What is: Dharma?

The word dharma comes from the Sanskrit root word Dhri, which means ‘to hold,’ ‘to maintain,’ or ‘to preserve.’ In the early Vedas and other ancient Hindu texts, dharma referred to the cosmic law that created the ordered universe from chaos. This is the natural universal law, whose observance enables humans to be contented, happy and to save themselves from degradation and suffering. The moral law combined with spiritual discipline that guides one’s life. Hindus consider dharma the very foundation of life. It means that which holds the people of this world and the whole creation, ‘law of being’ without which things cannot exist.  In Buddhist literature, dharma often refers to Buddhist teachings and practices and encompasses everything that was taught by the Buddha.

The Manusmriti is also known as the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra or Laws of Manu, is believed to be the first ancient legal text and constitution among the many Dharmaśāstras of Hinduism. In ancient India, the sages often wrote their ideas on how society should run in the manuscripts. Manu prescribes 10 essential rules for the observance of dharma: Patience (dhriti), forgiveness (kshama), piety, or self-control (dama), honesty (asteya), sanctity (shauch), control of senses (indraiya-nigrah), reason (dhi), knowledge or learning (vidya), truthfulness (satya) and absence of anger (krodha). Manu further writes, “Non-violence, truth, non-coveting, purity of body and mind, control of senses are the essence of dharma”. Therefore dharmic laws govern not only the individual but all in society.

Do not commit any unwholesome actions, accumulate virtuous deeds, tame and train your own mind.” Gautama Buddha.

The wheel of Dharma

After the Buddha’s enlightenment, out of compassion for all sentient beings, he gave his first dharma sermon in the deer park in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh to a sangha of 5 monks. This is preserved in the Pali sutta Pitaka (Samyutta Nika Ya 56.11) as the Dhammacakkappavattna sutta or in Sanskrit Dharmacakra Pravartana sutra, and means ‘The setting in motion of the wheel of Dharma.’ In this sermon/ teaching the Buddha gave the first presentation of The Four Noble Truths, which are the foundation teachings or primary conceptual framework of Buddhism. Everything he taught after that, ties back to These Four Noble Truths, which comprise the essence of Buddha’s teachings, though they leave much left unexplained. They spark awareness of suffering as the nature of existence, its causes, and how to transform it. They are understood as the realization which led to the enlightenment of the Buddha.

What is Sangha?

A sangha of 5 monks

 Sanga is a Sanskrit word used in many Indian languages, including Pali (saṅgha) meaning ‘association,’ ‘assembly,’ ‘company’ or ‘community,’ and is traditionally composed of four groups: monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, and together with the Buddha and the dharma is the threefold refuge, the basic faith of Buddhism.

What are The Four Noble Truths?

The truth of suffering – We live in the realm of rebirth called samsara (literally wandering). Buddha identified forms of the suffering of birth, aging, sickness, death, encountering the unpleasant, separation from the pleasant, not gaining what one desires and the five ‘aggregates’ that constitute the mind and body. (Matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and awareness)

The truth of the cause of suffering – Buddha associated suffering with craving or attachment. In other Buddhist texts, the causes of suffering are understood as stemming from negative actions (e.g. Killing, stealing, and lying) and the negative mental states that motivate negative actions (e.g. Desire, hatred, and ignorance). In those texts, the mental state of ignorance refers to an active misconception of the nature of things: seeing pleasure where there is pain, beauty where there is ugliness, permanence where there is impermanence, and self where there is no self.

The truth of the end of suffering – Commonly called Nibbana, or in Sanskrit Nivarna, and is used to refer to the extinction of desire, hatred, and ignorance and, ultimately, of suffering and rebirth. Literally, it means ‘blowing out’ or ‘becoming extinguished,’ as when a flame is blown out or a fire burns out.

The truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering The action or path you can take to overcome suffering.

The Four Noble Truths, therefore, identify the unsatisfactory nature of existence, identify its cause, postulate a state in which suffering and its causes are absent, and set forth a path to that state. I will explain each one in more detail in my up and coming articles.

Two more important doctrines were also introduced at this sermon:

Impermanence: All phenomena are impermanent, what begins will also end. This is the reason life is unsatisfactory, but because everything is always changing liberation is possible.

Dependent origination: All phenomena, either things or beings, exist inter-dependently with other phenomena. All phenomena are caused to exist by conditions created by other phenomena. Things pass out of existence for the same reason.

Throughout this sermon, the Buddha placed great emphasis on direct insight. He didn’t want his listeners to simply believe what he said, rather, to follow the path and realise the truth for themselves.

“Your own self is your master; who else could be? With yourself well controlled, you gain a master very hard to find.

Who wrote the Buddhist scriptures?

The Kanjur/Kangyur was produced by the Buddha’s disciples after his death in the later 13th and early 14th centuries CE. They contain scriptural texts such as Sutras and Tantras that represent the words of the Buddha. These contents of the canon were transmitted orally and first written down in Pali within the Theravada communities of Sri Lanka, probably during the 1st-century BCE. The Tanjur/Tengyur contains translations of treatises and commentaries that were written later by other scholars and disciples.

Each Buddhist sub-tradition has its own Tripitaka (3 baskets) for its monasteries, written by its sangha, each set consisting of 32 books, in three parts of teachings: Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline), Sutra Pitaka (Basket of Discourse), and Abhidhamma Piṭaka (Basket of Special [or Further] Doctrine).

The Vinaya – This is the division of the Buddhist canon containing the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic community, or Sangha. Three parallel Vinaya traditions remain in use by modern monastic communities: the Theravada, Mulasarvastivada, and Dharmaguptaka.

The Sutta Pitaka – This contains the Buddha’s teachings recorded mainly as sermons delivered in historical settings. It includes the Dhammapada or ‘the path or verses of truth’ and is the best known of all the Buddhist scriptures in the West.

The Abhidhamma – This contains detailed scholastic presentations of doctrinal material and refers to the scholastic method itself as well as the field of knowledge. They represent a development in a rationalistic direction of summaries or numerical lists. The topics dealt with include, ethics, psychology, and epistemology.

This is a concise article of what I understand about dharma, I hope you find it useful, I’ll be back soon with four articles on each truth.


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