if you like a presentation to consciousness. This is another meaning of the word dharma. You notice incidentally that the mind, this is the ordinary work-a-day mind, the mind that we're using most of the time, not our absolute mind or transcendental consciousness, but our ordinary mind, is put on the same level as the five senses.

In the West we tend to think of the five senses here and the mind, even the ordinary mind, up there, but not in Buddhism, there, in Buddhism, they're all on the same level. There's your ear, your eye, your nose, your tongue, your skin, and your mind, your mind is on the same level. So the object of mind, idea, is dharma. Another meaning of the term.

Then thirdly dharma means a state or condition of existence. In Buddhism there's a very famous expression or term, the eight loka dharmas, loka means wordly, dharma here means conditions, and these loka dharmas therefore are the eight worldy conditions of if you like vicissitudes, archetypal pairs of opposites. And they are gain and loss, fame and infamy, blame and praise, and pleasure and pain. These are known as the eight worldy conditions or states, these pairs of opposites. And we're asked of course to be indifferent to them. And therefore it says in the Mangala sutta that the greatest of all blessings is the blessing of having a mind, a consciousness which cannot be touched, which cannot be disturbed by any of these eight loka dharmas, these worldly conditions, unmoved whether we gain or whether we lose, unmoved whether we're famous or whether were infamous, whether people blame us or whether they praise us, in the midst of pleasure, in the midst of pain. So these eight, there are many such pairs of course, not just eight, these are known as the eight loka dharmas. So here dharma means a state or a condition, a worldly state or a worldly condition which is one of a pair of opposites. So another important meaning of the word dharma. You can begin to see how rich in meaning the term is and how careful you have to be in studying the original text, how careful you have to be to sort out the right meaning of the word dharma if you are to make sense of that particular passage.

Then fourthly dharma in the sense of law or principle or truth. As when we say the Dhammapada says which means - hatred never ceases by hatred. Hatred ceases only by love. This is an eternal dharma. Here dharma means rule or law or principle. It's in the very nature of things so far as the human world is concerned, that hatred does not cease by hatred, hatred ceases only by non-hatred, only by love. This is the principle, this is the law, or if you like this is the truth, a psychological and a spiritual principle. So this is another most important meaning of this word dharma, a psychological and a spiritual law or regulative norm of existence, or spiritual principle, whatever you might like to call it. Then fifthly dharma in the sense of doctrine and teaching as when we say the Buddha-Dharma this means the Doctrine of the Buddha, the teaching of the Buddha. This connotation, this sense of the word can't very easily be rendered into English.

Dharma in this sense is not quite teaching, it's more like a sort of exposition, a making clear, a clarification, a presentation. One would often speak in Pali or Sanskrit of Dharma-deshana, which means exposition of the dharma, or talking about the dharma and so on So this is the fifth of these five most important meanings of the word dharma. ...

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