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The Meaning of the Dharma

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by Sangharakshita

... That is to say dharma in the first place, in the first case as a thing in general; dharma as a mental object, an object of mind; dharma as a state or condition of mundane existence; dharma as a law, or a principle or a truth; and dharma as a doctrine, as a teaching, something expounded.

Now when we say the Dharma and when in English we put Dharma with a capital D, when we're thinking in terms of the second of the three jewels or second of the three refuges, it's the last two meanings of the term which we have in mind even though the other meanings are also there in the background. When we say the Dharma we mean Dharma in the sense of law, principle, truth, and also Dharma in the sense of Doctrine, Dharma in the sense of Teaching. Where the Dharma is concerned these are the two primary meanings, Dharma as truth, law, principle, reality, Dharma as doctrine, Dharma as teaching. So these two primary meanings. And these two, and this is very important, these two are closely connected - when we speak of the Dharma. They're two aspects of the same thing as it were. The first, Dharma as truth or law or principle or reality represents the Buddha's experience of Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi-tree - because the content of that experience, what we may call its objective content, its ultimate content was just this same, law or truth or principle or reality behind the universe. And the second, that is Dharma as doctrine or teaching represents the Buddha's expression of this content of his Enlightenment in terms of thought and in terms of speech for the benefit of all living beings. So from this we can see how closely these two primary meanings of the word Dharma are connected. Dharma as the content of the Buddha's spiritual experience, Dharma as truth, reality, law, principle, and Dharma as Teaching or Doctrine, the expression in terms of thought or speech of the inner content of that spiritual realisation of Enlightenment. So Dharma as experience on the one hand as it were, Dharma as expression on the other hand. Experience corresponds more to the wisdom aspect of Enlightenment, and expression more to the compassion aspect. And wisdom and compassion as we know are the twin pillars of the whole edifice of Buddhism as Dr. D.T. Suzuki calls them.

From our point of view we can distinguish between experience and expression, wisdom and compassion, but in reality, in truth they are indistinguishable, they're the two aspects of one and the same thing.

Now at this stage there are three important questions for us to consider. We've spoken of an experience, we've spoken of an expression. Experience of enlightenment through wisdom, expression of enlightenment through compassion. But the questions which arise to be considered are - first of all the general nature of the expression in thought and speech, and the function of that expression. So the first question as to the general nature of this question, this amounts to asking whether the Buddha's conceptual formulation or formulations of His experience, His experience of Enlightenment cannot be all reduced to a single leading principle from which all the others could be deduced. In other words when the Buddha preached, when the Buddha taught, He preached and He taught out of ultimately His experience of Enlightenment. He taught many different kinds of people, different degrees of intellectual abilities, different temperaments, different difficulties, different degrees of understanding and spiritual development. So He might have taught one person in one way, taught another person in another way, - presented things in one light to one kind of person, in another light to another kind of person. So all these different teachings, all these different expressions were all ultimately stemmed from the Buddha's Enlightenment or issuing from that. So the question which arises is whether all these expressions, all these teachings cannot be reduced to one great principle, from which they could all be deduced? So is there a general principle which is as it were a general almost archetypal expression in terms of thought and speech on the philosophical level of the Buddha's spiritual experience? Beyond which you can't get - so you can't have anything more general than that, from there you'd have to go directly to the Enlightenment experience itself. So is there any such general principle or expression of the Buddha's Enlightenment? Now we can say very definitely that there is. There's a principle, an expression which is we may say widely, universally recognised in Buddhism, in the Buddhist tradition as being the expression, the most widely generalised expression of the Buddha's Enlightenment. And this is what we call in Buddhism the law or the principle or the teaching of Pratitya Samutpada, the law of conditionality.

Now though this is so general, though it is so fundamental, basically like all fundamental things it's very simple indeed. So simple we might possibly overlook it. And the formula which is given for this expression of the Buddha's Enlightenment in the Scriptures is as follows - in very simple almost abstract mathematical language the Buddha says that it's always useful to think 'This being that becomes, from the arising of this, that arises, this not becoming that does not become, from the ceasing of this that ceases.' So this is the formula in its highest degree of generality and abstractness. Let me repeat it just once more - 'This being that becomes, from the arising of this that arises, this not becoming that does not become, from the ceasing of this that ceases.' And this law, this principle, holds good of the whole of existence whether it's material or mental or spiritual, the same great law holds good, the law of Pratitya Samutpada, the law of conditionality, or conditioned co-production, or dependent origination as is also translated. And the whole of Buddhism we may say, all this great superstructure of thought and practice is based on this formula, on this principle, Pratitya Samutpada, the law of conditionality. I mentioned a little while ago one of the Buddha's two chief disciples and that was Sariputra. In a sense Sariputra is the chief disciple, he was said to be the wisest of the disciples, and the Buddha calls him the senapati, the commander-in-chief. And the story of his conversion to Buddhism is not only very interesting but it's associated with this teaching. You may remember I described how the Buddha went to Saranath where His five former disciples were staying. He went back there after His Enlightenment, gathered them around Him and He taught them. So they became Enlightened, other people came they also became Enlightened, and eventually in a very short time there were sixty Enlightened beings in the world. And then the Buddha said to them "I am free from all bonds human and divine. You also are free from all bonds human and divine. Go now and teach all beings for the benefit and the happiness of the whole world out of compassion, out of love for all living beings. Go forth and teach." So they all scattered in all directions, and they were going up and down the length and breadth of India, spreading the message, spreading the teaching of the Buddha. Now at that time we are told in Bihar, in a little village near Nalanda, a little village which incidentally I have visited, there were two young men called Sariputra and Mogallana. And they left home and they decided to search for the truth and to find a great Enlightened teacher.

So they made a pact because they'd been very close friends from childhood, since babyhood in fact, they'd always been together, so they made a pact. And the pact was that they would go in opposite directions and whoever found an Enlightened teacher first should go and tell the other and they'd both become His disciples together. This was their pact. So Sariputra went in one direction and Mogallana went in the other. But Sariputra was the lucky one. He hadn't gone very far, he hadn't wandered for many weeks before he saw someone coming in the distance who seemed, well he hardly dared hope for what he seemed maybe 'Enlightened'. So he drew near and it was Ashvajit or._________. in Pali, one of those original five, now wandering from place to place. And Sariputra was very impressed by his whole appearance, his whole deportment and he put to him the question, which is the question in India, in the East, they don't ask about the weather or anything like that, he put the question he came right to the point, he said, 'Who is your teacher?' in the East incidentally, especially in India and Tibet everybody has a teacher, a spiritual teacher from whom he has received some kind of initiation, some kind of religious practice. If you don't have a spiritual teacher well they say you hardly exist as a human being. You might just as well be a dog or a cat as be a human being and not have a spiritual teacher. So the first question or the first thing you want to know about anybody well what line of spiritual practice does he belong to?

So Sariputra asked Ashvajit 'Who is your teacher?' So he at once said 'Gautama who has gone forth from the clan of the Sakyas, the Enlightened One who is now the Buddha. He is my teacher.' So Sariputra was overjoyed to hear this and then he said, 'But what is His teaching?' So here's the second point, the second thing you want to know, what is his teaching? So Ashvajit, who was apparently enlightened but he was a very modest man and he said, 'I am newly converted, I don't know much of the teaching, but what little I do know I shall tell you.' So he recited a verse which has since become famous all over the Buddhist world, all over the East, he said, - and in the original it's in metre and not in rhyme - he said, 'The Tathagata has explained the origin of those things which proceed from a cause or a condition. Their cessation too he has explained. This is the doctrine of the great shramana, ...

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